On Halloween, David Broder said war with Iran would boost our economy. A week later, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) called for a war to “neuter” the Iranian regime. Last week, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said President Obama must “ratchet up the pressure” on Iran.

The drumbeat for war has begun again. (More)

Silencing the Drums, Part I – Just War

This week Morning Feature considers the proposed war with Iran. Today we examine the moral lens of Just War Theory. Tomorrow we’ll apply that lens to the arguments for war with Iran. Saturday we’ll conclude with a story of hope and courage.

As we saw last week, the progressive movement is grounded on moral values: Real American Values. As progressives, we must learn to frame issues in moral terms. That does not always mean absolutes. As we saw last week with the proposed Serengeti Road and this week with economic sanctions, sometimes there are no easy moral answers. But we progressives must still weigh and discuss issues in terms of our moral values, and whether to wage war is clearly a moral question. Or is it?

Realism and pure rationality:

International relations Realists argue that nation-states inevitably compete for dominance and resources in an anarchic world system. The historical evidence is not as clear as Realists suggest; nation-states cooperate as well as compete, and there are many examples of nation-states resolving disputes by shared principles. But we have not yet seen – and might not want – a true “world government.” If we use a very broad brush, the international system can fairly be painted as anarchic.

Realists then argue this system is best understood and most predictable if states are purely rational actors. If each state’s leaders apply the same game theory calculations of risk and reward, we can better understand and predict their choices. Moreover, by nudging key variables – mostly but not exclusively economic – states can change each others’ decision matrices. If you want Amberstan to do X, make X less risky and more rewarding than the alternatives.

That only works, Realists argue, if states’ leaders exclude notions of morality and justice from affairs of state. Realists say such notions are too vague and varying to be measured or even reliably estimated. Such ideals make it too difficult to predict other leaders’ behavior. Without that predictability, Realists say, states’ leaders must prepare for the worst. And because preparing for war often spurs rivals to prepare for war – heightening tensions between them – leaders who weigh morality and justice actually make war more likely.

Is Realism realistic?

Realism is a clever argument, and like most clever arguments it works by shaping the evidence to fit its conclusions. As noted, nation-states do cooperate. While there are many lists of conflicts, and there is almost always a war happening somewhere in the world, we rarely list acts of cooperation. In that sense, it’s like reading only the police blotter and concluding everyone must be a criminal.

Nor are concepts of morality and justice as vague as Realists contend. Yes, there are points of disagreement. Yes, we often skew moral analyses to favor our group and its interests, as Jonathan Haidt and others have found in academic research. But Dr. Haidt and others have also found consistent moral themes across widely differing cultures. Realists may ignore the common elements and highlight the differences, but calling themselves Realists does not make them realistic.

Finally, Realists commit the naturalistic fallacy: X happens, thus X is morally acceptable. There is a difference between recognizing that nation-states often compete for power and resources without regard for morality and justice, and arguing that leaders should exclude morality and justice from decisions of state. It’s the difference between noting that some other primates routinely copulate by force and rape has always occurred among humans … and arguing that rape is morally acceptable. That’s not only logically flawed. It’s morally flawed as well.

What is a Just War?

Just War Theory has a long history. Universities teach entire courses on it. Ethicists and other scholars continue debate its nuances. While its origins are religious and the principals below are from the 2003 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Just War Theory is not exclusively a religious doctrine and these principles stand on their own:

  • 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. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Note that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor” cannot be speculative, nor simply restricted access to a desired resource or market. “Force may only be used to correct a grave, public evil, i.e.: aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.” Material gain or sustaining an economy is never a “right intention” for waging war.

Also note that an unwinnable war – however noble the cause – is never moral, and that the harm to be stopped must exceed the inevitable harm of the war itself. If there is no serious prospect of success, or “success” can only be achieved by laying waste to whole nations, waging war only compounds the injustice.

I’ll apply these principles tomorrow to examine the war with Iran proposed by David Broder and others. I propose they are progressive moral principles. But not everyone – or even every progressive – will agree. What do you think?


Happy Thursday!