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Blind Chihuahua

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In considering war with Iraq, before we run too far with the one tidbit of history (Nazi Germany) we learned and the one case of morality we understand (Nazis bad), let us review a few historical facts and philosophical judgments. Let us consider whether our analogies are accurate and whether our thinking is sufficiently broad.

To begin with, an analogy between the invasion of Iraq and Neville Chamberlain’s hesitation to confront Germany is only loosely applicable. World War II began after Germany invaded Poland. There was no serious discussion of a justified war as an anticipatory act, before German territorial claims of the Sudetenland in Czecholovakia. This was true despite German connivance in the rise of fascist Spain and the misadventures of Italy in Ethiopia. In retrospect we can comfortably call Hitler a madman, but participants cannot see historical ends. Chamberlain and others dithered over war because there was no historical or philosophical justification for preemptive war against a sovereign state. This applied despite the fact that Germany, unlike Iraq, posed more than a credible threat to its neighbors and the world.

Iraq poses a more philosophically complicated case. Despite what lessons we might want to draw from World War II, history does not identify any preemptive war by the stronger against the weaker as a 'just' war, particularly when a policy of containment has not manifestly failed. Invariably, he who strikes first has been called the aggressor, save in a few instances where the weaker state struck preemptively against the prospect of inevitable defeat. As the world stood in 1936, no one would have considered a preemptive invasion of Italy justified, despite its fascist ideology. Italy did not pose a credible threat to Ethiopia, let alone the world.

In the current situation we should reflect on what it means to undermine the idea of sovereignty by creating a new category of just war. Historically, a potential strike by the weaker against the stronger has never justified war. If we now assert that such a war is justified does it fly in the face of established philosophical and juridical thinking about justice and aggression? The policeman asks, "Who threw the first punch?" Not, "Did you have a credible reason to believe that the murdered midget was about to kick you in the groin?" Even the heralded Goetz case in New York involved the controversial judgment of 'justifiable homicide' only because the aggressor, Bernhard Goetz, had rightly judged that he was threatened by the overwhelming force of multiple armed attackers.

In the case of Iraq, we face the possibility of a substantial, but not mortal attack, by a smaller nation. The leader of that nation is also morally unpalatable, but not actively genocidal on any grand scale. (Human rights abuses in North Korea, Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan, to mention only a few, are undeniably more serious.) Should an attack by Iraq occur, the US capacity to destroy the aggressor remains undisputed.

On historical grounds, war with Iraq does not meet any definitions of justified aggression.

We must consider now whether a new globalized world should rethink the definition of justified aggression. Is the threat of substantial violence by a weak, but historically aggressive state sufficient reason to violate its sovereignty?

The Bush administration has concluded that, sovereignty not withstanding, the threat of substantial harm justifies a preemptive strike. This is a radically new limitation in the idea of national sovereignty that neither Churchill nor Chamberlain would have considered. It implies a step toward globalization and away from the sovereignty of any nation, including the United States. Although, in the short term, it will pitch the United Nations and international alliances into disarray, world government must reemerge with more bite than ever before. The definition of just aggression in this conception is ultimately an international one. Old ideas about demonstrated aggression or the credible threat of overwhelming force no longer apply.

Some world body will develop as the place to debate whether India has the right to invade Pakistan to disarm it: whether South Africa has the right to invade Zimbabwe with the intention of ousting a genocidal leader: whether Greece has the right to invade Cyprus and oust Turkish terrorists. Indeed, in the last case the international body has already emerged and it is called the European Union. Without a world governing body for adjudication, preemptive war as just war leads to militarized chaos where state sovereignty means little.

Although the United States may act alone today against Iraq, it may find that the precedent is used in a future world against its interest or even against its own sovereignty. We will not always be the most militarily powerful state in the world. There may come a time when a more powerful state, threatened by our aging nuclear arsenal, compels us to disarm or face invasion, not for anything we have done, but for that which they claim we might do. “After all,” they may say, “look at the American history of aggression…”

This imagined world future feels strange, but in a time of global transformation these are precisely the questions we must think through. An invasion of Iraq is not merely ‘asserting the will of the stronger,’ as Plato described an opposing position. An invasion of Iraq radically advances the claims of globalization and undoes centuries of established thought about the sanctity of sovereign states and the definition of justified aggression.

If the European Union, the United Nations, NATO, and many millions of peace activists call for more time they are not pleading only to give peace a chance, they are also calling for due consideration of the world we are constructing. The conflict is not about eliminating a two-bit despot of a one-bit state. This is a struggle over the definition of sovereignty and the meaning of a just war.

My true concern, is whether anyone, particularly within the Bush administration, has taken the time to think out this war’s philosophical and juridical implications for globalization. As we barrel down the road toward a ‘new world order’ some of us are calling stop, not because we are certain the road is wrong, but because we want a chance to read the signs!

I want a chance to mark the signposts.

This was part of a series of reactions to the 9/11 attack and its aftermath, that in later years would have been blog entries.

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For an ongoing summary see our Jihad/Hirabah page.

In retrospect, it's too bad that the US paid so little heed to Deess' argument. Or to this one.