The Spectacle Blog

A Just War?

By on 12.16.11 | 1:08PM

As a theory of war fighting, "just war" is historically understood as a cluster of restrictions and expectations: what is acceptable and unacceptable when deciding to wage war, during the execution of conflict and after the hostilities have ceased. Theoretically, there are three conditions for a Just War: Jus ad bellum (the justice of going to war), jus in bello (justice during the war) and jus post bellum (justice after the war). The first condition is based on what justice must be demonstrated to resort to war. Concepts of just cause blend with best intentions and the reasonable hope that going to war will cause more good than harm and that is realistic to believe that this cause will be achieved. The second stipulation pertains to the conduct of a just war. Jus in bello is based on the presumption that noncombatants will be given the immunity and protection they deserve and that military action will be minimal, yet proportionate to an end result that produces more harm than good.

For my money, the third condition is the most difficult to satisfy. Justice after the war demands the development of law and order that protects human rights, establishes a lawful, working government and reconciles the victims and aggressors before the a court of justice While both ends of the political spectrum have come to support these nation-building efforts at different times, the notion that underlying problems caused by failed (or failing) states and the reconstitution of indigenous state institutions can only be solved through the long-term security endeavors of outsider powers to is contentious. Issues abound: it is rarely the case that local institutions are strong enough to help pick up the pieces of the failed states that created them; outside nation-builders find themselves making all the important decisions because they are reluctant to allow their protégés learn from their own mistakes; and, nation-builders often lack the clarity to recognize their own impact on the new country (or countries) they have divined from conquest.

Present circumstances have raised further of questions about America's commitments overseas. Whose obligation is it to stay and fight until Iraqis and Afghanis show that they are capable of governing themselves effectively? Whose duty is it to not only end Ghaddafi's atrocities but also institute a successor? Beyond the nuts and bolts and physical commitments of troops and treasure, the question of sovereignty remains difficult to define and external obstacles facing weak or failing states linger. The ultimate purpose is to create state order and to ensure sustained institutional structures that defend human rights and build regional stability.

Putting theory into practice, what can just war theory tell us about America's recent conflicts? It is fair to say that the United States, working in coalition with other states under international mandate, has a moral right and special obligation to defend the world's innocents against genocide, mutilation, enslavement, and mass terror. But this is not the time of Aquinas or Augustine -- the progenitors of the just war debate. Nor should we forget that their "just" wars were fought for debatable reasons, in a bloody ruthless manner and often resulted in regime change, civilian casualty, sickness and famine. In contrast, the first Gulf War might have been as "just" as they come. Approved by the UN to restore peace and expel an aggressor, it restored regional security without altering regimes or costing civilian lives. It was justified, and executed in fair and reasonable terms. Yes, Iraq remained under the control of a savage, and Kuwait's autonomy was returned to the monarchy. But peace was restored, and for a little more than a decade, this just war made the world a safer place.

However, the second Bush administration's decision to author a new doctrine of unilateral force based on the use preventive warfare to dismantle threats that were hardly imminent represented a sharp departure from just war norms. The burden of proof was on President Bush; it was his responsibility to make a convincing case that the conflict would not result in precisely the unintended and untoward consequences that cost the lives of untold thousands in the resulting civil war.

In hindsight, there was no compelling reason to fight the war in Iraq. There was no new legitimate evidence, no precipitating event, no threatening actions by the Iraqi government. While the immediacy of terrorism's global expansion demanded action, and the war in Afghanistan was absolutely fought for good cause and on good terms, the traditional jus ad bellum principles -- just cause, right intention, right authority, reasonable hope of success, and proportionality of good achieved over harm -- was not reasonably satisfied in Iraq. The danger posed the United States, and the international order, by Saddam Hussein's regime was neither clear, nor direct. However repellent his autocracy, lacking imminent threat, it was not justified to enter into a long, bloody war that was likely to wreak at least some modicum of havoc on a civilian population decimated by war and sanctions.

A sad legacy to leave behind.

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