Friday, July 21, 2006

Just War

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 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.
Later, Wester gives a one-sentence conclusion on the question of imminence with regard to the Iraq war:
No persuasive case was argued that the threat was imminent, at least in any
conventional definition of imminent.
Expanding on that thought a bit, Wester refers to Paul Griffiths:
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?



Kevin said...

I am not particularly well versed in Just War Tradition (Legitimate authority, Public declaration, Just intent, Proportionality, Last resort, Reasonable hope of success), but there are some aspects of it or Wester's interpretation of it which seem flawed to me.

For example, Wester states that "Just intent" requires an ultimate return to the status quo ante bellum. He later says, "Regime change is not a status quo ante bellum." This seems non-sensical to me, particularly since the state before war lead to the war. Wester notes this obvious flaw later on, but nevertheless maintains it earlier in his paper as normative for the Just War Tradition.

Similarly, Wester first applies "Proportionality" to minimizing the loss of innocents, but then also seems to extend this to maintaining the status quo ante bellum. """If the threat was genuinely the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, then disarming Iraq’s regime seems proportional. Regime change, however, exceeds that measure.""" Granted, regime change might exceed proportionality assuming that you limit the problem to WMD and you can be certain of disarmament, but is this realistic and effective?

Is the intent of the "legitimate authority" criterion to prevent vigilante justice? While it is certainly easier to assert moral superiority with more people in agreement, this Just War criterion seems to suggest a more statistical bent, since it is clearly possible for the right course of action to be solely supported by a minority or a less "legitimate" authority. Is the Just War criteria intended to be minimum requirements or a statistical correlation?

Furthermore, in Wester's ranking of legitimate authorities, if the UN does not effectively assert its "legitimate authority" when it would be morally righteous to do so, then shouldn't its inability or unwillingness to shoulder that responsibility diminish its ranking as a legitimate authority? ... or at least diminish the importance of being a more "legitimate authority" in the Just War criteria?

In the "Conclusions" section, Wester states that """In the case of weapons of mass destruction, the questions remain, “When is imminent, and when is too late?” But these questions can be framed in Just War language.""" I'm not sure how Wester would frame those questions in traditional Just War language, since elsewhere he seems to restrict "imminent" to classical situations.

Ultimately, Wester states that his ideal solution to Iraq would have been "coercive inspections", which seems to require UN approval of a large military force at the borders as well as to accompany inspectors... presumably with orders to engage if resistance is met? Would this surmount Saddam's deceitful tactics? Would this have been feasible? Would the UN have agreed to this?

In his introduction, Wester states that """This article applies the classic categories of Just War tradition to the doctrine of preemption as advanced by the current Administration in the justification for Operation Iraqi Freedom.""" Maybe it's just me, but it seems like he strayed beyond this narrow path while making his argument, though perhaps he returned to it in drawing his conclusion.

Thus, I had to remind myself that despite the range of his statements, he is not fundamentally addressing whether the war is just, or even whether the war meets the traditional Just War criteria, but rather whether Bush's primary doctrine of preemption is sufficient to satisfy that criteria in conjunction with Webster's four criteria for preemption as self-defense (Threat, Probability, Imminence, The cost of delay) which is categorized under the "Just cause or intent" criterion of Just War.

What interests me in Webster's preemption criteria is the apparent overlap between "Imminence" and "The cost of delay". It seems to me that the point of imminence is determined by minimizing the cost of delay, in combination with the size of the threat and the probability of it occurring. i.e. imminence seems to be a derived metric. If this is not the case, then I'm curious how imminence would be independently defined?

Given your presuppositions, Mark, I think the Iraq war would be just. The closer Saddam was to accumulating more WMD, the more imminent his threat would seem, the more easily war could be justified on that basis. As Wester notes, for example through Nichols argument that war was continual, there may even be other basis to justify the war.

I also agree with you that it is a different situation than when war is explicitly between sovereign nations. Now Israel is retaliating against Hezbollah which, by popular support and by coercion, has taken over part of Lebanon but is nevertheless not sovereign. The line between an organization and a state, between terrorist and civilian is terribly blurred.

Iran and Syria may be aiding and protecting terrorists, but they are being careful not to act too directly or exceed the threshold that Iraq must have cross. They bide their time while increasing their oil profits and power. There is no benefit for them to explicitly declare war, even if they are indirectly fighting a war.

Attacks from vague, independent sources seem to be the hallmark of terrorism, where, even with good intelligence, proportionality leaves us no good or clear response due to the indirect protection of ostensibly uninvolved sovereign nations or civilians (or even groups such as the PA). This leads to Israel absorbing a continual barrage of attacks, and the US absorbing embassy and other attacks, until some tipping point. This slow mounting of incidents makes it much more difficult for a democratic nation to galvanize on, or even identify, the moral case for large-scale action.

Given the current political situation which would probably not permit another war, I think Iran represents an opportunity for those who advocated a different approach with Iraq to implement that approach with Iran. Thus, even if military force is warranted, I suspect it will not take the form of war between sovereign nations, but rather it will be more like Israel's current war with Hezbollah but not Lebanon, and their preemptive strikes which do not imply a traditional war.

In the end though, your second presupposition is key; it is only with accurate intelligence that effective moral decisions can be made.


Mark Congdon said...


Thanks for your thoughts here. I agree with what you've said, and have been somewhat hoping that a dissenting voice would join the discussion. It appears that's not going to happen, unfortunately.

Probably the most important result for me of reading Wester's thoughts here has been realizing that the determination of the morality or lack thereof of our presence in Iraq is not easily determined. There are many factors involved, and the questions seem to come down to the quality of our intelligence and our tolerance for unmeasurable risk of terrorist attacks.

I have seen a growing trend in the last year of writers assuming, as if it were a long-decided conclusion, that the Iraq war was immoral. Yesterday I was reading this on the Huffington Post blog, where the author describes the "illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq" without further comment... as if the question is settled that the invasion was illegal and immoral.

If someone else wants to join in here and provide some balance to this discussion, please do. I much prefer challenge and being stretched, to hearing ideas just like my own in an echo chamber. :)


Kevin said...


I regret to inform you that I agree with your additional points. I know; it's disappointing. Like you, I'm also hoping a dissenting opinion chimes in. If that doesn't happen, then I fear I've spent way too much time on my first reply. :)

I skimmed the article you linked to. Uhler seems to make some reasonable points, but the overall tone appears to be a rant. Nevertheless, it seems that the vast majority of their readership agrees with him and the article is the fodder that reenforces their views.

If I were a hair more cynical, I might mention that stating opinion as fact is a dirty form of propaganda. Assuming facts not in evidence. Luckily, I'm not that cynical.

What also interests me about Iraq is the general concept "hindsight morality". We can say that we should have done something different in hindsight, but does that change our rules of morality or the probabilities by which we should judge morality in the future?

Our hindsight of Iraq may shift the probabilities in one direction, but if we then suffer consequences by waiting too long and requiring greater certainty to act, is it just to then lower our requisite threshold of certainty, as perhaps occurred after 9/11?