Was the war in Iraq a just war? I'm afraid I'm stepping into a hornet's nest with this one... or at least I might, if I'm not careful. But, I hope to frame the discussion carefully, and direct it less toward pejorative blame regarding the past and more toward improving our ability to make ethical decisions in the future. The future for America, as far as just war questions go, could very well come quite soon.
Mark Daniels wrote a post today on his blog with a link to a detailed analysis of just war tradition as applied to the Iraq war situation. The analysis is by Franklin Eric Wester, an Army chaplain, writing in the US Army War College quarterly Parameters, and I found it very helpful and informative.
The hinge point of Wester's analysis is imminence. The Bush administration made a subtle shift in traditional just war policy, a shift which Wester does a good job of explaining.
[T]he 2002 National Security Strategy indirectly acknowledges the Just WarLater, Wester gives a one-sentence conclusion on the question of imminence with regard to the Iraq war:
ethic. Logic in the document relies on the special case of preemption based on
“imminent threat,” recognizing that Just War tradition makes room for arresting
or resisting “imminent threat” as an extension of legitimate self-defense.
However, the National Security Strategy goes on to assert, “We must adapt [that
is, change] the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of
today’s adversaries.” How to change a concept like “imminent threat” or the
moral reasoning associated with the Just War ethic is not specified.
No persuasive case was argued that the threat was imminent, at least in anyExpanding on that thought a bit, Wester refers to Paul Griffiths:
conventional definition of imminent.
To Paul J. Griffiths, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of
Illinois, the definition of imminent has not changed: “It means the gun is at
your head.” And in the case of Iraq, “We just don’t have that.” He states that
redefining imminent offers “well-intentioned support for US foreign policy, but
it’s not defensible in terms of traditional Just War theory.”
In the "Recommended Areas for Further Study" section, however, it appears that Wester gives a nod to the Bush administration's perspective:
On a theoretical level, the case of Iraq’s possible possession of WMD raised the
question to be further explored regarding an imminent threat: How does imminence
apply in cases where time and space before attack are not clearly discernible?
In other words, when is it timely and when is it too late to act?
That is a rough summary of the central theme of Wester's paper. It is not Wester's only argument, nor the only interesting point of discussion that could come from the paper. If you read the paper, and want to discuss something else from it, go right ahead.
There are, however, two areas of discussion that I would like to declare off-limits for the sake of this thread staying on-topic.
(1) The motives of the Bush administration. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that they had the best motives, let us avoid all questions of revenge or clandestine empire-building or power-grabbing cowboy cockiness. I would like to consider the theoretical nature of the just war question in the context of terrorism, not the specifics of the Bush administration's foreign policy motivations.
(2) The quality of the intelligence used by the Bush administration, and/or the honesty and forthrightness with which it described that intelligence. I would prefer to avoid the specifics of the nature of our intelligence knowledge (and communication of that knowledge) with regard to the Iraq situation. Let us assume for the sake of this discussion that the Bush administration's intelligence about Iraq was right, that Iraq did have dangerous weapons, and plans to use them or give them to others that would use them.
It seems to me that just war theory was largely established in an era when armies moved relatively slowly, and major destruction required movement of a significant number of people. In this way, threat was relatively easy to identify, and imminence could be established with relative certainty. What is more, if your intelligence told you that there was no obvious imminent threat, you could feel pretty safe that you wouldn't have an army able to incur massive destruction on your doorstep the next morning.
That is no longer the case. At any time, a terrorist who could obtain a nuclear weapon of some sort could appear in the middle of a major US city and cause massive destruction. Imminence is constant, as long as terrorist organizations are in existence that are actively targeting the US (that's certainly not in dispute) and there is the possibility that they could obtain massively destructive yet nearly indetectable weapons.
How does the concept of imminence in just war tradition function in this type of constant-undetectable-danger environment?
With the Soviet Union, we at least knew where the missiles would be coming from, and were guaranteed at least a few minutes of warning before they hit. We ensured that during that few minutes, we would be able to unleash an equally devastating barrage on them... a sufficiently effective deterrent to keep them from pushing that first button.
But that also brings us to another dimension of the war with terrorists. There does not appear to be any effective deterrence against terrorist actions. There is, it seems, no threat we can hold up to balance against the threat they maintain toward us that would deter them from taking action. There is nothing on earth that they hold so dear as the destruction of America. Their motivations come from the after-life, so no balanced-threat deterrent can hold sway with them.
What is an effective way of construing just war ethics in this type of threat situation? Was the Iraq war ethical given the two presuppositions I laid out above (realizing that this is not an evaluation of the reality of the Iraq war as a whole, but a subset of the factors involved in it)? What would determine whether a future war (such as one against Iran) would be justified?