The Justice of War against Saddam’s Regime: Counting the Cost

A Dangerous Principle for a Dangerous World
[1] In floating the notion of preemptive attack against states harboring terrorists or preparing weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States, the Bush administration is considering a dangerous new principle in a dangerous new world. It is a step in the right direction that the nation is debating about the justice, not merely the utility, of such a possible preemptive attack against Iraq. This debate can both exclude the politically dangerous and morally dubious notion of ‘preventative war’ and justify limited U.S. military action aimed not only at the disarmament, but also the democratization of Iraq. But this limited action will entail a long-term engagement, if it is to be truly just.

[2] In point of fact, utility is one of the considerations in just war ethics. A just war must have a reasonable prospect of success; political judgment (in which people in good faith can differ) must calculate on accomplishing more good than harm both in going to war and in prosecuting war.

[3] Yet utility alone is never a sufficient guide, either in commencing or in fighting war justly. Utility alone justified (rather, rationalized) the World War II fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and led down a slippery slope to the atrocity of atomic attacks on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. U.S. Secretary of State Stimson in the final analysis invoked the massive “psychological shock” value of the atomic attack on civilians as the decisive factor-the very essence of “terrorism.” Utility therefore must be guided by a notion of justice that is greater than either party’s own immediate interest in victory, namely, the good of our common humanity and collective future.

[4] It is not surprising that many adherents of the just war ethic greet the prospect of preventative war with skepticism. Those cognizant of St. Augustine’s deep suspicion of self-aggrandizing motives hiding behind the pretense of moral rectitude are right to demand that the moral case be made rigorously. Since war is just only when it is defensive in nature and undertaken as a last resort, the very notion of preventative war seems morally repugnant.

[5] In the present climate, the political risk is obvious. Aside from the particular danger of inflaming passions in the Middle East which could spiral out of control, any policy of attacking perceived or potential enemies could shatter what little international law and order we have achieved and lead to global anarchy. It would also be morally risky. In the best case, perception of potential enemies is distorted by our own exaggerated sense of self. In the worst case, there is the danger of media or state manipulation of the information that forms public opinion, which happened as recently as the Clinton administration’s hysterical allegations of genocide occurring in Kosovo to justify NATO’s illegal intervention in 1999.

[6] In spite of these reservations, the fact remains that we were baptized by fire into a dangerous new world on September 11, 2001. Accordingly we try to apply just war principles to the unprecedented case of an international war against an enemy that neither respected traditional notions of national sovereignty nor hesitates to use weapons of mass destruction.

[7] To think clearly about this, one must 1) set aside partisan demagoguery, 2) define the moral evil of the terrorism we oppose, and 3) couple the prosecution of this just cause against terrorism with sacrificial and enlightened political and economic engagement with the Islamic nations.

The Fog of Partisanship
[8] To the first point: enlightened citizens take everything said by partisan politicians with the awareness that America’s interest-group coalition politics forbid them the luxury of rational coherence or principled thinking. How long ago was it that opponents of the Administration tried to extract election year advantage by asking about the intelligence prior to 9/11, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” That little piece of demagoguery has now been turned on its head by Administration hard-liners, who trumped it with: “Glad you asked! From now on, when the president knows what’s coming, he is going to act-in advance, with a vengeance.”

[9] The matters before us are far too grave for this partisan game of one-upmanship. The fact that most Christian ethicists today openly display partisan commitment is a sign of decadence in the discipline (witness the articles posted on this website). Christian ethics ought both to exemplify the freedom of Christian ethical reflection and to acknowledge the ambiguity involved in all concrete ethical applications. What we need is a rigorous consensus on exactly what it is that we oppose in the war against terrorism, while acknowledging that even in this shared ethical light, people in good conscience will make differing political judgments.

The Evil of Terrorism
[10] It cannot be that we oppose the right to revolution against oppressive regimes, or even the tactics of guerilla warfare used by freedom fighters, unless we want to regard America’s own revolution of 1776 as terrorist. Nor should we succumb, on the other hand, to a moral relativism, which denies the difference between just and unjust war or affirms that one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. We should rather take a stand on the inalienable rights of our common human nature to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness-universal rights endowed by the one God and Creator of us all and recognized by enlightened human reason in all religions and cultures.

[11] In this light, what makes terrorism evil is its particularly absolute view of the enemy. Willful blindness denies common humanity and so refuses to make any operational distinctions between civilians and combatants. As a result of this refusal of common humanity, terrorism deliberately seeks to demoralize the enemy, conceived as a whole system, with spectacular attacks on civilians going about every day life. Terrorism utilizes such savage means to victory in what it conceives as a total clash between irreconcilable systems engaged in a battle to death.

Fighting Sacrificially
[12] Any war against terror, then, if it is not itself to descend into terrorism, must constantly uphold the principle that we belong to a common humanity in which we are bound to love our neighbors as ourselves-even in the extreme situation of war. Granted, this demand sounds too paradoxical for those who regard war as beyond the scope of the Golden Rule. In consistent pacifism, however, one ironically agrees with contemporary terrorists, old-fashioned crusaders and modern ideological fanatics for whom the end justifies the means: war is and must be a total contest to death.

[13] Yet the mainstream of the Christian tradition has rightly held that in a fallen world, not yet redeemed in fullness, love must paradoxically make war against what is against love, and this nonetheless in ways that are ethically limited by the common humanity which we share with our enemies. That means that we must fight sacrificially in defense of a humanity we share with the Iraqi people and many others in the suffering Islamic world, silenced by domestic terror or benighted by religious bigotry.

Finishing a Just War, Not Starting a Preventative One
[14] The real fault of the present Administration, in this light, is not that, beyond disarmament, it is also seeking regime change in Iraq and is willing to act militarily to achieve that. To deliver the Iraqi people from the butcher who terrorizes them in their own land would be as morally right as delivering the Afghans from the Taliban. To return to battle on account of broken truce obligations from the Persian Gulf War does not so much entail a “preventative war” on a potential enemy as finishing the defeat of a real one. To secure the Persian Gulf region from a militaristic-fascistic menace would safeguard the world’s oil-driven economy from the very real prospect of nuclear blackmail and a catastrophic financial collapse.

[15] To these considerations, I would pose a question to any Western opponent of the Administration’s goals: Would you wish for yourself life under Saddam Hussein? If political judgment presses for disarmament, the Golden Rule presses for regime change.

[16] The administration’s moral case for acting decisively now to disarm and transform Saddam’s Iraq seems strong, given the foregoing judgments of political reason, when we apply the just war doctrine to a unique and much unprecedented case. If that conclusion holds up, just war, undertaken as a last resort (e.g., if new U.N. mandated inspections fail to achieve disarmament), is not a tactic but a duty. On the other hand, if deo volente disarmament is peacefully achieved through U.N. inspections, “regime change,” as the President has remarked, will also in principle be underway. One certainly prefers this resolution to its violent alternative.

[17] To be sure, the introduction of the idea of “preventative war” muddied the waters considerably. I regard it as unworthy of support, a trial balloon that has already been disconfirmed by the course of events. Prevention of future crimes by Saddam’s regime is the stated goal of the United Nations itself; with the acquiescence of Saddam’s neighbors and to the benefit of Kurds and other vulnerable minorities within Iraq, preemptive attack is already a tactic embraced in policing the “no-fly zone.” Expansion of the latter into a full state of war would be justified on the grounds that Saddam’s consistent violations of the Gulf War truce in fact revert us to the state of war that was suspended in 1991.

[18] What remains for debate then is the Administration’s unilaterialism. Can the United States be judge, jury and executioner?

[19] In fact, the Administration, constrained by the need for international support, has moved toward multilaterialism since it cannot effectively act without the sanction, or at least acquiescence, of the world’s major powers. Nevertheless the world, as it presently exists, is not a law-governed union of nations of equal power and responsibility. Today the United States is the sole power capable of enforcing minimal standards of world civility. That is simply a fact. If Europeans became militarily capable of international peace-keeping work that would be welcome. If Russia modernized and if China democratized, it would be a better world all around.

[20] But we are years from this. As a global society of nations we might not get there if the Saddams of today acquire the power to blackmail, in the process exploiting and inflaming Arab frustration and thus thwarting the painful but inescapable process of modernization in the Islamic world. While a rational calculation of consequences is not the only or chief criterion involved, and is notoriously fallible, opponents of the Administration’s policy might well consider the wars and suffering which would result from world financial collapse, should Saddam Hussein ever acquire the power to threaten the globe’s oil supply.

Counting the Cost
[21] In this light the real fault of the present Administration is its unwillingness to date to count the cost and summon the American people to the burden of duty in what will undoubtedly be a painful, long term and very expensive engagement. If it comes to war, American troops will occupy Iraq for the foreseeable future. Israel will have to be required to do justice to the national aspirations of the Palestinians. Islamic nations, even if not especially ‘friendly’ ones, will have to be pressed toward democratic reform (including affirmation of the free exercise of religion). These will be the real costs of waging a just war against Saddam Hussein. The easy part will be the military victory; the next twenty years will be something far more demanding.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.