Magazine article The Christian Century

Just War: Second Thoughts on Iraq

Magazine article The Christian Century

Just War: Second Thoughts on Iraq

Article excerpt

LIKE MANY AMERICANS, I decided in early 2003 that a war with Iraq was increasingly necessary. War seemed justifiable because of the intelligence reports concerning Iraq's weapons programs and because Saddam Hussein, who had committed atrocities in the past, was likely to be highly dangerous if he acquired weapons of mass destruction. The arguments for war could be supported by reference to the well-known just war theory.

I now believe that the war was deeply misguided. For just war theory--a framework of ethical reasoning with a long history in Christian thought--to remain plausible, its advocates need to acknowledge the weak arguments that they have embraced. Only by coming clean on our errors can we think more dearly in the future.

The first criterion of just war, and the one on which I'll focus, is that there be a "just cause." There were two potentially persuasive arguments for just cause in regard to Iraq. First was the claim that it was developing weapons of mass destruction in contravention of United Nations Security Council resolutions and was stymieing the work of UN weapons inspectors. The intelligence agencies of several nations presented reasons to believe that Iraq had retained materials for such weapons after the Gulf War of 1991 and that it had weapons programs under way. Even after Iraq readmitted UN weapons inspectors in November 2002, the regime was making it very difficult for them to do their work. These developments persuaded many people that Iraq posed an imminent threat, and that the threat constituted a just cause for war.

A humanitarian version of the argument for just cause was crucial for liberal hawks and tugged at the consciences of many Christians. Saddam Hussein was broadly acknowledged to be a dictator who wasted the resources of his country, murdered political enemies and brutally repressed his citizens. His repression included using chemical weapons against Kurds. Although in 2003 no acts of genocide were occurring or looming in Iraq, those who pushed the humanitarian just cause argument took a long view: large-scale atrocities had happened, and they deserved a just response; Iraqi citizens faced ongoing oppression and killing; future oppression and atrocities were all but certain to occur.

The just cause of addressing weapons of mass destruction collapsed after investigations by the press and by governmental and independent commissions revealed deep flaws in the intelligence. This much has become clear about the Bush administration: it put pressure on the intelligence community to paper over ambiguities in the evidence on Iraq's weapons and to make assessments that would bolster the ease for war, and it exaggerated to the public the clarity of the intelligence. Those who have repented of their initial support for the war can place a portion of the blame on the politicians and intelligence experts who had the actual evidence and assessments.

Another problem with the argument for just cause was that it was applied to a preventive war. The just war tradition has long allowed preemptive attacks in the face of an immediate threat, viewing such attacks as in the category of self-defense. But the just cause argument has never been used to defend a preventive war--a war to preclude a future threat from emerging. …

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