Many advocates of war with Iraq, including some progressives, appeal to a venerable tradition, just war theory. From their perspective, the antidote to the world’s tragic violence lies neither in pacificism nor in the quest for world hegemony but in the domestication of war. War can foster world order and justice when: 1) it is a last resort, 2) is attentive to noncombatants, 3) is limited in scope and aims, and 4) is an act of self-defense. Yet merely to argue that war in the abstract is sometimes just is not to prove that this war is. Nor have all just war advocates recognized the limits and preconditions of their own doctrine. Any possibility that war can enhance justice is voided when war’s leading advocates are doing their utmost to suppress full democratic debate on the cause and objectives of war. .
Just war theory emphasizes the right of sovereign states to defend themselves against attack. Many of its advocates today expand this doctrine to argue that when attack is “imminent.,” preemptive strikes against a potential aggressor are acceptable. Yet one must distinguish between hard evidence that an attack is plotted and about to happen and the concern that a nation that does not share our interests or view of the world may develop enough weapons to resist our demands. Current defenses of preemption risk morphing into a never-ending quest to prevent any nation save our own from holding modern high tech weaponry. That goal failed after World War II. The proliferation of nuclear weaponry beyond the US and Soviet states in the last two decades renders it even less operational today.
Indeed, “pre-emption” as exemplifed by the US Iraq policy is destined only to aggravate the problems of proliferation. The US must grapple with the fact that preemption stis within a broad international and technological context. Successful attack would not necessarily keep Iraq from disseminating biological or chemical weapons during an attack to terrorists. But even if successful, it would increase the incentive for other nations to speed nuclear developments lest they be preempted. North Korea’s increasing militance may have its own internal causes, but the lesson to many regimes is clear. Freedom from US bullying isn’t possible until a nation has nuclear bombs are in place.
That opposition to nuclear proliferation stands at the center of this war effort is belied by the Administration’s unilateral rejection of a series of nonproliferation agreements painfully negotiated by a host of prior US administrations. That protection of the innocent and defense of a moral order are at stake are equally belied by the Administration’s shameless efforts to bribe and coerce other nations to follow its lead into a war for which they will bear inordinate risks.
The concepts of imminent threat and of appropriate response are keys to the just war tradition, but both must be defined and interpreted amidst continually changing circumstances, especially once a war actually begins. How accurate is the information the administration supplies on Iraq weapons and what are its intentions in going to war? The administration portrays itself as reluctantly forced into war by the facts of Iraqi malfeasance. Nonetheless, the Administration’s continually shifting rationale for war and its presentation of inflated and often subsequently discredited “facts” suggest otherwise. This strikes many as a commitment to war for domination in search of a publicly acceptable rationale.
The just warriors are right about one thing: no nation must forego self-defense simply because it has blood on its own hands. That the US once armed Saddam and encouraged his invasion of Iran—and perhaps Kuwait-- does not entail abdication of a right to self-defense when he turns these arms on others. The blood on our hands does, however, entail another responsibility—that war must be subject to full and ongoing public debate. Debate reminds us that war usually has many parents and forces citizens in the midst of war to confront the its tragic violence. Debate alters the circumstances and conditions of peace overtures.
The Bush Administration’s fierce attacks on civil liberties close the avenues of debate needed if current invocations of just war doctrine are not to become one further sanctification of the powerful. As this Administration prepares for war, it has also secretly drafted a Domestic Security Enhancement Act which, in Georgetown Law School professor David Cole’s words “provides that any citizen, even native born, who supports even the lawful activities of an organization the executive branch deems ‘terrorist’ is presumptively stripped of his or her citizenship.” Administration preparations to manage the news of the war and to “embed” civilian reporters in active military units add to the cause for alarm.
The best just war theorists recognize that even rightly aggrieved nations can still overreach in their claims as to the justice and origins of their cause and in their prosecution of initially just wars. Only when both the decision to go to war and the prosecution of that war are subject to full and free debate can war’s inevitable tragedies be limited. The Bush Administration’s shifting and deceptive rationales and its consistently secretive style should give all just warriors pause. Domination and the sanctification of just us rather than justice for all may be the real goal and outcome here.
John Buell (email@example.com) is a columnist for the Bangor (Maine) Daily News