By Robert P. George Dec. 6, 2002 12:01 am ET
Religious leaders have questioned whether war in Iraq can be justified. Three of their concerns are most important: (1) Can military action be morally legitimate if it is pre-emptive? (2) Is it morally permissible to use force to oust a tyrannical and aggressive regime, as opposed to merely disarming it? (3) May the U.S. legitimately lead a coalition against Saddam Hussein if the U.N. refuses to authorize the use of force to remove or disarm his regime?
Those raising these questions are not pacifists. They do not suggest that military force is never justifiable. Rather, they argue that a pre-emptive war with the goal of removing Saddam from power does not satisfy the requirements of “just war theory.”
It was by explicit appeal to “just war” that President Bush’s father justified the use of force to evict Saddam from Kuwait in 1991. The president today also makes his case for using force by invoking these principles. The debate, then, is not about whether just war principles ought to guide our decision to go to war; rather, it concerns the application of the principles to the case at hand. President Bush maintains that these principles authorize — even require — the use of force to prevent Saddam’s acquisition and use of weapons even more frightening than those he’s used before. The religious leaders who oppose war insist that they do not.
Who is right?
Let’s first examine pre-emptive military action. Although the medieval architects of just war theory held that punishing past aggression is a legitimate purpose of war, most modern authorities rule out retributive justifications for resorting to arms. Modern tradition holds that war may be waged only for defensive purposes, and only as a last resort. President Bush’s critics insist that pre-emptive action cannot be defensive, and that prior to another actual act of aggression by Saddam just war principles limit the U.S. to diplomatic, rather than military, options.
But the critics are mistaken. Pre-emptive action is “defensive” when it is motivated by a reasonable belief that a proven aggressor is equipping himself with the means to carry out further aggression with impunity. Few doubt that Saddam is seeking to enhance his chemical and biological arsenal, and to acquire nuclear weapons. Few deny that he will use these weapons to terrorize other nations in the region and force them to bend to his will.
President Clinton observed in 1998 that Saddam’s quest to dominate the Middle East by acquiring weapons of mass destruction is an active threat to U.S. allies and interests. According to Joseph Lieberman, “every day Saddam remains in power is a day of danger for the Iraqi people, for Iraq’s neighbors, for the American people, and for the world.” John McCain says that Saddam “is a clear and present danger to the United States of America.” If Presidents Bush and Clinton and Sens. Lieberman and McCain are right, then pre-emptive military action against Iraq’s regime is not excluded by just war doctrine. Indeed, it would be perverse to suppose that force may not be used against an aggressive tyrant until after he has armed himself with weapons of mass destruction.
How about the morality of using military force to remove a regime, as opposed to disarming it? In a letter to President Bush, Bishop Wilton Gregory asked: “Should not a distinction be drawn between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government’s existence?” The answer is that the relevance of the distinction depends on circumstances. There is no absolute moral principle forbidding the use of force to dismantle a tyrannical regime. The question requires prudential judgment. If a regime’s aggression cannot be prevented without removing the regime, then force may licitly be used to remove it.
Finally, the question of who may authorize and carry out a military action. A traditional criterion of just war is that “proper authority” must wage it. According to some critics of the president, the U.S. and its allies, unless authorized by the U.N., are not a legitimate authority for waging war against Saddam. They insist that the international community, operating through the U.N., alone has authority to use force in Iraq.
Yet nothing in just war theory places unique authority to prevent aggression in the hands of the “international community.” Of course, President Bush has acted prudently in obtaining a U.N. resolution requiring Saddam to abandon his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and submit to inspections. However, should the U.N. decline or fail to enforce its just demands, the U.S. and her allies have the right to protect themselves from Saddam’s aggression.
Just war theory is part of a larger theory of statecraft. Its principles guide political leaders as to when they must refrain from using military means to achieve their ends; but they also give guidance as to when they are morally obligated to resort to arms. The Catholic Bishops and others have rightly reminded the president that war can be justified only as a last resort. But we must be clearheaded about what this principle means here: If Saddam submits to truly unconditional inspections, and if U.N. inspectors are able to eliminate his illegal weapons and demolish his weapons manufacturing infrastructure, then an invasion of Iraq would be unnecessary, and therefore unjustifiable. If.
Given Saddam’s record of aggression and duplicity, no one should assume that military force will not, in the end, prove necessary. It is a tragic fact of human affairs that sometimes statesmen cannot fulfill their moral duties to prevent aggression and resist tyranny relying exclusively on diplomatic means. In these circumstances — though, to be sure, only then — just war theory supposes that the decision to fight is not merely optional; it is morally required.
Mr. George is a professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.