Attacking Iran would be Bad

Attacking Iran would be Bad

So Sarah Baxter of The Sunday Times (“Pentagon ‘three-day blitz’ plan for Iran“), George Packer in The New Yorker (“Test Marketing“) and Lance Mannion (“Oh what the heck, let’s start a third war!“) all say that the Bush administration may be considering a major strike against Iran.*

That is a Very Bad Idea.

“Bad” can mean a lot of things. It can mean wicked, unjust or morally suspect, as when we refer to villains as the “bad guys.” It can mean unwise or foolish (bad bet, bad idea); broken or dysfunctional (bad sparkplug, bad title); inept (bad singer, bad fielder); erroneous (bad spelling, a bad note) or spoiled and rancid (the milk’s gone bad). I mean all of those here.

The criteria of the just war tradition provide a useful framework for illustrating why I think a potential attack on Iran would be a Very Bad Idea. Here is a useable summary of those criteria from Paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor** on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;

– 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.

But so what? What does it matter what the Catholic catechism says? It’s not legally binding, nor should it be. And even if, as is the case, the idea is not exclusively Catholic or even exclusively Christian, who cares about the moralizing and hand-wringing of a bunch of philosophers and theologians off on the sidelines somewhere?

Fair questions. I appreciate that the moral considerations of the just war tradition can seem wholly irrelevant or academic. The kind of people who really want to have a war are going to have one whether or not I, or even the last two popes, tell them it would be immoral. So let’s set aside, for the moment, the moral aspect of these criteria and just consider the pragmatic contributions they may have to offer.

Those of us who subscribe to these criteria evaluated the proposed American-led invasion of Iraq before it happened and we found it to be, unambiguously, an unjust proposal. In terms of the version of the criteria summarized above, this war is 0-for-4.

But note in particular that final criterion above, the one usually referred to as “proportionality,” summarized here as not producing “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” The invasion of Iraq had no just cause, it was not a last resort and it did not suggest serious prospects of success, but to me the most important factor here was that it was disproportional — it was likely to produce “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Here is what I wrote about that back on August 8, 2002:

The question of proportionality … is bound up with the question of likely outcomes. … Another way of putting these questions is this: Will this war likely make things better or worse?

Answering such a question involves more than merely applying abstract ethical principles. It involves weighing matters of fact and probability, prudence and judgement, learning from history to project our best guesses onto the future.

And my best guess is that … the “reckless, ill-conceived and possibly disastrous” manner in which the Bush administration is pursuing this effort seems likely to make things worse. That’s not a just war.

This is where, I think, the just war criteria make a pragmatic contribution. Heeding the principles of just war can keep you out of the quagmire. The reason for this is very simple: Unwinnable wars are disproportional and therefore, by definition, unjust.

So while I don’t expect the Bush administration*** to care very much that the attack against Iran it may be considering would be another 0-for-4 — that it would be unjust and immoral — I do think they should be expected to care that it would be counterproductive and unwinnable. It would “produce evils and disorders graver than” those that exist now.

I realize that Bush and Cheney aren’t terribly worried about graver evils (they think this makes them look “tough” and “manly”), but I’m desperately hoping that some of their deputies can persuade them to be concerned about graver disorders.

At the end of Packer’s New Yorker piece, he adds this postscript:

Barnett Rubin just called me. His source spoke with a neocon think-tanker who corroborated the story of the propaganda campaign and had this to say about it: “I am a Republican. I am a conservative. But I’m not a raging lunatic. This is lunatic.”

More of this, please. Fewer raging lunatics, please.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Baxter’s Times article mostly just indicates the existence of contingency plans, which doesn’t necessarily mean that even someone as recklessly bellicose as Dick Cheney is pondering implementing those plans. It’s also possible that all of this talk is simply clumsy saber-rattling akin to Nixon’s “Madman strategy.”

** The first criterion, usually called “just cause,” is nicely expressed here. The usual language of “defense against wrongful attack” is simply presumed as self-evident. If there is to be any possibility of a case for just war, this formulation assumes, then there must be an “aggressor.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the good guys can never shoot first — defense against imminent wrongful attack could still be a just cause. But defense against the fear of the potentiality of the possibility of wrongful attack-related program activities doesn’t cut it.

*** My dad had a cartoon on the wall of his law office: Two cavemen are sitting on a rock and one is saying something like, “There’s no point in making a law against eating people, because the kind of people who are going to eat other people are going to do it whether or not there’s a law.”

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  • Rozzen

    (I meant in the draft, not the war. As others have observed, Congress seems to be bypassable in the latter case…)

  • (Either way. So far, bafflingly, nobody can seem to muster any real opposition to a president with approval ratings in the mid-20’s, supported by a party that appears intent on losing elections for at least a decade. This should, by default, make the Democrats “winners” as the Republicans implode, but the Dems still cling to their spineless, non-confrontational ways. It’s very frustrating to watch, for Dems like myself.)

  • dammedyankee, given the monitoring programmes that the White House was carrying out that were so illegal half the top personnel at the DoJ threatened to resign unless they were stopped, I assume that the White House has some really good blackmailable material hanging over the heads of Democrats in Congress. And once give in to political blackmail, and the giving in itself becomes blackmailable. It needn’t even be anything criminal: it could even be some slightly-perverse taste in pr0n sites.
    Either that, or they all spend their time listening to the Washington pundits who tell them with a solemn air of infallibility that publicly opposing the President or the war in Iraq is too risky…

  • Drak Pope

    One small problem — will anyone believe anything that Bush and the neocons say about anyone ever again? They could appear on my TV during Dawson’s Creek to inform me that Nancy Pelosi’s Speaker chair is made out of the malformed skulls of aborted babies and I probably wouldn’t believe them.

  • the opoponax

    If the republicans really had anything substantial on highly placed democrats, why would they be holding on to it? Wouldn’t they have used it to prevent the dems from winning last fall? Wouldn’t they be using it as ammo against the “all republicans are sex-obsessed freaks with serious projection issues” stuff that seems to be going on right now?
    When the Abramoff scandal hit the fan last year, the ONLY thing the republicans could come up with to smear the democrats was that some low-level democratic state rep was also on the take, except his asking price was much, much less, and he had the bad sense to hide the cash in his office rather than get a swiss bank account like normal people.

  • The most common justification that the neo-Cons (in the UK and the US) make for the war in Iran is explicitly a) that Ahmadinejad is an insane anti-Semite, longing for the end of the world and b) that if Iran isn’t stopped they will get nuclear weapons. You also need the implicit (incorrect) premise c) that Ahmadinejad is the ‘decider’ in Iran. If and only if you accept all these three premises you end up saying that you either have a war or you wake up one day to a mushroom cloud over Israel.
    It’s the same every time that it’s explained why some country mustn’t get WMD and why deterrence won’t work: the leader of the other country is crazy. (It was said about Soviet leaders, about Saddam etc). The neo-Cons get away with it by focusing on the remote possibility of a catastrophic outcome (an Israeli Hiroshima) and ignoring the almost near-certainty of it making things far worse in the Middle East.