2003 11 28
[Kleiman on war]
Mark Kleiman has a very interesting post up at Open Source Politics.
Kleiman argues that the progressive critique of Bush’s policy on Iraq is flawed in its assumption that preventative war is always wrong. Bush’s policies may be bad, Kleiman argues, but they’re not bad simply because preventative war is bad as such.
There’s a lot to disagree with in Kleiman’s piece, but I completely agree with him that we need to rethink a lot of the assumptions we make about preventative war, and about the justification for war in general. It’s very healthy at this point to have a debate about exactly when preventative wars are bad and why.
First a little terminology. I assume that Kleiman is using the term “preventative” as a term of art, and so that he intends a contrast with a closely related term of art, “preemptive”. A preemptive war is one undertaken when the threat is immanent (in the real, and not Bushian, sense, of the word) – that is, when another party is poised to strike, has made clear its intention to strike, and all other plausible mechanisms for resolving the dispute have failed. The locus classicus of comtemporary discussions of preemption, for better and for worse, is Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. The classic example of preemptive war is Israel’s 1967 preemptive strike on the Egyptian airforce, since it is usually agreed to meet all these criteria.
A preventative war is one that is undertaken without an immanent threat, and is instead based on a plausible forecast of serious danger from another country, whose timing is longer term or uncertain.
There is an impressive consensus, rooted in international law, centuries of moral reflection on war, and common sense that preemptive wars may be just, so long as the conditions are genuinely met. Political rhetoric pays the highest tribute to the doctrine of preemptive war by frequently depicting aggressive war, no matter how unprovoked, as preemptive. There is also a consensus, almost as impressive, that preventative wars are not legitimate.
One reason for this consensus is practical: Because the threat involved in preventative war is vaguer and presumably longer term than the threat involved in a preemptive one, a fair standard for a geninely preventative war can be extremely difficult to draw in practice. This makes the standard easier to abuse. In the wrong hands, it’s especially easy to imagine the standard being twisted to justify wars of aggression.
But this kind of worry isn’t particularly compelling as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of the principle. A standard’s openness to abuse might make us wary about particular applications of it, especially when the statesmen applying it are not disposed to be honest about motives or rationales. But it’s in the nature of things that some cases are hard to judge, and if a principle is abused, we should blame the abuser, and those taken in by the abuse, rather than the principle itself.
A more compelling worry is that allowing for the legitimacy of preventative war seems too permissive. Any country with serious rivals has long term reasons to fear those rivals. And this fear is all the more rational – notice – if a country’s leadership has reason to believe that the rival country’s leadership subscribes to a doctrine of preventative war. If we considered preventative wars legitimate, the worry goes, we would be declaring a very large number of wars justified, at least in principle (though they might be morally bad in a number of other respects). And this seems incompatible with our sense that war ought to be a genuine last resort.
(Consider Iraq’s invasion of Iran. The war was quite unjust, both in the justice of its cause and in the manner in which it was fought. But recall that Iraq had very sound reasons to fear Iran in the long run. And while Iraq’s invasion may have been rash, there was surely no better time to take on Iran, which was so weakened by internal turmoil. What better, then, to strike at a time of Iraq’s choosing, instead of waiting for Iran to regain it’s strength. If we want to explain what makes Iraq’s war unjust, I think, part of the story will involve the wrongness of preventative war.)
So if we do want to allow that some preventative wars are just, we need to specify a great many further qualifications that will rule out unjust wars which are undertaken for long term strategic reasons. If we can specify these further restrictions clearly enough, we may still be able to make room for the justness of some preventative wars.
It’s important not to overestimate the extent to which countries have always been able to take each other by surprise. Still, nuclear weapons do more to challenge the distinction between preemption and prevention than any other development in the history of warfare, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. The sheer destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, combined with their ease of deployment, make hostile countries especially dangerous to one another. Add to this the fact that it’s often difficult to know how much faith to put in deterrence. Even if he had had nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein is not likely to have used them, except in the most extreme difficulty. But they would surely have had an emboldening effect on him, and this would have opened up far more chance for miscalculation and error.
What I’m not sure about is how exactly we might rethink the distinction between prevention and preemption. We might argue that nuclear weapons force us to reclassify apparently preventative cases as cases of preemption, but leave intact the moral intuition that preventative war is wrong. Or we might leave the distinction itself intact, but argue that its moral significance has been misunderstood. Or we might simply discard the distinction as completely unhelpful and morally irrelevant.
I suspect that it’s better to leave the distinction between preemption and prevention as it is, but to allow, as Kleiman suggests, that there may be special cases in which prevention is legitimate. But I’m still working through all this, and find it very difficult to draw a plausible line.
A few of Kleiman’s other points are worth commenting on. First, it’s true that Iraq did not hold up it’s part of the bargain by submitting to inspections. But the case for war obviously depends on some sense of proportionality between the offence and the punishment. So some further argument is badly needed to demonstrate that war was a just response to Iraq’s cheating. I’m also afraid that the situation with inspections was more morally complicated than Kleiman suggests here. For all of Iraq’s lies, the U.S. never really played the inspections game straight either. It allowed the inspection team to collection intelligence which was passed along to Israel, for example. I’m very sympathetic to Israel’s desire for this intelligence, but this fact gives the lie to the idea that inspections were apolitical and reasonably conducted. And it was also perfectly obvious from the outset of the inspection regime that the U.S. would try to keep inspections in place as long as Saddam Hussein was in power, as a series of top officials all the way up to George Bush Senior made clear.
Also, Kleiman expresses doubt about whether sanctions were really much worse than war. It’s very useful to remember how awful the sanctions were, and to face up to the fact that continued sanctions as an alternative to war would have led to further suffering among the Iraqi people. Still, remember that many of the early deaths were due not to sanctions but to the (deliberate) destruction of the civilian infrastructure. And this was an effect of the actual fighting and not the sanctions. Second, there is evidence, collected for example in a UN report released just prior to the war, that the worst of the health crisis in Iraq was over. Both of these points, however, pale in comparison to the third point, which is that if Iraq undergoes a civil war, as I am increasingly afraid it will, then I can say with great confidence that the sanctions were preferable to war.