Just? Unjust? the Bush Doctrine of Pre-Emptive War Has Opened Up a New Front in the Debates over "Just War" Theory

By Lopez, George A. | Sojourners Magazine, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Just? Unjust? the Bush Doctrine of Pre-Emptive War Has Opened Up a New Front in the Debates over "Just War" Theory


Lopez, George A., Sojourners Magazine


Many Christians are convinced that all warfare is antithetical to the gospel, and that being a disciple of Jesus means rejecting violence. Others assert that some war is justified, and the church has established principles by which to discern whether or not a particular war can be considered just. Modern weaponry and tactics have called into question some of the basic assumptions about the just war theory, and have even moved some in the church to reject the possibility of a justified war in today's world.

In the wake of increased terror attacks and the Bush administration's war on Iraq, the just war tradition has split between "traditionalists.," who consider that the application of just war criteria presumes against war, except in extraordinary circumstances, and those who take the "permissive" approach, who have argued that we live in extraordinary, times and thus have "broadened" the criteria for a justified tear to include pre-emptive war. George A, Lopez, the author of this article and an advocate of the traditionalist approach, assesses the tensions embedded in this just war debate.

--The Editors

SINCE THE VIETNAM ERA and the, introduction of nuclear weapons, debates have been wide ranging about the utility of just war criteria to influence political decisions about the use of force, as well as for making individual moral decisions about which policies to support. in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy, much sharper divisions have emerged among the various positions on the ethics of war.

The divisions deepened in reaction to the Bush administrations's articulation of the nature of the combined threat of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and rogue states, and its development of the pre-emptive war doctrine in light of these threats. The ferment has crystallized three contending approaches to decisions. about waging war in our age: the pacifist, the "traditional" just war school, and the "permissive" just war approach

The pacifist approach--best expressed in the historic peace church traditions and more recently by groups such as Pax Christi--considers war to be a failed and immoral option. Violence begets violence, and a multitude of options exist for large, powerful states to deal nonviolently with the various threats posed by terrorists. By the nature of pacifism's minority position and a nasty political dialogue that treats it as irresponsible, if not treasonous, this approach has not received its due discussion in the public square. Pacifism offers more to the policy dialogue than is often recognized.

The traditional just war approach argues that however new and unprecedented these terror-dominated times may seem, in fact ethicists and policymakers have always had to face new challenges in weaponry and strategy that tempted leaders to exceed the normative standards of their era. Reaction to today's new challenges--"rogue" nations and non-state groups--can and should be governed by the prudential criteria just war thinking provides, including a presumption against the use of force as the initial response.

Partly in reaction to the first two approaches, the "permissive" school of just war theory argues that terrorist attacks--which put under threat our very values and social order--demand a clear and definitive response, reactively and proactively.

These summaries fail to capture the full complexities of each position, but they sketch the divided terrain. Each school falls short of helping us sort through the realities of the global violence we face, especially when the positions become laced with political dynamics. What we need is further debate among the contending schools; I would argue that such ethical thinking about war is now more, not less, relevant to our troubled times.

AS IS GENERALLY understood, just war thinking is governed by the ad bellum criteria (about when it is just to go to war) and the in bello criteria for the way a war might be justly fought. …

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