Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Where are the questions about war and ethics?

By Rob Elder

Whoa! Run this past me again, real slow. I listened to the President's speech. I read the text. I still don't see how we got to a choice whether to invade Iraq with or without allies, now or later.

When did we decide to do it at all?

Granted, the President was reassuring, not bellicose. He reviewed questions that bother Americans. Why Iraq? Because "it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place." Wouldn't war in Iraq distract us from the war against terrorism? No, he said. It's a necessary part of the war against terrorism.

Saddam Hussein's ties to terrorism may not be as solid as the President suggested, but the man is dangerous, beyond doubt. It's what President Bush did not talk about that's troubling.

There was no acknowledgement that we're talking about starting a war in the most unstable and volatile part of the world, against the advice of most of our allies in that region; no mention of the possibility that war in Iraq could destabilize other nations in the Arab world, leaving them more hospitable to terrorists. Most troubling, not just about this speech but the entire discussion, has been the Bush administration's readiness to abandon deterrence and to replace it with preemptive attacks.

Deterrence has worked, in our case, against Saddam Hussein. If he's as evil as we believe, and has biological and chemical weapons plus the means to deliver them, why hasn't he used them against the United States? Thomas Friedman, the New York Times expert on the middle east, has a convincing answer: "Saddam doesn't want to die. He loves life more than he hates us."

Ethical Americans are not all on the same side, but ethicists would ask questions about the Bush administration's proposal to replace deterrence with preemption. By preemption, the President seems to mean we reserve the right to strike first against any nation which we decide, unilaterally, is a potential threat.

An ethicist would ask: Suppose everyone played by that rule? Saddam Hussein clearly would have cause to launch a preemptive attack against the United States, which poses a clear threat to his regime. India could take out Pakistan, Greece could invade Turkey and all the Arabs could fire missiles into Israel - and vice versa.

Ethicists examine the choices in several different logical frameworks. The above question compared risks and benefits. Others ask about rights, duties, social justice and the common good.

In terms of rights, one would ask whether any government has the right to preemptively attack another without hard evidence of immediate danger; or, do the collective organizations of the world, such as the United Nations, have both a right and a duty to intervene?

Does the president have a duty to attack Iraq if he deems that necessary to protect the American people? Do we have obligations to the oppressed people of Iraq to intervene on their behalf? Do we, as the only superpower, have a special duty to ally with other nations before starting a war?

And, five years from now, will the common good—in this case, world peace—be served by what we do?

People answer these questions differently. Taking an ethical approach hardly makes it easy to grapple with questions of war and peace. But just asking the questions would give our national debate a dimension, and a wisdom, it has lacked thus far.

Published in the San Jose Mercury News, Oct. 9, 2002

Rob Elder is senior fellow of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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