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Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just a short couple of thoughts today since I was hoping that yesterday would see a ratcheting down of the war rhetoric coming out of President Trump, some of his advisers, and the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea. But that has not been the case. On the American side the President upped the ante with his rhetoric even as some cabinet members seem to be trying to moderate those comments. Of course the North Koreans are upping the ante by threatening the American bases on Guam. 

With every new threat uttered by President Trump and the North Korean regime the stakes get higher and the chances of miscalculation that lead to war grow. Barbara Tuchman wrote in her book The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam, “To those who think them selves strong, force always seems the easiest solution.” That sums up the behavior of President Trump and Kim Jong Un, although the Korean despot is the one who is putting the American President on the defensive, in a sense allowing President Trump to back himself into a corner where if he doesn’t resort to force he will lose face. Both sides are playing with fire while standing in gasoline. North Korea would certainly be defeated, but the cost will be dreadful, especially to South Korea, and probably Japan, and yes, even to the United States, and we cannot assume that other nations will not become involved in a war should it occur. 

Over a decade before the first atomic bomb was used, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote about the cost of war: “What is the cost of war? what is the bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations…” Those words have a greater significance in the nuclear age than when he wrote them. 

There have been many times in history where leaders of nations allowed their rhetoric to take them to war when other options we still viable, but not between nuclear armed powers. It is the incredible destructive power of nuclear weapons and the real possibility that their use would be not be limited to so-called surgical strikes. The destructive power of this technology and lack of impulse control of the American President and the North Korean dictator are a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder that over a half-century ago General of the Army Omar Bradley said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.” 

In writing about the 14th Century Tuchman wrote: “For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.” Things have changed very little in regard to the humanity involved and we can only hope that cooler heads prevail. 

Anyway, that is all for today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Great Illusions and the Threat of War 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been reflecting on the words and actions of President Trump, Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and their sycophants over the past day and a half. I wrote some of my thoughts down yesterday before continuing to read and reflect. While I was doing so the words of William Shirer wrote in his forward to his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as some thought from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. While they deal with different eras, they also deal with the one constant in history, that of fallible human beings. I think that they are quite appropriate to reflect upon today. Shirer wrote: 

“In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet.”

There are some people who think that globalization and the interdependence of the economies of the world on international commerce and trade will ensure that nuclear war never occurs. They believe that realists will ensure that it never happens. That is a nice thought. During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union maintained a tenuous balance of terror that never resulted in a nuclear exchange, but they did come close, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But we no longer live in that world where the leaders two heavily armed yet rational powers did not succumb to the temptation of using them. 

In 1914 the realists of the world believed that if a war broke out among the great powers of Europe that it would of necessity be short. Inspired by the writings of Norman Angell whose book The Great Ilusion drove home the message that war as no longer profitable and therefore capitalists would resist appeals to war and nationalist fervor, Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“By impressive examples and incontrovertible argument Angell showed that in the present financial and economic interdependence of nations, the victor would suffer equally with the vanquished; therefore war had become unprofitable; therefore no nation would be so foolish as to start one.” 

The book had a cult like following in Europe and when Europe went to war in August 1914 many people and governments believed that any war would have to be short, and as such none of them prepared for the long and catastrophic war that ensued. The Germans did not follow Angell, but Clausewitz who preached a dogma of short and decisive wars. Sadly, both authors were misunderstood by their most devoted disciples and as Tuchman wrote: “Clausewitz, a dead Prussian, and Norman Angell, a living if misunderstood professor, had combined to fasten the short-war concept upon the European mind. Quick, decisive victory was the German orthodoxy; the economic impossibility of a long war was everybody’s orthodoxy.” 

There are political, business, and military leaders around the world today who see the world much the same as the generation of leaders who took Europe to war in 1914. Now a chubby little madman in North Korea has his finger on the button and the American President seems to be goading him on and threatening preemptive war, and policy makers are scrambling. 

I don’t pretend to know what will happen in the coming days, weeks, or months, but I do know that this is a very dangerous time. 

Until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“The Unfolding of Miscalculations” With Fire and Fury…


Friends of Padre Steve’s World

While I have been on leave I have been re-reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. I find a a fitting read for our time, not because there are exact parallels between that era and today, but because human beings are remarkably consistent in times of crisis. Tuchman wrote: “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

Yesterday after I got back to our friends house after taking Izzy on a four mile walk through Huntington’s Ritter Park I learned that President Trump had warned North Korea, following an announcement that it had now produced nuclear weapons small enough to be mounted on a missile, that if it did not stop threatening the United States that it would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before…” 

Not long afterward the North Koreans announced that they were examine a plan to attack the American territory of Guam and the bases, which house some of the long ranger bombers used by the United States to buttress its defense of the Pacific it with ballistic missiles. 

The rhetoric and preparations on both sides are continuing to mount and there is a real possibility that either Trump or his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jung Un could miscalculate the will of the other and provoke a regional, and maybe World War. Threats of preemptive strikes, which the North Koreans habitually make, and President Trump alluded to yesterday can easily cause on side or the other to want to strike first and precipitate a war that no-one can really win. As Kathy Gilsinin wrote in The Atlantic in April: “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess.” 

Most Americans are clueless as to what that would mean and I don’t think that the understand how many millions of people would die, and how much the country would be devastated by such a war, especially if it involved nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis understands. He told CBS’s John Dickerson, “A conflict in North Korea would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” In June he told the House Appropriations Committee: “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953… It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want,” but “we would win at great cost.” 

Of course people from across the political, and even the religious spectrum are weighing in on the situation, especially the President’s words to meet future North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Of course some of his supporters like Trump’s de-facto Reichsbischof, Pastor Robert Jeffress are all in favor of war. Jeffrey’s said when asked about Trump’s remarks “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” It is always comforting to know that prominent Christians like Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals are the cheerleaders of any war party. 

Many others on both sides of the political divide including Senator John McCain, have pointed to the danger that the Presidents comments pose. McCain said:  “I don’t know what he’s saying and I’ve long ago given up trying to interpret what he says.” He added, “That kind of rhetoric, I’m not sure how it helps.” He observed, “I take exception to the president’s words because you got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”

In an interview the discredited Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to Hungarian Fascist organizations, did what all good servants of totalitarian leaders do, paint the opposition as unpatriotic and disloyal to the country:

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Of course the opponents of what the President said were not arguing against our national security but for it. The President’s words were dangerous, not because he drew a line in the sand, but because of the parameters of his threat. Instead of being specific and saying if the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test, tested another long range missile, or made a specific kind of military action, he threatened fire and fury if North Korea issued a threat to the United States, which they did a few hours later against the American forces on Guam, a threat that was not met with fire and fury. 


By threatening fire and fury the President continues to remind people that he is prone to speaking loudly and making great exaggerations, but doing little of substance. Throughout his business career and public life often makes bad “gut” decisions because he prefers to go with his gut rather than hard data or facts. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate that all too well. Likewise, his habitual tendencies to lie and exaggerate have already proven detrimental to U.S. foreign policy because world leaders do not believe that he can be trusted. 

Deterrence only works if people believe that a leader or country will do what it says. That was a hallmark of the Cold War, despite their threats both the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union understood each other. That understanding was instrumental in defusing the threat of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on a number of other occasions when computer or radar systems gave false alerts which could have resulted in missile launches and war had both sides not understood each other. 

The problem is that the Kim Jung Un and President Trump appear to be very similar in temperament. They bluster and exaggerate, they demand absolute loyalty, and they are paranoid and narcissistic. They are are not deep thinkers, their closest advisers tend to be sycophants who praise their greatness and refuse to give them bad news or present contrary views. History shows us that such tendencies does not bode well for peace. When I see them act out their drama I am reminded of Tuchman’s descriptions of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in the years leading up to World War I. Of Nicholas Tuchman wrote:

“The regime was ruled from the top by a sovereign who had but one idea of government—to preserve intact the absolute monarchy bequeathed to him by his father—and who, lacking the intellect, energy, or training for his job, fell back on personal favorites, whim, simple mulishness, and other devices of the empty-headed autocrat.”

Of Wilhelm she noted how he told 300 visitors at a State banquet in Berlin, that his uncle, English King Edward VII was: “He is Satan. You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!” As Tuchman wrote: “The Kaiser, possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe, had worked himself into a frenzy ending in another of those comments that had periodically over the past twenty years of his reign shattered the nerves of diplomats.” 

Character and temperament matter more than anything when nations teeter on the brink of war. Neither Trump, nor Kim Jung Un possess an ounce of character and their mercurial temperaments only add to the danger of war. On the American side we have to hope that some of the President’s more level headed advisers can reign him in, as far as the North Koreans, one doesn’t know what to hope for or expect. Tuchman wrote in her biography of General Joseph Stillwell that “History is the unfolding of miscalculations.” 

I only wonder what miscalculation will be next. 

Until tomorrow. 

Peace,

Padre Steve+


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Dancing with Despots: The Moral and Political Dangers of Trump’s Love of Authoritarianism

Friends  of Padre Steve’s World,

First it was Vladimir Putin of Russia, then Recip Erdogan the soon to be dictator of Turkey, last week Rodrigo Duterte, the murderous President of the Philippines, and just yesterday praise for Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Let us not go into the list of draconian despots, dictators from history that the President has expressed his fondness. His favorite President is Andrew Jackson who defied a Supreme Court ruling and executed the Trail of Tears.

Honestly, if the President’s admiration, praise, and fondness for authoritarian and anti-democratic rulers remained just his opinion with no consequences it wouldn’t be such a big deal. However, it is much bigger than his personal opinions, but the nature his office of President, his words, his tweets, his opinions, become the policy of the United States, and end up staining the honor of the nation.

These actions have consequences. The first is the loss of moral authority of the nations who encourage and help dictators. Second, the loss of that moral authority makes it difficult when the chips are down to gain domestic or international support once a nation’s leaders determine that aggressive dictatorships must be stopped.

What the President and his administration are doing is amoral and it is dragging the reputation of the United States into the sewer and it will have real world consequences, as well as dangerous ramifications for our own system of Constitutional government and representative democracy.

This is not new, during the 1930s many leaders of struggling democracies caught up in the Great Depression, including the United States offered up praise for the accomplishments of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. By their encouragement, accommodation, and appeasement these leaders were complicit in some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever seen in the world. Some of these leaders, especially in France actively worked against their own democratic form of government in the hopes of overthrowing it and setting up a Fascist state. Once France was defeated by Germany the anti-democratic leaders of that country voted out the Republic and established a dictatorship at Vichy headed by Marshal Petain, the hero of the First World War.

Petain with Hitler

The Premier of France under Vichy, Pierre Laval, led the successful move to abolish the constitution of the Third Republic. He said: “Parliament must be dissolved. The Constitution must be reformed. It must align itself with the totalitarian states…” He told the Assembly: “We are going to destroy the totality of what was. We’re going to create something entirely different…. Henceforth there will be only one party, that of all the French.” He concluded “We are paying today for the fetish which chained us to democracy and led us to the worst excesses of capitalism, which all around us Europe was forging, without us, a new world.”

Another, Charles Spinasse, a Socialist who had come to believe in Fascism told the Assembly: “We must break from the past. It was full of illusions…. We believed in individual freedom, in the independence of man. It was but anticipation of the future which was beyond our grasp. We must have a new faith based on new values…. France abandoned itself. It must begin anew.”

One opponent rushed to Vichy to oppose the measures, Pierre-Etienne Flandin, told his colleagues: “Change the Constitution? But why? What need is there to change our institutions? The reproach is that we did not respect them.” However, Flandin too had no problem with giving the reigns of power to an authoritarian, Fascist regime that would cooperate with the Nazis, turn on its allies, and murder its own citizens. His words were absolutely correct, but he betrayed himself at the end.

Pierre Laval

In the end Laval won the day. He told the assembly: “Parliamentary democracy lost the war. It must give way to a new regime: audacious, authoritarian, social, and national.” In the end the vast majority of the delegates from across the political spectrum voted to end the Republic. Opponents who wished to continue to fight against Germany were condemned, jailed, and even killed. Leon Blum, a former Socialist leader who Laval despised wrote of Laval’s manner as the Republic was dissolved: “An unbelievable arrogance puffed up his small person. In a dry voice and with an irritated glance he flung out verdicts and orders… “I do… I say… I refuse… that’s the way it is…” President Trump has much the same attitude as he issues executive orders with abandon, even as others are struck down by the Courts.

Likewise when questioned about allowing opposition newspapers to publish, Laval told Blum in words that one can almost hear President Trump say if he were granted the right to restrict the freedom of the press: 

“When I decide, no newspaper will appear if it shows the slightest reticence about my policies. The press must follow me absolutely, without reserve—and I will not let myself be duped.”

But just as troubling on the domestic front is the President’s stated desire to crush the parts of our Constitutional system that inconvenience him, and with his malleable GOP majorities in the House and Senate he may eventually succeed in doing if not opposed by courageous Senators and Representatives, and the Courts. He has on a number of occasions threatened the independence of the judiciary, he has expressed a desire to amend the Constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. He has also urged Congress to end the Filibuster which is the last resort by which a minority party can prevent bare majority of Senators or Representatives of one party to impose its will on the entire nation, even if the majority of people in the nation voted against their party. As of now GOP Senate leaders have announced their opposition to such legislation realizing that they could once again be in the minority. However, for Trump that does not matter as he has no loyalty to the Republican Party; sadly, most Republicans do not seem to understand that fact, and I wonder how firm they will stand when push comes to shove. History shows us that all too often, even the opponents of authoritarianism can easily turn from defending their Constitutional liberties to supporting nationalist, racist, and authoritarian leaders.

That my friends should frighten any American who has not lost their belief in our system of government which for all of its inefficiencies guarantees more liberty than any other system in the world.  History shows that once those liberties are gone you do not get them back without the despot who has taken them away being defeated, often by military conquest.

The fact is that as Timothy Snyder wrote: “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

Will our epitaph be like the words of French Senator Bovin-Champeaux who said: “Is it not without sadness that we shall bid adieu to the Constitution of 1875. It made France a free country…. It died less from its imperfections than from the fault of men charged with guarding it and making it work.”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Missiles and Messages: What is Trump trying to Convey?

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If nothing else the events of last week, in particular President Trump’s decision to launch missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to Syria’s renewed use of poison gas on its own population sent a message to different leaders around the world. What that message is and how effective that it is depends on who heard it and how they interpreted it.

The actual type of strike was nothing new and it certainly was justified in relation to war crimes of the Assad regime. President Clinton used similar strikes as punitive measures against Iraq in the 1990s, President Bush used them against various targets outside of Iraq, and opting for a full invasion of that country. While President Obama tended to be more hesitant about the missile strikes he often used Special Forces and drones in many countries pursuant to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Force pertaining to the War on Terror, he did use missile and air strikes in conjunction with NATO to help Libyan rebels overthrow the Ghaddafi regime.

That being said what is the message that the President was attempting to send, and how does it fit into a larger foreign policy and national security strategy? That is where my concerns lie in regard to this strike. As for me I would have loved to see a Tomahawk fly up Bashir Assad’s ass and blow him to the Hell of his choice, if Ghaddafi and Saddam deserved death, then Assad deserves it many times more. It’s probably a good thing that I’m not President because I think that those 60 Tomahawks would have been much more wisely employed by taking out Assad’s Presidential Palace and maybe taking out him in the process, but there would have been a much bigger blowback to that than striking the airfield, but I digress…

Going back to what I was saying, how does this fit into a broader foreign policy and national security strategy?

The timing of the strike, minutes after the final dinner between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly sent a message to China and North Korea who it might have been the real audience. If the strike forces China to take stronger action to assist the United States in reducing the building North Korean nuclear threat, then it will have served a worthwhile purpose. A Chinese newspaper reported that this was the intent of the strike just yesterday.

But the effect depends on the rationality of the targeted audience. The Chinese are a rational actor, but the North Koreans may not be, so we have to wait and see. In the meantime the Administration dispatched the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to Korea waters to coincide with a time of the year when the North Koreans typically become more active.

There is also the possibility that the message was also intended for Putin’s Russia, the Assad regime, and even Iran, but right now other than a few statements by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley there has not been any real follow up to the strike. Secretary of State Tillerson is going to Moscow this week so we may glean more from that meeting.

Of course there is the domestic political audience and based on how the Trump campaign and administration has dealt with truth there is the possibility that this is much more to do about Trump’s plunging poll ratings and as a distraction from the ballooning Russia-Trump election scandals.

Regardless of what message the missile strike was intended to convey, we still don’t know how it will play out and it could play out in any number of ways, good or bad, and it might even turn out to be an act of genius, I doubt the latter but it is a possibility.

That is why the Trump and his administration must determine what its policy will be, especially its diplomatic policy. The President must keep all options on the table, diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, but he must be very judicious in how he uses them. Believe me, I can disagree with and distrust the President all day long, but I don’t want him to screw this up. Too much is at stake.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Nuclear Giants and Ethical Infants: Do Dodging the Hard Alternatives

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

General Omar Bradley once said: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing that we know about living.”

As I hear President Trump rattling the saber in Asia and the Middle East, as I look at his incoherent and dangerous policy of “America First,” and his almost total disregard for the importance of diplomacy and soft power I began to think about the possibility of nuclear, chemical, or biological war. While the Sword of Damocles represented by the massive stocks of already existing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, has hung over our heads for decades, the current era seems more dangerous.

We have seen the persistent use of chemical weapons, including Sarin nerve agent in Syria by the regime of Bashir Al Assad, and the growing advancement of nuclear weapons technology, combined with bellicose rhetoric threatening the use of such weapons coming from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The problem is with both of these situations is that there are no easy or even good answers. The branches and sequels to any military action, the possibilities of a limited military action escalating into a regional or even worldwide conflict are all too real. It is in times like these that one wishes for cool heads and steady leadership, especially among the great powers. But I fear that that might not be the case today. The saber rattling, and the quest for regional dominance by Russia in Eastern Europe, and China in Asia are unnerving their neighbors, and becoming more dangerous with every passing year. But even more important is the dangerous attitude of the Russians in backing the Assad regime and the Chinese not doing much to control North Korea that are very concerning, not to mention the Trump administration’s lack of any coherent foreign policy or military strategy.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were able to pull back from the brink of nuclear war. During the height of the Cold War President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were able to begin the process of reducing nuclear weapons and the numbers of intermediate range nuclear missiles.

I don’t know if President Trump, President Putin, or Chinese President Xi Jinping are able to curb their own sense of nationalism, nor the actors using or threatening to use these terrible weapons. There are hard choices to be made, but all too often leaders throughout history have shown a decided inability to make them. As Barbara Tuchman noted:  “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.” 

It feels as if we are sliding into an abyss, I just hope that one or all of these leaders acts with a measure of prudence and wisdom to keep us from sliding in to it.

The President’s decision to remove Steve Bannon from the NSC was a good start, and hopefully men like General McMasters and Secretary of Defense Mattis prove to be men like George C. Marshall, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower, men who understand the precious nature of peace and the tragedy of war.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Committing Suicide out of Fear of Death: The Possibility of Preventive War on the Korean Peninsula

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Prussia and Germany once noted that “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” Sadly, most Americans, do not seem to understand this, nor the distinctions of what is and is not permissible and how preventive war is different from the concept of pre-emptive actions.

While in Korea this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, most likely acting on behest of President Trump spoke of the real possibility that the United States could embark on a preventive war against North Korea. Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” and “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” He also said “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” 

Now let me be clear, the military option is always on the table when dealing with North Korea, but that military option has always been focused on deterrence and the ability to deter, defend, and respond to any North Korean military action, not by the open threat of preventive war. The latter is something that could well push the paranoid regime of Kim Jung Un into actual military action, rather than the provocative actions they make in defiance of the United Nations most of the world. However, that threshold, which successive American administrations have not crossed since the Korean Armistice of 1954 has been crossed.

That being said the North Korean nuclear threat and ability to strike distant targets is growing and may reach a point that it could hit the United States. The question is, when, or if, the North Korean threat justifies either a pre-emptive military strike or launching a preventive war. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq the United States used the supposed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda to justify a preventive war against Iraq to eliminate the threat and overthrow Saddam Hussein. That war has been shown to be both in violation of the standards of the Just War Theory and international law concerning preventive war.

Michael Walzer, the foremost expert on Just War Theory today wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

Now, what acts are to count, what acts do count as threats sufficiently serious to justify war? It is not possible to put together a list, because state action, like human action generally, takes on significance from its context. But there are some negative points worth making. The boastful ranting to which political leaders are often prone isn’t in itself threatening; injury must be “offered” in some material sense as well. Nor does the kind of military preparation that is a feature of the classic arms race count as a threat, unless it violates some formally or tacitly agreed-upon limit. What the lawyers call “hostile acts short of war,” even if these involve violence, are not too quickly to be taken as signs of an intent to make war; they may represent an essay in restraint, an offer to quarrel within limits. Finally, provocations are not the same as threats. “Injury and provocation” are commonly linked by Scholastic writers as the two causes of just war. But the Schoolmen were too accepting of contemporary notions about the honor of states and, more importantly, of sovereigns. The moral significance of such ideas is dubious at best. Insults are not occasions for wars, any more than they are (these days) occasions for duels.

For the rest, military alliances, mobilizations, troop movements, border incursions, naval blockade~-all these, with or without verbal menace, sometimes count and sometimes do not count as sufficient indications of hostile intent. But it is, at least, these sorts of actions with which we are concerned. We move along the anticipation spectrum in search, as it were, of enemies: not possible or potential enemies, not merely present ill-wishers, but states and nations that are already, to use a phrase I shall use again with reference to the distinction of combatants and noncombatants, engaged in harming us (and who have already harmed us, by their threats, even if they have not yet inflicted any physical injury). And this search, though it carries us beyond preventive war, clearly brings us up short of Webster’s pre-emption. The line between legitimate and illegitimate first strikes is not going to be drawn at the point of imminent attack but at the point of sufficient threat. That phrase is necessarily vague. I mean it to cover three things: a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk. The argument may be made more clear if I compare these criteria to Vattel’s. Instead of previous signs of rapacity and ambition, current and particular signs are required; instead of an “augmentation of power,” actual preparation for war; instead of the refusal of future securities, the intensification of present dangers. Preventive war looks to the past and future, Webster’s reflex action to the immediate moment, while the idea of being under a threat focuses on what we had best call simply the present. I cannot specify a time span; it is a span within which one can still make choices, and within which it is possible to feel straitened.

I know that is a lot to digest, but the fact of the matter it takes a lot to justify pre-emptive military strikes, or a preventive war, and that in doing so we have not simply to look to the present moment but to the past and the as yet unwritten future. President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that “Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” But now, it is being talked about, and as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Kim Jong Un will raise the ante, and then question will be, then what?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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