Wars are not won on the defensive," asserts Vice President Dick Cheney. "We
must take the battle to the enemy and, where necessary, preempt grave threats
to our country before they materialize." For the Bush administration, this policy
appears to include a preemptive strike against Iraq, which is viewed as another
installment in its war against terrorism.
A war of preemption, advocates maintain, will bring about a highly desired
"regime change" in Iraq, install a democratic government there and free the Iraqi
people. By just war standards, however, a preemptive attack against Iraq must
According to just war theory, three criteria determine whether going to war
is justifiable: the cause must be just, the chances of success must be reasonable
and the authority to wage war must be competent. None of these conditions can
be met by the preemptive strike planned against Iraq. It is not likely that the
main criteria for justifiable conduct in war--providing immunity for noncombatants
and using means proportional to the ends--can be met either. Let's look at each
of these principles in light of the proposed attack against Iraq.
Just cause? Having a sufficient cause is the most important condition justifying
war. Historically this has involved (a) self-defense (b) against an act of aggression
and (c) used as a last resort. Initiating an act of war violates this requirement,
since the only sufficient reason for warfare is self-defense against physical
The right to preempt an anticipated attack can be extrapolated from the self-defense
principle if preemptive strikes meet a high standard of justification: the attack
being prevented must be imminent, not merely conjectured or vaguely feared in
the long run. Everything depends, therefore, on whether Iraq plans to launch an
attack against the U.S. in the near future.
Two questions are relevant: Does Hussein actually possess weapons of mass destruction?
And if so, do they pose a clear and imminent danger to the U.S. or its allies?
The answer to both these questions seems to be no. No evidence has been produced
that Iraq is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. According to experts,
both the capacity to manufacture them and the capability of delivering them are
lacking. This assessment has been confirmed by sources as diverse as Former Defense
Secretary William S. Cohen, current Secretary of State Colin Powell and former
UN arms inspector Scott Ritter.
As a result of the gulf war, Iraq had virtually all of its major weapons programs
destroyed--including its nuclear weapons capability, as reported by the International
Atomic Energy Agency. Even if Hussein does retain some minimal capability in weapons
of mass destruction, mere possession, by just war criteria, is not enough. Iraq
has obvious incentives not to implicate itself in using such a capability against
the U.S.--unless Iraq itself should be attacked first in an unprovoked war of
preemption. In that case, Saddam Hussein would have nothing to lose by unleashing,
in desperation, anything he may have.
Reasonable chance of success? The just war theory requires stringently weighing
in advance the consequences of a military campaign, even though this requirement
by itself is not decisive. Any one who has read Tolstoy's War and Peace
or who remembers the Vietnam War should know that when success is made to sound
too easy, skepticism is the order of the day. Precious human lives and scarce
economic resources are at stake.
Would "liberating" Iraq really be a "cakewalk," as Ken Adelman, former U.S.
arms control director, has claimed? Or is Immanuel Wallerstein of Yale University
correct when he warns that Iraq could become another Vietnam: "Just as in Vietnam,
the war will drag on and will cost many U.S. lives. And the political effects
will be so negative for the U.S. that eventually Bush (or his successor) will
pull out. A renewed and amplified Vietnam syndrome will be the result at home."
According to some estimates, as many as 250,000 U.S. troops will be needed.
While other estimates are lower, one Pentagon study has projected an "acceptable"
death rate of 20,000-30,000 U.S. soldiers. (The number of "acceptable" Iraqi deaths
has apparently not been calculated.) The Iraqi army, estimated at 500,000 troops,
will be defending their homeland against a foreign invader who has been bombing
them for years. Dissident military analyst Carlton Meyer says: "Ideally, the campaign
can be won by sending in 50,000 troops charging in from the air and sea. . . .
However, they could get bogged down if the Iraqis fight in the cities and mine
the roads. In every military operation there are a hundred things that can go
wrong; if you can anticipate half of them, you're a genius."
Arab leaders have warned that a U.S. war against Iraq could destabilize the
entire region. Iraq itself threatens to collapse into anarchy. A puppet regime
is far more likely to result than a democracy, and even that will be difficult
to achieve. Senior U.S. military officials reportedly have serious doubts about
whether defeating Iraq would be worth the high military and diplomatic cost. A
unilateral war against Iraq would be widely perceived as an American bid for colonial
occupation in the Middle East. An occupation of oil-rich Iraq, says Meyer, "will
not be about freedom, democracy, or security; just money and power."
Legitimate authority? It is doubtful that the U.S. possesses legitimate authority
to launch a preemptive war alone against Iraq. "Unilateral action by the United
States to overthrow the government of another sovereign nation," writes Hastings
law professor George Bisharat, "would constitute a grave breach of international
law." Yet that is what the administration proposes to do.
Almost no other country supports a U.S. invasion of Iraq. No Arab state supports
it, nor does most of Europe, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. Israel and Great
Britain are the two notable exceptions, although Tony Blair has pledged that no
attack on Iraq will be permitted without UN assent. Whether he will stand by this
pledge, however, is by no means clear.
Article 51 of the UN Charter allows for international attacks only if there
are no alternatives, and if there is immediate danger with no time for deliberation.
The U.S. will almost certainly disregard the UN, since it expects its planned
invasion will be opposed. Our country will then look less like the honest international
broker it claims to be and increasingly like a rogue state.
On the domestic front there are also doubts about legitimate authority. Recently,
Senator Robert C. Byrd (D., W. Va.) urged the Senate to play a central role in
determining whether our nation should invade Iraq. According to the Constitution,
he insisted, it is the role of the Congress to declare war. "I am determined to
do everything in my power to prevent this country from becoming involved in another
Vietnam nightmare," he declared. "This determination begins with Congress being
fully and sufficiently informed on the undertakings of our government, especially
if it involves the commitment to military action."
Proportionality and noncombatant immunity? The principles of proportionality
and noncombatant immunity concern how much force is morally appropriate and who
are legitimate targets of war. They distinguish the legitimate conduct of war
from acts of murder. Too often our country fails to honor these principles.
According to military analyst William Arkin, the Pentagon fails to take civilian
casualties with sufficient seriousness. Having surveyed recent U.S. military engagements
in the gulf war, the Balkans and Afghanistan, Arkin concludes that though some
progress has been made, U.S. efforts are just not good enough. "The U.S. military
can assert all it wants that it takes 'all' measures to minimize civilian harm.
But until it is willing to actually study why civilians die in conflict, it is
an assertion that has little credibility."
The planned U.S. preemptive strike will take place against the background of
comprehensive UN sanctions that have already wreaked havoc on civilians. They
have devastated the weakest and most vulnerable members of Iraqi society: the
poor, the elderly, the sick, the newborn and the young. According to UN reports,
over 1 million civilians, the vast majority of whom are children and the elderly,
have died since 1990 because of this suffocating blockade. UNICEF officials estimate
that in 2000 more than 5,000 children were dying each month primarily because
of the sanctions.
From this perspective, the planned invasion will be a continuation of outrages
begun by other means. Cluster bombs, like those used in Afghanistan, and other
ghastly weapons dropped from 15,000 feet are sure to produce massive civilian
casualties. Earlier this year, in a change of official policy, our government
even announced a possible "first-use" strategy of "low yield" nuclear weapons.
Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board that advises the defense secretary,
has said: "No strategist would reject, in principle, using nuclear weapons against
George Kennan observed years ago that just war principles mean little without
a commitment to keep civilian casualties to the absolute minimum, "even at the
cost of military victory." The just war tradition requires that "victory" alone
cannot be the overriding goal.
George Hunsinger is Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology
at Princeton Theological Seminary. A longer version of this article can be read