Magazine article Tikkun

The Yo-Yo Theory of Just War

Magazine article Tikkun

The Yo-Yo Theory of Just War

Article excerpt

Joel Kovel teaches at Bard College and is the author, most recently, of The Enemy of Nature, just released by Palgrave (Zed Books, London). For more information:

What better time to revisit the question of a Just War than when the war is virtually won? While there is no particular end in sight to the Afghanistan war as this is being written, no one doubts that victory is in America's hands. Our forces roam freely, the Taliban have been shoveled into the dustbin of history, Al Qaeda is reeling, and chief warmeister Donald Rumsfeld resembles Teddy Roosevelt more every day. God must have listened to all that singing, and decided to bless America. A great majority of the citizenry concludes that the war has been eminently worthwhile; and this opinion has been taken to the next level by the eminent scholar of international jurisprudence, Richard Falk, who has argued in liberal journals that it is a just war as well.

Falk's great authority is evinced by his having published no fewer than three articles in The Nation on the subject of just war since the outbreak of hostilities. In the latest, December 24, 2001, he corrects an earlier correction. At first, Falk held the war to be just. He then reversed judgement when it seemed that U.S. policy makers were using disproportionate force to achieve their goals. Now, however, with the "unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban regime and the obvious impact on the operational nexus of Al Qaeda, there seems, at least temporarily, to be a restored sense of proportionality between means and ends." And so the war is once more just.

But there's something wrong here. Call me out of step, but I thought that justice had to do with whether something was right or wrong, not with whether it works. That's pragmatism, not justice. What's just has to have an enduring quality. It should not be dependent on whether force achieves its goal, but upon what the force is all about.

Falk's view, instead, has as much constancy as a weather report: the war is just one week, unjust the next. His concept of a just war behaves like a yo-yo because it reduces war to those terms defined by the state--in this case, that it's all about stamping out terrorism. This view of war not only sets aside any deeper or larger purpose, it mystifies what the state is really all about.

What is the U.S. role in Falk's view? The United States, he claims, has a special responsibility to "achieve a maximally effective response and generate the widest possible popular support [because of] its leadership in world society, as well as its linchpin role with respect to global security, however flawed its execution has been in several past instances (including Vietnam, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the post-cold-war abandonment of Afghanistan and the follow-up to the Gulf War). …

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