Pacifism says that all war is immoral.
What is often called realism says that war is essentially about power and self-interest, rendering formal moral analysis largely beside the point.
In contrast to both of these perspectives, the just-war tradition, developed over a period of 1,500 years, says that moral standards can and should be applied to the activity of war.
Because justice is so important, war is a legitimate and necessary part of political life. But just-war teaching also makes clear that war is, at best, a necessary evil, in part because war requires the taking and sacrifice of human life, and, in part, because war is such a blunt and uncertain instrument of policy.
These twin ideas, highlighting both the centrality of justice and the problematic nature of war, undergird the numerous requirements for declaring war justly – including rightful cause, proper authority, the intention to pursue peace and justice, and the use of force only after other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted. They also undergird the requirements for waging war justly, including proportionality of response and a clearly positive balance of benefits over costs.
The just-war tradition also teaches that, although war alters some implications of the principle of equal human dignity – the idea that even our adversaries have the same human rights that we do – war does not suspend or negate that principle. Specifically, equal human dignity requires us to observe the principle of noncombatant immunity and to do everything reasonably in our power to minimize civilian casualties.
From a just-war perspective, the most troubling, indeed baffling, aspect of the Bush administration's approach to Iraq, and the war on terrorism generally, is its newly proposed doctrine of pre-emption. In recent statements and documents, the administration declares the right to initiate attacks against states deemed to be future threats to the United States.
The idea of attacking a nation that does not pose a threat today, but that may pose one in the future, is as old as war itself. But within the framework of just-war theory, pre-emption can be morally justified only in rare circumstances – when the attack is likely to be imminent, the threat is grave, and means other than war of preventing the attack are lacking.
Expanding this narrow and exceptional option into a broad doctrine at the center of U.S. foreign policy is inconsistent with the just-war tradition. It may well make the world a more dangerous place, especially if other nations appropriate the doctrine for their own purposes. For example, the Bush doctrine might license India, a nuclear power, in an attack upon Pakistan, another nuclear power, with the intention of pre-empting the possibility of Pakistani action.
The doctrine is baffling because, at least regarding Iraq, it is clearly unnecessary. Debating pre-emption in the context of Iraq obscures the fact that the United States has been in a low-grade military conflict with Iraq for more than a decade, stemming from our leadership of the coalition that reversed Iraq's illegal occupation of Kuwait in 1991. As long as our demand is Iraq's compliance with the disarmament requirements stemming from that conflict, the United States doesn't need a new doctrine called pre-emption to justify an increased use of force. The relevant issue is enforcement, not pre-emption.
Would a renewed U.S.-led military assault against Iraq be just? In recent months, the Bush administration has publicly floated numerous reasons for such a move. From the perspective of just-war thinking, most of these rationales are not compelling. For example, the Bush administration speaks frequently of "regime change" as its goal in Iraq. Regime change can be one consequence of a just war, but waging a war primarily to get rid of a foreign leader, even a dangerous one, could set a dangerous precedent and is generally inconsistent with just-war principles.
More specifically, there seems to be little or no credible evidence indicating that Iraq is about to launch an attack against the United States or any other country. While Iraq's government is certainly brutal and repressive, there is no evidence, so long as no-fly zones over Iraq are enforced, that Iraq's government is currently in a position to engage in widespread killings of Kurds or Shiites living in Iraq.
At the same time, one rationale for at least preparing to attack Iraq seems fully justified. The U.N. Security Council resolutions on disarmament and weapons inspections in Iraq, passed in 1991, have been flagrantly – and so far, with impunity – violated by the Iraqi regime. The United States and its allies should have been willing to fight a just war over this issue years ago, especially when Iraq effectively expelled the U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998. Although Iraq almost certainly does not yet possess nuclear weapons, it appears to be aggressively seeking the means to produce them. As President Bush has rightly insisted, the fact that Iraq today may be only a year away from obtaining nuclear weapons makes the regime's continued flouting of these disarmament requirements a legitimate international crisis.
For this reason, if Iraq fails to comply with demands for a renewed and unencumbered program of arms inspections by a near-term date, then the use of force to compel compliance would be both justified and necessary. Conversely, however, if Iraq does comply, the administration should take "yes" for an answer – not because weapons inspections are a panacea, but because they worked demonstrably well in Iraq in the early 1990s, and because, at least for the immediate future, they are morally preferable to full-scale U.S. military action against that country.
As President Bush recently stated, true disarmament in Iraq would constitute "regime change" in the most relevant respect – it would dramatically reduce Saddam Hussein's capacity to threaten his neighbors and the world. That should be the principal aim of U.S. policy, and we should resort to war only if we have exhausted all other reasonable means of achieving it.
If we proceed in this measured, step-by-step manner, we will not only do justice, but be seen as doing justice. No other course of action could better advance the long-term prospects for a more peaceful and democratic world order.
This article originally appeared here.