Sunday, November 23, 2003

Weigel's argument for pre-emptive strikes (circa 1994)

[Excerpts from Idealism Without Illusions: U.S. Foreign Policy in the 1990's, by George Weigel. 1994.]

Father J. Bryan Hehir, a veteran student of the just war tradition and principle counselor on world politics to the Catholic bishops of the U.S., does not wantto see the world's concern for nuclear non-proliferation become the occasion for stretching the boundaries of just cause. Writing in 1992 in Commonweal, Fr. Hehir had this to say:

I am prepared to argue that only the resistance-to-aggression rational should be accepted . . . as a casus belli. In a world where threats to proliferation are likely to increase . . . the moral arguments should strictly limit what constitutes cause for war. Proliferation, for example, is a deadly serious threat to international order but ther are a range of methods to address the question which are short of war. Establishing a precedent that resort to force is an appropriate method to restrain proliferation erodes the case which should be made about other means to address proliferation, and it increases the likelihood that force will be used.

[To which Weigel replies:] Something seems to be missing in this position, and once again thie "something" is the "regime factor." No sane person, no matter how devoted to the cause of non-proliferation, would suggest a preemptive attack on the British nuclear submarine force or the French nuclear force de frappe, either of which could wreak havoc far beyond anything that Saddam Hussein or North Korea's Kim Il'-Sung is likely to be able to accomplish in the near future. And yet there may be a morally compelling case for preemptive military action against the modest nuclear capabilities that Iraq and North Korea are acquiring. Why? Because of the nature of the regimes in Baghdad and Pyongyang.

The Iraqi and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs do not exist in a historical vacuum. They are the expressions of evil, real-world political intentions whose character has been made plain over many years. Precisely for the same reason that we do not think about preemptive action against Britain or France, we can, without collapsing into the moral vulgarities of Realpolitik, consider proportionate and discriminate preemptive action against Iraq and North Korea to prevent their acquisition of nuclear weapons, should other means of persuasion fail.

[Considering Fr. Hehir's concerns]: Would a discrete use of preemptive force against the nuclear capabilities of a state like North Korea or Iraq weaken the argument for using all available non-military means for dealing with proliferation threats? Would it increase "the likelihood that force will be used" in the future? Perhaps, but I think the opposite is more likely.

Non-proliferation efforts of the sort that have persistently frustrated by Iraq are going to look very much like a paper tiger to comer would-be nuclear powers (Libya? Iran? Syria? Algeria?) unless it is made clear that, should non-military means fail, other forms of non-proliferation enforcement are available and will be used. They will be used, that is, in these limited circumstances, where the weapons threat is amplified dramatically by the nature of the regime involved. If such military action succeeds, it will strengthen non-military non-proliferation efforts in the future, for they will be seen to have teeth . . . preemptive, discrete military action in the case of genuine outlaw regimes (when other reasonable non-military efforts have failed) could actually decrease the "likelihood that force will be used" in the future.

Pre-emptive military action to enforce a global ban on nuclear non-proliferation when the "regime factor" warrants it is no panacea. Military action never is. But if any contemporary circumstances bids us to reopen quickly the discussion of boundaries of just cause, it is this.

[pp. 154-156].