Dirty Laundry Lists

January 5, 2006 § 41 Comments

When it comes to having reasons for being involved in a war, more is better, right?

Wrong.

We often hear that WMD’s being transferred to Al Qaeda was not the only reason we went to war in Iraq. The public record shows many reasons for the war, in fact, and most of them are in fact good reasons. And having lots of good reasons must be better than having only one good reason, musn’t it?

Well, no. In fact, counterintuitively, the opposite is the case.

In order to justly enter a war, the purpose of the nation justly entering the war must be to counter a particular lasting, grave, and certain threat. That particular threat is key to determining whether a particular party has entered a war justly. A list of additional reasons – good ones, bad ones, or indifferent ones – doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on the fundamental question of whether entry into a war is or is not just.

The laundry list of reasons is not directly relevant to the justice of the war, but the existence of the laundry list does cast doubt on the credibility of the justification for war. A nation may have many different reasons, some of them perfectly rational and even good, to want to go to war with another nation. But the existence of the laundry list of reasons is bad in at least two ways. First, it creates a conflict of interest with respect to the actual threat that justifies the war. There is a temptation (for example) to exagerrate the credibility of that threat in order to achieve other purposes, and in general all of the issues involved in conflict of interest apply. Second, it becomes a temptation to substitute items from the laundry list for the threat if the threat turns out to be less than presupposed before the war, and the whole integrity of making judgements about war through application of the Just War Doctrine becomes corrupted.

That is precisely what has occurred with the Iraq war. The lasting, grave, and (putatively) certain threat that justified entry into the war was the threat of Saddam Hussein giving WMD’s to Al Qaeda. Other reasons abound, and many of them represent quite good subsidiary reasons and goals, but they are not the specific threat and are thus irrelevant.** Because the credibility of the WMD-to-terrorists threat has gone to effectively zero – that is, it turns out that the threat was not certain: that it was at best a mistake – the other reasons from the laundry list are being put forward as justifications for the war.

And this corrupts the whole process.

** (I can tell this definitively by asking the question “Would we have actually gone to war if the subject of WMD’s had never come up?”, to which the only sane answer is “no”. And please note that the question isn’t “Would we have been justified in going to war for some other reason?”; the question is “Without that threat, would the United States have actually entered into the war with Iraq?”)

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§ 41 Responses to Dirty Laundry Lists

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–The chances of the secularist Saddam Hussein providing WMD to al Qaeda religious fundamentalists, who would soon be coming after him, once they succeeded in removing their primary target, were always nil. The fact that he may have compensated families of suicide bombers who attacked Israelis is no indication that Saddam would have put serious weapons in the hands of his natural Muslim enemies. Does Mubarak fund the fanatics who kill German tourists visiting his tourist sites? I don’t think so.Saddam was attacked by Israel, and his nuclear installation destroyed, so he had that specific reason, along with the general Arab enmity factor, to reward (after the fact) the families of those who attacked Israel. There never has been *any* reasonable way to categorize this American invasion of Iraq as “just”. We’re doing it because we can and because of–yes, dammit, OIL (get real everybody!).

  • zippy says:

    I think the “we did it because of oil” idea is just wacky. We did it as an attempt to respond to what is objectively the threat of Islam, though we are too namby-pamby to just come out and say it clearly.But in any case, Rob, you should be mostly happy with the result, since in conceding everything that I do to the pro-Iraq-war side the conclusion is still quite clearly that it did not meet the JW criteria. Though I suspect you may be less than happy that the Afghan war did.(Uh oh, here we go again :-).

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Do you really believe that oil is a wacky reason to go to war? Do you really think that war is ever launched for any other reason than for the reason of controlling access to commodities and markets?Come on.If we were afraid of Islam, we’d be trying to place Saddam surrogates in every Muslim country, because it is only secular strong men like him that can suppress that threat for us.Afghanistan is certainly a more justifiable invasion than Iraq, given the fact that persons who actually attacked us are supposedly holed-up there.

  • zippy says:

    <>Do you really believe that oil is a wacky reason to go to war?<>No. I think it is wacky to think that oil is the reason we went to war in Iraq.<>If we were afraid of Islam, we’d be…<>Oh, I didn’t intend to imply that what we are doing makes any sense. (I would’t expect it to, because we haven’t even chucked our political correctness enough to admit to ourselves that the problem <>is<> Islam-qua-Islam and not “terrorism” or “Islamofascism” or whatever).

  • Rob says:

    “…we haven’t even chucked our political correctness enough to admit to ourselves that the problem is Islam-qua-Islam…” Zippy–I have.But if those Muslims didn’t have oil, the religious confrontation would not, at this point, especially in this country, be worth the cost.

  • zippy says:

    Well, I used “we” in the general community sense, not to refer to you and I. Stange as it may sound, I am not often accused of being overly sensitive let alone politically correct.<>But if those Muslims didn’t have oil, the religious confrontation would not, at this point, especially in this country, be worth the cost.<>That may be a fair point, in the sense that we wouldn’t be involved with them much at all without the oil, and therefore 9-11 would not have happened because they would be living in their geographically separate world and we in ours, etc. All very speculative, to be sure, but the Middle East doesn’t have much to offer <>us<> besides oil.But the idea that oil was a <>proximate<> cause of the Iraq war is wacky. 9-11, terrorism, “Islamofascism” (I despise that politically correct term), etc. are what is driving US foreign policy, not oil.

  • Rob says:

    “They” wouldn’t be attacking us, if “we” weren’t over on their turf, sucking up their wealth, and importing our decadent cultural products.What I believe is, that most Christians in the world–certainly the relatively rich and powerful Christians–have gone soft on that wealth. If the global economy tanks, the Muslims, who are much better able to handle poverty psychologically due to the inherent asceticism of Islam, will be able to successfully recruit from the Christian populations. I can see Christianity becoming marginalized. Christians have been brought up to think that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a divine judgement and punishment. Christians could defect to Allah in large numbers, because Islam will reconcile them to their reduced conditions by making them a positive thing.

  • zippy says:

    <>“They” wouldn’t be attacking us, if “we” weren’t over on their turf, sucking up their wealth, and importing our decadent cultural products.<>What you are saying is true basically by definition to the extent that if we and they lived in utterly isolated worlds there would be no conflict. It isn’t at all clear that “us bad, they good, us benefit, they suffer” follows though, as your language connotes.

  • Rob says:

    I am not competent to speculate on how fair our dealings with the oil-bearing Arabs are. Typically, in Third World trade situations, dealing with the West benefits a tiny elite–like the Saudi royals–and the ordinary people, not so much. But you know that.What tends to burn them all, however, even the elites, is our cultural decadence. And, from a religious perspective, I can’t fault them there.

  • c matt says:

    <>Christians have been brought up to think that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing and poverty a divine judgement and punishment.<>Maybe the Joel Osteen types, but not all of them.Remember Job? Not to mention Christ Himself (not what you would consider the lifestyle of the rich and famous).

  • c matt says:

    <>War for oil<>Not directly. It is probably somewhat true in the sense that we (being the West) would probably not give a rat’s behind about the middel east but for its resources. Thus, a stable middle east (with safe supplies of said resource) is in our interest.However, the more immediate factor would seem to be the Islamic threat to the West, of which the ME is the epicenter, although the way to address that threat is going differ on a country by country basis.

  • TS says:

    We can look back now and say it was unjust but that’s like saying we can look back and criticize a hospital for doing a double-bypass since the patient died on the table. The patient, not knowing the outcome, would still have done the double-bypass beforehand given the same info. You can’t know what you can’t know and everybody thought he’d had WMDs, from which we might deduce that intelligence can never really be trusted again. And but for an auxillary reason – that Hussein violated the ceasefire at the end of the Gulf War – it would’ve been an illegal war. It’s odd to think that a ceasefire of a just war (assuming the Gulf War was just) can’t be justly enforced, but I’ll take that on faith, coupled with the fact that Bush should have foreseen not that Hussein didn’t have WMDs, but that the enforcement of the ceasefire agreement could not be accomplished without great suffering, both for our soldiers and their population.

  • zippy says:

    I have no quibbles with someone saying that as a moral matter, the Iraq war was a <>mistake<> rather than unjust strictly speaking. But we can’t make a mistake and call it <>just<>.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–A “mistake” that results in the murder of innocent people is unjust, strictly speaking. We are not morally allowed to make “mistakes” of that kind.

  • zippy says:

    I don’t think it is possible for a murder to be a mistake. A murder is on purpose by definition.

  • Rob says:

    Right. Murder is on purpose by definition. And those who equivocate about the definition of “purpose” in order to say that an act which makes the killing of innocents *inevitable*, even though (they claim that) the primary intention is to kill others, are condoning murder, regardless of their semantic evasions.

  • William Luse says:

    <>And those who equivocate about the definition of “purpose” in order to say that an act which makes the killing of innocents *inevitable*, even though (they claim that) the primary intention is to kill others, are condoning murder, regardless of their semantic evasions.<>This, if I’m reading it right, is just another form of pacifism.But my question is this, Zippy. GW was certain Saddam had WMD (how else to explain Colin Powell’s strenuous efforts at the U.N.?). Leading up to the war, Saddam did everything in his power to frustrate that certainty by booting out weapons inspectors. So GW’s in the position of saying, “I’m <>almost<> certain that Saddam has WMD. If he’d just get out of our way, I could be <>absolutely<> certain.” Must he wait for that latter certainty before acting, even though there is no way of attaining it?

  • Rob says:

    My last post certainly was a form of pacifism.If you will remember back, William Luse, to the last images you saw on your TV coming out of Iraq, prior to the commencement of “Shock and Awe”, you will recall that they were pictures of rockets being crushed and mangled by heavy equipment. Saddam was giving up anything that he could find to give up. He wanted to stay in power, such as it was.The inspectors were, in fact, withdrawn, not expelled. Why would Saddam expel weapons inspectors to prevent them from discovering WMD THAT HE DIDN’T HAVE?Presumably Saddam knew that he did not have what he did not have. It was completely to his benefit to have those inspectors go on finding nothing forever, since, if they found nothing there would be no excuse (he thought) for attacking Iraq. Let’s at least, while we are swallowing the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld disinformation hook, line and sinker, pause to see if any of it makes sense.

  • William Luse says:

    You could be right. The precise chain of events is all aswim in my head by now, but there were periods when inspectors were expelled, and Colin Powell did show us satellite pictures of weapons supposedly going out the back door while inspectors came in the front. The administration was convinced that skullduggery was in play,which Saddam could have dealt with by simply inviting GW to send in whomever he wished to do the inspecting. But he didn’t. So I’d like my question answered even if it must be treated as a hypothetical. In other words, if GW could not gain the certainty Zippy requires, would he have been justified in taking action?

  • Rob says:

    That British intelligence communique that was leaked in England showed pretty clearly that the Bushies had made the decision to invade Iraq long before 9/11, and before all the subsequently trumped up reasons for doing so were concocted. But no. It can’t be shown that the war in Iraq was undertaken either in self-defense of an on-going attack on the U.S. by Iraq, or in defense of a weaker nation under attack by Iraq, as in the first Gulf War. It is not a just war. It would not be a just war even if WMD had been discovered, since they would have been hidden, and not deployed for imminent use, as claimed by the Bushies. This war stinks to high heaven. Preemptive war is not just war. If only Saddam’s Baathist henchmen were dying, I might be able to hold my nose and look the other way. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.

  • William Luse says:

    Thanks, but I’d really like to hear Zippy’s answer. And I don’t believe that pre-emptive war can never be just, but I’ve gone over it so many times before I just don’t feel like doing it again right now.

  • zippy says:

    I’ll try to rephrase the question, which is always dangerous because I may get it wrong in translation.I think the question is “if our enemies are being sneaky, does that allow us to weaken the standard of <>certainty<> so that it is no longer imperative to be actually correct?”If that rephrases the question properly, I don’t see how the answer could be “yes”. Just because our enemies use the fact that we don’t torture prisoners against us that does not mean that it becomes OK for us to torture prisoners.

  • William Luse says:

    Thanks. That’s what I figured you’d say. It’s still a tough one for me, that is, if Saddam had indeed possessed that arsenal of WMD, what certainty would like in the face of a terrorist threat is disturbingly elusive. Of course, since he didn’t have them, not only was certainty lacking, but we weren’t even close. And I’m not so sure anymore it can be classified as a mistake, of the kind for which someone would not be held morally culpable.I wish Bush had just said, ‘Look, the guy’s a mass-murderer and we’re taking him out, in defense of Iraq’s own citizens.’ In examining my own motives, that was the one closest to my heart.

  • Rob says:

    William Luse–Saddam can be characterized as a mass murderer, and that might have been used as a valid reason (for those looking for valid reasons to go to war). But, once having determined, *on that basis* to take out Saddam, wouldn’t the U.S. have the *moral obligation* to make war in order to take out every other murderous head of state on earth?If not, what made Saddam the target, if not the threat he posed to our access to the oil?

  • zippy says:

    <>But, once having determined, *on that basis* to take out Saddam, wouldn’t the U.S. have the *moral obligation* to make war in order to take out every other murderous head of state on earth?<>Not at all. Once it is stipulated that an act is an act of charity – and defense of another <>is<> an act of charity – there is no requirement that we commit that same act of charity for every possible person on earth who might benefit from it. For one thing, that sort of moral principle would make acts of charity impossible in general as a practical matter; and a proposed moral principle that makes acts of charity impossible falsifies its own validity thereby.

  • William Luse says:

    Yes, and furthermore a war can only be just if the evil that will result is not greater than the good to be achieved. It would have been an act of charity to have gone to war against the Soviet Union to free its people from various murderous rulers, but the destruction would have been unimaginable. Now if you want to say that we (or somebody) should have done something in Rwanda, or present day Sudan, I’m listening.And, I’m sorry, but the oil argument puts me to sleep.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Having established that to go to war in defense of the abused citizens of country A is charity, if one then has certain knowledge that the citizens of counstries B, C, and D are being similarly abused, one *does* have an obligation to extend to B, C, and D the same charity one extended to A.Do you give food to one child of a starving family and hold another three equally starved siblings back while he eats it all? Perceived need creates obligation.William Luse–The oil argument puts you to sleep because it won’t go away; it’s a refrain that has become for you a lullabye. It won’t go away because it describes a very large part of the reality of our Middle East policy. I can only suggest that you wake up, smell the coffee, and deal with the real.Can you look at the actual situation on the ground in Iraq and say that the good that has been done outweighs the obvious evils? If so, please explain, so that I may be awakened from my nightmares concerning this human tragedy.I don’t know how old you are, but I am old enough to have lived through Viet Nam and the parallels to Iraq become more obvious as this thing drags on. What we are currently being promised is the “Vietnamization” of Iraq. You saw–or at least I saw–how well the Vietnamization of Viet Nam worked: i.e., we got our ass kicked, and our “national fabic” perhaps indelibly stained with stuff that stinks, and they went Commie anyway.

  • Rob says:

    Oops. That’s “national fabric”.

  • zippy says:

    <>…one *does* have an obligation to extend to B, C, and D the same charity one extended to A.<>No one doesn’t, and your example proves it. Giving food to one soup kitchen does not create an obligation for me to give food to all soup kitchens. If it did then it wouldn’t be morally possible to give food to a soup kitchen at all.And the oil argument puts Bill to sleep because it involves confusing a remote material cause with a proximate formal cause.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–What you are really saying is that the recognition of an obligation does guarantee that one has the means to meet that obligation. Therefore, we have the concept of “triage.” One then must ask: was the obligation to “rescue” the citizens of Iraq from Saddam, really the most pressing moral demand being made on the limited military and economic resources of the U.S. And, also we must ask, whether the effort in Iraq exhausts those resources to the extent that we can’t also act in areas of the world (without oil) simultaneously. In short, we must (as you have been) question our motives for going to Iraq at all, and in going to Iraq rather than several other places in the world that might seem to be equally in need of “rescue” by the forces of good.

  • Rob says:

    Darn it. I keep dropping key words. (Dr. Freud, call your office?)Obviously, my first sentence should read “…does *not* guarantee that one has the means…”

  • zippy says:

    <>What you are really saying is that the recognition of an obligation does guarantee that one has the means to meet that obligation.<>I don’t think I said any of that. What I said was that performing one act of charity does not create an obligation to perform all conceivable acts of charity. Also, I am not sure your concept of a moral requirement to self-consciously optimize the efficiency of all acts of charity is any more coherent than your concept of a moral imperative to perform all conceivable acts of charity.But in any case, they are your concepts not mine.

  • Rob says:

    “…in any case, they are your concepts not mine.”Zippy–And do either of us have the right to our own perspective with regard to brother love and charity? Or is it, rather, our task to discover what is God’s will in this area and conform our own efforts to that? (You insist on your own perspective, and yet you call *me* a Nietzschean?)I would say that we are called to unconditional love, lack of resources being just one condition to determining our ability to give charity to the needy. Therefore, we give what we can to the very neediest first (triage). In this instance, I suggest that if rescuing the oppressed is our excuse for invading Iraq, we have failed to bring our resources to the aid of the neediest first, and that we have, therefore, failed in our moral obligation.

  • zippy says:

    <>(You insist on your own perspective, and yet you call *me* a Nietzschean?)<>Um, no. You have put forth a proposed moral principle that once a single act of charity has been performed, all conceivable acts of charity must be performed, and another one that insists that in order to perform an act of charity we have to self-consciously do so in a resource-optimal way or it will be immoral. The fact that you are unable to defend those proposed moral principles does not make me a Nietzscean.I haven’t suggested that you are Nietzschean flippantly in those other threads. The thing that makes you Nietzschean is that you deny teleology, and then you acknowledge teleology but say it is something we must overcome and replace with something of our own making.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–I never said that “once a single act of charity has been performed” some kind of lever has been thrown which suddenly obligates one to perform all possible acts of charity. What I said was that we are equally obligated, in all cases, to address need where ever, when ever, and how ever we can, on the basis of our Christianity. And, yes, we are obligated to assess our ability, both individual and collective to effectively address those obligations.Nietzsche was a complex and inconsistent thinker who can cover both of us, and just about anybody else at any chosen point; that’s his whole game. Poor guy.Finally, I never denied teleology, as such. I merely suggested that the “teleology of sex” does not necessarily direct the human animal toward the ends that you claim for it, or entail the behavior that you profess for it, and that by your definition of it, it doesn’t exist, or shouldn’t, as it leads to things far more dire than condom use.

  • zippy says:

    <>I never said that “once a single act of charity has been performed” some kind of lever has been thrown which suddenly obligates one to perform all possible acts of charity.<>Granted you didn’t state it, but rather put it in the form of a question:<>“But, once having determined, *on that basis* to take out Saddam, wouldn’t the U.S. have the *moral obligation* to make war in order to take out every other murderous head of state on earth?”<>We are agreed, then, that the answer to this question is an unequivocal, unhedged, unnuanced, un-danced-around “no”?

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–But for me it’s a “no” premised on my conviction that we should not have chosen Saddam to go after. If we stipulate that cruel dictators qua cruel dictators should be taken down by means of preemptive warfare, which is a thing that I will not stipulate, as I’m a pacificist, Saddam was a poor choice, having already been hamstrung in 1991.Anybody who will stipulate that all dictators must fall at our self-righteous hand, must justify the choice of Saddam–with so many other choices available–and also (at least within the context of this discussion) be convincing on the claim that it’s despotism and not oil that launched these thousand ships.

  • zippy says:

    <>Anybody who will stipulate that all dictators must fall at our self-righteous hand, must justify the choice of Saddam–<>Nobody has stated your major premise except you, as far as I know.<>…and also (at least within the context of this discussion) be convincing on the claim that it’s despotism and not oil that launched these thousand ships.<>That it would have been done as an act of charity is a(counterfactual) <>prerequisite<> of this conversation. It is of course a requirement that if it were being done as an act of charity, it would have to be done as an act of charity.I am probably as dubious as you about the real world prospect of launching wars in the defense of others rather than for the protection of our own interests. I don’t expect that the “defense of others” justification is often, if ever, something other than a desired good side effect, as opposed to the specific <>threat<> that is relevant to the Just War Doctrine. But in principle, if we decided to save the people of country A from a ruthless oppression that doesn’t create a moral obligation for us to save the peoples of countries B-Z, nor does it create an obligation for us to choose from A-Z to find the <>most<> oppressed country before we act.

  • Rob says:

    “Nobody has stated your major premise except you, as far as I know.”That doesn’t bother me, in the least, except as follows:If attacking Saddam was *not* “charity”, then what have we as a legitimate excuse for having invaded his country, killing uncounted numbers of innocent civilians in doing so? The threat to our national security (or anybody else’s) was bogus, as any idiot who has paid even scant attention to what’s gone on in Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War should have been able to figure out *without* inspectors on the ground.Okay. It’s not only about oil. It’s also about the security of Israel. Ergo, we should have attacked Iran, or perhaps Syria, but not Iraq, which had been crippled for a decade. I don’t like being played for a fool and lied to by my own government: it’s depressing. And it lowers my estimation of my credulous countrymen who suck it all up like chunky soup, which is even more depressing.

  • zippy says:

    <>If attacking Saddam was *not* “charity”, then what have we as a legitimate excuse …<>You must have mistaken me for someone arguing the justice of the Iraq war in fact. That would come as a big surprise to a lot of my interlocutors in the comments of other blogs.In principle, it might have been possible to justly remove Saddam Hussein from power on behalf of his people. That isn’t what <>actually<> occurred, but it is possible in principle.I don’t agree with your assessment of the security situation, etc. but we do both agree that initiating the Iraq war was unjust.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–I realize that you aren’t arguing that the Iraq war is just. But I am posing my points for the benefit of certain others, who have seemed to think that it is, and may still be lurking out there in need of correction.

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