In a searching reflection on the justice of preemptive military strikes designed to prevent Iran from gaining the use of nuclear weapons, Robert Koons embarks on a line of reasoning not altogether persuasive.

He works his way through the criteria for a just war, and when he comes to “last resort” he observes that the moral substance of just war theory requires a formal declaration of war—a clear statement of military intent—so that the other side, in this case Iran, can back down.

This line of reasoning rules out sudden preemptive attacks. Here is how Koons puts it.

Just war theory resolutely opposes any surprise attack, such as that of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, precisely because such an unanticipated action can never be a last resort. Sneak attacks do not provide the prospective enemy with an ultimatum that it can meet and thereby avert the catastrophe of war. A just war against Iran, therefore, would have to be a declared war. Given the United States Constitution, it is the sole prerogative of the Congress to issue any ultimatum with a declared state of war among its threatened consequences. The president lacks the constitutional authority to issue such an ultimatum or declaration. There may be cases in which action must be taken swiftly, leaving no time for the Congress to convene and make its decision, but that is certainly not the case here, with at least several months before a decision to launch a war must be made. Consequently, no action (either by American or allied forces) authorized solely by the president can be just.

I’m not convinced.

It’s not as thought Iran isn’t aware of Israeli and American concerns. Diplomacy is a way to send messages and deliver ultimatums that are just as clear as the declaration of war.

All-in-all, I think Koons misconceives the political importance of Congressional declaration of war with a moral importance. Our constitutional constraints on the declaration of war are legal mechanisms designed to ensure accountability and prevent our President from conducting private wars that do not serve the national interest. Formal declaration of war brings our foreign policy above board. Yes, that would clarify things for the Iranians, but as I observed we can make things clear in other ways. The real importance is domestic. Citizens need to know when our leaders have committed military force, because at the end of the day it’s our blood and treasure that’s on the line.

That’s not to say that a preemptive strike against Iran would satisfy other just war criteria, but it does suggest that Koons reasoning is a bit too legalistic and not altogether convincing.

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