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Rebuilding Iraq


A just war?

Many of the country's leading ethicists oppose a strike on Iraq. But a look at the centuries-old theory of just war suggests that military action may in fact be morally necessary.

By Jean Bethke Elshtain, 10/6/2002

Illustration / Christophe Vorlet
Illustration / Christophe Vorlet  

Just War  |  A Guide
jus ad bellum
To declare a just war, one must be able to show:

1. Just cause – Is there a real and certain danger: a threat to the lives of innocent people or a violation basic human rights? The presumption is against war.
2. Competent authority – Does the party declaring war have responsibility for public order in the region? The presumption is for state sovereignty.
3. Comparative justice – Are the rights or values stake serious enough to justify war?
4. Right intention – Will the party declaring war pursue peace and reconciliation, avoiding unnecessary destruction and unreasonable conditions?
5. Last resort – Have all peaceful alternatives been exhausted?
6. Probability of success – Is there a chance of victory?

jus in bello

To fight a war justly, one must use:

1. Discrimination – Do not target noncombatants. is likely that innocents will die, but it is impermissible to plan to kill them.
2. Proportionality – Are the many costs of war proportionate to the social good expected as a result of victory? What principles govern when and how you are allowed to kill combatants?

Source: "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response," 1983 US Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, in "Just War Theory" edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain.
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Do you agree with ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain that a preemptive strike against Iraq may be fully consistent with the requirements of just war theory?
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everal weeks ago, 100 teachers of Christian ethics, both pacifists and those working within the just war tradition, signed a petition declaring, in its entirety: "As Christian ethicists, we share a common moral presumption against a pre-emptive war on Iraq by the United States." Although I am an ethicist and a Christian, I was not among the signatories, for two reasons. First, the statement is vague and, therefore, evasive. Within the just war tradition, there is a common moral presumption for justice as well as a recognition that all war is terrible. But there are times when justice demands the use of force as a response to violence, hatred, and injustice.

This leads to my second reason for declining to join my colleagues. I believe it is possible within the tradition of just war thinking to make a case for preemptive or preventive use of force. Has that case been made where a war against Iraq is concerned? The answer is "yes," but a complex "yes" that includes caveats and warnings. An all-important concern is the kind of war — or use of force — that follows.

The principles of just war, which date back to the writings of Saint Augustine in the fourth century, insist that wars of aggression and aggrandizement are never acceptable. Wars may not legitimately be fought for purposes of vengeance, glory, or territorial gain. Nor should they be fought to avert dangers that are remote or that may be avoided in alternative ways. One must also consider the likelihood of success. Don't barge in and do more harm than good. Before we commit ourselves to force, we must weigh carefully whether more harm will come from acting or from not acting.

In his speech to the United Nations, President George W. Bush insisted that the world currently faces an erratic and brutal foe who will not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction against those who cannot defend themselves, whether his own people or the civilians of other countries. The theory of just war sets a high threshold for choosing military action. Does the Iraqi threat constitute a legitimate "casus belli," or reason for war? Herein lies the rub, and on this just war thinkers differ.

The just war tradition requires that the philosopher, the politician, and the ordinary citizen consider a number of complex criteria when thinking about war. These criteria are grouped into two central categories: the justification for the use of force (the so-called "jus ad bellum") and the establishment of limits on the force that is used (the "jus in bello").

What are the occasions when war becomes necessary? For St. Augustine, the most potent justification is the protection of innocents from certain harm. If one has compelling evidence that harm will come to noncombatants, and that this harm is grave and substantial, neighbor love may require a resort to arms. The potential harm might be directed at one's own civilians, or it might involve the noncombatants of another country. It is better to put one's own combatants in danger than to stand by as the innocent are slaughtered.

All the people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, were innocents in the just war sense — noncombatants whose only crime was going to work or boarding an airplane on that horrible day. There is certainly no barrier within the just war tradition against trying to prevent future harm of that sort, for it is clear and it is imminent.

The horror of what was visited on us last Sept. 11 and the recognition that terrorists would not hesitate to strike again prompted me to play a central role in drafting a statement, "What We're Fighting For." The statement was signed by more than 70 distinguished scholars from across the political spectrum who were united in their belief that a military response to the attack was a matter of justice, not revenge; that Sept. 11 constituted an act of war; and that the United States had to respond to the attacks and should respond in a manner consistent with just war teaching. That meant not intentionally targeting civilians and using a level of force proportional to the threat.

*   *   *

Nearly everyone, with the exception of absolute pacifists and those who seem to think we should let ourselves be slaughtered with impunity because so many people out there "hate" us, agrees. Agreement stops on Iraq, however. Iraq has not attacked us directly, and it may never do so. The threat it poses may not be the "real and certain" danger that just war theory requires. It is a sovereign state and just war doctrine has, since the emergence of the modern state system in the 17th century, included a strong presumption in favor of a state's right to determine its own affairs. Indeed, whether you think war against Iraq conforms to just war doctrine will turn in large part on how you think of states and their prerogatives.

If, as some argue, the state is the sole arbiter of its own affairs, your stance is likely to be one of extreme caution when it comes to a preemptive strike. In my view, however, just war demands that we see a sovereign state as an actor that either does what states are supposed to do — provide basic civic peace, rule of law, and security for citizens — or does not. When a state destroys or is prepared to destroy its own citizens and to propel its violence outside its own borders, it becomes a criminal entity. Under just war theory, states themselves must often come under severe moral scrutiny.

In other words, a state's right to direct its own affairs is not, and has never been, absolute. It may forfeit that right if it commits aggression against another state (as Saddam did against Kuwait), or if it harms in substantial and grave ways its own people or a group of its own people (as Saddam did when he used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds), or if it provides substantial and essential material support to others who wish to inflict such harms (as Saddam allegedly did by supporting Osama bin Laden, whose "fatwas" call for the murder of all Americans, wherever they are found).

As for the question of whether Iraq poses a "real and certain danger," it bears notice that an imminent threat does not necessarily mean one that is just around the corner. It may refer, instead, to murderous capabilities an outlaw regime is in the process of developing. If one can make a strong case that the use of such capabilities is highly likely, then the just war caution against "intervening" may be overridden.

Of course, deterrence of Iraq would be preferable. Under the terms of just war, force should only be used after other options have been explored. But can deterrence work against Iraq? Clearly, Saddam Hussein has used the period since inspections ceased in 1998 to build up weapons of mass destruction. His previous use of those weapons and his ongoing efforts to violate UN agreements give little reason to have faith in deterrence. To be sure, it might be possible to keep Iraq contained within its borders. Saddam's army may not be sent anywhere at all. But even so, his weapons of mass destruction may well do a lot of traveling, whether through overt or covert use, whether at the hands of the Iraqis or of international terrorists. Therefore, deterrence must involve — as the UN itself has repeatedly agreed — keeping Saddam from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

*   *   *

Once the case for preventive force has been made, the question then becomes one of jus in bello — what sort of force and against whom? The single most important factor here is the principle known as discrimination. This means that noncombatants cannot be the intended targets of harm, as were the victims of Sept. 11 and the Iraqi Kurds. In any conflict civilians will fall in harm's way. But it is forbidden to knowingly and maliciously target them. Of course, if the United States goes to war, it must not target civilians. As for Saddam, we know he has no compunctions in this regard, and that fact, too, weighs heavily in evaluating the threat he poses and our own actions.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, one of Hussein's strategies was to locate noncombatants in or near legitimate military targets precisely in order that they might be harmed. He could then point an accusing finger and say, "Look what the Americans and the United Nations coalition are doing," when, in fact, it was his own actions that had brought them to grief. Saddam's record is clear. He will not hesitate to target civilians intentionally. The only questions are when and where.

There are many puzzling features to the current debate. We hear a lot, and rightly, about not going it alone. But in fact we are not. The Bush administration is seeking congressional authorization ("legitimate authority," as the just war tradition calls it) to use US military might. It is urging the Security Council to adopt a strong resolution that basically calls upon the Iraqi regime to abide by all the other resolutions the UN has passed and Iraq has ignored.

When critics bemoan the current administration's alleged unilateralism, they seem to be operating under a peculiar double standard. The United States, working around the clock to secure support for the preventive use of force to disarm the Iraqi regime, is accused of egregious unilateralism. But a state — Iraq — that has behaved and continues to behave unilaterally in defiance of the international community's various and repeated resolutions is let off the hook. Why?

Here America's responsibility as the world's great superpower comes in to play. We look back, as we should, with shame at our inaction (and that of the international community) while Bosnian Muslims and Rwandan Tutsis were being slaughtered. In violation of the just war framework, the cries of the innocent went unheard or unheeded. Of course, no administration can protect all Americans everywhere at every point in time. No country or international body can protect all civilians everywhere at every point in time from being preyed upon by the ruthless. That is utopian, and the just war tradition cautions against such utopianism and overreach. But it also insists that those who have the power to stop the mass killing of innocents may well be obliged to do so.

In the days and weeks ahead these are the considerations I will weigh as I reflect on the use of force against Iraq — should Iraq defy the UN, and history suggests it will. Our great power brings with it a solemn responsibility. That responsibility isn't limited to protecting the citizens of the United States alone. There is an underlying strain of isolationism in much of the current debate. Again and again an image of "Fortress America" emerges as we are enjoined not to meddle abroad. Much of this discussion is partisan, of course, as the argument turns on which administration is doing the alleged meddling. But much of it implies a retreat within our borders. Sovereignty trumps other concerns for those who espouse a kind of quasi-isolationism.

Justice falls by the wayside in such preachments. The Iraqi victims of Saddam Hussein are not considered worthy of serious consideration. But just war theory demands that we consider them, as well as Saddam's potential victims outside Iraq. That is why we must put relentless pressure on him to conform to UN resolutions, and, if he fails to do so, insist that he pay the consequences — not because we want a war but because force can sometimes be put at the behest of a more just international order.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her forthcoming book, "Just War and American Power in a Violent World," will be published in February by Basic Books.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/6/2002.
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