Avoiding the always-disastrous last resort of war

Avoiding the always-disastrous last resort of war January 20, 2012

Juan Cole shares a guest post from Thomas J. Buonomo that I want to recommend as smart, wise and good.

Buonomo suggests a promising alternative approach to the current situation between the United States and Iran. And, more broadly, Buonomo demonstrates the kind of creativity and wisdom that ought to inform our thinking in general about foreign policy and defense.

To avoid War, Obama Should Offer Iran Renewable Energy Aid” Buonomo writes. First he outlines the situation that has led to escalating tension, bringing us closer to the possibility of war:

As Iran proceeds ahead with its nuclear program, its tensions with the United States continue to heighten over concerns that it is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.

Israelis view a nuclear‐armed Iran as an existential threat and U.S. officials are rightly concerned that nuclear weapons would give Iran coercive power over Iraq and its Arab Gulf neighbors, which are critical energy suppliers to the U.S. and its allies.

One of Iran’s ostensible reasons for wanting to develop a nuclear program is to transition to an alternative source of electricity for domestic consumption. This would purportedly free up oil and natural gas reserves for export at a higher price on the global market rather than remaining allocated to Iran’s highly subsidized domestic market. …

Buonomo then offers a way forward that offers hope for resolution without conflict:

Considering the doubtful prospect of an effective sanctions regime and the unpredictable consequences of a military strike or covert action, the Obama administration should consider offering the Iranian government an opportunity for rapprochement in the form of renewable energy technology and financial incentives to help it achieve its ostensible goals.

Iran has abundant geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and wind energy resources that could help it meet its domestic electricity demand without presenting an inherent threat to the international community. This would require substantial investment but Iranian leaders might be prepared to consider such an alternative if the U.S. and other UN Security Council states were prepared to offer it attractive financing options.

Such an initiative would demonstrate to Iran that the United States acknowledges its legitimate energy and national security interests and is willing to take meaningful steps to support its peaceful aspirations and integration into the international community in return for its abandonment of its nuclear program.

And, finally, Buonomo considers possible objections to this proposal:

… Detractors will claim that this would constitute appeasement of a hostile regime but if a carrot‐based approach fails the United States will have lost nothing. On the contrary, it will have strengthened its diplomatic position against the Iranian government, enabling it to build support for a more coercive approach.

Given the stakes, it is imperative to exhaust all options while there is still time.

That last phrase — “exhaust all options” — echoes an essential component of the just war tradition, that of “last resort.”

The use of force — war — is never justifiable unless it is the last resort. The exhaustion of all other options is a prerequisite for the use of force.

That means, among other things, that everything one can imagine must be attempted before resort to the use of force. And that, in turn, means that the final resort of force is always an indication of the failure to find or to seek other possible approaches. That failure may be a failure of imagination, or a failure of courage, or of analysis, or of intelligence — an inability or an unwillingness to think without being constrained by a limiting militarized perspective that, as the saying goes, has only a hammer and thus can’t see anything but nails.

This prerequisite of “last resort” is often sorely abused by those whose only reference to the just war tradition is as a fig leaf to rationalize whatever course they previously preferred to take. When that approach is taken, the exhaustion of all other options becomes a goal in and of itself, with those options considered only so that they can be dismissed and, therefore, be said to have been exhausted as a rationale for the preferred course of war.

Buonomo’s point is not that lawyerly and disingenuous. When he says “it is imperative to exhaust all options” his goal seems to be to find options, not to meet the technical requirement of exhaustion. He is seeking and hoping to find some other option that works — some other resort by which the failure and disaster of war can be avoided and averted.

In any case, his contribution here is to extend the list of “all options” — to add another resort that can, and therefore must, be attempted before the last resort of force can be regarded as justifiable.

This is something that can be tried. If it is not tried then we have not exhausted all options and have not reached the last resort. And if we have not reached the last resort, then the use of force is not justified.

Beyond that imperative, Buonomo’s suggestion has much to recommend it.

At the most basic level: War is a Bad Thing. Finding a way to avoid war is a Good Thing. War is always unpredictable and costly in terms of blood and treasure. Avoiding war avoids that cost. People die in wars — civilians, children, soldiers. Preventing war prevents their deaths. The particular potential war we’re discussing here — conflict with Iran — would also almost certainly lead to spikes in energy prices that would push the global economy back into deep recession. Avoiding this conflict could avoid that as well.

Less urgently, Buonomo’s suggestion also would help to promote cleaner, renewable energy. Renewable energy tends to be decentralized and subject to a greater level of local control, and that in turn could help to nurture and encourage the democratic aspects of Iranian society.

One objection might be that such a course could be viewed as rewarding bad behavior, creating an incentive for other countries to follow Iran’s example by pursuing nuclear weapons capability to leverage international assistance. (North Korea has been doing the same thing for decades now.)

Well, OK. Let’s say that happens. Imagine that, per Buonomo, the U.S. and the international community offer Iran “attractive financing options” and other technical and financial support to assist Iran to develop sustainable and renewable energy, and that in exchange for that assistance Iran renounces any pursuit of nuclear weapons and welcomes verification from international inspectors.

And then, seeing Iran thus rewarded, let’s say that every hostile, unruly, rogue or bellicose nation decides to do exactly the same thing, thereby forcing us to deal with them in the same way. The cost to the U.S. and to the rest of the international community would still be far less than the cost of invading any single one of those countries. But what would be the outcome? Every hostile, unruly, rogue or bellicose nation would have renounced the pursuit of nuclear weapons, welcoming verification from inspectors, while at the same time the world will be much further along the necessary path toward renewable and sustainable energy.

If that’s what happens when we reward bad behavior in this way, then by all means let’s hurry up and reward some bad behavior.

"He was defeated by a few New Yorkers, several women, a Black national leader (and ..."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’
"I ... can't disagree with any of this."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’
"90's, IMO. We were aware of the problem in the 70's, but probably could have ..."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’
"It makes me happy that she would be angry to read this, and demand that ..."

‘Mrs. Whiling’s Faith Cure’

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • On war.

    I definitely think that it can be argued that Iran is not telling the truth about what it wants nuclear stuff for.

    One thing, however, that I should caution when discussing Iran and nukes with respect to Europe ‘offering them stuff’.

    One thing non-Western nations are particularly sensitive about is being treated as though they’re like little children that have to be doled out rewards because they’re too irresponsible to do it on their own.

    I think this may be part of the driving force for Iran to insist it will do its own damn enriching for its own damn plants.

    So, “it’s more complicated than that” – Iran’s leaders can have multiple competing reasons for why they would like to build nuclear plants and it may be that some favor one over the others because it is suitable or convenient.

  • Ursula L

    I for one would welcome our Canadian liberators,

    As would I.  I certainly spend enough money subsidizing their advance supply stations.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    So to you the difference between a bad war (Iraq) and a huge success (Libya) is how people feel about America afterwards?

    You need a better measure. We in notAmerica have lives that are just as valuable as yours.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Why does everyone keep acting like I’m advocating an Iraq style invasion?

    I’m not. I’m acting like you’re advocating murder. Which, despite all the euphamisms you’ve employed (arm, remove, “whack” (how cute), assassinate) is exactly what you’re doing.

    Fred wrote about one possible option that needs to be explored before the mass murder that we nicely call war can be considered. You’re asking why we don’t just go murder some people already?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Ultimately- I don’t have that much problem with violence as a solution to political problems.

    Because the odds are low that it will be inflicted on you.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Because killing a unicorn is the greatest evil in the world.

  • Lori

    Because the odds are low that it will be inflicted on you.  

    I fear that the odds of mass violence as a solution to political problems in the US is getting higher all the time. Of course I supposed that cary assumes that if violence does flair up again here that he’ll be on the side doing instead of the side being done to, so I guess your point still stands. 

  • P J Evans

    Try looking at it as if some other country was doing that to us.
    Would it make you favorably disposed to that other country?

  • P J Evans

    I’ve heard that Iran is not currently – or even in the near future – capable of enriching uranium to the point where they could build a bomb with it. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but Buonomo’s argument on why Iran is doing it sounds about right to me. (I’ve had the exact same thought, and I’m neither an economist nor a political scientist.)

  • P J Evans

     Well, for one thing, Iran is unlikely, for geological reasons, to get a magnitude 9 earthquake, and it’s nearly impossible to get one followed by a tsunami of any size (the large bodies of water all being on the other side of mountains), which is the reason Japan has a big problem with that reactor complex.

  • P J Evans

     I’d recommend Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, to see just how big a mess Bush dropped us in.

  • I suppose that technically, if the subject is “What options can we try that are less bad than mass-murder,” it’s *technically* true that “non-mass murder” is a valid thing to put on that list.

    I suppose that technically, “How about instead of a war, we just drop *one* bomb on them, and then go home” makes the list too.

  • Anonymous

    :) I see that… I’m a complete Canadophile, I live in Ohio and my family has been vacationing in ontario since  I was a youngun.

  • monkeyox

    I guess, but if you’re stretching “non-mass murder” to include “facilitating a bloody civil war”….

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Dropping a bomb isn’t an act of war?

  • Lori

    I’ve heard that Iran is not currently – or even in the near future – capable of enriching uranium to the point where they could build a bomb with it  


    Estimates of how far along they are with their program vary wildly. Accurate information is obviously hard to come by and you have the added complication that many of the estimators have a vested interest in making it seem that an Iranian bomb is going to happen any day now while others have a vested interest in making it seem like it will never happen. Another issue is the question of exactly where Iran is getting their nuclear tech and who is helping them. Different resources would produce quite different timelines. 

  • Ursula L

    Dropping a bomb isn’t an act of war?

    There is a tendency, with Americans to only consider things that America does “war” if it involves Americans getting killed.  Technology has developed to the point where the US can drop bombs pretty much anywhere without risk to the lives of Americans.  

    But if you’re measuring war in American lives rather than human lives, you’re being inhumane, and any opinions you have on war and its uses need to be discounted or dismissed due to your inhumanity. 

  • ursula- excellent point. These drones are the current golden calf among the little bit of intervention won’t hurt set.

  • Ursula L

    Dropping a bomb is an act of war.

    Further, dropping a bomb is an act of aggressive war.  

    It’s unreasonable to expect that one can just drop one bomb and go home.  Because a nation that goes about dropping bombs needs to be stopped. 

    An international alliance, counterattack, overthrowing the government that thinks it’s okay to go about dropping bombs, occupation of the offending nation, forced disarmament and restructuring of the nation’s government so that the same offense can’t happen again — that’s a possible consequence of dropping a bomb, and for any nation except the US, it’s a high probability consequence.

    And it is, I think, wrong that the US is so powerful that we can consider the option of just dropping a bomb and going home, without any consequences to us.  Really, no nation should be that powerful.  

    At some point, the rest of the world is going to get fed up with a US that thinks it can go about dropping bombs and going home again without consequences.  Because that’s really monstrous behavior. 

  • fraser

    They’ll welcome us as liberators! Wait, I think I’ve heard that before …

  • fraser

    No, this is more like France invading England during the British Civil War. Or invading and occupying the South to free the slaves.

  • fraser

    No, it doesn’t automatically follow that Tel Aviv or anywhere else goes boom. The iranians aren’t suicidal and they know that’s what happens if they drop a nuke first.
    But of course, we can’t wait for proof of their intentions to be a smoking mushroom cloud … yeah, that’s familiar too.

  • fraser

    “Already answered this question- then the new regime will be (most
    likely) more pro-America, seeing as we funded their rise to power. At
    worst- things stay pretty much the way they are, except they like us
    So if our intervention kills ten thousand people and the only change is that we have an equally repressive but more cooperative government, that would be a win in your book?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    At some point, the rest of the world is going to get fed up with a US that thinks it can go about dropping bombs and going home again without consequences.

    Is going to? Waaaay ahead of you.

    The President was wrong. It’s not America’s freedom (sic) that people hate.

  • Ursula L

    Fed up? Certainly.

    What I’m curious about is when the rest of the world will become fed up to do something about it, and what that something may be.  

  • Stephen Harper’s response has been to give away some Canadian sovereignty.