Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Great moments in Epistemology--Nuclear Holocaust Edition

From the WaPo:

President Bush plans to issue a new national security strategy today reaffirming his doctrine of preemptive war against terrorists and hostile states with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, despite the troubled experience in Iraq.


The preemption doctrine generated fierce debate at the time, and many critics believe the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has fatally undermined an essential assumption of the strategy -- that intelligence about an enemy's capabilities and intentions can be sufficiently reliable to justify preventive war.

Has the realization that our intelligence on the state of Iraq's WMD program was faulty really undermined the case for preemption? Sure, it should inspire skepticism on the state of our knowledge on Iran's nuke programs.

But which way does this cut? We know our intelligence isn't entirely reliable, but this means only that our intelligence isn't entirely reliable; we don't know in what ways it isn't reliable (if we knew this, then our intelligence would again be reliable). It could be the case that Iran is further along than we suspect; there's no reason our intelligence necessarily overstates affairs. The realization that our intelligence is flawed should inspire even more fear of Iran's pursuit of nukes.

But, in any case, whether a preemptive war is justified (not in some moral or ethical sense, but pragmatically) turns not just on the state of our knowledge on the enemy's current WMD programs, but also our perception of our enemy's motives and their ability to eventually acquire WMD.

Is preemptive war against Iran justified on pragmatic grounds? I don't know, but it should remain on the table, and definitely shouldn't be jettisoned based on unrealistic epistemological standards.


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