There is no justification for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea

Has America learned nothing?

Against a pre-emptive strike.
(Image credit: Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo)

An insane, whiskey-drinking, ruthless but incompetent dictator presiding over a poor country with artificial borders whose wretched, put-upon citizenry worship him and members of his family as part of a grotesque cult of personality is allegedly on the cusp of obtaining nuclear weapons — if he doesn't have them already — and our Republican president, despite the possible shakiness of the intelligence and the immense logistical difficulties involved, to say nothing of the projected costs in blood and treasure, wants us to go to war with him preemptively for the good of this country and the rest of the world.

Some of you, I expect, remember this movie. It was called, rather blandly, "the war in Iraq." It killed more than 4,500 Americans and nearly 200,000 civilians. It cost more than $2 trillion. It was a disaster from start to finish. Entered on the flimsiest of pretexts, with a staggering blitheness unworthy of a 7-year-old Stratego player; conducted with strategic assumptions so totally divorced from either morality or prudence or the history of warfare that you wonder why its architects and boosters are not in prison; lied about; used as a pawn during one election; gaining the White House for a hopeless political naïf who happened to have denounced it during another — it was, simply put, the dumbest thing America has done in at least half a century.

And it's far from over. It is a polite fiction that the conflict that began with "shock and awe" in March of 2003 ended sometime in 2011. The ongoing Iraqi civil war is a direct sequel; the rise of the Islamic State and the ongoing global refugee crisis are spin-off films. And if President Trump's words mean anything — admittedly not an ironclad assumption — then a soft reboot may be coming soon to a theater near you.

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Let's hope not. A pre-emptive military strike against North Korea would be both grossly immoral and recklessly stupid. I can't believe this needs saying in 2017, but fighting a war halfway across the world before even trying to exhaust diplomatic solutions first in response to a vague threat whose existence we have not even verified from a desperate, isolated, more or less friendless tyrant trying to bluff his way out of crippling poverty is a terrible idea.

Even on the most charitable reading, in which we assume that the decades of planning for a potential invasion of North Korea by the United States and — let's hope — some of her allies have been fruitful and that we won't be caught a few weeks in with mountains of rubble, piles of bodies, and no exit strategy, it's going to be both deadly and expensive. Costs would doubtless run into the many trillions; body counts would likely reach levels not seen since World War II. And looming over all of it would be the insanely vexed question of re-unification. Who would foot the bill? Is Seoul ready? Will they ever be?

But this isn't simply a question of strategy. Lots of stupid things are morally justifiable — running into a building to save your child even though you have no fire-retardant gear or relevant training if there is no time to contact the guys in red hats, say. Trying to wage a war when you have not satisfied the necessary conditions for justice is not one of them.

The Catholic Church's teaching on just war is admirably clear and cogent. Guiding it are four principles outlined in the catechism. The first is, very obviously, that so far from being pre-emptive, the war must be waged in response to another's aggression; the harm inflicted on the nation considering retaliation "must be lasting, grave, and certain." The second is that diplomatic means of resolving the situation must have been thoroughly exhausted. Third, "there must be serious prospects for success." Finally, since the goal of a just war is the restoration of peace, "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated."

I think it is reasonable to say that the Iraq War satisfied none of these conditions. Iraq had not attacked the United States in the lead-up to the war; other means of addressing the situation were dismissed in a tokenistic manner; success did not seem likely to many reasonable people; and the country was and, in many ways, remains worse off than it was before Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Looking at North Korea, I think it's fair to say that very little if any damage, grave or otherwise, has been visited upon the United States and that diplomacy — especially through China — has hardly been exhausted. It is difficult to pronounce upon the likelihood of success. While it is likely that some sort of post-Kim world would be better off for the country's starving population, it is not at all clear that war is the only or even the best way of realizing such a state of affairs.

You don't have to be a Catholic to see the logic here. Pre-emptive war with North Korea is not morally justifiable. For now President Trump should keep whatever he's got locked and loaded in the safe.

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