Bush’s Abuse of Just War Theory by Douglas P. Lackey

Lackey, Douglas P., “Bush’s Abuse of Just War Theory,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991).

The President’s invocation last February of Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas in defense of his Gulf War policies should warm the hearts of old-style philosophy teachers like myself. But I must be excused if I do not sign on. Does the Just War theory developed by these and later philosophers declare that the war against Saddam Hussein is just? I think not.

The Just War theory as we now have it asserts that a war is just if and only if it is fought with just cause, with just intention, with competent authority, with just means, with proportionate damage, and as a last resort.

I think that most authorities will agree that this war is fought with just cause, in response to an act of naked aggression. I also think that many authorities would agree that the allies fight with just intention. You should believe this provided that you believe that if Saddam withdrew from Kuwait, allied military operations will cease, demonstrating that the primary allied objective is the liberation of Kuwait. But if you do not believe this, the President’s argument is lost. And when we turn to the remaining conditions for just war, all of them necessary, the allied case is even less compelling.

The question of competent authority falls heavily on President Bush. The President made some attempts to internationalize his initiative, but the crucial UN resolution does not so much require the use of force as acquiesce in it. On the domestic scene, the President sought and obtained Congressional blessing, but he got it only after dispatching enough troops to make war unavoidable. Congress became philosophical and accepted the inevitable, beaten down by a blizzard of yellow ribbons. Historians may judge that Bush’s manipulation of Congress in 1990 mimics Lyndon Johnson’s maneuvers in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964.

The principal means by which the war is fought has been strategic bombing, and about strategic bombing St. Thomas Aquinas has little to say. But if you can believe that blowing up every bridge in Iraq is an attack on military capacity, and not an assault on Iraqi society at large, you can believe anything. Just war theorists have always had qualms about strategic bombing, and the many conflicting moral rationales for such bombings developed over the years are as ingenious as they are unconvincing.

The scale of the allied bombardment runs the President into trouble with the rule of proportionality, which requires that the damage caused by allied action be less than the damage it prevents. Since the damage to Iraq promises to be total, and Iraq is considerably larger than Kuwait, the restoration of Kuwait cannot counterbalance the destruction of Iraq. If Saddam is evil because he has brought so much death and destruction into the world, the moral remedy can hardly be to cause even more destruction and death.

But it is the “last resort” requirement that is the weakest link in the Presidential chain. The speed and size of American deployments, the limited time allowed for sanctions to take effect, the inflexibility of the Administration’s negotiating stance, all point to a decision to use force sooner rather than later. I agree that Saddam Hussein should not profit from his crimes, but he cannot profit from oil he cannot sell. Many experts believe that, given the destabilizing effect of sanctions, Saddam might settle for a minor change in the border and two small islands in the Persian Gulf. True, he has no right to those islands, but the United States has no right to the lives of children in Iraq. On the scales of justice, two small children should count for more than two small islands. Let us hope that the President heeds the Just War Theory before emotion drowns out ethics.

Baruch College, CUNY

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