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This page last updated 14 October 2002
Anglicans Online last updated 16 November 2014

an essay for Anglicans Online

Is It Just War?
Wondering if a preventive strike against Iraq is morally justifiable

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon
October 2002

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a prominent American ethicist who is also a devout Christian, argued in an article published October 6 in the Boston Globe that a preventive strike on Iraq is, under certain conditions morally justifiable. She acknowledged that she is swimming against the tide, but insisted that current thinking on the question of just war theory in relation to the Iraqi situation misses the point: 'there are times when justice demands the use of force as a response to violence, hatred, and injustice'.

Is the present situation one of those times? As a bishop I am very concerned that the Church be able to speak cogently to the situation, for many of the people who can decide the use of force against Iraq (in just war theory, the 'legitimate authority') are Episcopalians, not to mention Christians. Moreover, moral questions are never merely the province of Christians. All people, no matter what their religious stance, must choose the good and avoid evil. Thus the Church's moral reasoning addresses all people, not merely our own.

On October 2, the Episcopal House of Bishops addressed to the members of the Congress of the United States a letter that contained the following:

'With you, we recognize the possibility that war is sometimes unavoidable, but we do not believe that war with Iraq can be justified at this time.
  • Iraq has not attacked the United States.
  • Our nation has not exhausted all possibilities for a peaceful solution to this potential conflict, including a new vigorous arms inspection regime.
  • Our nation has not sufficiently garnered world support.
  • It is highly likely that the consequences of a war with Iraq will not be contained within its borders.
  • We believe a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, with the overwhelming force such a strike may require to attain an expedient victory, may have many unintended consequences, including unacceptable civilian casualties'.

Now that the Congress has given President Bush broad powers to attack Iraq (as these lines are being written), these conditions have become even more relevant. To this writer, the crux of the matter is the question of whether a pre-emptive strike is morally justifiable.

Just war theory traditionally requires five conditions for waging war: the cause must be just; war must be declared by the legitimate authority; that authority must have the right intention (e.g., not to expand territory or power); the war must have a reasonable chance of succeeding, and the means of waging war must be in proportion to the goal of the war. These divide into two basic categories, the ius ad bellum (reasoning whether an attack is justifiable) and the ius in bello (conditions for waging the war itself).

Before considering the question in depth, the other option—whether war is ever morally justifiable—must be raised. There is an ancient and honorable tradition within Christianity of absolute pacifism. It states that Christians may never wage war, as the death and destruction involved is always contrary to the Gospel of Jesus. This tradition does not seem relevant to advising the conscience of those who hold the power to wage war, for three reasons. The first is that it is only binding upon Christians. We cannot expect those who do not share our faith in the Gospel to behave according to its imperatives. The second is that it is by no means the mainstream tradition within Christianity. And finally, absolute pacifism can be construed as involuntary collaboration with the enemy, for in refusing to fight, the enemy has their way unimpeded in dealing death and destruction to one's own people.

The ius ad bellum really applies only in the question of offensive war. The right of self-defense when attacked is granted by most commentators since the seventeenth century. Thus the American attack on Afghanistan can arguably be justified according to just war theory because the United States had been attacked by people trained, financed, and commanded by the son-in-law of the Afghan leader, with the full complicity of that régime. (Whether the war was conducted according to the ius in bello is another issue which cannot be considered here.)

The House of Bishops letter refers to several points of ius ad bellum, first that all peaceful solutions have not been exhausted before armed force is used. Second, the letter implies that the legitimate authority to decide the use of force is not the American government but the United Nations. Only a coalition of nations can make an attack upon Iraq legitimate. This of course appeals to the history of the Gulf War and United Nations resolutions. Third, shifting to ius in bello, the letter raises the issues of the unintended spread of armed conflict in the event of a unilateral American action, and the inability to avoid the deaths of non-combatants.

Elshtain seeks to argue that a pre-emptive strike is acceptable because of the evil nature of the régime. Not only is Saddam Hussein clearly and unarguably an evil tyrant on the moral level of a Joseph Stalin, but he has never wavered from his goal to possess atomic, bacteriological, and chemical weapons. He has already used chemical weapons on his own people as well as in a war with Iran. Moreover, deterrence by other means has not worked to keep him from continuing his efforts. Thus there is a casus belli, just cause for war, she argues: the prevention of the use of these so-called “ABC” weapons of mass destruction.

Clearly, if the recent anthrax attacks in the United States had been irrefutably tied to Iraqi manufacture or intention, the casus belli would be undeniable. But Iraq has never attacked the United States—yet.

The first question then is the definition of the casus belli by the legitimate authority, President Bush clearly identified the United Nations as that legitimate authority in his recent speech to that body. Unilateral action by the United States will occur only if the U.N. fails to exercise that authority. The just cause would then be Iraq's manifest failure over eleven years to comply with U.N. resolutions requiring it to give up possession and manufacture of ABC weapons.

But what would be the just cause for the United States if the U.N. fails to exercise its authority? That remains murky. Why has the Bush administration suddenly become so interested in Iraq? Is it the desire to control oil resources for American companies? Is it an attempt to distract attention away from its diplomatic inertia in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and partial success in Afghanistan—the failure to capture or definitely kill Osama bin Laden and to deliver on promises of massive aid to that country? Or is it simpler: in the post-September 11 world, all possible threats to Americans and US territory must be eliminated or at least de-fanged. Besides the clear definition of the casus belli, the intention for the attack must be unassailable.

Then there is the actual goal of the war. Is it to destroy permanently the Iraqi régime's ability to produce and deploy ABC weapons, or to destroy the Iraqi régime? The U.N. resolutions focus on the former, the Bush administration's efforts on the latter. This transcends the categories of just war theory, which do not foresee that goal as just. Indeed, Elshtain writes, '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'. She argues (correctly, in this writer's view) that an attack on Iraq requires a development of just war theory that elaborates criteria for the survival of a régime itself. But is that a legitimate development of the theory? Who gets to set the criteria?

Finally we must consider the ius in bello questions—what would such an attack entail? Without support of a coalition, even the world's military superpower will have a lot of problems conducting an attack that has a reasonable chance of success (one of the traditional criteria). Reported leaks from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (which are very unusual) seem to indicate that the military is hesitant to assure the President of a reasonable chance of success. And if "régime change" is the goal, what will be the chances of installing a democratic government? Even granted that Iraq is not Afghanistan, recent American efforts there do not generate confidence.

Furthermore, the notion of proportionality is important. Remember the indelible image of Saddam caressing a visibly terrified British boy? We know he would use human shields again. Clearly a lot of noncombatants will die. If there is a house-to-house assault on Baghdad, there will be heavy civilian losses. When an action has both good and evil consequences, the so-called 'principle of double effect' says that the evil must be secondary and accidental to the good achieved for the action to be moral. Can we accept that deadly calculus here? It can be argued both ways. One is that the toll in innocent Iraqis will simply be too horrendous, even if the chance of success is reasonably high. The other is that the Iraqi people have suffered for years from Saddam's régime. His use of oil-for-food money on his grandiose plans for domination has deprived the population of basic necessities, including medical care for children.

Proportionality also asks whether this campaign can be conducted without inflaming the whole region into war. Terrorist attacks on American, French, and other people have continued unabated since September 11, 2001. Whether on not other Mideast countries become involved in a broader conflict, terrorist attacks would intensify significantly.

The just war theory continues to show its usefulness in helping us think through the Iraqi question. Some conditions clearly apply for an attack to be morally justifiable:

1.)   The attack must be decided by the United Nations and conducted by a multi-national force. Unless the United States can show without a doubt how that body has failed to exercise its authority, it may not attack Iraq.

2.)   The aim of the attack must be clear. It is unreasonable to attack Iraq in order to force it to stop building ABC weapons, without ensuring that the Hussein régime is unable to start all over again. That is, Saddam must go, and we need some solid grounds to believe a democratic government can be installed. Otherwise the cost in lives and property is certainly unacceptable.

3.)   The use of force must have a reasonable chance of success. Unilateral American military action cannot be assumed to succeed. The consequences of a defeat, which incidentally are never discussed, would be disastrous, especially if America has gone it alone.

4.)   The plan of attack must seek to minimize casualties. This means first some reasonable assurance that Saddam's ABC weapons will not be usable, for he will try to use them immediately, as credible intelligence sources affirm.

Now that the President has his war powers, these issues must be foremost in his thinking and those who would advise him. The United Nations must keep pondering these questions. A moral atrocity, as well as a diplomatic and military disaster, looms as a real possibility. Let us leave the atrocities to Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and all who refuse to live as moral beings. Waging war is bad enough.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.