Josh Dunigan |||

The conceptual wrongs in the Soleimani killing

Americans and the world felt a lot of rage and anger at the president, even some of his most loyal supporters in congress or in the media. Some were angry for reasons that were political” or of self interest, but some had legitimate gripes. Many were angry that this violated the power of congress to declare war and angry at the subsequent lack of justification for the strike (two weeks after, there is still no justification). The White House floated around many reasons for the strike such as defense against imminent attacks on the US or that he had it coming”. One particularly idiotic response was that it was in part to stop Iran from making nuclear weapons. Many people started playing hypotheticals for reasons that would justify this act of war (killing a leader of a UN nation is an act of war, if Iran did similar to us or an ally we would consider it an act of war) and I would like to add some hypotheticals to show that this and some of the surrounding contexts were wrong using a Kantian theory of war and peace.

Just usage of war

For Kant, the principle of external freedom and right is the independence of being constrained by another’s choice or will, but only to universal law. Someone using coercion to force you to do something is a violation of your external freedom, your freedom to act and set ends in the world. A state is right in that it can use coercion to stop another from wrongfully coercing you. A condition where force is the ruling principle, where might is right, is one devoid of justice. One where the law and right are the ruling principles, is one of freedom. The state allows the citizens to be self-governing and self-legislating individuals who are able to act together under rightful conditions. This means that the state is inherintly public, the state must have a monopoly on coercion so that the citizens are able to only be coerced in the name of right, the state must represent everyone and at the same time no one.

Similarly, it is in the self-interest of states to enter into a condition of rightful relations. States should enter into treaties and establish a voluntary, but not coercive, league of nations to handle any disputes between states. The reason that it is non-coercive is argued in the later years of Kant and further clarified by Pauline Kleingeld. She goes on to say that since the internal constitution of the states is that they are self-legislating, they already exist in a rightful condition. So the analogy that private people should enter a state (which Kant says that force is justified similar to Hobbes) is not the same that states should enter a league of nations and that others can force states to join this rightful relation. Forcing another state into a league of nations would violate the internal constitution of the peoples.

So Kleingeld and Kant would argue that it is unjust to force others into a league of nations, what about other use of force? Arthur Ripstein argues that only defensive war is justified, but this defense is still what Kant calls barbarism”. Barbarism is the condition where disputes between individuals and between states is settled by force and not merit or right. It is in the interest of states to enter into a league of nations for the sake of peace and to settle disputes through this voluntarry and non-coercive league. However, it will not always be the case. If you are a peaceful European nation in the 1930s, you are faced with the question of war from Germany. It would be ideal to settle this dispute between Germany and yourself without using force, but when push comes to shove the European nation may need to defend itself. Once we are at this state of barbarism, what does right have to say about how to defend yourself in war?

The regulating principle of war for Kant is peace. The end of war should be constrained by it and he gives two constraints. One is that war must settle the dispute and the other is that the war must be consistent with the survival and continued existent of both beligerents. War in this sense is similar to some sort of contract, in that the contract must have some sort of purpose and it must not void the contract by the destruction of either party. What the first principle means is that if you are wanting to stop someone from encroaching your legally recognized border and a war starts because of this, you do not have the right to then win the war and make your border even larger. Then you have not only settled the original dispute, that of the border, but you are creating another dispute which is against peace. The second principle is that if you enter into a defensive war with someone, you do not get to destroy the other nation, say be erasing them as a state by colonizing it or by wiping them off the map (arguments discussed this with Germany after WWII, also a possibility with nuclear weapons).

The US and Iran

Given the above (brief and probably not 100% correct description) conceptual mapping of some Kantian state and war concepts, I would like to discuss three things that seem anti-thesis to peace given recent US and Iranian conflicts. One is the departure from the Iranian nuclear deal by the US. Another is the killing of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The last is the refusal to let Iran speak to the UN general assembly held in US territory.

Leaving the Iranian nuclear deal

The Iranian nuclear deal was the ideal way of solving the dispute between Iran and other nations on their continuing development of nuclear weapons. Given the history of the world, the US and Russia already have nuclear weapons. This cemented the strength of the two nations and it does not seem like it is something either side can easily just reverse. However, it does seem like any country developing their own is not something that the world wants. If anything, we want to stop the development of nuclear weapons on the planet. So we have a dispute between states and a state and given the above, we would want to solve this using right and not force. Sanctions do not necessarily stop Iran from developing weapons since the state is a despot, one in which the from of the government is not split between soveriegn and the state. The United States (in theory) is a republic, in that the people through congress must give their consent to go to war since they are the ones who bear the burden of war. Similarly, the people of the state bear the weight of sanctions since you can always squeeze more money out of the population.

Instead, the Iranian nuclear deal was made to resolve with right the exact dispute and in the best way. Iran agreed to reduce the enrichment of uranium, reprocess nuclear facilities for energy and not weapons, allow the UN to monitor nuclear facilities, and to get rid of sanctions on Iran related to previous methods of nuclear deterrment using sanctions. Whether or not the agreement was precisely what was wanted by the US and its allies is up for debate, but one thing is that this is on the path to peace and not barbarism and war. Instead of trying to fix the deal, enforce it more strictly using the agreed upon deal, Trump decided to leave it. As one of the superpowers, this weakened the deal and incentivizes Iran to not follow the Iran deal, despite other nations staying in. Trump took this dispute between at least our nation and Iran into one of anarchy, devoid of justice, from one of right. In sum, we put ourselves and the world at risk of war instead of staying on the path to peace.

The Killing of the Iranian General

Qasem Soleimani was an Iranian general, who is at least respected for his job of getting things done for Iran. Due to the ever complex geopolitical relations in the Middle East, we have worked with Soeimani in the past while also labelling him as a terrorist. Despite this, we ended up abruptly killing him while he was in Iraq with a military strike. There is no current White House justification for this. Whatever the justification was, it did not in any shape or form be regulated by right and in the name of peace. Whether or not we label Soleimani a terrorist is up for debate and when doing so, we risk turning the blade of moral blame on ourselves and some government officials as terrorists.

Terrorist or not, he was still a powerful member of a UN state and powerful force in the Middle East. Killing a leader of any state or even a mafia will expect some form of retaliation in return. What Trump should have done, if he really was a terrorist, is first go through the international means of right that we have set up in place to enact some sort of punishment on Soleimani. If this does not work, we may be justified in killing him in some way if self-defense ever arises. However, it is hard to see why killing a government official and not the actual military forces who are going to or are attacking us in defense.

I cannot think of any use of war in self-defense that warrants killing a member of the head of state. Some possible motivations for killing him was to act tough unlike” Obama and Clinton during Benghazi, to deal our own punishment on a man we dislike, to win some political points with your base, to (in Trump’s words) help re-election of himself, or you name it.

Barring the Foreign Minister of Iran from the UN

After the strike, we barred Iran’s top foreign diplomat, the person who is responsible for settling Iranian international disputes via right from even coming to the table to speak. Professor Turley rightly points out the idiocity of this move. If we are to be members of the UN and can reasonably say we care about right and not just are barbarians with a big GDP, we should have at least restricted his movement to the UN location in NYC and that is it, treating the location as neutral international ground. One cannot have reasonable discourse at all if one is barred from even participating in the discourse. To not enter into rational discussion is to leave a state of rightful relations, which we seemingly have done with Iran.


The US has made a fool of ourselves on the international stage, prompting mockery, laughter, and alienation from virtually all allies and enemies. One of the reasons why is we are regressing our external relations with other states from one of right to one devoid of right and even worse, one of barbarism. It would be one thing if on any of these events I discussed above that we had people on our side internationally, but we did not. Even internally, only people who disregard the constitution agree with Trump’s actions, which was a minority of republicans and xenophobes. Actually, some xenophobes did not even agree, they said the bigger problem was south of the border and we are just spending useless time in the Middle East again.

No rational person applauds pure barbarism. The reason why the US military can, or was, considered great was because we would at least let morality govern war. When the ends of war is not for peace between the states involved and the ones on the planet who may be involved, we go against our own self-interests of peace. To leave a state of right and enter into one of anarchy, even worse would be barbarism, we make a mockery of any superiority we have on the international stage. If all we are is a country that imposes our arbitrary will on others by force, we will become the enemies who we have been supposedly fighting against this whole time.

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