A reader writes:
I have found your posts on the conflict in Gaza fascinating, in particular the most recent one on whether Israel’s actions meet the criteria of a just war. But I have a concern.
With hindsight, I imagine that most people would agree that it would have been better for everyone and therefore morally preferable if Britain had been able to take military action against Nazi Germany sooner than they did – either in response to the annexation of the Sudetenland or to the remilitarisation of the Rhein-Ruhr. If Germany had been checked at that early stage, Hitler might have been deposed before he had a chance to launch total war in Europe and the Holocaust.
I also imagine that most people would now agree that it would have been better for everyone and therefore morally preferable if the first President Bush had deposed Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War, or if Bill Clinton had taken bolder military action against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But I cannot see how any of those actions would have passed your criteria for a just war, because at the relevant points the damage inflicted on Britain/the West was not ‘lasting, grave and certain’ and ‘all other means of ending Hitler/Saddam/Al-Qaeda’s aggression’ had not been shown to be ‘impractical or ineffective’. A moral theory which cannot provide a basis for the essential strategy of ‘nipping bad things in the bud’ is fundamentally flawed, surely?
I also doubt the value – and even the true morality – of a moral theory which cannot take the likely political consequences of an action into account. A peace settlement which creates a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel is the only way that peace can be brought to Israel/Palestine. The only way that there is any prospect of any settlement of this kind in the next 5 years is if Kadima and Labour win a mandate to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority and if the Palestinian Authority has the power and legitimacy to negotiate such an agreement. The intervention in Gaza has a chance of weakening both the main opponents of a two-state solution (Likud and Hamas) and of bolstering its main supporters (Fatah, Kadima and Labour.) Surely, a useful moral theory has to be able to look forward and assess the wider political implications of an act not just the immediate physical consequences of the act?
These are excellent points, especially if you consider the Israeli action under the light of the center-left’s domestic attempt to forestall Full Netanyahu Jacket. I wish I could see that scenario panning out. But it’s not impossible. As to Hitler and Saddam, the analogy rests on the unknowable assumption that Hamas represents as great a threat to Israel as Hitler did to France in 1936. That’s not a serious proposition. It may be one day. The point of just war theory is that it assumes the default position is peace. But what if the default position is an eternal war for survival?