Friday, July 21, 2006

Just War

Was the war in Iraq a just war? I'm afraid I'm stepping into a hornet's nest with this one... or at least I might, if I'm not careful. But, I hope to frame the discussion carefully, and direct it less toward pejorative blame regarding the past and more toward improving our ability to make ethical decisions in the future. The future for America, as far as just war questions go, could very well come quite soon.

Mark Daniels wrote a post today on his blog with a link to a detailed analysis of just war tradition as applied to the Iraq war situation. The analysis is by Franklin Eric Wester, an Army chaplain, writing in the US Army War College quarterly Parameters, and I found it very helpful and informative.

The hinge point of Wester's analysis is imminence. The Bush administration made a subtle shift in traditional just war policy, a shift which Wester does a good job of explaining.

[T]he 2002 National Security Strategy indirectly acknowledges the Just War
ethic. Logic in the document relies on the special case of preemption based on
“imminent threat,” recognizing that Just War tradition makes room for arresting
or resisting “imminent threat” as an extension of legitimate self-defense.
However, the National Security Strategy goes on to assert, “We must adapt [that
is, change] the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of
today’s adversaries.” How to change a concept like “imminent threat” or the
moral reasoning associated with the Just War ethic is not specified.
Later, Wester gives a one-sentence conclusion on the question of imminence with regard to the Iraq war:
No persuasive case was argued that the threat was imminent, at least in any
conventional definition of imminent.
Expanding on that thought a bit, Wester refers to Paul Griffiths:
To Paul J. Griffiths, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of
Illinois, the definition of imminent has not changed: “It means the gun is at
your head.” And in the case of Iraq, “We just don’t have that.” He states that
redefining imminent offers “well-intentioned support for US foreign policy, but
it’s not defensible in terms of traditional Just War theory.”

In the "Recommended Areas for Further Study" section, however, it appears that Wester gives a nod to the Bush administration's perspective:
On a theoretical level, the case of Iraq’s possible possession of WMD raised the
question to be further explored regarding an imminent threat: How does imminence
apply in cases where time and space before attack are not clearly discernible?
In other words, when is it timely and when is it too late to act?

That is a rough summary of the central theme of Wester's paper. It is not Wester's only argument, nor the only interesting point of discussion that could come from the paper. If you read the paper, and want to discuss something else from it, go right ahead.

There are, however, two areas of discussion that I would like to declare off-limits for the sake of this thread staying on-topic.

(1) The motives of the Bush administration. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that they had the best motives, let us avoid all questions of revenge or clandestine empire-building or power-grabbing cowboy cockiness. I would like to consider the theoretical nature of the just war question in the context of terrorism, not the specifics of the Bush administration's foreign policy motivations.

(2) The quality of the intelligence used by the Bush administration, and/or the honesty and forthrightness with which it described that intelligence. I would prefer to avoid the specifics of the nature of our intelligence knowledge (and communication of that knowledge) with regard to the Iraq situation. Let us assume for the sake of this discussion that the Bush administration's intelligence about Iraq was right, that Iraq did have dangerous weapons, and plans to use them or give them to others that would use them.

It seems to me that just war theory was largely established in an era when armies moved relatively slowly, and major destruction required movement of a significant number of people. In this way, threat was relatively easy to identify, and imminence could be established with relative certainty. What is more, if your intelligence told you that there was no obvious imminent threat, you could feel pretty safe that you wouldn't have an army able to incur massive destruction on your doorstep the next morning.

That is no longer the case. At any time, a terrorist who could obtain a nuclear weapon of some sort could appear in the middle of a major US city and cause massive destruction. Imminence is constant, as long as terrorist organizations are in existence that are actively targeting the US (that's certainly not in dispute) and there is the possibility that they could obtain massively destructive yet nearly indetectable weapons.

How does the concept of imminence in just war tradition function in this type of constant-undetectable-danger environment?

With the Soviet Union, we at least knew where the missiles would be coming from, and were guaranteed at least a few minutes of warning before they hit. We ensured that during that few minutes, we would be able to unleash an equally devastating barrage on them... a sufficiently effective deterrent to keep them from pushing that first button.

But that also brings us to another dimension of the war with terrorists. There does not appear to be any effective deterrence against terrorist actions. There is, it seems, no threat we can hold up to balance against the threat they maintain toward us that would deter them from taking action. There is nothing on earth that they hold so dear as the destruction of America. Their motivations come from the after-life, so no balanced-threat deterrent can hold sway with them.

What is an effective way of construing just war ethics in this type of threat situation? Was the Iraq war ethical given the two presuppositions I laid out above (realizing that this is not an evaluation of the reality of the Iraq war as a whole, but a subset of the factors involved in it)? What would determine whether a future war (such as one against Iran) would be justified?


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is teen pregnancy really a bad thing?

Here's a fascinating article titled Let's Have More Teen Pregnancy which argues that teen pregnancy is not in itself a problem. Read the article to see why.

I'd love to see some discussion on the ideas presented there. Do you agree, disagree, or have thoughts to add?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


A new blog is starting up which I think may be of interest to many readers here. It appears to have a similar focus to this blog, though focused on politics, and coming from a particularly Christian perspective. The blog is called RedBlueChristian, obviously intimating that Christianity is neither distinctively Republican nor Democrat. The junction of Christian faith and politics is more complicated than such a simplistic analysis, and deserves a good deal of healthy dialog.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel's Conflict

The current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is dominating the world news, as it rightly should. It has the potential to grow into a catastrophic situation that would affect our global community in very direct ways.

Here are a few representative attitudes about the conflict. Whose perspective do you agree with, and why?

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post last week. His position is largely what one would expect from someone in his position. He portrays Israel as the unilateral aggressor, waging a constant war against the Palestinians to subdue and destroy them, using the defensive actions of Palestinians as excuses for its aggression.

Charles Krauthammer responded, offering an alternate political perspective. He argues that Palestinians are (and always have been) committed to the complete destruction of Israel, have no interest in compromise, and have taken every concession Israel has offered and turned it into a staging ground for further unilateral aggression against Israel.

David Clark, writing in The Guardian, argues that both hardline Palestinians and the Israeli government have similar agendas... that both desire the escalation of aggression, and are opposed to peace. He argues that Mahmoud Abbas is the primary leader in the area espousing the proper commitment to resolve the situation peacefully. He makes no mention of the recent land concessions by Israel, so I'm not sure in what way he views those.

William Kristol, writing in the Weekly Standard, gives a broader perspective, pointing toward Syria and Iran as the ultimate culprits. He argues that this has gone beyond a conflict between Israel and Palestine, and even beyond Israel and Arabs (since most of the Arab powers in the region are ambivalent about the conflict). He argues that instead this is an "Islamist-Israeli war", with stridently Islamist (and non-Arab) Iran as the primary motivating force.

A blogger called The Maverick Philosopher (from whose site I found Krauthammer's and Kristol's articles) gave his defense of Israel's current response, depicting the Palestinians as the "in the wrong" aggressors, and Israel's response (however disproportionate) as "in the right" self-defense.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that either the Palestinians or the Israelis have the moral high ground in this situation? Do you feel that Hezbollah are pawns in a larger Islamist movement to eradicate Israel, as Kristol suggests? Do you feel that Israel is a pawn in a larger American movement to subjugate the Middle East, as Haniyeh suggests (or at least hints)?

How should the American government respond? Have you been pleased or troubled by our response so far?


Monday, July 17, 2006

The Questionable Wisdom of Calvin

The papers are re-running old Calvin and Hobbes strips, much to my enjoyment. This one came out last week. I think it speaks for itself.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Public vs. Private School

Yesterday the federal government released the results of a statistical study it commissioned of academic test results, comparing public and private schools. The results are interesting.

Here's a news article summarizing the results.

Here's a link to the executive summary of the report (which I have read).

Here's a link to the full text of the report (which I have not yet read).

The results are fascinating, though far from conclusive. To put it roughly, it appears that students at private schools test much better than students at public schools, but that statistically those differences are largely accounted for by other demographical differences.

The main differences come in 8th grade math, where Lutheran schools were significantly better than public schools, and "conservative Christian" schools were significantly worse (after the numbers were adjusted for other likely demographics).

I wonder how charter schools and home schools would fare in a similar analysis?

I also wonder how the results would match up at grade 12, in SAT results or some similar measurement. I was moved from public to private school at grade 7... I wonder how many others are in the same boat?

Does this in any affect your opinion of the value of private schools in our society? Does it affect your opinion about a system such as school vouchers?

If you sent your child to a private school, would you expect him or her to learn math and reading better than he or she would at a public school? Note that I am not asking if you think your child would learn math or reading better than other students at the public school... but do you think the public school would give your child as good of an environment for learning math and reading as a private school would?

My public school education through grade 3 was excellent... because of the teachers. My public school education in grades 4 through 6 was dismal... again, because of the teachers (and to some degree the system). My parents moved me to private school from grade 7 on. I don't think the academic education was particularly improved, but of course I have no public school experience at those grades to compare it to.

I'm also rather under the impression that most people that send their students to private school (or home school) do so for reasons other than basic academics... but I make that observation only from very limited anecdotal evidence.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Obama on Religion in Politics

Last week, Senator Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the Call to Renewal Conference. His focus was on the role of religion (and religious people) in politics and in society. The speech is worth reading.

Obama sets the groundwork for his talk by saying:

"I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy".

I'm all for that "serious debate" (carried out respectfully, of course). How do we reconcile faith, particularly exclusivist religious belief (which are the types Obama focuses on in all his examples, both positive and negative), with pluralistic society and political involvement?

Obama first gives advice to liberals who are uncomfortable with religion. I think this section is central to his argument:

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical -- if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord," or King's "I have a dream" speech without reference to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

He goes on to give these examples:

But what I am suggesting is this -- secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Next, he turns his sights on religious conservatives:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

His closing thoughts, I think, are excellent. He says that, in our public discourse, we should give to each other, even (maybe especially) those who disagree with us, a "presumption of good faith". We should be "willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms". If we can have the conversation on that basis, it certainly will be, as Obama said, "a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come".

This speech has generated a great deal of response. I'd love to hear what people around here think about the speech, and the subject in general.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted a response on his blog. He argues that when Obama tells religious people that they must, when entering the social sphere, argue based on "some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all"... that in so doing he is nullifying all that he has said previously, and institutionalizing secularism as the guiding social principle.

I might respond slightly differently, though I found the same paragraph to be troubling. What are these "principles" that are accessible to everyone? What does accessible mean? If it means some principle that nearly everyone already agrees on, then you are simply playing to the lowest common denominator. If you mean a principle that people can be convinced of through persuasive argument, then I'll be more convinced by the idea.

Also, I found his specific example quite confusing. He picked abortion, a practice which he supports on the principle of the woman's right to choose. Those who argue against abortion generally do so based on the principle that pre-born children are still living humans, and that killing living humans is wrong. Now... which principle is the more generally accessible, in either sense? Yet it appears to me that Obama is saying that in some way when conservatives argue that abortion is bad they simply "point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will". There may be some issues of public policy where religious conservatives do that (though none come to mind right off the bat)... but abortion is certainly not one of them.

More responses to the Obama speech, and to the general topic of religion in politics, can be found at the GetReligion blog. I found the comments under the post to be very interesting, as well.

What should the role of religion be in public dialog on social issues? To what degree should religious people rely on their religious principles in voting for candidates or legislation?