instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Condemned to repeat

At, journalist Tom Ricks wrote:
I think that invading Iraq preemptively on false premises, at the time that we already were at war elsewhere, was probably the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Everything we do in Iraq is the fruit of that poisoned tree.

But I think also that there are no good answers in Iraq, just less bad ones. I think staying in Iraq is immoral, but I think leaving immediately would be even more so, because of the risk it runs of leaving Iraq to a civil war that could go regional.
Now, it's impossible for circumstances to be such that any act you can choose is immoral, so Ricks is necessarily mistaken in representing the circumstances as a choice between immorally staying in Iraq and immorally leaving Iraq.

But it's not a particularly baffling mistake. If the U.S. invaded Iraq preemptively on false premises, then the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq is substantially different, as a matter of distributive justice, than the ongoing U.S. presence in, say, Alaska. Surely Ricks's "I think staying in Iraq is immoral" encompasses this meaning.

This position -- that the U.S. was wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, and would now be wrong to leave precipitously -- also happens to have been shared by Pope John Paul II.

Keith Pavlischek of First Things has opened fire on Ricks for his words I've quoted above. Pavlischek repeatedly calls Ricks's words "ludicrous," and mocks them as Ricks's "little contribution to moral theory."

Ricks responds by asking:
How does he think that invading a country pre-emptively on false premises meets Aquinas' second condition ("Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault....")?
Pavlischek replies:
The first thing to observe about Ricks' question is that it is not exactly on point with regard to my post or what Peter Wehner wrote.

My comments were focused on Ricks' assertion that continued deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq was "immoral."
Fair enough, although as I implied above I think Pavlischek reads too much into what Ricks wrote and makes no attempt to understand it in the terms Ricks intended.

Unfortunately, Pavlischek goes on to argue that the answer to Ricks's question about pre-emptive war under false pretenses meeting Aquinas's second condition is yes.

I say "unfortunately" for several reasons:
  1. Pavlischek titled his first post "Thomas Ricks vs. Thomas Aquinas," and opened it by quoting ST II-II, 40, 1. This is an odd choice, because while St. Thomas is of course a major figure in the development of just war doctrine, he is by no means the final word. The Catechism lists four "strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force," and these are in significant ways different from St. Thomas's three necessary conditions. Pavlischek does allude to these, but his story remains that of a bumpkin journalist trying to take on the Common Doctor of the Church.
  2. Following on that, the bishops of the Church have made it pretty clear since 2002 that "pre-emptive war" is unjust. If St. Thomas would disagree, so much the worse for St. Thomas.
  3. In the event, Pavlischek doesn't offer an argument that St. Thomas would agree that a pre-emptive war is unjust. He offers an argument that the invasion of Iraq was not conducted under false premises, an argument about particulars that cannot credibly be represented as St. Thomas vs. anyone.
  4. To defend the invasion of Iraq, Pavlischek -- indeed, anyone who wants to defend it -- has to defend two doubtful positions in a way that looks very much like special pleading: first, that if what is subjectively judged to be a just cause is not, objectively, a just cause, then the war is still just; second, that as long as at least one cause you've mentioned for the invasion is just, then the war is just. These are arguments I'd prefer, on balance, not be associated with St. Thomas.