Jeffrey R. Tiel
of preemptive war has taken on renewed significance since the current administration
referred to it as part of the basis for the second attack on
picture of Iraq’s pre-war capabilities has become clearer, however, analysts
originally supporting this preemptive strike argument have begun to withdraw
their support for the objective (the subjective justification based on what the
administration knew at the time may differ from the objective state of Iraq’s
capability and actions) moral justification of the war. The biological and chemical weapons failed for
the most part to materialize, and the relationship between
foregoing analysis presupposes something crucial: namely, that
But there are substantive moral criteria for states as well as formal ones, as our tradition of free republics makes fairly clear. In the argument that follows, I will identify and then justify these criteria. Next I will apply them to the case of aggression, particularly pre-emptive war conditions on defeating aggression, in jus ad bellum. Third, I will show that given the morally substantive conditions on statehood, the general conditions on war are in fact much less restrictive than has been thought. But since auxiliary conditions based on prudence and the constitution of our republic must also be considered, after developing their moral grounding I will finally offer a compelling theory for a morally grounded US foreign policy that entails a seriously constricted application of jus ad bellum war conditions with surprising conclusions for evaluating American military actions from the 20th century onward.
The Moral Conditions of Statehood
The American legal tradition was grounded on a doctrine of moral critique, a doctrine that enabled a people to evaluate the legitimacy and authority of their regimes. In the Declaration of Independence this doctrine was declared to be universally recognizable and was applied to the abuses of the British Parliament in general and to the British Crown in particular (for his legal and moral failure to reign in the Parliament). A king, or executive, acquires no genuine authority (a moral category) unless he first acquires his powers legitimately (so that he is no usurper) and secondly uses them within the fine strictures of the moral law (so that he is no tyrant). Any alleged executive who uses force beyond right undermines his own authority and enacts the people’s right of self-defense against him. This is the doctrine of just revolution that we Americans advanced at our country’s inception.
What follows from this doctrine is the capacity to evaluate the moral standing of any government whatsoever on the basis of its adherence to the legal and moral conditions of legitimacy. Even though Adolf Hitler’s regime was constitutionally brought to power, the actions of his regime in violating the moral, constitutional, and legal rights of German citizens delegitimized his government. Since Saddam Hussein’s ascension to and sustenance in power was occasioned by continuous horrific violation of natural, or human, rights, it follows that he never had nor ever will have any moral authority to rule. Thus, his government never had any legitimate moral claim to the protections of international law, particularly to those against invasion by third parties offering assistance to his people.
defense has long been a mainstay of the self-defense tradition. In fact, it proves the far more difficult
doctrine for the pacifist, since while he may be willing to throw his own life
away, it proves difficult for him to stand by and do nothing to protect his
neighbor on the usually appealed-to grounds that love of neighbor forbids him
to take action against a violent aggressor.
And since the morally legitimate actions of states are derived from the
morally permissible actions of individual persons,
it follows that third-party defense may be invoked in international
third party defense argument coupled with the moral illegitimacy of Hussein’s
regime, the people of
thing to be said about the administration’s appeal to the conditions on
preemptive war is that it’s not clear that the President’s people meant by that
language what we military ethicists mean by it.
For according to the National
Security Strategy document released by the National Security Council in 2002,
the President has in mind two applications of the language. The first and most immediate is its use not
as a moral justification for warfighting, but rather as a tactic within
warfighting, particularly in terrorist warfighting. In short, given that a terrorist coalition
attacked the people and territory of the
How does an
ethicist look at this doctrine of preemption?
With hardly the bat of an eye, for it is wholly consistent with standard
practice by nations against murderous groups with shadowy though real
connections to states. The very language
of “harboring” enemies is a nautical one that hearkens back to the days of
piracy. Terrorists merely conduct
piratical operations on land (or in the air) but for reasons involving greed on
a significantly larger scale, namely an imperial scale, as the Islamic
terrorists desire the return of the Islamic expansionism that was the mainstay
of Islam from its inception to its military defeat in the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire. Islamic terror began
shortly thereafter. Rules governing actions against pirates are
quite clear: pirates have no rights as citizens and may be destroyed on a
group-association basis (rather than for individual acts of murder or pillage)
with the warfighting powers of the state.
Thus, ships of the Royal Navy would hunt down pirate ships and hang all
the pirates, bringing infamous captains to trial for propagandistic purposes,
as trials are not necessary in the cases of pirates. Pirates are neither citizens nor POWs and
have no claim to protections as such.
the administration’s first use of the term ‘preemptive war’ is not that use
that we military ethicists employ in our discussions of specific conditions
relating to imminent or sufficient threat.
It is merely a tactical doctrine of pursuing a declared enemy of the
turning to the second use of the term ‘preemptive war,’ let me just draw out
the implications of the forgoing discussion: international “recognition” does
not immunize a tyrant from responsibility for his actions, and thus, attacks on
such ‘states’ are permissible without recourse to specific violations of jus ad bellum by said ‘states,’ without
UN resolutions of any kind, and without the satisfaction of the peculiarities
of any specific ethical doctrine of preemptive or preventative war. Thus, both attacks on Iraqi forces in the
first and second gulf wars were strictly justified.
object that while this argument applies well to the tyrannical governments of
countries, it does not apply to their status as states as such, since by
definition, a ‘state’ consists of more than a specific government but must
include its constituted people and their laws.
Thus, the critic might conclude,
move to the second use of the language of “preemptive war” that the Bush
administration appears to employ in the National
Security Strategy. Independently of
its war on terror, the administration puts forward the claim that it wishes to
create a balance of power among the
puzzling about this use of the term ‘preemptive war’ is that if the President
has in mind countries like North Korea or Iran or Syria, he already possesses
sufficient justification to strike these countries on both standard warfighting
theory as well as my previous argument concerning statehood. For Iran directly attacked the United States
in her assault on our embassy in 1978 and in terrorist support since, while
North Korea has violated the terms of its ceasefire repeatedly in its tunnel
digging and covert espionage/sabotage against the South. And independently of the specific acts of
these powers, neither is devoted to the protections of the human rights of her
or other countries’ citizens, as Iranian sponsorship of terrorism abroad and
North Korean violations of her own people’s rights have made clear for
decades. As such, the President has
little cause to introduce this new doctrine against the states likely to be the
else might the President have in mind?
If he intends the broad coalition of free nations against the non-free
nations, or what I’m calling the non-states, then he doesn’t need the doctrine
at all. And that suggests the possibility
that either he or his administration have in mind something more worrisome,
namely the establishment of a
with my argument concerning non-states masquerading as states, one could argue
that the Bush administration really means to maintain the right to attack only these
non-states as soon as or even before they constitute a ‘threat’ under the
revised post-9/11 definition of ‘terrorist threat’ thereby not intending a
wider hegemonistic application of preemption.
And that brings me to the second tier moral restrictions on the
employment of forces abroad, namely the conditions of interest and
prudence. Since almost any
A Moral Theory of National Interest
I’m going to approach this problem historically, because I find convincing the arguments of our nation-state’s founders, but I want to be clear that I’m not arguing from tradition alone. Rather, I’m trying to maintain twin theses: first, our founders had a compelling moral argument on the role and nature of “interest” in US foreign policy, and second, we have departed from our own moral tradition, the very moral tradition that enabled the United States to prosper in peace for her first 120 years, as the empires of Europe dismembered one another.
One of the
first clear statements of
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
What is the
moral argument for why American lives may not be sacrificed for the freedoms of
other peoples? The primary reason is
enshrined in our Declaration where we
state that we have the right to protect our lives, our liberties and the
results of our industry. We constituted
ourselves in this more perfect
That this understanding of the limits on warmaking was the understanding of our founders should be clear from a few examples. First, consider how George Washington warns us against becoming passionately attached to or opposed to any foreign power, arguing that such attachment to foreign interest
. . . gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
. . . nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.
US entry into the French war with
It is not here meant to recommend a policy absolutely selfish or interested in nations, but to show, that a policy regulated by their own interest, as far as justice and good faith permit, is, and ought to be, their prevailing one; and that either to ascribe to them a different principle of action, or to deduce, from the supposition of it arguments for a self-denying and self-sacrificing gratitude on the part of a nation which may have received from another good offices, is to misrepresent or misconceive what usually are, and ought to be, the springs of national conduct.
Hamilton maintains that this policy of self-interest is not
identical to selfishness,
nor should it give way to an interest in other nations, for self-denial and
self-sacrifice are what no country can or may demand from its citizens for any
other cause save their own defense.
Why? Because those citizens
entered into a constitutional union for their
own protection, and since soldiers are likewise citizens, they too are
protected by the shield of that
Between individuals, occasion is not unfrequently given for the exercise of gratitude. Instances of conferring benefits from kind and benevolent dispositions or feelings toward the person benefited, without any other interest on the part of the person who renders the service, than the pleasure of doing a good action, occur every day among individuals. But among nations they perhaps never occur. It may be affirmed as a general principle, that the predominant motive of good offices from one nation to another is the interest or advantage of the nation which performs them.
Indeed, the rule of morality in this respect is not precisely the same between nations as between individuals. The duty of making its own welfare the guide of its actions, is much stronger upon the former than the later; in proportion to the greater magnitude and importance of national compared with individual happiness, and to the greater permanency of the effects of national than of individual conduct. Existing millions, and for the most part future generations, are concerned in the present measures of a government; while the consequences of the private actions of an individual ordinarily terminate with himself, or are circumscribed with a narrow compass.
Whence it follows that an individual may, on numerous occasions, meritoriously indulge the emotions of generosity and benevolence, not only without an eye to, but even at the expense of, his own interest. But a government can rarely, if at all, be justifiable in pursuing a similar course: and, if it does, ought to confine itself within much stricter bounds. Good offices which are indifferent to the interest of a nation performing them, or which are compensated by the existence or expectation of some reasonable equivalent, or which produce an essential good to the nation to which they are rendered, without real detriment to the affairs of the benefactors, prescribe perhaps the limits of national generosity or benevolence.
principle of neutrality with respect to foreign wars because of the absolute
importance of defending the safety of the American people (including our
soldiers) was tested and maintained by President Madison as he contemplated the
horrors of the European wars instigated by Napoleon. In his First
Inaugural Address he explained first, that our neutrality in those wars
permitted unrivaled growth in the population and industry of the
To cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations having correspondent dispositions; to maintain sincere neutrality toward belligerent nations; to prefer in all cases amicable discussion and reasonable accommodation of differences to a decision of them by an appeal to arms; to exclude foreign intrigues and foreign partialities, so degrading to all countries and so baneful to free ones; to foster a spirit of independence too just to invade the rights of others, too proud to surrender our own, too liberal to indulge unworthy prejudices ourselves and too elevated not to look down upon them in others; to hold the union of the States as the basis of their peace and happiness; to support the Constitution, which is the cement of the Union, as well in its limitations as in its authorities; to respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and to the people as equally incorporated with and essential to the success of the general system; . . .
Adams offered perhaps the most compelling account of our founders’ strictly
nationalist foreign policy in 1821 when he opposed
She has seen that probably for centuries
to come, all the contests of . . . the European world, will be contests of
inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever
the standard of freedom and
think the founders politically naïve, they did not argue against alliances for
causes clearly within US interest, but since threats to US citizen’s liberties
would be short-lived, so should have been the alliances. Thus, Washington argued against “permanent
alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” instead maintaining the
importance of “taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable
establishments, in a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to
temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.” One wonders why after the fall of the Soviet
empire, NATO, a vital temporary alliance, should not only have been extended in
duration but enlarged by the
inclusion of the Soviet satellite states.
that the answers to these questions lie in the political discussions that
followed the fall of the Soviet Empire, for we most definitely set off in
search of “monsters to destroy.” The
first gulf war was like a breath of fresh air to our military and hawkish
political establishments, an apparent justification for the huge expenditures
necessary to maintain a cold war era military force. And prior to 9/11 the
against the liberties of American citizens are the only grounds for sending
those citizens into combat in defense of one another, then we must also
re-examine the prudential justice of a number of our most recent wars. According to the principles with which I
began this essay, the attack on
Objections & Replies
No doubt the objection will arise that we have a moral obligation to help the suffering, and that there is no greater suffering than that occasioned by the ravages of genocidal war. But this objection is premised on a major conflation. True, moral obligations to one’s neighbor exist in everyday cases, such that failure to fulfill them is a species of negligence, but in cases where one’s own life and liberty are at risk, this is not the case. Consider two examples to make this clear. Imagine a man sun tanning on a beach who suddenly notices a young girl drowning in two feet of water in the lake. Let’s further imagine that he considers whether to save her, worrying that doing so will affect his sun tanning time and his ability to pick up beautiful women. We would clearly call his failure to help that girl a species of moral insensibility of the highest magnitude and a shirking of a fundamental moral duty. But let’s imagine a second scenario, this time one in which the little girl is hurtling down a river with class five rapids towards a water fall with a 200 foot drop. Is hesitation in this case negligence occasioned by cowardice? I think not. If the man dove into the water to save that little girl, he’d be acting heroically, not courageously, for courage ends where heroism begins. Courage is the moral virtue of holding to true belief and just conduct in the face of threat, and as such is a duty. But heroism is acting beyond the call of duty. Therefore, one cannot be morally required to act heroically. The man diving into the raging river can choose to risk himself to save the life of the little girl, for it is his life to risk. But nations are not like individuals. Nations may not heroically sacrifice their citizens’ lives for the lives of non-citizens, for to do so automatically violates the consent of those forced to risk that sacrifice. And that violation is immoral. Thus, self-sacrificial ‘heroic’ action on the part of nations not only is not heroism but is morally prohibited. Thus, the standard positive duty to help my neighbor does not devolve onto me as a citizen to move my country toward war action on behalf of a foreign people. I must learn how to sympathize with the sufferings of others without feeling some responsibility to employ the coercive powers of the state to act on their behalf. I can instead act heroically as a human being and try to raise up a group of volunteers who will act to aid those people. There are excellent examples of this in American history.
In reply my
objector might raise the refrain from Edmund Burke that the only thing
necessary for tyranny to triumph is for good men to do nothing. But as is usual with little quips, this
hardly addresses the point. Certainly, inaction
on the part of our founding fathers would have led to continued British tyranny
over the colonies. But if this phrase is
supposed to be the justification for endless wars of intervention, for the
elimination of any peace save one guaranteed by a world dominated by an
American hegemony that will ultimately fall as all empires fall, then who are
we kidding? We might rephrase: he who
would drink the blood of his own sons should develop a national superhero
complex and go off in search of monsters to destroy. Americans have never seriously thought about their power; they have
been led only to imagistically feel
it, and thus are swayed by every passion that enters the imagination, leading
to a helter-skelter interventionist foreign policy. We have fallen into just the traps that
It will be
further objected to this doctrine of prudential moral restraint on foreign
military ventures that this is nothing but the nose of the camel of
isolationism again entering the tent.
And we all know where isolationism leads, to the appeasement of
case is even more egregious than the Japanese case, for as
War II case is further complicated by the conduct of
one might object that the reason
Tyrannical regimes are repugnant to the lives and liberties of their people. As such they should not be treated as states, and therefore no ethical preemptive war doctrine is necessary under jus ad bellum to justify wars against them. While this might seem overly permissive at first, the moral conditions of third-party state interest must often prevent their participation in wars against tyrants or even against tyrannical assaults by one country against neighboring countries. The moral requirements of state interest require that states maintain their military forces only for threats against their own citizens’ lives and liberties, since the state is constituted precisely for the protection of all its citizens—including its soldiers. While this limiting principle does not prevent forward-looking alliances toward genuine threats to one’s liberties, it does require that states not engage in charitable military actions for four reasons: first, because states may sacrifice their citizen-soldiers only to defend their citizens; second, charity is inconsistent with coercion, and charitable military deployments require coercion of the armed forces beyond their Constitution-defending oaths; third, because heroism is inconsistent with duty, and thus no duty can compel one toward international military heroism; and fourth, because all warfare entails real dangers not just to “existing millions” but to future generations.
 John Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1986), 107-110; Locke defines a “tyrant” as an executive who misuses his powers to violate the natural rights of his people.
 The Lockean doctrine of derivable just powers is a mainstay in the English republican tradition that Americans espouse, so I will assume its veracity for this paper.
 I will use the term “strictly” for moral justifications for war that fail to include the auxiliary moral conditions of prudence (morally grounded self-interest); once these latter conditions are added, what may in general be permissible will be seen in specific cases to be impermissible.
 Locke, 10-13.
 Calling them “rouge states” fails to go far enough linguistically and certainly has not been followed up by political treatment.
Security Strategy of the United States of America (2002), Section III: “Our immediate focus will be
those terrorist organizations of global reach and any terrorist or state sponsor of terrorism which attempts to gain
or use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or their precursors; defending the
United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by
identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the
 In Section V of the NSS the President calls terrorist-regimes “rogue states” and identifies five tyrannical traits that subject them to this designation: they “brutalize their own people and squander their national resources for the personal gain of the rulers; display no regard for international law, threaten their neighbors, and callously violate international treaties to which they are party; are determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction, along with other advanced military technology, to be used as threats or offensively to achieve the aggressive designs of these regimes; sponsor terrorism around the globe; and
reject basic human values and hate the
One possible reason for this delay or abandonment of the original doctrine’s
application may be the shift from destroying governments willing to harbor
terrorists to attempting to rebuild the constitutions of entire countries. Just war fighting does not require and
prudence would seriously caution against rebuilding enemy territory or
political institutions. The World War II
successes in this arena were based on very specific sociological and temporal
conditions being satisfied (as I’ll discuss later in this essay), and so should
not be looked to as examples. Nations
that engage in terrorist support should have their governments destroyed, their
military and political leadership executed en masse. Those nations should then be freed to
construct whatever new government they wish with the future threat that a
return to terrorist support would entail subsequent government
destructions. Ancient empires such as
the Babylonians and Romans used this tactic to good effect. Destroying—not rebuilding—our enemies is the
proper function of the
It is often said that terrorists do not occupy territory, but they do in fact
operate from some place that affords them a reasonable measure of security and
as recently seen in
 For a list of terrorist actions against the West since the early decades of the 20th century, see http://personal.ashland.edu/~jlewis8/TerrorChronology.htm.
 NSS, Introduction.
Neither the NSS nor the President’s
NSS, Section V: “Given the goals of
rogue states and terrorists, the
 Patrick Buchanan is among the most compelling of these traditional (small-‘r’) republicans; in his book A Republic, Not an Empire he offers an intriguing analysis of American history and her founding principles in an effort to show a decided and worrisome shift in our foreign policy since 1898 generally and since the fall of the Berlin Wall specifically.
The term “empire” is understandably pejorative in these discussions, but there
are different kinds of empire, some of which might be worse than others, but
all of which are inconsistent with US traditions. The Babylonian empire forced the
mass-migrations of people groups, while the Romans tended to allow peoples to
stay in their home regions and even practice limited self-rule. The
 I mean this argument to follow both from the US Constitution per se (and thus applicable to the United States) but also from national ethics per se (and thus applicable to all nations), for the purpose of political compact is the defense of its citizens’ natural rights, and Locke’s arguments to this effect have yet to be superseded. A second moral argument grounded in the distinction between heroism and courage will be offered later in this paper.
 George Washington, Farewell Address, (1786).
 George Washington, Farewell Address, (1786).
The Works of Alexander Hamilton (
Thus, Michael Walzer’s argument for the moral equivalence of soldiers as
persons who have traded their right to life for the right to kill is misguided
(Just and Unjust Wars, 2nd ed.,
[Basic Books, 1977]). A soldier is first
and foremost a citizen, and his rights are opposed to those of the enemy
combatant on opposing citizen grounds rather than on some supposed clash of
knight-combatants grounds (Walzer’s supporters have yet to solve the problem
that conscription poses for their theory of combatant-consent). The rightness of our cause makes the death of
every one of our soldiers murder. The
 Hamilton, IV: 175.
 James Madison, First Inaugural Address, (1809).
 John Quincy Adam’s Warning against the “Search for Monsters to Destroy,” (1821); taken from http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/jqadams.htm.
It is intriguing to compare the desire and capacity of post-war
 George Washington, Farewell Address, (1796).
 Hitler’s quest to annihilate specific people groups is also an unfortunately common horror of world history.
 It is not ‘idleness’ but proper moral activity to avoid involving one’s citizens in the endless murderous ideological assaults by tyrants on their own people.
It is intriguing that in Plato’s Apology,
Socrates tells the story of being ordered to carry out an unjust execution of
one Leon of Salamis. Instead of carrying
out the order, he went home. What is
important for our discussion is that he apparently felt no moral compulsion to
 There is nothing implausible about the creation of a set of voluntary ‘knights of justice’ to carry out benevolent warfighting in the cause of foreign people’s liberty, but these knights cannot be US soldiers, as the role of the soldier differs completely from the mythical ideals of the knight (real knights were just soldiers, of course).
 In WWII the Flying Tigers constitute such an example, while in WWI American pilots formed the Lafayette Escadrille. During the Revolutionary War both the Frenchman Lafayette and the Prussian Baron von Steuben heroically offered themselves to support our cause—it should be noted that financial considerations motivated the Baron too.
 It would be interesting to see a study done on the relationship between the rise of superheroes in the imaginations of young men and the penchant to think of national responsibility in superhero terms.
 Patrick Buchanan, A Republic, Not an Empire, (Washington: Regnery, 1999), 11.
 Buchanan, 249-298.
 I have in mind examples such as the Jugurthan War which initially involved the Romans’ taking sides in a foreign ascension dispute between two brothers, one of whom appealed for help to the Roman Senate on the grounds of universal justice, et al.
 Buchanan, 281.
 The Athenian democracy turned from the leadership of the Athenian League (a anti-Persian, defensive network of independent city-states) to its dominator, showing how the relationship between democracy and tyranny are quite as close as Plato warned in Books VIII-IX of his Republic.