Even as history continues to unfold — and explode — in ancient Mesopotamia, the Iraq War has already proven itself the most consequential international political event of the post-Cold War period.
It changed, and continues to change, the political, psychological, and perhaps even theological landscape of the Middle East. It drove great wedges between America and many of its oldest continental European allies for a time. It brought the Anglo-American “special relationship” to a high point of cooperation not seen for decades. It strengthened the United States’ strategic partnership with Australia. And it suggested the possibility of important alliances with the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, even as it likely precipitated new thinking in emerging powers like India and China.
Meanwhile, it exposed in painful detail the incapacities and corruptions of the United Nations, which turned out to be an accomplice, witting or not, in Saddam Hussein’s efforts to escape international sanctions and recommence his quest for regional hegemony. And it roiled the domestic politics of the United States and western Europe as they had not been shaken since the nuclear-freeze demonstrations of the early 1980s.
Yet even as it sent political shockwaves throughout the West, the Iraq War was also creating conditions for the possibility of something actually resembling “politics” in Iraq itself, as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf emirates, Pakistan, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria. Moreover, the often bloody drama of the postwar transition to responsive and responsible government in Iraq — a society that suffered for thirty years under the lash of a regime that rivaled those of Pol Pot and Kim Il Sung for viciousness — has guaranteed that the seismic shocks generated by the Iraq War will affect world politics for years, and likely decades, to come.
The Iraq War has also had a dramatic impact in the world of ideas. In policy documents like the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States and this past November’s National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, the Bush administration — convinced that the attacks of September 11 defined a pivotal moment in world politics — has laid down a sharp challenge to certain well-entrenched ideas about the nature of “realism” in international affairs, even as its policy on the ground has challenged numerous conventions of post-World War II international public life.
Perhaps most dramatically, the Bush administration, in its effort to define a more truly “realistic” approach to world politics, was willing to challenge the seemingly settled consensus that the Middle East was a region so politically volatile, economically important, and culturally retrograde that it could only be “managed,” never transformed.
All this has led, in turn, to a remarkable reversal, even an inversion, in the geography of ideas in American public life. Who would have imagined, fifty years ago, that a passion for the democratic transformation of the world would find its primary American political home in (at least some) conservative circles? Who would have imagined, fifty years ago, that much of American liberalism, rather than making the moral and political case for deposing a genocidal maniac, would find itself in de facto alliance with the status-quo forces in world politics? It is impossible to know with any confidence where this dramatic alteration in the political location of great ideas will take the United States, or the world. But if ideas really do have consequences, the impact is likely to be significant.
In a related realm of ideas, the Iraq War crystallized the tensions that had been apparent in just war thinking for the past several decades. The debates before and after the brief ground-combat phase of the war have demonstrated that contemporary distortions of classic just war thinking — in particular, confusions over the nature of the classic ad bellum or “war-decision” criteria and their relation to one another — continue to affect the judgment of many of the religious leaders, philosophers, and theologians who are presumed to be the among the custodians of this venerable method of moral reasoning. No comprehensive survey of opinion in these quarters has been made, to my knowledge. But if it were, it’s a safe bet that such a survey would find that the overwhelming majority of Western religious leaders thought the Iraq War imprudent at best and unjust at worst, a judgment for which they would have found ample support among most contemporary just war philosophers and theologians.
In my view, that judgment — that the Iraq War was an unjust war according to classic just war criteria — is mistaken. Demonstrating that does not require the moral theorist to become an apologist for American policy in Iraq. As the Bush administration has conceded, it made mistakes, some of them serious, in its appraisal of likely post-Saddam politics in Iraq, in its approaches to the pacification of the country, and in aspects of its counterinsurgency strategy.
What demonstrating the intellectual impossibility of the current consensus against the Iraq War among many just war theorists and religious leaders does require is a willingness to think through the classic just war criteria in a classic way: that is, by understanding those criteria as a demanding yet supple framework for morally informed prudential political reasoning about the achievement of morally worthy political ends through the means of proportionate and discriminate armed force.
The just war tradition is a tradition in the service of tranquillitas ordinis, which was St. Augustine’s definition of peace. That is, the just war tradition is a method of moral reasoning about the use of certain kinds of means toward the end of a peace that is composed of justice, security, and freedom. This link between moral reasoning and the noblest ends of politics is what gives just war thinking its gravitas — and its tether to the world in which statesmen must make real decisions with life-and-death consequences. Most religious leaders, moral philosophers, and theologians who opposed the Iraq War continue to insist that theirs is the “peace” position. But it is precisely the link between moral reasoning and the politics of peace in a conflict-ridden world that the putative custodians of the just war tradition seem to have largely forgotten.
Some of their critique bordered on the risible. A lengthy report by a working group of the Church of England’s House of Bishops spent several pages bemoaning the alleged impact of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels on what the bishops deplore as aggressive American nationalism and the Bush administration’s unilateralism. Then there were the ninety-five United Methodist bishops who publicly repented their “complicity” in the “unjust and immoral” invasion and occupation of Iraq — even though these allegedly complicit clergymen had loudly opposed the war for years before March 2003. Dr. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, simply pronounced the war “immoral, illegal, and ill-advised,” and, oddly for a German whose country might still be living under the totalitarian jackboot, concluded that “wars cannot be won, only peace can.”
Other critiques exposed the rather large ambitions of some intellectuals. Father Drew Christiansen, the Jesuit now editing America magazine, proposed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church be revised in light of the Iraq War, so that it would be clear that a new shadow government of theologians, religious leaders, and activists shared public officials’ responsibility for determining when the conditions for a just use of armed force had been met. Where that might lead was illustrated by the Catholic bishops of the United States, who, in a letter to President Bush in September 2002, framed the just war criteria “so restrictively and prejudicially as to make [it] virtually impossible” for the criteria to be met, as one prominent just war scholar put it.
The critics were not beyond misrepresenting the facts. The ethicist Mark Allman, among many others, wrote that “John Paul II . . . condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq as unjust.” Yet for all his vigorous opposition to a military solution to the problem of disarming Iraq, and notwithstanding the somewhat overheated rhetoric of various Vatican officials in early 2003, the late pope never used the word “unjust” to describe the war — perhaps in part because he knew, as Professor Allman evidently did not, that Catholic Church leaders in Iraq had thanked American diplomatic representatives for liberating their country.
There was, in fact, little sustained analytical critique of the Bush administration’s policy from a just war point of view. Even such normally sober philosophers as Michael Walzer and John Langan, S.J., failed to make detailed critical arguments in support of their claim that the Iraq War failed the test of just war analysis. Professor Walzer, writing in an Internet edition of the journal Dissent in March 2003, declared: “America’s war is unjust. Though disarming Iraq is a legitimate goal, morally and politically, it is a goal that we could almost certainly have achieved with measures short of full-scale war. . . . At this time, the threat that Iraq posed could have been met with something less than the war we are now fighting. And a war fought before its time is not a just war.”
Addressing the Pacific Section of the Society of Christian Ethics, Father Langan averred that “both the general policy of preventive war advocated in the 2002 National Security Strategy and the exercises in deception and self-deception which led up to the invasion of Iraq constitute an unacceptable aberration from the concern for maintaining international order and for building a peaceful world of free and equal states which has been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy over the last century” — and then proposed that the assembled ethicists and their colleagues issue a “repudiation of those politicians and their advisors who brought the war about.”
Insofar as one can tease an argument out of what amounted to an array of sometimes confused and often confusing assertions, the just war case against the Iraq War went something like this: Granted that Saddam Hussein ran an odious regime that brutalized the Iraqi people and that, rearmed, posed a grave security threat to the Middle East (and perhaps beyond), it was unnecessary tactically and unjust morally to depose him and affect regime change by means of an Anglo-American invasion and occupation. The United Nations’ sanctions had Saddam “in the box”; maintaining sanctions (or perhaps intensifying them, which was Michael Walzer’s proposal, echoed by the U.S. Catholic bishops) would either keep Saddam in that box or would lead to his eventual overthrow. Moreover, to invade Iraq without an explicit mandate from the United Nations violated international law and further weakened the already delicate fabric of international public life.
That seems to be the gist of the opponents’ case. In response, let me offer a just war defense of the moral probity of the decision to remove Saddam by armed force, with specific focus on the classic ius ad bellum criteria that are the intellectual and moral core of the just war tradition. Such a defense will, I hope, demonstrate the unpersuasiveness of the assertions and judgments implicit in the unarticulated just war critique of the war that has so dominated the moral rhetoric in both America and Europe.
Let us begin with the question of sovereign authority. As James Turner Johnson, the world’s premier historian of the just war tradition, has argued endlessly (and, it seems, rather fruitlessly), the just war method of moral reasoning begins with the legitimate sovereign’s responsibility to defend and promote tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of order.
In other words, the just war tradition is, first and foremost, a tradition of prudential political reasoning about good political ends, informed by the natural moral law; the natural law dimension of just war reasoning also creates the possibility of a public moral grammar for the public deliberation of public goods. The just war tradition begins not with casuistry about this or that particular military or nonmilitary option, and not with a set of hurdles that moral theorists set before statesmen, but with the legitimate sovereign’s moral obligation to defend and promote right order. Thus, in the just war tradition, war is not an abandonment of the moral realm; war is a moral category — war is the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force by legitimate public authority in order to secure certain worthy public goods. Anything else is brigandage, in one form or another.
Although this moral-political starting point for just war thinking — the defense and pursuit of peace by legitimate sovereign authority — has been largely forgotten by many of those who speak to and from the just war tradition, the question of the location of sovereign authority for legitimate warmaking was, in fact, one of the questions at issue in the claim that the United Nations alone could authorize the resort to armed force to compel Saddam Hussein to comply with the obligation of disarmament laid on him by the 1991 ceasefire agreement that followed the first Gulf War and by a host of subsequent resolutions. All authority to make war in the world had been remanded to the United Nations — or so the assertion went.
That assertion raises any number of questions. If we are reasoning in classic just war terms, the first question to be asked is whether the United Nations in fact constitutes a sovereign authority. Some would undoubtedly answer yes, but a far more persuasive case can be made that the United Nations, as it is presently structured and as it currently functions, lacks many of the crucial features of sovereignty. Its charter describes it as an organization of sovereign states, not a superstate to which core attributes of national sovereignty have been deputed. Thus it is not at all clear that the state members of the United Nations consider the organization a “sovereign” entity — a suggestion grimly confirmed by the fact that, since 1945, more than twenty million people have been killed in the more than 150 armed conflicts not authorized by the United Nations.
Then there is the question of accountability: The present UN system is only weakly accountable to the people of the world, for member-states alone can hold the organization accountable for its policies and practices (and frequently fail to do so). Further, when the question turns to the legitimate use of armed force, the United Nations’ lack of sovereignty is suggested by the fact that the organization has no military capability of its own and exercises an extremely limited form of command and control over the forces that act in its name. That, in turn, suggests that the United Nations cannot responsibly direct those forces, which is another core characteristic of sovereignty.
To assert, without further ado, that the UN satisfies the attributes of sovereign authority — the core ad bellum question with which just war reasoning begins — is to leave the realm of moral reasoning and enter a highly contentious and thoroughly unsettled realm of legal argument. For there is a serious question as to whether the UN charter claims for the organization the monopoly on the legitimate use of force that some claim for it. Article 51 of the charter recognizes that member states possess an “inherent” right of self-defense: If your country is being invaded or attacked — if, in other words, you are the victim of aggression — you do not have to secure the permission of the Security Council or the General Assembly to do something about it. American, British, and continental European scholars have widely different readings of the meaning of Article 51. But this itself suggests that, from a just war point of view, the question is not the controverted and open one of whether the United Nations has been ceded a legal monopoly on the moral and political authority to authorize armed force. The far more decisive moral question raised by Article 51 is, rather, a just cause question: How does one make the judgment that aggression is, indeed, underway?
This is one of the crucial questions that a developed, classic just war analysis must address. How is aggression defined in a world where the minimum requisites of order are threatened by bellicose regimes with weapons of mass destruction, ballistic-missile capability, links to terrorist networks, and no domestic political checks on their leaders’ actions? That question and its implications for the question of sovereign authority had to be faced in 2002 and 2003, when sovereign national authorities reached the judgment, but could not persuade the Security Council to accept the judgment, that aggression was indeed underway, if not yet in the classic cross-border sense of the term — and that a proportionate and discriminate military response was not only legitimate but necessary as an exercise of the national sovereign’s moral responsibility.
Beyond these questions of just war theory, there were the realities of UN practice, which were, to be plain, ugly in the years between the first Gulf War and March 2003. Assertions about the United Nations’ singular moral authority to wage war today must contend with the hard facts of the UN’s deep corruption, which is now beyond reasonable doubt. It is bad enough when UN “peacekeepers” in Africa become complicit in the sex-trafficking of young girls. Still, any large organization has its share of reprehensible characters whose odious behavior does not call into question the moral legitimacy of the organization as a political actor of consequence.
What does raise that question with respect to the United Nations and Iraq are the recent congressional inquiries and the investigations of the Volcker Commission appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, into the United Nations-run Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. These strongly suggest — some would say, decisively prove — that the Security Council process in the debate over Iraq was thoroughly corrupted, with French and Russian diplomats admitting to having been paid off with illegal oil vouchers by the Iraqi regime. It is not unreasonable to believe that others were similarly bribed. Indeed, the United Nations Oil-for-Food program was the crucial component in a colossal swindle in which Saddam Hussein embezzled some $21 billion in oil money over a dozen years.
But there was more, and worse. According to the September 2004 Duelfer Report, the embezzled billions (of which the bulk were from Oil-for-Food) were used by Saddam Hussein both to maintain his regime’s economic viability and to sustain his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. As the Duelfer Report puts it, “The introduction of the Oil-for-Food Program (OFF) in late 1996 was a key turning point for the regime. OFF rescued Baghdad’s economy from a terminal decline created by sanctions. The regime quickly came to see that OFF could be corrupted to acquire foreign exchange both to further undermine sanctions and to provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development.”
The United Nations itself, in other words, was materially complicit in Saddam Hussein’s success in running what the Wall Street Journal has succinctly called “the largest bribery scheme in the history of the world.” And that scheme was not simply aimed at lining the pockets of Saddam, his family, and his Baathist party. It had a strategic purpose: to enable Iraq to break out of the box of the sanctions regime and revive the very weapons programs that it was the stated goal of more than a dozen United Nations resolutions to end. The only people for whom this really was “all about oil” were French, Russian, and Chinese diplomats and their governments, dishonest United Nations bureaucrats, and the Saddam Hussein regime, which used oil to corrupt the United Nations’ political process in an unprecedented way.
All of which reinforces the grave questions about the United Nations as a locus of sovereign authority that classic just war thinking would want to pose, even prior to a sober analysis of the United Nations’ current dysfunctionality. In light of these questions and in the wake of the United Nations’ performance in the seven years before the Iraq War, the burden of proof lies squarely on those moral theorists who would claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force for an organization that arguably lacks sovereignty, rightly understood; that concedes a legitimate right of self-defense to states in its charter; and that, through the Oil-for-Food program, was the de facto financial partner of a tyrant and the agent of its own political corruption.
Another core component of just war theory is the question of just cause. From a classic just war perspective, there were multiple and mutually reinforcing rationales for making the moral judgment that the removal of Saddam Hussein and his regime, and the creation of a new political order in Iraq, satisfied a developed version of the war-decision criterion of “just cause.”
The Iraqi regime was in clear violation of more than a dozen United Nations resolutions demanding its disarmament, and, according to those resolutions, the burden of proof was on Saddam Hussein to show that he had in fact disarmed. Absent such proof, the assumption had to be that he had not, with severe consequences to follow. The regime had been a massive violator of human rights for decades, its signature activities having included rape as an instrument of state policy, various grotesque forms of torture, and the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. The mass graves dug up all over Iraq in the aftermath of the war bore powerful testimony to the fact that Saddam’s Iraq was a killing field of systematized brutality and lethality — a model case, some might argue, for “humanitarian intervention” to depose a despotic, murderous regime.
So, too, Saddam’s Iraq had long proved itself a threat to regional stability, having conducted a long and bloody war against Iran (with, alas, misguided support from the United States), during which it had used ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, Saddam’s ambitions to be a new Saladin were well known; the fear that Saddam aroused in his neighbors was only intensified after the 1991 decision to leave him in power, and was evident in efforts by key Persian Gulf leaders in 2002 and 2003 to get from the United States rock-solid assurances that America really would see through regime change in Baghdad this time.
Meanwhile, no serious person doubted that Saddam, who had once harbored such scoundrels as Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas, was still involved with terrorists, including al-Qaeda terrorists. Those convictions have been amply confirmed by documents captured during and after the war, which demonstrate that the Saddam Hussein regime trained hundreds, even thousands, of jihadist terrorists in camps around Iraq in the years immediately preceding the war.
Then there was the Iraqi regime’s lust for weapons of mass destruction. Everyone — the Clinton administration, the United Nations, the Russians, the French, the Chinese, the British, and a host of U.S. intelligence agencies — was convinced that Saddam Hussein had retained stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons after the 1991 Gulf War and was actively seeking nuclear-weapons capability. And no small part of the reason the world was convinced that Saddam Hussein retained such weapons was the Iraqi regime’s recalcitrant behavior in dealing with international weapons inspectors. American war plans for Iraq assumed that the Iraqi army would use chemical weapons, at least (witness the deployment of expensive protective equipment for U.S. forces).
The Bush administration’s stress on weapons of mass destruction as a crucial component of the casus belli against the Iraqi regime was based on at least three factors: the administration’s sincere conviction that Saddam had a capacity for such weapons and sought to increase it; the belief that Iraq’s defiance of the United Nations’ disarmament resolutions made the strongest case for military action at the Security Council; and the political needs of British prime minister Tony Blair, who had told the American administration that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had to be emphasized in order to keep his own Labour back-benchers in line in the House of Commons.
In the event, as the McKay and Duelfer Reports disclosed, Iraq’s capability for these weapons had been essentially destroyed after 1991, though Iraq retained the human and technical infrastructure necessary to reconstitute its weapons programs (perhaps with a different mix of capabilities) once it had broken out of the box of sanctions; meanwhile, Saddam refused to comply with the United Nations’ disarmament requirements, in order to maintain the fear-driven mystique (and power) that his previous possession and use of weapons of mass destruction had afforded him. The fact that coalition troops did not find caches of such weapons in Iraq points to a serious intelligence failure on the part of nearly every actor of consequence on the world stage, as it underscores both Saddam’s duplicity and his megalomania. But does the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in March 2003 fundamentally change the just war calculus?
I suggest that it does not. Prudent statecraft assumed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; the debate was over what to do about that. And, as James Q. Wilson has pointed out, whatever else can be said about prewar intelligence failures, we now know for certain than an aggressive Iraqi regime does not have weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten the region and the world. Ensuring the disarmament of Iraq was one facet of the just cause argument in favor of deposing Saddam by military force; that desirable and morally defensible end has been achieved.
The criteria of just cause and sovereign authority intersect on this issue of weapons of mass destruction. Regime change in Iraq had been U.S. policy since the Clinton administration in 1998 — because regime change was understood to be the only way to guarantee Iraq’s disarmament, end the suffering of its people, and achieve a measure of stability in the Persian Gulf. That judgment was shared by the Bush administration, if now in the radically changed post-September 11 strategic environment, which intensified legitimate concerns that neither the Middle East nor the United States could be safe in a world in which the Saddam Hussein regime remained in power.
Further, by invading Iraq and deposing the Baathist regime, the United States, Great Britain, and their allies were enforcing, de facto if not de iure (although that too remains a contested legal point), the disarmament resolutions that the United Nations was unwilling or unable to enforce. The fecklessness displayed by both the League of Nations and the great powers when National Socialist Germany militarily reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 is widely thought to have eroded the foundations of world order in the 1930s — with lethal results. Would a similar fecklessness in the face of United Nations disarmament demands have strengthened world order? It seems very unlikely. And cannot a case be made that, over the long haul, the work of a coalition of the willing to enforce the international consensus embodied in those United Nations resolutions will strengthen the foundations of the peace of order?
By its international and domestic behavior, its weapons capabilities and ambitions, and its stated intentions, the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein had shown that it constituted, de facto, an “aggression underway.” Responding to that aggression through a proportionate and discriminate use of armed force was not only morally legitimate, according to classic just war understandings of just cause; it was, reasonable analysts could argue, morally necessary.
We have still to consider the just war criterion of “last resort.” Had everything possible been done, short of full-scale war, to achieve the morally worthy ends of peace, security, and freedom in Iraq—and a changed political equation in the Middle East?
Michael Walzer, for example, suggested in late 2002 and early 2003 that Saddam’s regime could be contained by expanding the no-fly zones in Iraq to cover the entire country, by robustly supporting the United Nations’ weapons inspectors, and by tightening sanctions. Walzer was under no illusions about the wickedness of Saddam’s regime—and, like everyone else, was convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and sought more of them.
Yet Walzer’s moral and political realism seems to have failed him in this instance. Three years earlier, in 1999, the sanctions regime against Iraq was already crumbling, with only the United States and Great Britain, among the permanent members of the Security Council, supporting its extension. China, France, and Russia were all seeking ways to ease the sanctions regime into virtual or legal nonexistence. As the Duelfer Report indicated, the combination of tens of billions of dollars from the Oil-for-Food program and the collapsing political support at the United Nations for sanctions led the Iraqi regime to the not-unreasonable conclusion that it was, in fact, about to get out of the box, at which point it could resume its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
There is no reason to think that the Walzer proposal for “sanctions-plus” or a “little war” would have commanded support within the Security Council or, if imposed by the United States and Great Britain alone, would have had the desired effect within Iraq. Moreover, the effects of draconian sanctions on Iraq’s long-suffering civilian population would have been severe, thus calling that approach into moral question as something ominously close to a siege. In other words, by March 2003 every reasonable option for enforcing Iraqi disarmament short of war had been exhausted.
The debate over “last resort” was also, however, a debate over the Bush administration’s doctrine of “preemption,” as articulated in its September 2002 National Security Strategy. That debate can be located at the intersection of the sovereign authority, just cause, and last resort criteria of a developed classic just war analysis of the preinvasion situation in Iraq.
The tone of NSS-2002, with its blunt affirmation of “unprecedented” and “unequaled” American strength and influence in the world, is undoubtedly grating at points, perhaps especially on allies. The document’s determination to advance a “distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests” raises immediate cautions in the mind of anyone schooled by Augustinian realism to recognize that, in politics, even the best intentions will come into conflict with unavoidably imperfect policy options from time to time. Read as a whole, however, NSS-2002 is neither a sermon nor an exercise in triumphalism but rather a sober-minded attempt to define a morally sound security strategy by which the United States and its allies can advance the cause of the peace of order in the twenty-first century.
According to NSS-2002, the strategy of deterrence that saw the free world through to safety in the Cold War is unavailing against terrorist networks and the most extreme rogue states. To rely solely on a “reactive posture” is too dangerous. Thus the first use of military force must be considered an available option under the doctrine of “imminent danger,” which international law has recognized “for centuries.” While the United States “will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats,” it “will, if necessary, act preemptively.” Such first use of military force will be one of the means by which the United States seeks to defend the order that exists in international public life and to expand the zone of freedom (and hence of order) in the world; other available means inclu
This article was originally published on First Things