Is Just-War Reasoning a Helpful Tool for Evaluating Bush’ Bluff (?) towards Iraq?

In the wake of the January 10, 2003 Society of Christian Ethics plenary session on Iraq, I’d like to follow up some disturbingly fruitful comments made from the floor by Charles Matthews of the University of Virginia. If I heard Matthews correctly, the Bush administration may be bluffing its way towards resolving the crisis without an actual invasion. The question this risky strategy raises for me is whether such strategy might not effectively do an end-run around traditional just-war thinking.

I. A colossal bluff in the making?
[1] Consider the events of the past several months. The opening salvo, of course, occurred when the Bush administration threatened a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Capitalizing on the nervous diplomatic momentum generated by this threat, the Bush administration rounded up unanimous endorsement from the United Nations Security Council to pursue a multilateral policy of aggressive (invasive!) searching for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the administration reserved its “right” to carry out the invasion originally threatened. Ostensibly to that end, it has been assembling a massive force at Iraq’s very borders. But when and how will this force be used? Perhaps never-if the very presence of this force serves to drive Saddam Hussein into exile, or into the grave. “Regime change” therefore might be achieved through bluff-without street fighting in Baghdad, without U.S. casualties, and even perhaps without an invasion.

[2] If this indeed is the Bush administration strategy, how might it be evaluated through the traditional canons of just-war thinking? The suspicion that disturbs me is that it simply may not fit. Perhaps a case might be made, in support of the administration, for right intention: perhaps the Bush administration intends to bring a new and less belligerent regime to power without inflicting the damages and horrors of combat upon Iraq. Perhaps a stronger case might be made against the administration, since the other criteria seem more problematic.

just cause: the bluffing strategy is proceeding without evidence of an Iraqi “smoking gun” (evidence of weapons of weapons of mass destruction), let alone actual aggression.

last resort: the bluffing strategy effectively shortcircuits the U.N. inspections process and any other diplomatic processes underway.

legitimate authority: the bluffing strategy is proceeding without explicit U.N. authorization, and of course, there is no actual declaration of war.

reasonable prospect of success: the bluffing strategy may of course fail, in the sense of actually starting a bloody land war in Iraq.

[3] But while such traditional just-war reasoning appears cogent, it still doesn’t cut to the core of the issue. What if Bush wins his gamble? How relevant can and would ad bellum considerations be if by chance the bold strategy succeeds? More pithily: how can we call a war unjust if that war is never actually fought?

II. Poker, no longer chess?
[4] The problem, in essence, is how to evaluate a strategy predicated on bluff. A bluff resists rational calculation not only because it polarizes outcomes between the desirable and the abhorrent, but because it veils them in uncertainty to the very last moment. On the one hand, the bluff promises an enormous payoff: if Saddam Hussein is assassinated or chooses to flee, the U.S. may be able to take advantage of the power vacuum to engineer a less belligerent and dangerous successor. On the other hand, it is loaded with risk: if Saddam Hussein survives preemptive coups or assassination attempts by his officers, and decides to stick and fight, the U.S. likely will carry through and invade. Thus U.S. strategy might precipitate the very war it seeks to avoid through bluff.

[5] In this all-or-nothing game, how can we evaluate the justice of the risk which is taken? I suspect that a new line of just-war thinking needs to be opened up. The subject of moral evaluation, it seems to me, needs to be relocated from its traditional home-from the initiating conditions of war, in all their concreteness, to the question of risk, in all its contingency and indeterminacy. Risk invites bluff, and when the stakes are enormously high, the justice involved becomes difficult to measure.

[6] Here a new game metaphor might help to orient our thinking: poker, as a successor to chess. Just-war thinking emerged from, and was refined in, the set-piece wars of antiquity and early modernity. In the days of limited mobility and limited destructive capabilities (up until Hiroshima?), war resembled a game of chess. In chess, the throwweight of individual pieces is limited, the distribution of forces is above board (literally), and the intentions of the players can be deciphered by those sufficiently skilled at the game. While lightning strikes are possible and bluff is of some use, attacks usually proceed by increment and strategies reveal themselves on a board where all is visible Chess permits precise calculations of action and effect, and thus (where human bodies are concerned) permits a moral inventory of how much different strategies will cost.

[7] The political terrain of battle today, in contrast, calls for a new game metaphor. In effect, the technological concentration of military power, the acceleration of communication, and the monopolization of final destruction by a single hegemonic power transforms the terrain of contest from the extended grappling which characterized war at least through World War II. At the table where George Bush and Saddam Hussein are now playing, intentions can be disguised, only to be unveiled with the swift devastation wrought by a nuclear missile-or now, even with conventional forces. Conventional forces can be deployed with overwhelming rapidity and precisely targeted force-witness the stunning denouement of the Persian Gulf War eleven years ago. Poker measures success or failure only according to a single dazzling outcome, an outcome which remains veiled until the very last moment. Bluff becomes the primary strategy; it overshadows the grinding mechanics of warfighting as the means through which to destroy the enemy’s will to fight, which after all is a necessary objective of all war.

[8] How are we to assess the moral value of high-risk strategy? Herewith, an illustration from the recent past will underline the difficulty. In 1983, the NCCB released an assessment of nuclear weaponry which remains a widely admired exercise in just-war reasoning. But the authors of that document encountered considerable difficulty when attempting to assess the moral value of nuclear deterrence. They noted the extreme riskiness of the strategy, and judged it morally acceptable only to the extent that it served to prevent the use of nuclear arms, as a strictly defensive bluff. But the bluff was morally hollow, in that they also concluded that the actual use of nuclear weapons would likely would fail the in-bello criteria of both proportionality and discrimination.(The Challenge of Peace, Washington: USCC, paragraphs 178-91) They did not, and perhaps could not, evaluate the risky pro-active use of deterrence as an offensive strategy within traditional just-war categories,. The irony became apparent as President Ronald Reagan played poker on a whopping scale with the Soviet Union. He deliberately destabilized the “mutually assured destruction” that had held both superpowers hostage to a game of mutual tit-for-tat in arms development. Through a massive military buildup featuring weapons of offensive capability, Reagan challenged the Soviet Union to keep up-and effectively bid the overextended Soviet empire into collapse. How to evaluate the justice of such risk-taking where the consequences of failure are all but incalculable?

[9] The current tangent of Bush-administration action towards Iraq resembles that of Reagan towards the Soviet Union. Both are characterized by enormous cost, enormous risk-and enormous potential payoff. Yet no one (to my knowledge) has made the effort to evaluate Reagan’s high-risk strategy retrospectively according to just-war criteria. The main reason might be that such an exercise would be pointless because the strategy succeeded. After all, it is difficult to count the in-bello costs of a war which never occurred, and success makes ad-bellum qualms evaporate into the mists of irrelevance. The same irrelevance might attach to the thoughtful and even elegant assessments being made today, unless the Bush strategy fails. Then, of course, the war of this coming February may be judged hopelessly unjust, but I still am not sure that such a condemnation would capture the heart of the issue.

III. Towards a moral appraisal of risk and bluffing
[10] Today, just-war analysis must assess the moral value of risk inherent in a policy of bluff. But how to do so? Risk is an inherently slippery business, subject to analysis by decision theorists who have a background in cognitive psychology, economics and other disciplines. I suspect that insight into the mechanics of risk-taking could be gained from such cross-disciplinary perspectives on risk-taking. Still, discussion need not be tabled entirely until we ethicists are transmuted into experts on the rationality of risk and bluff. The risky strategy of the Bush administration calls attention to some immediately ponderable questions. Let me suggest the following, to help move discussion into this new area of just-war analysis:

[11] First, the basics. What does the Christian tradition say, if anything, about the place of risk in the moral life? For Protestants, Martin Luther emphasized elements of uncontrollable contingency in human life, and commended a discipleship of accepting, rather than resisting, such contingency-a life lived under the cross in all its starkness. Does such a perspective illuminate the value of deliberate risk-taking? If so, for nations as well as individuals?

[12] What does the Christian tradition say, if anything, about the place of bluffing in the moral life? Bluff capitalizes on risk, all while the tradition commends honesty and transparency within the life of the community. Should such transparency be projected into public life as a norm for the instruments of political governance, particularly in the service of avoiding harm to life? Roman Catholic moral theologians have spoken to the question of mental reservation in religious commitment; what about the place of bluffing in the secular life?

[13] Second, questions might also be raised from the more rigorous philosophical perspective typical of just-war reasoning:

[14] Consider the new terrain of contest, where technology, communications and speed highlight elements of risk and bluff in military strategy. Does this new environment encourage us to rethink how we engage in consequential moral reasoning? The bluffing strategy apparently employed by the Bush administration drastically magnifies the moral seriousness of consequences and the either-or indeterminacy of their occurring. When the stakes are so heightened, how to attach a value to consequences?

[15] What does this new terrain imply for principle-based moral evaluation? Indeed, what are the main moral issues raised by high-risk bluffing? Above, I have suggested justice, but whose justice is compromised or underserved by high-risk ventures by their president-or (from the vantage point of Iraqis) by the leader of an opposing power? Do citizens have a right to transparency in strategy undertaken presumably on their behalf?

[16] Further, should a strategy of high-stakes bluffing be held accountable to the Kantian norms of reversibility and universalizability? Regarding reversibility: would we find it morally tolerable if other nations played high-stakes poker against us? What about North Korea playing the nuclear card? Regarding universalizability: would we find it morally tolerable if high-stakes poker became the norm of international relations? Could we sit by as India and Pakistan bluffed each other to the brink of nuclear exchange?

IV. Conclusion
[17] These questions arise because the Bush strategy holds out a prospect of victory without war, a prospect that is as winsome as it seems (to me) illusory. I raise these questions not because I want to see a glitzy successor to, or even a major revision of, just-war theory. Just-war theory, it seems to me, provides an august if oft-abused bulwark of rationality against jingoistic calls to war-making. Demons of war bide their time in all of us, and I would never want to relax our accountability to the counsels of ad-bellum and in-bello reasoning. But neither would I want just-war reasoning to be left out of the poker game. It is for that reason that I suggest just-war theorists might want to consider whether we do not need to develop ways to think about high-risk bluffing strategies in the evolving arsenals of international conflict.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.