Monday, February 05, 2007

Iran and Germany

Reader Gary Robinson comments:
Churchill and others were fully aware of the danger posed by the Nazis during a time frame when it would have been possible to take them out. At that time the Nazis simply did not have the military might to resist a preemptive attack.

Had that occurred, it is very likely it would have saved something on the order of 40,000,000 deaths. Almost certainly tens of millions.

Is the moral principle you stated above so high and pure that you would choose to have those deaths occur again in order to follow it?
I think the comparison between Iran and Hitler's Germany is at best very shaky and at worst entirely specious.

The geopolitical situations are completely dissimilar. Even the most tinfoil-hat paranoid evaluation cannot elevate the threat of 2007 Iran to anything even comparable to the threat of 1939 Nazi Germany.

There were ample opportunities to confront Germany after it had violated moral standards and justified war. The notable historical event here is Chamberlain's acceptance of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which would justify war under the principle of self-defense.

There are other possible justifications for war which I omitted, such as the mass murder of the Jews, which do not at all apply to the situation about Iran.

Most importantly, it was and is not possible to know in advance the consequences of action or inaction. Hindsight is 20/20--but if we're permitted to go back in time, we're better off addressing some of the more fundamental causes of Hitler's Germany, notably Germany's economic fragility due to its ruinous WWI reparations.

We could likewise say that we could have prevented Columbine massacre by simply assassinating Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at the first sign of trouble. Would arguing against summarily executing children who might pose such a threat indicate any approval or toleration of their actions? I think not.

You can rationalize anything with such an ex post facto analysis. But in the real world, we cannot see very far or very well into the future; we can make our moral decisions only on what we know of the immediate present.


  1. Gary Robinson2/5/07, 10:39 AM

    I wasn't comparing Iraq and Hitler's Germany. I was responding to the blanket statement statement I quoted in my original comment: "absent a blatant, obvious, unequivocal case for self-defense, war is always morally unjustified. If there is any reasonable doubt about an immediate threat, war is unjustified." The problem is the ALWAYS.

    I think it is clear that that is too strong a stance, and I think my point about Churchill stands. I do agree with you that the invasion of Czechoslovakia provided an opportunity to act that would have been less controversial than earlier action. On the other hand, that invasion would certainly not have provided "unequivocal case for self-defense" for England and other countries. The proof is in the fact that many people argued convincingly at the time that it wasn't.

    The fact that you do seem to think that Czechoslovakia might have been an appropriate point for other countries to intervene makes me wonder if you seriously hold the standard you espouse. Because you can't have it both ways: either you require that standard, or you don't.

    I think it's clearly the wrong standard. A high probability of a major catastrophe, if diplomatic action and the always-useless "sanctions" prove not to be enough, has to be enough to justify military action if we are going to avoid more WWII's and worse.

    The danger, of course, is that the folks determining the probabilities won't always have the insight of a Churchill. Regarding Bush and crew, I'm not sure they have the insight of a professional dog catcher. So I am certainly not saying that the more aggressive POV I'm supporting here is without risks. Iraq is a perfect case in point.

    The world is complex enough and dangerous enough that there are simply no easy answers. There is no question that the world would have been a lot better off if military action had been made against Germany at the time of Czechoslovakia earlier. (And yes, I agree it would have been still better to have worked on Germany's economic situation before Hitler ever came to power. But that didn't happen, and in 1937-1939 we were in the world we were in, not another one. Hitler thought the Germans needed liebensraum. The world made the choice to follow the policy you are espousing, and 40,000,000+ deaths was the result. There is no reason to assume that the same attitude will not lead to the same results, and worse, again.)

    There is also no question that there are times when being as cautious as you propose would result in the better outcome. It seems more and more likely that Iraq is such a case (although the scale of suffering there compared to WWII is only a small fraction). The point, though, is that there is risk EITHER way. The risk isn't only that we will be too aggressive. There is also risk that we won't be aggressive enough. The rule you proposed only addresses one of those risks and ignores the other. That's a dangerous kind of extremism, in my view.

    As a separate but still somewhat related point, I'd like to also address your comment that "Even the most tinfoil-hat paranoid evaluation cannot elevate the threat of 2007 Iran to anything even comparable to the threat of 1939 Nazi Germany." Iran may soon have nuclear weapons. That would give them plenty of power to do damage on a huge scale, very arguably enough to start a multi-nation war that would end up with at least as many deaths as WWII. I don't think you're being rational if you are so certain that such a possibility does not exist.

  2. Gary Robinson2/5/07, 10:40 AM

    Oops, sorry, in my first sentence of the comment above, I said "Iraq" when I meant "Iran".

  3. Gary,

    Thanks again for your comment; I think the opportunity for vigorous debate is an important benefit of this blog, both for my readers and myself.

    I hope you will forgive me if I plead the pressure of work for delaying a more substantive reply.

  4. Gary Robinson2/5/07, 11:34 AM

    No problem with the delay, I have work to do too.

    I regret making my final point about Iran. That subject is a lot less interesting than the basic point we're discussing. I suggest that if/when you get a chance and want to respond, you ignore that particular sideline.


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