Sunday, February 04, 2007

War with Iran: My Opinions

I'm starting to form some actual opinions about the upcoming war with Iran, opinions beyond mere principled skepticism.

Before I get to the specifics, though, let me disclose my existing biases and opinions.

I'm no friend of Islam. Aside from strongly negative personal experience, it seems plain to me on the basis of public information that, with the possible exception of explicitly secular Turkey, the Islamic countries are theocratic, highly authoritarian, thoroughly misogynist, and more or less anti-science. There are "moderate" and "liberal" Muslims, of course, but they do little but act as enablers for the fundamentalists, just as Christian moderates act as enablers for Christian fundamentalists.

I'm no enemy of Judaism or Israel. I approve of the democratic character of the Israeli government. While the Jewish scriptures are probably the worst of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, almost two millennia with no governmental or political power has apparently embedded a deeply humanistic ideology in a vast majority of Jewish people, a development I enthusiastically approve of.

On the other hand, I have no deep or personal loyalty to Israel and Judaism. Precisely because I approve of its democratic government, I do not believe it is above criticism. While all issues are of concern to every person in our global society, Israel's problems and difficulties are fundamentally their own difficulties, not mine. Any Israeli citizen or government would justly give little weight to my personal disapproval of how they're handling the Palestinian situation: I'm not Jewish, I don't live in Israel, and I would not suffer any consequences of errors in my thinking. But for precisely this same reason, I don't feel obligated to take a disproportionate level of responsibility for solving Israel's problems.

In just the same way, even though I disapprove of quite a lot of the character of the Islamic world, I don't feel obligated to take disproportionate responsibility for reforming their society.

The issue we're facing right now is the increasing pressure to either undertake or support a preemptive war against Iran. The supposed justification for such a war is twofold: The risible notion Iran is somehow substantially supporting the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation, and more serious notion that Iran is close to acquiring nuclear weapons, which would entail the destruction of Israel.

I am not a geopolitical analyst. I'm not a member of any government's intelligence service with access to classified information. I'm not even a professional journalist with immediate access to a wide variety of public information and the time and professional acumen to analyze it.

And neither are you, gentle reader.

Neither you nor I can have much confidence that the information we're receiving on this issue is complete or even accurate. Any information coming from our government is coming from or through the Bush Administration, which has proven itself time and again to be utterly without regard for even the most basic notions of factual truth. Any public information is coming from the same press that enthusiastically cheered the Bush Administration's outright lies which embedded us in the Iraq catastrophe, that at best supinely failed to perform their most basic duties of skeptical inquiry and principled opposition to government propaganda, and that at worst have propagated definite falsehoods.

But fortunately it is not necessary to have even absolutely--or even mostly--correct information to exercise our duties as citizens of a democracy. It's not our job to micromanage the duties of the State Department, the NSA, the CIA or other government agencies.

It is our duty as citizens to set moral limitations on the actions of our government.

On the moral level, our duty is clear. A "preemptive" war is nothing more than a weaselly euphemism for a war of aggression. After genocide and slavery, there is no greater unconditional moral evil than a war of aggression. 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.

We should not, of course, merely dismiss latent, controversial or equivocal threats. Deciding on the proper response is a complicated endeavor which requires considerable skill, training, talent time and professionalism. But we can as citizens set the moral limits of that response. And we must be clear that the unequivocal moral evil of a war of aggression is off the table, just as torture and arbitrary imprisonment are off the table as a response to terrorism.

Taking a war of aggression off the table does not entail taking war off the table. If Iran were to attack Israel with either conventional or nuclear arms, defense and retaliation are still legitimate options. There is no harm in making such defensive options clear.

There are those who argue that waiting for unequivocal justification entails waiting until it is too late. There are pragmatic counter-arguments to this assertion: No individual or group (including the Democratic party), for instance, can be trusted not to cloak their immediate self-interest in an equivocal justification. But more importantly, we are not trying to protect the mere words "The United States" or "Israel". We're trying to protect, rather, a moral vision. If we abandon that moral vision we have already discarded that which we are trying to protect. And it doesn't work anyway: As we have seen in the last six years, compromising our democratic liberties does nothing to protect us from our enemies and merely creates a new enemy in our own government.

It is the very foundation of democratic law that we punish acts, we do not coerce opinions. My neighbor might hate me with a purple passion; he might mutter violent or mortal imprecations, but I do not have cause to act with violence unless he poses an immediate, unequivocal physical threat to me. Sometimes this moral restriction does mean waiting until it is "too late", but a moral restriction that doesn't entail the possibility of sacrifice is no moral restriction at all. Yes, some people are murdered, but this is the price we pay for our freedom, our liberty and the justification of our opinion of ourselves as moral, civilized people.

As Benjamin Franklin noted, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Franklin also exhorts us to "Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power."[1]

We can and should do everything in our power and within our moral character to prevent Iranian aggression towards Israel. We should pursue every diplomatic strategy and channel--such as the overtures reportedly made by Iran in 2003 and peremptorily dismissed by the Bush administration[2]. We can and should make it clear that any aggression would be decisively defended against, and nuclear obliteration--or any such attempt--would be an act of national suicide.

But we should not--no matter what--abandon our moral precepts absolutely forbidding violent aggression.

[1] The attribution of the first quotation to Franklin appears uncertain.

[2] Google it yourself; I'm too lazy and its accuracy is peripheral to my moral argument.


  1. Full coverage of potential Iran war covered at Crusade Media News;

  2. Thanks for the tip; I've included the link in my latest post about Iran war news.

  3. In case anyone's interested, I explain my reasons for taking the opposite position here.

  4. Re your 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," which is a POV that Jimmy Carter also stated during the run-up to the Iraq war:

    I think that view is wholly irrational and contradictory to hard-won knowledge gained during the 20th century.

    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?

    Or take another very simple and obvious example. Suppose there was a 75% chance that in five years, Iran was going to "wipe Israel off the map" with nuclear weapons. There would be "reasonable doubt about an immediate threat" -- precisely 25% in this example. But I don't think there would be much question that Israel would be justified in taking military action before those weapons existed.

  5. Gary,

    Thanks for commenting. I think your point is important enough to address in a new post.

    Iran and Germany


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