In Defense of 'Just War' Thinking | The Nation


In Defense of 'Just War' Thinking

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More controversial, of course, was the military component of the response, and its focus on destroying the Taliban regime as well as mounting search and destroy missions against Osama bin Laden and the overall Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. The tactics relied upon, especially carpet-bombing B-52s, cluster bombs and 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutters," created a sense of revulsion and distrust, as if the lessons of Vietnam had not been learned and we here in America would be in for a long and savage military campaign that would inflict great suffering on the Afghan people. But at this point, in view of the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban, the overall undertaking appears reasonable, having been sufficiently related to weakening those who staged September 11 and declared war against the civilian population of America, if not the entire Judeo-Christian West. Provided the Afghanistan phase of the response seeks the restoration of governmental normalcy under difficult circumstances, humanitarian catastrophe associated with famine is minimized and the elimination of the Al Qaeda presence in the country is achieved, it will be possible to conclude that the Bush Administration deserves credit for reaching its preliminary international goals.

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Richard Falk
Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human...

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Its domestic record, with respect to civil liberties, is far more problematic and does create the possibility that as the war against Al Qaeda is being pursued effectively, the political war at home to sustain security without jeopardizing liberty is being lost. Such an assessment is made without relying on a normative framework of appraisal, which is a great temptation given the unprecedented nature of the attack and threat. But it is a temptation that should be resisted, at least in part. It is the case that the nonstate source of this global terror, and its grandiose agenda of civilizational war, overwhelms the most authoritative frameworks: international law and the UN. Both are anchored too directly in a world of sovereign states to be really useful in shaping an overall response, at least with respect to its most controversial aspect, the role of force. Besides this, the UN as currently constituted cannot manage a central security challenge directed at a leading state, an acknowledgment implied even in 1945 by vesting veto power in each of the five permanent members of the Security Council. At the same time, to avoid the impression that recourse to war remains a discretionary matter for such states, and to set limits on how war should be conducted, there is an urgent need for some normative framework of limitation that enjoys widespread support. Such a framework is also needed to draw a bright line between the violence of the terrorists and the violence of their victims.

The "just war" doctrine provides the most flexible and relevant normative framework. It has roots in the ethics of all the great world religions, it is a vital source of modern international law governing the use of force and it focuses attention on the causes, means and ends of war. Just-war thinking does have limitations. The abstractness of its main principles allows too much room for interpretation in specific instances, thereby making it of rather little use in providing belligerents with a code of conduct. What just-war thinking allows, and indeed demands, is that contested policy provide justifications, essentially by providing convincing reasons to overcome a general and significant bias against those who rely on war to solve problems and resolve conflicts. Analysis along these lines must address recourse to war, the means by which it is conducted and the ends pursued. Each dimension deserves brief discussion in the context of the evolving response to the September 11 attacks.

On recourse to war in Afghanistan, the just-war grounds seem persuasively related to the threat, at least at this stage of military operations. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were of a magnitude that engaged the right of self-defense, although not in an international-law sense, as the attacker was not a state. Only the just-war approach has the flexibility to expand the scope of self-defense to encompass the sort of global terrorist entity embodied in Al Qaeda. The just-war test of recourse to war is thus related to whether the action taken by the US-led coalition was proportionate to the harm inflicted and the threat posed. Although the assessment seemed in doubt during the early weeks of bombing, the collapse of the Taliban regime and the apparent disabling of Al Qaeda operations from Afghanistan now permits, even mandates, a provisional endorsement of recourse to war.

This endorsement is made in the face of an unfortunate reliance by the United States on legally dubious weaponry and tactics, but is offset to a degree by the rapidity of battlefield success and the beneficial side effect of liberating the people of Afghanistan from the oppressive brutality of the Taliban regime. Although I earlier overestimated the combat capabilities of the Taliban, it would be a further error to now overstate their collapse. The hard-core Taliban are quite capable of regrouping and shifting tactics to mount a guerrilla war. The future holds many additional uncertainties as to whether governmental normalcy can be achieved in Afghanistan and whether the war-makers in Washington will now devote sufficient energy and resources to the political and economic reconstruction of the country. Such reconstruction can best be handled by the UN, but only if it is provided with a clear mandate and sufficient capabilities; the UN must be careful, as the organization cannot afford a repetition of the Bosnian experience, where its "safe havens" were turned into slaughterhouses.

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