The moral blackmail regarding Iran has begun, and often enough, it sounds like this:
If you had certain intelligence of an imminent threat on American lives, would you or would you not use military force to stop the person responsible for it?
If you say that you wouldn’t, you sound like a callous traitor, willing to sacrifice American lives to the Iranian regime. If you say you would (or even “I would under these circumstances”), you’re effectively ratifying the Trump Administration’s decision to kill Qasem Suleimani, and by implication ratifying-in-advance whatever decision it ends up making about war. And that’s the whole game.
Don’t think you can escape the dilemma by invoking some escape clause like “I’d strike, but only in these circumstances.” That won’t work: there’s no way to limit “these” circumstances to any determinate set.
You don’t have access to that advanced intelligence, do you? And you wouldn’t want to take chances with American lives, would you? Assuming not in both cases (right?), you have no choice but to agree that you would “pull the trigger” on Suleimani, just as Trump did. But why stop there? Since you’ve taken The Donald on faith there, what rationale could you have for not taking him on faith for the next step? It’s not as though your epistemic situation has changed, and it’s not as though the military situation has changed, either–at least not in a way that you can know. You don’t know more than you did a day or two ago, and now that we’ve killed Suleimani, imminent threats from Iran are even more imminent than they were before we did. So if it made sense to strike yesterday, it makes the same sense to be ready to strike today; if we strike tomorrow, it will make sense to be ready for the day after that.
Indeed, until things change (goes this implicit line of thought), you should just operate on faith. Some more articles of faith: threats will arise in the inscrutable ex nihilo fashion in which threats always arise in the American universe, like a “bolt from the blue.” But never fear: “the greatest military in the world” will respond by neutralizing all of these threats–yes, that same “greatest military” that’s lost three of the last three wars it’s fought. If we just keep the faith, we can keep this going indefinitely: maximal safety ensured by perpetual carnage.
At any rate, the “imminent threat” question is not the invincible tactic that it seems at first glance to be. Here are four lines of response.
First response: taking the question exactly as stated, there’s simply not enough information to answer. But the answer is not clearly that “we must strike.” Whether or not to strike depends on the context and the consequences. If the consequence of a strike was war, no, I wouldn’t use military force to respond. Large numbers of Americans will likely die in either case: they will die if the imminent attack succeeds, and they will die if they are sent to fight the attacker in a war. There’s a salient distinction between letting-die and sending-to-die.* I’d prefer to let some die in the imminent attack than to send others to their deaths in a war. I’d especially prefer that option if some of them shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and if the latter number might dwarf the former, as it might. Instead of starting a new war, I would take the opportunity to end the old, unfinished war that put so many Americans in harm’s way in the first place.
Second response: if I can be presumed to have certain intelligence of an imminent threat to American lives, I ought also to have certain intelligence of the range of options open to me, even if it turns out to be true that striking the equivalent of Suleimani ends up being the top-ranked one. I’d want to know, for instance, whether a defensive option short of a missile strike was possible, and if not why not. I’d want to know whether a more limited sort of strike was possible and if not, why not (e.g., a strike on a commander or unit whose deaths would be less likely to trigger wholesale war).
In general, merely knowing that p is the case is a defective basis for deliberation, even if p is true. A responsible decision-maker operates on knowledge of why p is the case, and if possible, defers decision until he has that knowledge. No responsible decision-maker acts merely on the knowledge that military force is the only viable option; she relies on a broader understanding of why that’s so, assuming it is. The explanation-why-something-is helps put the larger deliberative situation in context: it helps identify the range of both military and non-military options, along with the expected consequences of each option or set of them. It’s irrational and irresponsible to fly blind in moral space, especially when you’re flying a Hellfire missile.
Half of the problem with the “imminent threat” question is that it bakes this irrationality and irresponsibility into the question itself, and by implication into popular thinking about our current situation, so that people fixate on one ready-made question, get one foreordained answer, and block everything else out. In this respect, the “imminent threat” question has much the same function as the “ticking time-bomb” question about torture, both designed less to get people to think rationally about the subject at hand than to blackmail them prematurely into thinking that what seems like insanity is just a regrettable necessity.
Third response, along the same lines as the second: it’s not clear that one and only one person is or even could be responsible for an imminent attack. Obviously, General Suleimani was not physically going to carry out whatever imminent attacks were thought to be imminent, any more than Adolph Hitler physically invaded the Soviet Union, or Leonid Brezhnev physically invaded Afghanistan. So it’s not plausible to assert that only by killing Suleimani could we have averted an imminent attack.
But suppose that that somehow ends up being the case: it’s Suleimani or nothing. The fact remains that an otherwise uninformed person can’t be expected to answer the “imminent threat” question without knowing how that’s the case. If all I know is that killing Suleimani and only Suleimani will avert an imminent attack, the fact remains that I have no way of putting that fact in context, and no way of deliberating about what happens after this one attack is averted. So it makes no sense to insist that one should strike anyway. No one can answer questions about warfare by treating relevant issues as a mysterious black box. Nor can anyone be expected to farm out moral judgment out to people who claim knowledge of what it’s in the black box when a war is at stake. That the “imminent threat” question demands this is precisely what makes it a form of blackmail.
Fourth response: we’ve been given no reason to believe that the intelligence in question is certain, or even that it exists. It could be very uncertain. It could be irrelevant. It could all be lies. Given our leaders’ long history of lies and emotional blackmail under circumstances just like these, we can ill afford to believe the latest episode of their crying wolf, even if the wolf happens to be there.** If he does, tough luck. Maybe learn not to gaslight us so much next time?
Here is the real question that needs to be asked.
If you had no real information about whether or not we faced an imminent threat, but were being told we were by psychopathic liars willing to lie about anything for what they delusionally take to be their immediate gain, and following their advice might extend pointless, crazy wars that have already taken a devastating toll, would you walk straight into every trap set for you by these rulers, and sleepwalk your way through another couple thousand body bags and another couple of decades of war?
A tendentious question, I know. But how much worse than the one that opens this post?
By the time any of us gets the facts straight about our current predicament in Iraq–two, five, ten, or twenty confusing years from now–path-dependency will long since have kicked in, and it’ll be too late to find our way out of whatever war we began. Because if you try at that point to pull back, guess what will happen? The Americans of 2030 or 2040 or whatever will face yet another imminent threat, that’s what. Of course, path-dependency arguably kicked in sixteen or seventeen years ago when we invaded Iraq back in 2003–which is why we face imminent threats from Iran in Iraq now. The funny thing is that when I first heard of it, I thought the “Thirty Years War” was too absurd an event to have actually taken place in history. We’re now on track to outdoing it. And I thought the opening moves of World War I were at least as comical as they were tragic. No one could actually do that, I thought. Whole countries locked together in an insane death spiral toward oblivion? It seemed impossible, unreal, outlandish. We live and learn. With Trump all things are possible.
What we’re being told by Trump and Pompeo et al is that salvation in the domain of warfare is by faith alone: only by an act of faith in our omnibenevolent leaders and their omniscient intelligence apparatus will we be saved from any threats we might face or attacks that might befall us. This sort of reasoning is questionable enough when it comes to Protestant theology. But even fundamentalist theology seems sane by comparison with the idea of sacrificium intellectus on behalf of the Trump Administration. It may well be too late or beyond our powers to stop the juggernaut toward war with Iran. But we should at least have the dignity not to be blackmailed into self-deception by the moral trash who currently hold the reins of power in this country–whether in the White House or at Fox News or anywhere else. It’s bad enough to be forced into war. The least we can do is to resist our leaders’ attempts to invade and rule our minds. If we can preserve that, I suppose, we can bear to lose the rest.
*Also relevant here but too complicated for the post is the distinction between an ordinary moral obligation and what Chisholm calls a “contrary-to-duty imperative,” i.e., a moral imperative that arises from a moral agent’s violation of some other duty. See Roderick Chisholm, “Contrary-to-Duty Imperatives and Deontic Logic,” Analysis 24:2 (December 1963). If the presence of our troops in Iraq violates justice, then what we’re to do when we face a threat to them is a contrary-to-duty imperative.
**Just to give you an idea, the reference in the hyperlink, Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie, only goes up to 2004, and only deals with presidential lies about warfare since FDR. But it’s 447 action-packed pages long.