Intervention, Just War, and U.S. National Security

Article excerpt

ON MARCH 19, 2003, the United States launched an aerial bombardment of designated sites in Baghdad, Iraq. It was the initial attack in a war that had been long expected and widely debated. Months earlier, on September 17, 2002, the Bush administration had issued The National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) a document that announced substantive shifts in American policy. On December 11, 2002, there followed the release of an unclassified version of the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. (1) Both of these documents caused controversy, not only because of their evident connection with the looming war against Iraq, but also because they formally articulated the "Bush doctrine" of how to address the problem of weapons of mass destruction. (2)

Years ago John Courtney Murray maintained that Pope Plus XII had reduced the just cause for war to one category, defensive war to resist aggression. (3) That view was widely accepted among just war theorists. While definitions of aggression might be debated, the basic premise that a just war was a war of defense became the normative standard in Catholic thinking. The dangers of nuclear war made such a stance only firmer. That narrow rendering of just cause has now been revised. Other aspects of the just war tradition have also been subject to reconsideration.

This section of the "Notes on Moral Theology" discusses several issues that have arisen in the course of the ethical debate over the decision of the United States to wage war against Iraq. (4) Those issues will be treated under two headings: (1) the expansion of grounds for armed intervention, and (2) proposed revisions of just war theory.


The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought to a close Europe's Thirty Years War and set in motion the system of nation-states and modern international law. Primary in importance for the newly developing political system was the recognition of sovereignty, the belief that a ruler had the right to exercise authority within a defined territory without deference to any other person claiming superior authority. A second crucial element of the new order was nonintervention, barring coercive interference by outsiders in the internal affairs of a state. A third part of the "Westphalian synthesis," (5) was the removal of religion from the realm of international politics. The religion of the prince and his people was no longer to be a factor in calculations about war.

While the norm of nonintervention has been violated many times, it did represent an advance over the reigning ethos prior to Westphalia. Gradual establishment of nonintervention as a norm brought a measure of stability to the embryonic system of nation-states.

In the present age new arguments for intervention have been forthcoming. During the 1990s there were calls for sending troops into countries where a humanitarian crisis was occurring. The upshot of the political debate that followed was widespread acceptance that genocide warrants intervention and a good deal of backing also can be found for intervention to stop ethnic cleansing and restore civil order within failed states. (6)

Terrorism and Armed Intervention

Another argument for intervention has arisen today as a result of terrorist attacks in the United States and elsewhere. America's military invasion of Afghanistan raised the question whether the United States ought to have viewed the campaign against terrorism through the lens of warfare or criminal activity. Certainly much of the war on terrorism resembles activity similar to police work: intelligence gathering, interdiction of materials and funding, detection leading to arrest, and prosecution of individuals. But the attack on U.S. soil by members of al Qaeda, the continuing threat that it posed, and the unwillingness or inability of the Taliban regime to halt terrorist activity initiated within Afghanistan's borders, made a military attack on al Qaeda and the Taliban rulers a reasonable decision. …