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Thought experiment: If we have what we think is solid "intelligence" that, say, Iraq is building weapons to hit Turkey (a NATO ally), should the USA attack Iraq pre-emptively (perhaps in partnership with Turkey), sending our soldiers (and potentially Turkish ones as well) into harm's way and potentially killing and maiming thousands of Iraqi people to make sure that Turkey is not ever harmed or even feels threatened? After all Turkey is a pal and we think (and the Turks think) Iraq is menacing them.

What if we later discover: "ooops, our intelligence operatives made a boo boo" and the weapons we thought Iraq was building were really construction equipment that looked like missiles and that the threats were just bombast? Is there restitution warranted to the Iraqis or do we just get to act on what we believe the best evidence indicates to us and how we alone judge a consequent threat (i.e. tough luck Iraq, next time don't be so anti-Turkish with your bluster)?

Of course some of this sort of thinking was operative in the Iraq war with WMDs and the menacing of our oil supply. I also see such thinking being actively proposed by Objectivists as well who, it seems, want the USA to execute a shooting war against Iran since it potentially threatens Israel and "supports terror". Given that none of the guys that attacked the USA were Iranian (some were Saudis), it does look like a case of the thought experiment above with Iraq and Turkey. Iran does menace Israel and it appears to me that many in the Objectivist community are certain that almost anything in the defense of Israel is fine even though it is not, officially, a part of the USA.

I'd like to move this to a philosophical level: should a nation fight wars of pre-emption per se ? If so, then carpet bombing all major cities where terrorists have been spotted living in numbers (with local support) could be deemed proper since these nations and cities offer refuge to at least some US hating terrorists. While this would certainly make our point, is there any proportionality principle at play at all here or do we simply "shoot to kill" with vast firepower any perceived threat to us (and/or our friends) before the threat can draw a gun ?

asked Sep 30 '11 at 17:12

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


edited Oct 01 '11 at 10:41

I say that if there was a good chance that actions by a state might be interpreted as hostile by another state, it behooves the first to make clear their benign intentions to the second. Especially if there is a history of conflict with that second nation, such that the second nation would be expecting hostility. If the first nation should fail to even attempt to make clear their real intentions, then they, not the second nation, bear responsibility for the self-protective actions of the second nation. And as for the factual case you have presented... I'll leave that to others to correct.

(Oct 01 '11 at 10:24) white knight white%20knight's gravatar image

I get the self-defense aspects of this. What of the ally aspect ? Does one conduct pre emptive war to help allies (Turkey in the "thought experiment"). Are allies the same as oneself? Also, is there any proportionality or has the perceived threatening country simply opened themselves to total annihilation by making repeated threats to oneself/one's allies?

(Oct 01 '11 at 10:44) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

First, I'm no military expert, so I'll have to stick, here, to moral principles, which apply equally to individual defense and national defense.

A war, fundamentally speaking, is a kill-or-be-killed situation.

The object of a war is to end the war by destroying the will of the enemy to fight. This is called victory.

Peace is when your enemies don't want to bother with fighting you.

Any time an enemy demonstrates a will to harm you is a situation where you (as an individual or a nation) have the moral right to defend yourself by doing what is necessary to remove the enemy threat. This is the right of self-defense.

The notion that a response should be proportional is false and evil. It serves only to prolong war and bloodshed. A response needs to be effective at breaking the will of the enemy.

Once the enemy's will is clearly broken, then further damage to him is immoral. One should not lay waste to a nation (or person) which has already given up fighting.

The enemy threat need not be direct. If you know someone is hiring a hit-man to kill you, you need not wait for the hit to occur before calling the police, and the police need not restrain their defensive activity to the hit-man.

Also, it would be immoral not to act to defend a friend who has a hit-man after him, and the defensive action need not be restrained to the hit-man himself. Whoever hires the hit-man is the fundamental threat, and must be dealt with even though his threat is indirect.

Obviously, the above is an analogy to Israel (the friend), Al Qaeda (the hitman), and Iran (those who hire the hitman).

Now, of course, my analogy might not be perfect, but the principle is that pre-emptive strikes are certainly moral given a genuine threat, even if the threat is not immediate and direct.

Nations and individuals are not morally required to live in a perpetual state of war. When an enemy threatens you, you have a right to end that threat. You have a right to live in peace, and you have a right to defend your allies if they are at war.

answered Oct 01 '11 at 11:14

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

Pretty clear. Thank you. I think we will all need to cogitate on what it takes to "break the will". It is a useful concept and one that I wish more people would think.

(Oct 01 '11 at 11:37) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

On that issue, you might find John Lewis's "Nothing Less Than Victory" insightful. It certainly was for me.

(Feb 16 '12 at 18:32) FCH FCH's gravatar image

I think people are way too quick to conflate empty threats with real ones. There is a fine line between Islamic mullahs in Iran screaming about wiping Israel off the map and an active, direct threat to the United States. Where does one do the analytical reasoning that determines whether someone who hates you is a real, live threat (where a ruthless war may be justified) versus a windbag dictatorship that could pinprick you here or there. Do you nuke a regime that kills 1 person of yours, 20 ? 3000? 10,000? What is the right reasoning? When is it OK to kill 100,000 people of theirs?

(Feb 18 '12 at 12:27) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

How do you do it? You look at what they are demonstrably capable of. It seems Iran is hell-bent right now on demonstrating it is capable of targeting Israelis at home and abroad. Why else drive a warship through the Suez Canal, to name just the most recent event in the series that is unfolding?

So say Iran is really just bluffing, and it is, in fact, incapable of doing much damage at all (of which I'm far from convinced, in the short term at least). Well, you don't bring a knife to a gunfight, and you don't provoke a gunfight when all you have is a knife. (cont'd)

(Feb 18 '12 at 12:34) FCH FCH's gravatar image

(cont'd) And above all, you don't let your government do it. If you do, then whatever the consequences, they are your responsibility.

Neither is anybody required to let himself be attacked, whether with a gun nor a knife. And neither is anybody obligated to restrict themselves to knives when they have a gun to defend themselves with.

You don't bring a knife to a fight with a gun owner, and you don't bring outdated weaponry to a fight with a nuclear power. Else - you bear the consequences.

(Feb 18 '12 at 12:41) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Yes, Iran is a bloodthirsty bully regime and a destabilizing force but it does not have the capacity to realistically do much to the USA. A guy in West Virginia doesn't have much to fear from an incoming Iranian ICBM (even though FOX News alludes to this constantly). In your allegory of knife vs gun, Iran is bringing a bunch of homemade guns to their own 'hood' to menace people on their turf (Persian Gulf Arabs) and to become Islamic heroes standing up to the US+Israel combo. The central question here: Are the Iranians threatening the USA (vs Israel) directly and if so exactly how?

(Feb 20 '12 at 17:14) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

First, Israel is America's ally, and for good reason. An attack on Israel is also an attack on America, in long-range principle, and symbolically. That is certainly how they see it. Second, it's not like there aren't any Americans in the regions that might be targeted. Americans visiting a friendly country like Israel, or deployed in the Middle East for whatever reason should not have to fear brutal maiming or death. Third, only because a conventional invasion or attack is not going to happen in America doesn't mean Americans at home are secure. As proof, 9/11, Times Square, Christmas Day...

(Feb 20 '12 at 19:02) FCH FCH's gravatar image

As this is a question and answer forum, I will respect that and refrain from turning this into a protracted discussion. I will ask a separate question around the whole issue of "national allies" and maybe that can help us discover something.

(Feb 20 '12 at 19:34) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Asked: Sep 30 '11 at 17:12

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Last updated: Feb 20 '12 at 19:34