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“Incapable of Feeling Shame” The Moral Bankruptcy of the Trump Administration

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Tonight I have just a short thought for us to ponder. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error.”

This statement is undeniably true. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, the Ayatollahs, and Pol Pot are just some examples. More troubling is that such personalities are not absent today, Vladimir Putin, Marianne LePen, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán our own President Trump display this tendency, and their most devoted followers embrace it as well.

In the case of President Trump, presidential power means never having to say your sorry, or made a mistake. Failures are blamed on others, Congressional leaders, former President’s Obama and Bush, journalists, and even advisors who have outlasted their usefulness, case in point, Michael Flynn, James Comey, Steve Bannon, H. R. McMaster, Reince Priebus, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Tom Price, Sebastian Gorka, and so many more. Conservative columnist and former Bush Administration staffer Michael Gerson wrote in July of 2017: “The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”

The inability to admit error is dangerous, but it also points to other potentially severe psychological issues. It is one of the characteristics of a paranoid personality, as well as a narcissistic personality. Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”

Likewise, even if those characteristics do not reach the point of becoming an actual psychological disorder, they can be severe enough to impair sound judgment as a leader, and lead to potentially terrible decisions including criminal acts so vast that they beggar the imagination. History shows us this all too often. These kinds of leaders see the world as a threatening place, full of enemies, real and imagined. Ethics and law are irrelevant to them so long as they win. The destruction of their enemies is of the first importance to such leaders, even when it is detrimental to the nations that they lead, even Hitler turned on Germany at the end of the Second World War because he lost the war and then blamed it on his people.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Lights Are Going Out: President Trump’s Appointment of War Criminals as Senior Foreign Policy Advisors

Trump holds a discussion about school shootings with state governors from around the country at the White House in Washington

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In her book The March of Folly: From Try to Vietnam historian Barbara Tuchman wrote:

“No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.”

If there is a man who ever embodied the truth of Tuchman’s words it is President Donald Trump.

Over the past two weeks President Trump has removed men from his cabinet who acted to restrain many of his worst instincts and who all were considered the “adults in the room.” The final nail in the coffin for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster was their condemnation of the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, especially in the killing of Russian dissidents in the United Kingdom. Tillerson and McMaster were also proponents of maintaining the agreement engineered by the Obama Administration and European countries to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions diplomatically and economically. The two had somewhat different approaches to North Korea with Tillerson a proponent of negotiations and deterrence and McMaster more favorable to preventive military actions to stop or delay the North’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs.  Additionally Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, Gary Cohn who has advocated more moderate and

Their removal has resulted in a shake up of the national security team. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was nominated by the President to take Tillerson’s place. Pompeo is considered to be a hawk on Iran and opposed to the current accord who has called for strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and openly mused about regime change in both Iran and North Korea. Pompeo, a graduate of West Point and a Congressman had never been in an executive position

To replace Popeo at CIA, President Trump nominated the deputy director of the CIA, Gina Haspel who according to Robert Richer who worked with her has no political agenda. That being said after 9-11 she ran an interrogation site in Thailand that engaged in the torture of detainees and recommending that tapes of those interrogations be destroyed. Her defenders state that she was operating within orders because such measures were authorized at the time. However based on precedent of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials the defense of “just carrying out orders” or defending such actions because they were “legal” at the time is not a defense. At Nuremberg, especially in trials of those who engaged in the torture of military and political prisoners, the tribunals convicted dozens of mid-level and high level functionaries of war crimes for doing the activities and methods used by Haspel and her colleagues.

The problem with Haspel is not her devotion to her service and desire to protect the United States, but in the fact that she was willing to use the rational of present “legality” to use torture in ways that when used against Americans the United States judges to be illegal and immoral. It is no wonder that Senator John McCain who experienced such torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese has his doubts about her. My concern is that since she once engaged in such measures will she do so again if ordered. By the standards of Nuremberg she would have stood trial and probably been convicted as a war criminal, and the President has nominated her to be Director of the CIA. Richer says that he believes that she will abide by the law and speak truth to people in  power. If she is confirmed as CIA Director I hope that he is right, but history demonstrates that civil servants, especially professionals in the police and intelligence services are quite adept at adapting to the methods and dictates of whoever is in power in their service to the state. Thus I am concerned.

Finally, the President replaced General McMaster with John Bolton who has since the 1990s advocated preventive war as the primary means to the end of United States national security strategy. He despises alliances, international agreements, international organizations, and any kind of universal justice. He regularly attacks the International Criminal Court, which is the direct descendent of the Nuremberg and Japan war crimes tribunals, both of which were engineered and led by the United States. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who served as the head prosecutor at the major Nuremberg War Crimes Trials noted:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Bolton rejects that proposition. In his position as President Bush’s under secretary of state for arms control and international security constantly manipulated intelligence to conform to his views and who worked to discredit colleagues and subordinates who attempted to tell the truth. He was one of the most responsible for the decision to attack Iraq which was according to conservative writer George Will was the worst foreign policy disaster “in American history.” Likewise Bolton still defends the decision to go to war against Iraq and washes his hands of the results of that decision, including the nearly 4500 American military personnel killed and over 35,000 wounded and the exponential help it gave to Iran’s desires in the region.

Bolton also would have been a candidate for prosecution at Nuremberg under counts one and two of the indictment;Conspiracy to Wage Aggressive War and Crimes Against Peace. 

The President has now nominated or appointed two people (Haslip and Bolton) who are by the definition of the Nuremberg Tribunal “War Criminals” to be senior foreign policy and intelligence advisors, and a third, Pompeo, who expresses many of the same views but until now has never been in the position to exercise those views or influence the President as to implementing them.

The next six to eight weeks leading to the middle of May will be very significant to the future of the United States and the world. The President has said that he would meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs, and the renewal of the multi-national agreement on Iran, which both Trump and Bolton oppose. The actions of the President, guided by Bolton will decide wether the United States goes to war, possibly on multiple fronts with enemies capable of causing great damage to the United States, our allies, and the world economy. Millions of lives could be lost, including tens of thousands of United States military personnel and quite possibly millions of American civilians, not counting the lives of so many innocent people in the Middle East and Northeast Asia.

As I watch these events unfold I am reminded of the Tuchman’s immortal account of Sir Edward Grey and the outbreak of the First World War:  “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The lamps are going out both in the United States and around the world, and if one has any ability to use reason and think ethically one has to think of how terrible the results of President Trump’s uniformed, historically ignorant, and morally bankrupt decisions will end.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under ethics, History, leadership, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, war crimes

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? A Glimpse of How the President Will Handle Disasters not of His Making

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’ve been back in the United States for a bit over three full days. Over the past two weeks I kept up with events in the United States while traveling in Germany and was spared the real time 24-7 coverage of the the soullessness, callousness, and incompetence of President Trump and his administration to real world crises.

However, over the weekend I was blown away by the President’s response to the desperation of the people of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, all American citizens, following Hurricane Irma and then Maria. As I have seen the President deal with the crisis I can only hope that Otto Von Bismarck was right when he said “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.” If he doesn’t then we are doomed because the sociopathic soullessness and incompetence of the President is unmatched by any of his 44 predecessors. Even the most sociopathic of them like Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk were hard working and competent, while the most incompetent Presidents had at least some redeemable qualities. But President Trump appears to be not only a sociopath, but lazy and incompetent too.

For the first time in his nine months in office we have seen this President deal with a crisis not of his making in real time, and it has not been pretty. In fact it is terrifying. As the storm hit the President went golfing at took to twitter to chastise NFL players and team owners about kneeling during the national anthem. For four days after declaring a state of emergency the President and the administration did nothing.

Not only did the administration not proactively prepare for a disaster that they knew was coming, they delayed the response by days as the President praised his supposed actions to help while doing nothing. When the Mayor of San Juan confronted him the President went on the attack because how dare she criticize him. The President blamed he government and people of Puerto Rico for what was going on even though the island is devastated, 90% of the island is without electricity, 90% of people have no cell-phone service, fuel is running out, over half of the island has no potable water; ports and airports are heavily damaged, many people have no homes left standing, while many roads, bridges, and other are critical infrastructure are damaged or destroyed. Army National Guardsmen and Reservists mobilized to help are in terrible shape. Not only are their families struggling, but the storm means that their bases and armories are damaged, they lack fuel for their vehicles, they are dealing with knocked out communications networks, and have little support from any higher echelons.

Likewise, the are few supplies, or equipment for the people devastated by the storm to even begin a recovery operation, even as the President demeans them and their political officials from the safety of his golf course while imputing to them motives which make him the victim while saying that Puerto Ricans are not doing enough for themselves. From his golf course the President tweeted: “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” Frankly, they are doing everything they can for themselves, but they don’t have what they need to do it, the island is in ruins, the infrastructure devastated, and supplies in short supply.

The President shows no concern for the millions of people struggling amid the ruins of their community, without much outside help, following a massive natural disaster which hat it hit anywhere on the American East Coast or Gulf Coast would be getting far more attention from the government and the media. The problem for Puerto Rico is that most of its citizens, though Americans, are not White.

Likewise, while this was going on it was revealed that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was communicating directly with North Korea in order to avert a potential nuclear war, to which the President took to twitter to shame his chief diplomat saying that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” And “Save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done.” Of course this signaling to all that the President either thinks that threats of war will force Kim Jung Un to back down or that he really wants a war with North Korea. Sadly, regardless of whether the President is using the threat of force as a tool to enforce his will on North Korea, or whether he really wants war, the end result will likely be a war that devastates much of the region, causes millions of casualties, including thousands or even tens of thousands American lives, and possibly even the nuclear destruction of American cities.

Sadly, this is the behavior of a sociopath. The President demonstrates on a daily basis the characteristics of a sociopath listed in the DSM-V. The President, a sociopath feels no empathy, no emotion. He is unencumbered by feelings such as fear, anxiety, stress, depression, remorse, guilt, caring, and love. Gustave Gilbert, who served as an U.S. Army Psychologist to the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg noted:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Yes, the response of the administration is not merely incompetent, but it is sociopathic, and being directed by a man who exhibits enough of the clinical clinical criteria to be judged the Sociopath in Chief. We can only hope that the Iron Chancellor was right about the providence that protects this country, because if he wasn’t right we are in big trouble.

So 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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The Continued Erosion of America’s Moral Authority: Tillerson to Shut Down War Crimes Office

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It seems to me that the Trump administration is doing everything it can to corrode any remaining moral authority that the United States has in the world. Yesterday I read that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will disestablish the office that investigates potential war crimes. Though seemingly small in comparison to the many other actions the administration is taking this one speaks volumes about the attitudes of Trump, Tillerson, and others in the administration.

Tillerson has been working to concentrate the activities of the State Department on pursuing opportunities for American business and strengthening the U.S. Military. To do so he has been shutting down sections of the State Department that deal with U.S. Aid, humanitarian intervention, human rights, and world poverty. The decision to close the office which was founded in 1997 after the human catastrophes in the Balkans and the Rwandan Genocide is a major step backward.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who was the senior American prosecutor and organizer of the Major War Crime Trials and Nuremberg noted:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Sadly, after all of Jackson and his team’s efforts at Nuremberg the United States stepped back from participation in International tribunals or the International Criminal Court. Tillerson’s decision is a further step back from the norms of civilized behavior and a step towards increased barbarism.

David Scheffer, who served as the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes and now teaches at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told Foreign Policy: “This is a very harsh signal to the rest of the world that the United States is essentially downgrading the importance of accountability for the commission of atrocity crimes… This sends a strong signal to perpetrators of mass atrocities that the United States is not watching you anymore.”

I assume that is the case. The Trump administration has turned a blind eye to the Russian destabilization operations in the Ukraine, ignores the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia and is likely war crimes in Yemen, sends decidedly mixed messages on Syria, and voices his approval at the crimes of the Erdogan regime in Turkey and the actions of Philippine President Duarte.

It is apparent that President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, and possibly National Security Adviser McMaster have forgotten like so many Americans that the true power of the United States is not its economy, not its military power, but the ideals that it stands for, especially when they are most difficult. The administration has embraced the survival of the fittest philosophy of Charles Darwin and like the other totalitarian regimes which cluttered the Twentieth Century is throwing away the one thing that set the United States apart from other nations, the ideals found in the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Four Freedoms. While our country may not have always lived up to them, they were why people respected the United States even when we failed to live up to them. Timothy Snyder wrote: A patriot… wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.” The actions of the Secretary of State and President show that they are not patriots, but nationalists, willing to cast aside the lifeblood of what makes America great for material gain and personal power, as Snyder notes, they encourage us to be our worst and then tell us that we are the best.

It is important that we do not throw away what little credibility we have left, but the neither the President nor many in his administration seem to care. The administration bases its arguments on necessity and expedience and has no hesitation in lying repeatedly to justify its actions. But, as William Pitt the Younger noted: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

Robert Reich correctly noted: “Our moral authority is as important, if not more important, than our troop strength or our high-tech weapons. We are rapidly losing that moral authority, not only in the Arab world but all over the world.”

I am afraid that the further men like Trump and Tillerson move towards eliminating the last vestiges of our diplomatic and legal moral authority, and toward a transactional view of nationalism in which only economic and military power count, that it will not be long before our military and economic power is used for evil. This is not to say that it hasn’t been used for that in our history, but most of the time there were checks and balances, as well as self-restraint that kept them from being even worse. With every decision like this those restraints fall away and we edge closer to tyranny.So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“No More Dangerous Thing for a Democracy…”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

There are some times when my education and experience as a historian and ethicist. Last week was one of those times as I watched Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump raise the specter of preventive war on the Korean peninsula. Combined with the evisceration of the State Department and other levers of “soft power” in the Trump budget proposal and the President’s near total commitment to military force as the preferred option in foreign policy it makes me believe that we will be in a substantial and potentially devastating war in terms of lives, treasure, and moral standing, if not in Korea, somewhere else in the world within the next couple of years.

I do seriously hope that I am wrong, but I do not see patience, prudence, or wisdom as strengths of the Trump Presidency in either domestic or foreign policy. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: “There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war,” but it appears that this is the foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Preventive war is also something called aggressive war, because the target of it has not committed an act of war before it is attacked. This was the policy of Nazi Germany for which its leaders were convicted at Nuremberg. Former Senator Ron Paul noted, “Another term for preventive war is aggressive war – starting wars because someday somebody might do something to us. That is not part of the American tradition.” As such most people have no understanding how the crime of preventive or wars of aggression poison and ultimately kill a democracy.

People also forget that once the Pandora’s Box of war is opened that nothing is certain but death, destruction, and the seeds of more war. Winston Churchill noted, “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

In terms of the destructiveness of such a war, including as Churchill noted the unforeseen effects of it President Dwight D. Eisenhower said:

A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone? That isn’t preventive war; that is war.

I’ll leave it at that.

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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