Saturday, February 08, 2003

On The Impending War With Iraq

A lot of discussion has been happening around St. Blog's about the impending war with Iraq. (Yes, although I am hopeful it can still be avoided, I suspect military action will start in March.) Apparently, I am in the distinct minority in not being convinced that this war action would be just.

Notice I said just. I didn't say inevitable, necessary, or any of the other words that I've seen floated around. It is my view that if you can't get over the "just" hurdle, then you don't get to the rest of the question.

I have seen a lot of bad reasoning out there, and some sloppy reasoning by people I respect. This is a prudential matter, so I recognize there will be disagreement. But at least be clear about why you are convinced that war against Iraq now would be just. You aren't convincing otherwise. Personally, I think the best way to talk about war is by using the tools of just war theory, both because it is a Catholic perspective recognized by the Church and helps focus one's thoughts and avoid kitchen-sink, gestalt-style arguments.

For those not familiar with the principles of just war theory, here's a summary of the Catechism's presentation:

  • the damage that will be inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain (this is the "imminence" requirement)

  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective

  • there must be serious prospects of success

  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

  • Now, before we continue let me state that the proper authority for making the prudential judgment that these conditions have been met "belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." That is, in this country, the President and the Congress. (People -- and our government -- tend to ignore that constitutional sticking point.) So I readily admit that at the end of the day, even though I might not see the evidence for action against Iraq meeting these criteria, the President and the Congress might. This might be due to them having more evidence at their disposal or just legitimate differences in the weight that we give to the different pieces of evidence.

    Some have suggested that I should trust Bush on this -- he was elected to make these hard decisions for us -- and not be too serious about my analysis. That would be okay if at the end of the day (a) Bush wasn't asking me to support his decision to wage war and (b) I didn't have the responsibility for evaluating Bush's judgment in this matter and how it reflects on a judgment as to whether I should support him for re-election. To take my duties seriously, I need to know how I would analyze the evidence, albeit recognizing that there may be some legitimate grey areas in which reasonable people can reach different prudential conclusions.

    To me, people let the fact that they are not the governmental authority let them off the hook of thinking things through. These aren't easy matters. It isn't a 2+2=4 situation. Judgment calls need to be made and based on imperfect information. A lot of people are uncomfortable doing that. So they just avoid the tough questions.

    So, here's my view of things based on just war theory. My stumbling block is on the question of imminence. I recognize the reality of Saddam's regime. Although I hate arguments based on bad man characterizations, I fully recognize that Saddam's regime is oppressive and that his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is scary. I suspect Saddam is friendly with terrorists and willing to use terrorists to accomplish his goals. But I haven't seen the evidence to demonstrate that the U.S. is facing an imminent threat that is impractical to address through other means.

    There is a reason why the Catechism asks for a lasting, grave and certain threat. It recognizes that the world is fallen and that there will always be threats to nations. I've heard a lot of comments that 9/11 has changed the world. Nonsense. It has only changed our awareness of the real state of the world. Too many people have lived under the illusion that because something hasn't happened it can't happen. Many still do, not capable of imagining the U.S. as anything but a Superpower that the rest of the world fears to challenge. The other competing illusion is the idea that there is something akin to perfect safety. No matter how many security measures we put in place, no matter how many terrorists we arrest or wars we prosecute, we will never be able to eliminate every threat. This shouldn't mean we accept defeat or avoid doing what we can do to mitigate threats, but it does mean we should be realistic about what we can accomplish and let that enter our analysis of when war is justified.

    Yes, assymetric warfare and nuclear proliferation change the amount of damage that small groups, unassociated with a specific country, can cause. But to say that this makes just war theory obsolete is to avoid the moral questions altogether. Personally, I accept the rationale that a preemptive war can be legitimately defensive if targeted against threatened aggression. However, it also poses problems. By demanding war be defensive, we can rely on some objective measures for determining the truthfulness of a country's claim that their actions were defensive. Was war declared upon them? Were they attacked? Was an opposing army on an invasion path? When you move into the preemptive realm, you find yourself in a realm more prone to pretext and disguise. Is aggression really threatened? To me, the concerns about the first point of just war theory are heightened in modern times not lessened. People also need to understand the difference between an imagined or hypothetical threat and an actual threat. One asks if the scenario is possible. The other asks how probable is the scenario. If you are a pro-war advocate, make sure you are focusing on the latter.

    Going back to the question of imminence, I just haven't seen the evidence for it with regard to Iraq right now. North Korea, China, former Yugoslavia, Iran, Syria and others are threats. North Korea is actively telling us that it is developing a nuclear program. It is widely known as one of the biggest sores in the battle against nuclear proliferation, with its No-Dong missiles and willingness to arm anyone for a buck. The former Yugoslavia is now a major proliferation problem too with their technology and military experts selling their services. (Speculation exists about links to Iraq too.) China's internal military leaders haven't been shy about their view that war with the U.S. is coming. Iran and Syria both have significant terrorism connections. They are all threats, but in each of those cases we don't see them as significant enough or imminent enough to justify war (or, possibly, that war against them would be too difficult or unsucessful). But Iraq is treated differently and for the life of me I don't see where the evidence establishes why they are such a threat to us now that policies of containment and embargo, etc., cannot address.

    The U.S's argument has been based on pursuit of WMD and a distrust of Saddam. I readily agree that this is troubling, but I wonder where the imminence is in this. We have WMD, so the possession of them alone can't be the basis or we are laying the groundwork for justifying action against us. To me it's unclear whether we are really saying it's a problem with respect to Iraq on the basis of what we know he intends to do with those weapons versus that we don't like his regime and would be happier if he didn't have them. At the end of the day, there will be regimes that we don't like that have nuclear weapons. (There already are.) We need to lean more towards basis in reasonable predictions of action if we are going to avoid creating a case for ideologically based preemptive strikes. Assume Saddam has WMD. Is it really an option for him to use them? Why is deterrence theory -- which we used with the Soviet Union -- not applicable to Saddam? Are we assuming he's an irrational actor and isn't deterred by what Israel would do to protect itself?

    Al Qaeda link evidence helps me become more comfortable with the idea that war may be just. It isn't because of a guilt by association, but because we have significant evidence that Al Qaeda is an imminent and continuing threat to us. I'm glad to see that Powell presented some evidence of a link, but it was strikingly sparse. And he omitted troubling details such as the fact that the Al Qaeda presence in Iraq is in Kurdish territory. (I would say Kurdish-"controlled", but that somewhat overstates the reality of "rule" in that region of Iraq.) It's true that this faction seems to be pro-Saddam, but otherwise the fact that it is in territory that we argue isn't controlled by Saddam cuts against it as evidence for the war. Still, in my mind, this is the closest the administration has come to making a case for imminence. I'm just unwilling to stretch the "supporting and aiding" terrorists concept too far. Hopefully, we will see more evidence on this front. (Well, actually, I hope for peace, but if there is to be war, I hope for more convincing evidence that it is justified.)

    But I'm willing to admit that I can be wrong in my analysis. Accordingly, I've tried to seek comfort by seeing pro-war types address the third and fourth points of just war theory: that success is likely and that war won't bring about greater evils. I've asked pro-war types to do three things: (1) define their goals with regard to Iraq (i.e., destruction of WMD, regime change, etc.); (2) define their war plan and how it accomplishes these goals; and (3) define their exit strategy (i.e., plans for sustained success over the long term). Unfortunately, no one is offering anything on this point. I have even been criticized for making the demand, being told that citizens shouldn't have to be war or diplomacy experts. This is silly. I'm not demanding that people prepare the Joint Chiefs battle plan for them, but all citizens should be thinking about these questions in general terms. To not do so is to avoid thinking about the consequences of their decision to support the war effort. It leaves things at the level of focusing on our fears and the dangers to us, with a generic "war solves" as the answer. Is it really that wrong to ask for definition of the goals of any war effort (so we can determine later when the mission has been achieved) and, if regime change is planned, hints at who will replace Saddam or how we will go about establishing a process for building a successor government?

    Asking people to focus on these war-conduct and war-consequences points is not a ruse for saying that war with Iraq cannot be justified. It seems a reasonable request in response to definite concerns that we may not really be meeting the "imminence" prong. If we can't demonstrate a plan for how we can accomplish the battle with limited loss of life and damage to the region and mitigate the threats of Iraqi WMD and establish a sustainable friendly regime in Iraq, should we really ignore the signs that maybe the threat is too ambiguous right now to justify invasion? I worry that people don't want to address these questions because they don't want to expose how much of their reason for supporting the war effort isn't based on any of the just war theory points but on the basis that they don't expect many U.S. casualties in the battle portion of the war and Saddam has been demonized (albeit understandably so). I can make two comments on that point that I think are fairly indisputable: (1) just as we learned from the Gulf War, so did Saddam -- it will be more bloody, even if still overwhelmingly in our favor; (2) winning the war-phase of the battle isn't ultimate victory. Long-term success seems unclear to me. If regime change is the goal, who will replace Saddam? Most focus on the Kurds, but they are a minority, there are various factions (some with links to Al Qaeda) and they raise concerns with respect to Turkey's interests in Iraq, which almost certainly are going to be part of some deal because we need Turkey's air bases. Same with Iran's interests and Syria's renewed common ties with Iraq. A path to a regime that we will like doesn't seem clear.

    Two more points. When pushed a lot of pro-war types point to the benefits of liberation that would come to the Iraqi people. Yes, the Iraqi people would be better off without Saddam. If we were proposing to provide military help to Iraqi people in a just insurrection against an evil regime, I would probably be onboard the bandwagon. But can we admit that (a) that's not a correct characterization of the war as proposed, and (b) there are no public signs that there is a real rebel movement in place? If that changes over the coming weeks, I'd be all for that. But I am wary of arguments that rely entirely on the United States as a proxy for the citizens of Iraq wanting to overthrow Saddam. And, although I would be more comfortable with that rationale than the administration's current one from certain perspectives, it is a highly interventionist foreign policy and quite contrary to claims that we aren't in the nation-building business. Similarly, I've seen a lot of people focus on the agreements to cease the Gulf War and various UN resolutions. Fine. But let's recognize that not every contract should be enforced, in this case through war. And I think it is incumbent to demonstrate that the terms of those resolutions were just. Just because a nation lost a war doesn't mean it doesn't retain rights.

    I invite those who are in favor of the war to try to address some of these concerns in the comment boxes below.


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