Ignoring Just War Teaching

I was a (tentative) supporter of the war in Iraq, because I feared Saddam Hussein might give weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist organization for use on an American city. These fears were stoked by statements from Vice President Dick Cheney: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Also from White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer: “We know for a fact that there are weapons there.”

I accepted the Administration’s absolute certitude that the weapons were there. In a nuclear age, this meant to my mind that the war met the following crucial criterion of Just War teaching: The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

But the weapons the Administration assured us were there were never found. And, now, weirdly, defenders of the war indignantly deny the Administration ever portrayed the threat in Iraq as imminent. Yet these defenders seem to overlook the fact that in deflecting the “imminence” claim, they effectively insist the threat we faced was neither grave nor certain.

Another dictum of Just War teaching: All other means of putting an end to the danger must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. The New York Times reported on November 6, 2003 that Iraq tried to cut a deal with the US before the war to admit all arms inspectors and prove to the U.S. that no such weapons were present. We ignored the offer. So much for war as last resort.

“Yes,” say war supporters, “But Saddam did violate UN Resolution 1441.”

To which I reply: The UN itself wanted inspections, not war, to deal with Hussein. If we’re invoking the UN as the “competent authority” and granting its judgments the force of law, then by what logic do we flout its authority ourselves? And if we can do that, why can’t Iraq?

Finally, Just War doctrine says: The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. Of course, we can’t know the future. But given that most of the Islamic world sees man’s relationship with God as that of master and slave–and, unsurprisingly, gives birth to fanatics and despots from Iran to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia to Algeria–the post-war Iraqi chaos is at least as likely to breed a new Islamic theocracy as a constitutional republic.

So I find that for many war supporters Just War criteria don’t seem to matter. No, the threat was not grave or certain, as war supporters themselves now insist. Nor was war the last resort. Nor are appeals to the UN coherent when they simultaneously invoke and despise its authority.

No, what matters is that we won. We removed a tyrant–and the end justifies the means.

Doesn’t it?

What happens when China decides that Taiwan is an “imminent threat,” or North Korea decrees that South Koreans must be “liberated?” With international law and just war principles thrown away, we’ll have nothing to answer these situations but naked force. I fear we have cut down all the laws to get at the devil–and that we will soon have to face him.


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