What makes a just intervention in another nation’s affairs?


Thursday 2nd October 2014

This discussion, stimulated by the recent decision to Western nations to carry out air strikes against ISIS, is linked to the notion of a ‘just war’.

Much of the discussion was focussed on the ‘ISIS problem’ in terms of an ethical and political dilemma, with the majority of the arguments focused on justifying the air strikes: it is in our interests to make sure terrorism doesn’t spread from the Middle East into our borders; we have a responsibility to help innocent victims of ISIS within their own lands, especially when invited by the home nation; we cannot allow people to get away with human atrocities such as beheadings and so on. Only one voice, called out against the strikes with the argument that we should reflect on our previous experiences with interventions in another nation’s affairs: while we don’t want to take appeasement to an extreme, surely we should see that even more recent air strike interventions in Asia/Middle East haven’t really resolved much – so we should

And what about a diplomatic solution? Would it be too naïve to expect such a thing with ISIS?  Even though Western powers work under the principle that they ‘Never negotiate with terrorists’, shouldn’t we remember that the British government went against this principle when resolving the tensions between the Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland?  Isn’t this also what happened with Yasser Arafat’s PLO in the Middle East?  Refraining from air strikes now would give us time to find a potential ‘right time’ for a greater diplomatic resolution which would save lives and perhaps bring a lasting peace.

What if that ‘right time’ never arrives or takes too long? ISIS might have destroyed many more innocent lives during this wait and created more instability that could be prevented by immediate air strikes…

The argument reminds us of an interesting concept: the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle evolved out of the global warming debate of the 1990s, in which climate experts argued that in the absence of scientific evidence to support the global warming hypothesis, governments should still go ahead and make policy to minimise the effects of this phenomenon. Scientists concluded that spending money on research and action was justified as a ‘precautionary’ or preventative measure and that we should wait for the evidence to emerge at a later date. Not very scientific.

Is the Western nations’ action against ISIS an example of the precautionary principle? No, because we have the evidence of the atrocities committed in the name of Islam which have been used to justify the air strikes against ISIS.  But what about other actions? Is it justified to incarcerate people for supposed terrorism (Guantanamo Bay) or to have invaded invade Iraq in the early 2000s (Mssrs. Bush and Blair) without having good grounds or evidence to do so?  Consider the latter question more closely.

If we are ‘evidentialists’, the answer is categorically NO. We would need to question statements proposing courses of action and request upfront evidence to justify a specific course of action, as happened with the ISIS air strikes. Regarding the invasion of Iraq, an evidentialist would argue it shouldn’t have gone ahead, because there was no prior evidence of the presence of weapons of mass destruction.  Of course, this is all fine and easy to say in hindsight – in the context of the situation, we may not have TIME to gather evidence and waiting for it might cost lives.

However, the evidentialist is fraught with problems. Consider the infinite regress issue. If the that Iraq was a threat is justified by referring to the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, then ordinarily the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction should itself  be justified by reference to a further belief that Iraq had obtained such weapons. This belief must itself be further justified by reference to another belief  in  the intent of the Iraqis  to use the weapons destructively and this chain of reference appears to go on ad infinitum. The only way of stopping this potential infinite regress is to point to a belief which is somehow self-evident, which is a strange thing to do for an evidentialist who argues that all our beliefs must be grounded on observable evidence.

According to the precautionary principle, the answer to our earlier question about whether it is justified to take action against a nation without the requisite evidence is a strong YES. There’s no problem if there’s no evidence, we are acting now in a preventative way to stop the Iraqis from using WOMD because we suspect that if they had them, they’d use them against the world. Now, if asked why we suspect the Iraqis, the reply would be: this isn’t relevant. If we waste time in evidence gathering to justify our suspicion, it might be too late and the world will be in a state of nuclear war.  The story continues: so we have to set in action a precautionary strategy as it’s only a matter of time before the Iraqi’s start to take over. The evidence of WOMD can be gathered later (and will, it is guaranteed, be found in the future) and we can justify our preventative action post facto (after the fact.)

Is this a satisfying (or even satisfactory) approach to problem solving?

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