Kilroy Was Here
February 25, 2003
Why I Am Against the War: Part 1 - Preventative War is Morally Dubious
I have been giving a great deal of thought to the impending war in Iraq, and even though I've listened patiently to Kevin Pollack and Thomas Freidman, as it stands now, I am against any non-UN sanctioned military action by the United States in Iraq.
Over the next week, I will be posting a series of short articles on why I am against the war. Our first stop is on the notion of preventative war.
Many people who argue for the war do not comprehend the depth of change in the United States policy that the upcoming war in Iraq represents. For example, Rush Limbaugh, in his Feb. 17th show, compares the upcoming war with Iraq with similar actions in Bosnia, or Somalia.
However, as the PBS show Frontline so thoroughly documented, the upcoming war with Iraq represents a serious departure from the policy of containment that has guided United States policy for over fifty years.
The policy of containment is one where the United States prevents rival nations from exercising any aggressive intentions through a complex dance of diplomacy and deterrence. During the Cold War, containment allowed us to eventually overwhelm the Soviet Union and peaceably remove it from the list of enemies to the United States.
While containment was messy and dangerous, it surely was less messy and less dangerous than World War III with the Soviet Union and its hegemony.
Preventative war, on the other hand, is the attempt to avert future risk by invading another sovereign state now. As Michael Walzer states in his article Inspectors Yes, War No:
The general argument for preventive war is very old; in its classic form it has to do with the balance of power. "Right now," says the prime minister of country X, "the balance is stable; each of the competing states feels that its power is sufficient to deter the others from attacking. But country Y, our historic rival across the river, is actively and urgently at work developing new weapons, preparing a mass mobilization; and if this work is allowed to continue, the balance will shift, and our deterrent power will no longer be effective. The only solution is to attack now, while we still can."
Preventative war is not ‘preemptive’. Preemptive strikes, such as the Israel strike on Iraq in 1981, are aimed at well documented impending threats to a states actions.
Preventative war, on the other hand, is aimed at more distant threats with harder to calculate risk. It’s not the case that Iraq is an imminent danger to the United States now. Best CIA estimates put an uncontained Iraq’s production of a nuclear device at five years away, and this does not take into account the development of a delivery vehicle.
As Walzer notes in his article:
International lawyers and just-war theorists have never looked on this argument with favor because the danger to which it alludes is not only distant but speculative, whereas the costs of a preventive war are near, certain, and usually terrible. The distant dangers, after all, might be avoided by diplomacy, or the military work of the other side might be matched by work on this side, or country X might look for alliances with states possessing the deterrent power that it lacks. Whether or not war is properly the last resort, there seems no sufficient reason for making it the first.
In other words, we do not know whether or not Saddam Hussein can attain nuclear weapons. Even if he can, we cannot accurately estimate the costs in lives and resources it would take to deter Saddam Hussein or even the cost if he was able to exercise his new capability.
However, we the costs of a preventative war in terms of civilian casualties, military casualties, and economic resources more easy to estimate. Current estimates of civilian casualties to Iraq number in the hundreds of thousands, and estimates in economic resources number in the billions of dollars.
Not to mention the unknown outcomes of a preventative war in terms of terrorism blowback aimed at the United States, goodwill costs among other allies, and the cost of setting a precedent for the justification of preventative war.
(As an aside, some number that continued rule by Saddam Hussein will have costs in civilian casualties. However, those costs are surely far less than open war. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that future regimes in Iraq might not entail similar costs, and the United States.)
So, on the one hand, we have a nebulous potential risk to American national security with an impact on Americans we cannot calculate.
On the other hand, we have guaranteed losses of civilians, including women and children, with no guarantee that national security for Americans will be increased, and even the potential that American security will be decreased by seeing a rise in terrorism and a weakening of our alliances.
With this choice, I am reminded of the famous short story by Shirley Jackson, The Lottery. In this story, an innocent is picked at random in order to insure the continued prosperity of the town.
Is America prepared now to submit Iraqi children to a new lottery, where we will insure many of their deaths and disfigurement for a chance of increased security? A chance that has never been rationally explained or defended?
What if our children were placed in this lottery? Would we be willing to go to war then?
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