In Defense of ‘Just War’ Thinking

In Defense of ‘Just War’ Thinking

The only acceptable purpose of war is to restore peace on a more durable basis.


This is my third attempt in these pages to assess the military component of the response to September 11. The first stable element in this assessment has been the underlying conviction that the attacks were of a character as to make recourse to war, rather than an exclusive reliance on law enforcement, politically inevitable and morally/legally justifiable. The second stable element has been my view that unless this necessary military element is kept subordinate to the nonmilitary dimensions of response, the war against global terror will be lost in the end. The unstable aspects of my response have involved changing perceptions of the proportionality of means and ends as it related to the use of force in Afghanistan.

Early on, I was overly persuaded by the language used by President Bush and other leaders that they understood that force must be used sparingly and with great sensitivity in relation to civilian innocence. As the military campaign in Afghanistan deepened, with America once again seeming to confine its battlefield role to high-altitude bombing and Vietnam-era tactics, I felt unable to endorse any longer the justice of the means. Now, given 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.

Should military force subsequently be used excessively or vindictively in Afghanistan, this judgment could again be reversed. The prospect of such a further reversal is heightened by the late- November massacre of hundreds of surrendered Taliban fighters locked into the prison fortress at Mazar-i-Sharif. It was clearly a joint Northern Alliance/US operation, combining US airstrikes at close range with Northern Alliance ground operations in a setting where the more objective journalists reported that US military advisers were "running the show." Such blatant criminalityseemed an indirect outcome of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's expressions of indifference with respect to Northern Alliance behavior, especially with respect to the execution rather than capture of Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers. These are deeply troubling portents of what the future holds in store.

As troubling has been Bush's expansive definition of terrorism and the goals of war, which appear increasingly to contemplate extending the military undertaking beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and specifically to renew full-scale warfare against Iraq. Increasingly, Bush relies on an inflated conception of the 9/11 threat that appears to express a commitment to wage war against nonstate political violence around the world even if it has no relevance to the specifically apocalyptic terrorism associated with the bin Laden vision. And most recently, Bush went so far as to associate "terrorism" with the possession of weapons of mass destruction that might fall into the hands of terrorists, presumably to explain why Iraq is now fair game. Given the likely domestic source of the anthrax incidents, such a policy, if scrupulously carried out, would imply waging an auto-war against America!

Against this background, a central challenge of September 11 for progressives and conservatives alike is to identify the shape and limits of a proper response. The starting point for such an understanding is appreciation of the security-shattering character of the attacks combined with their implicit and credible threat of future attacks of comparable or even greater magnitude. In such circumstances, any government must mobilize its capabilities to achieve a maximally effective response and generate the widest possible popular support. Such imperatives are even stronger in the case of the United States, given 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).

The Bush presidency has performed reasonably well so far in meeting the crucial elements of this challenge. It recognized the challenge with clarity and mobilized society for a necessary and prolonged struggle. It warned against expectations of a quick or easy fix, it defined the mission in relation to terrorism rather than Islam and it made a serious effort to reassure the Muslim minority in America that their rights would be protected. Beyond this, the White House developed a multilevel response that combined the diplomatic mobilization of an international coalition, a comprehensive effort to disrupt Al Qaeda's funding sources, a global coordination of national police and law enforcement efforts to find and prosecute members of Al Qaeda cells dispersed in as many as sixty countries, and made at least nominal recourse to the UN Security Council to obtain a unanimous endorsement of such initiatives.

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.

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.

What gives the just-war approach its current significance is less its appraisal of the past and present response than relevance to the future of the response, and specifically its appraisal of any attempt to rely on war in the aftermath of Afghanistan. Such a prospect has been debated in the media with respect to Iraq. Prudential reasons can be mounted on either side of the argument, although there are persuasive reasons not to go to war against Iraq: breaking the coalition, generating dissent in America, sidelining Israel/Palestine peace efforts, destabilizing several governments in the Middle East, undertaking a difficult and costly military campaign. The normative argument reinforces this prudential assessment: Just-war thinking requires that the side initiating war maintain a burden of persuasion. While Afghanistan was integral to the September 11 operations, Iraqi connections are at most marginal, and quite possibly nonexistent. While Al Qaeda with its suicidal enactment of jihad is undeterrable, Baghdad behaves in a horrible manner but acts to sustain its survival, bargains for advantages and can be contained and deterred by threats and capabilities. There is thus neither justification in relation to the Al Qaeda threat nor necessity with regard to addressing the deformed character of the Iraqi regime. Whether a case exists for humanitarian intervention of a nonmilitary character is another matter, but not one that validates the call to wage war against Iraq.

Just-war thinking makes two important contributions to our understanding of the military side of the September 11 response:

§ it provides a provisional and limited endorsement of the Afghanistan war;

§ it reinforces the prudential arguments against military extension of the war on global terror to other settings, most relevantly Iraq.

Such clarity allows us to think more clearly about what should be done post-Afghanistan. From the perspective of coercive diplomacy, what needs to be done is to move forward as efficiently as possible with the nonmilitary aspects of the campaign against global terror, relying on law enforcement techniques and intergovernmental cooperation. The legitimate role of large-scale military operations is thus confined to Afghanistan.

Ever since just-war thinking emerged, initially and most notably in the writings of St. Augustine, there has been an emphasis on the just goals or ends of war, as well as on its just causes and just means. In this regard, there is a consensus among just-war thinkers that the only acceptable purpose of war is to restore peace on a more durable basis. What does such a requirement suggest in the current context? It is here that the broader issues of the US role in the Islamic world should be subject to reappraisal, not to reward the terrorists but to take an opportunity to correct past mistakes of policy and judgment. Solving the Israel/Palestine conflict so as to provide both peoples with independent and secure states with equality of sovereign rights is the first priority. Such a challenge is formidable given the questionable leadership on both sides. But it is time for the international community, along with the United States, to take a more active role in shaping a fair solution and exerting great influence on both sides to accept such an outcome. What this means concretely is that international humanitarian law must govern Israel's occupation and any resumed peace process, and cannot be deferred until negotiations are completed. In this setting, international law provides a framework for discerning fairness, while a contrary deference to "facts on the ground" reinforces the geopolitical disparity between the sides. The current impasse is tragic for both Palestinians and Israelis, implying a dismal future, as well as contributing to regional instability and a deepening of a widely diffused anti-Americanism.

If modernity is to be made to work successfully in the Islamic world it will need to be accompanied by respect for robust traditional cultural and religious identities, as well as the dedication of energies and resources to economic growth. The Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini should have taught the West such a lesson. Let's hope that the crimes against humanity committed on September 11 are the last such learning experience that Americans are made to undergo. We can fashion out of these experiences an approach to the Islamic world that both promotes our values and serves our interests.

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