Just War Doctrine in an Age of Hyperpower Politics

By Foster, Gregory D. | The Humanist, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview
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Just War Doctrine in an Age of Hyperpower Politics


Foster, Gregory D., The Humanist


Whatever else may come of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, a clear need focus anew on the ethics of postmodern war has emerged. And considering the regularity with which commentators on the ethics of war invoke just war doctrine as the basis for their views, the questions posed--and, more importantly, the questions not posed--by this classical doctrine warrant greater scrutiny and skepticism now than ever before.

Traditionally, just war doctrine has offered a number of now-familiar considerations for determining the justifiability of resorting to war and the attendant propriety of one's actions in prosecuting war: Is there sufficient cause to justify going to war? Does the use of force represent a last resort after all other reasonable means have been exhausted? Is the use of force backed by the correct intentions? Does the decision to resort to force emanate from proper authority? Is there a reasonable prospect of success in employing force? Is the resort to force and the employment of particular means proportional to the situation at hand, the stakes involved, the ends sought, and the danger posed? Do the means employed discriminate sufficiently between combatants and innocent noncombatants to minimize harm to the latter?

All of these questions have been asked in varying measure regarding Iraq but none has been answered satisfactorily. Rather, this latest round of questioning has only reaffirmed that established just war precepts, rather than being clear guides to action (or inaction), can be vague, malleable, and subject to self-serving manipulation by governments seeking both legitimacy and exculpation for their martial sins.

Established just war doctrine falls especially short, though, in failing to ask a number of crucial questions that now beg to be posed--not simply to accommodate the postmodern media age but no less to face up to the appetites, muscularity, and impatience of a United States that seems intent on fulfilling its imagined mandate as world hyperpower.

Question 1: Are the authorities charged with responsibility for committing forces to war strategically competent? Are they, in other words, possessed of a coherent strategic vision that frames their actions? Is their grasp of the world cosmopolitan and global, rather than provincial and ethnocentric? Do they demonstrate an adequate understanding of the nature and uses of power (as distinct from raw force)? Do they appreciate the extended, frequently hidden, political, economic, social, and psychological consequences of their actions (punitive or otherwise)? Do they target actions at underlying causes that offer hope of permanent resolution, or merely at the visible symptoms of the moment? Are they measured and rational, rather than extravagant, in allocating vital national resources to security?

Not simply must decisions to go to war emanate from the highest authority in the land, such authority must be competent. And not simply must such authority be competent, it must be strategically so. Absent such strategic acumen, absent the intellectual proficiency to judge the larger effects and implications of military action, those at the pinnacle of power lack proper moral standing and authority to commit forces to war legitimately.

Question 2: Does the use of force minimize provocation and escalation? If force is used, will it dampen the level of violence and diminish the propensity of those against whom it is used, as well as others, to engage in further aggression? Or is it likely to have the opposite effect (as it has in Iraq)? Might it, in other words, foment a contagion of terrorism, lead to the proliferation--and eventual use--of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or feed the radicalization and coalescence of militant, anti-democratic fundamentalist groups and regimes?

One of the most commonplace rationalizations for the use of force--certainly one the Bush administration invoked in attacking Iraq--is that such action is necessary to deter future would-be aggressors.

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