Sunday, March 18, 2012

Iran and Just War Theory Critique Part II - Competent Authority and Last Resort

In Part I, I discussed Robert Koons’ application of (his interpretation of) the Just War Theory criterion comparative justice to the possibility that the United States or Israel might preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities (original article). I concluded that such a strike wouldn’t really violate Koons’ comparative justice.

In this post I’ll deal with two more criteria, last resort and competent authority. I will attempt to show that Koons’ use of these criteria is flawed from an analytical standpoint. Though mostly a technical issue, I think this is interesting and worth addressing. I will also provide commentary on the application of these principles to the Iran conflict.

The application of the last resort and the competent authority conditions are connected. War, even when there is a just cause, must always be the last resort, used only when all just and peaceful attempts to prevent aggression with an appropriate chance of success have failed. The necessity of competent authority follows necessarily, since only a sovereign state can engage in discussions and negotiations with the required credibility, and only a sovereign state can declare, prior to its attack, that a state of war exists.

Koons’ description of last resort is uncontroversial. The problem is his attempt to generate competent authority as a consequence. Like comparative justice, Koons’ conception of competent authority diverges from other sources quite a bit (Wikipedia page, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, IEP). He implies that a competent authority, apparently always a sovereign state, is uniquely able to fulfill the requirements of last resort, and that this arrangement makes competent authority a necessary criterion. But Koons doesn’t explain why he thinks sovereign states, and therefore competent authorities, are required to perform these functions, and history would suggest they aren’t. The Palestinian Liberation Organization may be the most obvious example of a notional authority representing a pre-state nation in credible international negotiations. As for declarations of war, such can be accomplished with little more than a video camera and a cooperative producer at Al Jazeera. Terrorist groups and other non-state military organizations don’t seem to have a problem declaring war. If there is a principled reason to reject these under the last resort criterion, Koons has omitted it.

A stronger formulation of Just War Theory generates competent authority independently, rejecting non-state actors on principle. The concept is that just war, as with the just prosecution of criminals, can only be accomplished by an impartial authority imbued with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the political body it represents. This representation, if established in a legitimate way (dictatorships are typically excluded), constitutes the authority to provide for defense, up to and including the prosecution of war.

Sneak attacks do not provide the prospective enemy with an ultimatum that it can meet and thereby avert the catastrophe of war. A just war against Iran, therefore, would have to be a declared war..... The president lacks the constitutional authority to issue such an ultimatum or declaration.... Consequently, no action (either by American or allied forces) authorized solely by the president can be just.

This reasoning is marred by equivocation. If last resort requires a declaration of the intent to make war for the purpose of giving the enemy one last chance to correct the reason for war (just cause, the first criterion), this is wholly unrelated to the domestic politics underlying such a declaration. Many acts of war in the last century matching or exceeding the scope of targeted strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities have been performed without an explicit Congressional declaration of war. It would be unreasonable for Iran to ignore a presidential declaration of intent to perform such strikes, even if such a declaration were unconstitutional. It is actually competent authority (by conventional definition), not last resort, that requires strict adherence to the Constitution while waging war, for government that is arbitrary, or in direct violation of its founding tenets, cannot be a competent authority, by definition.

This is probably the biggest legitimate hurdle Just War Theory presents to desirable military action for the US. With no real agreement about what the Constitution allows or requires from the president or Congress when determining how to employ our military forces in many instances of real conflict, it is hard to say anything short of an explicit Congressional declaration would ever definitely satisfy the competent authority criterion.

Last resort is somewhat less problematic for the proposed strike. The US, Israel, and a number of other countries have made it clear for quite some time that they consider a nuclear Iran to be an unacceptable threat. The US and Israel in particular have unabashedly taken the position that the prevention of Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon is worthy of military action. Peaceful means, such as United Nations resolutions and economic sanctions, have been tried without success. It is becoming less and less likely that anything other than military action will work.

Part III in this series will tie up some loose ends associated with last resort and address the speculative nature of Koons’ assessment of probability of success.