Unprecedented logic.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 18 2003 6:35 PM

Unprecedented Logic

Why slippery-slope arguments against invading Iraq don't hold water.

A pre-emptive U.S. attack on Iraq, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has argued, "might be considered as a precedent for others to try to do the same thing. Where do you stop? You know, if you can do that there, why not elsewhere?" Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean says the same thing: "What is to prevent China, some years down the road, from saying, 'Look what the United States did in Iraq—we're justified in going in and taking over Taiwan'?" Should we be moved by this concern about precedents, which is a form of the slippery-slope argument? Not really, and here's why.

Precedents do matter in many situations. First, in domestic law and politics, people care about consistency: If one group gets a tax break, for instance, people may think another group should be treated equally. Second, precedents affect people's judgment of what's right and wrong: When faced with a tough moral, judicial, or legislative question, we're often swayed by what influential decision-makers have done in the past. That's one reason why "The Supreme Court has long held ..." or "Congress has consistently said that ..." are such a powerful arguments, so long as listeners don't already have their own firm opinions and so long as they generally respect the precedent-setting institution and are willing to be influenced by its judgment.

Precedents thus matter not just in courts, but also in legislation, and even in international disputes, especially in areas such as trade. If Country A gets to restrict imports of movies, people might feel that Country B deserves to be treated equally, and over time, more people might come to assume that such restrictions are proper.

But regardless of the arena, precedents chiefly influence those who care about equality and consistency and those willing to defer to the precedent-setter's judgment. The Chinese government, to take Howard Dean's example, fits neither category. When China is deciding whether or not to invade Taiwan, it will focus on its own interests, not on being consistent with what other governments have done. And Chinese officials are unlikely to be influenced by America's judgment about when a war is just: They simply don't respect our views the same way that we might respect our own Supreme Court or Congress.

Nor will the supposed "precedent" set by an American attack on Iraq substantially affect the West's views about the Chinese attack. Some in the West—and especially in the United States—might care about consistency and might be influenced by America's judgment that pre-emptive war is sometimes permissible. But these people will likely be much more influenced by whether China really has a factual basis for a pre-emptive war. Howard Dean's scenario is troubling precisely because we know that Taiwan is not a military threat to China. If that's so, then the West should oppose the invasion of Taiwan whether or not we invade Iraq.

Others have suggested that India might pre-emptively attack Pakistan based on the alleged precedent of our attack on Iraq. India is a democracy, and its citizens may well care about consistency and respect America and its allies enough to be influenced by our judgment (especially if their own government ultimately endorses the allied attack). And India might have a plausible pre-emption argument against Pakistan.

But what is really stopping India from attacking Pakistan now, even though it feels that it's been seriously provoked? It's not concern about consistency or legalism—it's that Pakistan has a huge army and nuclear bombs and that India has little to gain from such a war. These factors will generally dictate national decision-making about war regardless of whether America sets a supposed precedent supporting pre-emptive attacks.

If all this is true, then our decision to invade Iraq will likely make a difference as a precedent only when five factors are simultaneously present: 1) The nation involved—or at least countries with decisive influence over that nation—seriously cares about international consistency or respects the moral force of our judgment, which probably means it is a democracy and likely our ally. 2) The nation's potential target really poses a serious threat, so the claim of "pre-emptive self-defense" seems plausible. 3) The threat isn't serious enough that the nation will just do what it thinks it must do regardless of concerns about consistency, legality, or others' opinion. 4) The nation feels that it can act with relative safety because the target isn't yet very well-armed. 5) The nation won't be dissuaded from its action by the cost and danger of war or by the pressure of allies who will likely continue to counsel against war in most cases.

This will happen rarely—and when it does happen, we shouldn't be all that troubled. If democracies become a bit quicker to act when there really is a good claim for pre-emptive self-defense, and when neither cost nor risk nor their allies' pressure suffices to dissuade them, that might on balance be good. Are we sorry, for instance, that the Israelis pre-emptively bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981?

We might be slightly more troubled if democracies become slower to condemn non-democracies that act based on trumped-up claims of threat. Still, there are two reasons why we shouldn't much fear this, either: First, the essence of sound foreign policy is distinguishing real threats from fake ones; most of the time, democracies will know when another country's supposed justification for pre-emptive attack is well-founded. And second, in practice democracies rarely stop other nations' aggressions, and when they do, it's because of self-interest, not precedents or legal rules. Consider how long it took for outsiders to stop the Balkan wars, a move ultimately motivated by the Europeans' interest in maintaining a peaceful Europe.

Precedents and slippery slopes can be powerful forces and can sound like powerful arguments. We should indeed think about the indirect consequences of our actions, not just the immediate ones. But the phrases "what about the precedent?" and "where do you stop?" don't magically mandate inaction. Rather, people who make these arguments must concretely explain how our action today would supposedly help lead to others' action tomorrow. They haven't done so here.

Our invading Iraq will not set a dangerous precedent or much of a precedent at all. We should focus on the costs and benefits of this war, and not on its supposed precedential effects on future wars.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?