Forum: What's a 'Just War' These Days?


Feb 16, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 16, 2003.

As we move from theory toward practice, Terrence K. Kelly re-examines the standards for an era of prolific weapons of mass destruction

As the specter of war with Iraq looms closer, Americans and people around the world wrestle with questions of the justification for war.

The ethics of such decisions rests on something called "just-war theory," in particular that portion referred to as Jus ad Bellum -- just recourse to war. This body of thought originated with St. Augustine of Hippo in the early Christian era, developed with advances in Western thought and moral understanding, merged with secular legal thought and advanced as modern weapons developed. The horrendous implications of nuclear war caused a narrowing of what could be seen as justification for going to war.

Just-war theory is simply a structured way of thinking about the trade-offs between evils -- between war and the anticipated evil should war not be fought. We are now entering a period in which this balance is changing.

Nuclear weapons material is more available. Chemical, biological and radiological weapons are more easily purchased, developed and employed than ever before.

Just as the horrors of nuclear war caused us to re-examine which wars could be just, the flip side of that argument -- preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- should cause us to rethink just-war theory today.

The framework that defines just-war theory consists of the following questions:

Is the cause just? Is war declared by legitimate authority? Are the intentions just? Is the war publicly declared? Are the means employed proportionate and discriminate? Is it the last resort? And is there a reasonable hope of success?

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Two of these questions -- is the war publicly declared and is there a reasonable hope of success? -- can clearly be answered in the affirmative. The question of legitimate authority to declare war is also straightforward. This boils down to the question, "Is the United Nations the only body that can justly decide upon war in these circumstances?"

This is a matter of sovereignty, and whether Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein threaten the United States and other nations. Since nations always have the right to defend themselves, and Hussein clearly poses a threat not only to his own people and neighbors, but to any who would oppose him, the United States and other nations are threatened and possess the legitimate authority to declare war.

Next, one must ask if the intentions of the nations going to war -- in this case, the United States and its allies -- are just. The answer to this question depends on your opinion of the United States and President Bush.

Yet, if you accept any of the propositions -- that Saddam Hussein would try to dominate or conquer his neighbors; that he would not hesitate to kill and torture as many as needed to reach his goals; that he seeks to control oil flows and revenues from the Middle East to his own advantage and so cause significant damage to the world economy; that the position of his own citizens is in itself a great evil which should be rectified; that he would not hesitate to share chemical, biological, radiological and perhaps even nuclear weapons with terrorists should it suit his purposes; or any one of a number of other damning propositions generally thought to be true -- then you must admit to the possibility that U.S. and allied intentions could be just.

Next, the two-fold question of proportionate and discriminate means must be addressed. These two questions really ask if the weapons, strategies and tactics to be used are proportional to the evil they seek to avoid, and if there would be an unreasonable amount of civilian deaths and collateral damage.

In answering them, two things in particular should be considered:

  • First, the prospect of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of homicidal, megalomaniacal dictators like Saddam Hussein, or theologically motivated terrorists like Osama bin Laden, are evils at least as significant as any faced in the 20th century.

  • Second, the availability of "smart" weapons makes the prospect of disproportionate civilian casualties far less likely than previously, assuming the tactics used discriminate between combatants and noncombatants (also a question of jus in bello, just conduct of war, which constitutes the other half of just-war theory). Once again, a strong argument exists for passing this hurdle.

The last two questions, besides addressing the situation with Iraq, get to the heart of just recourse to wa. They should cause a rethinking of just-war theory.

Is the proposed war just? Ethical thought today, imbedded in the U.N. Charter and other international documents, asserts that the only just wars are "defensive" wars. In this context, "defensive" is interpreted somewhat more broadly than one might think. But what is important here is that this principle asserts that the first use of force is never justified. Two questions are then of particular importance: Would an attack on Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition be a first use of force, and should this "defensive only" criteria be reexamined if doing so would prevent weapons of mass destruction from being in the hands of dictators like Saddam Hussein or terrorist organizations?

On the first, opinion differs. Some view it as a first use of force, and others as an extension of the efforts to render Iraq incapable of harm after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and so a defensive measure. However, the second question is of greater importance and may make answering the first unnecessary. To answer it, we need to recall that just-war theory is in its essence a structured way of balancing the evil of war against that which will come to be without war, and we must use that thought to examine these new circumstances closely.

Should Iraq not be disarmed, we face the certain prospect of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a dictator known to be a grave threat to regional if not world peace -- one who has twice invaded neighboring countries without provocation, who has supported terror (certainly against Israel and perhaps others), and who has used weapons of mass destruction against his enemies and his own people -- and the likely prospect of these weapons in the hands of terrorist organizations theologically or nationalistically dedicated to the destruction or subjugation of all holding different beliefs.

These are great evils indeed, and not unique to Iraq. Arguably, they shift the balance and make war more justifiable.

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Finally, we must decide if war is the last resort.

Secretary of State Powell presented a compelling argument before the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 that this is the case. Others disagree, believing that inspectors will be able to find and destroy all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and development programs, or that Saddam can be contained. The validity of these positions must be carefully weighed, but one consideration is of overwhelming importance.

While nuclear weapons production and testing requires industrial capabilities and special machinery -- capabilities that are not easily hidden or exported --this is not the case with chemical and biological weapons. Secretary Powell made a strong case that it is impossible to find or control these weapons under a regime bent on hiding them, and by extension the same argument applies to their export. The implication is that rogue nations or terrorist organizations that develop and traffic in weapons of mass destruction are inherently dangerous to world peace and pose a great probability of significant evil -- a certainty unless stopped.

Clearly, this is a "slippery slope" argument, with which much could be justified. It is also true.

So, we are faced with a new set of circumstances to which just-war theory must be applied -- circumstances in which a decision not to use force seems certain to lead to unambiguous and significant evil. These circumstances are not unique to Iraq. Indeed, they are characteristic of many situations in the world today -- and appear in large part not to be subject to international intervention short of war.

Terrence K. Kelly is a senior researcher in the Pittsburgh office of RAND Corp. He previously served as the senior national security officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as an active duty Army officer.

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