Is This Really a ‘Just War’?

Is This Really a ‘Just War’?


Is This Really a 'Just War'?

San Francisco

As a former Nation contributor and a longtime Nation reader, I congratulate you for running Richard Falk's "Ends and Means: Defining a Just War" [Oct. 29]. It is a powerful antidote to some of the confused and retro thinking that has beset a certain segment of the left since September 11. Just as old generals want to fight the last war all over again, some veterans of the peace movement have a knee-jerk tendency to think this is Vietnam all over again, or even the Gulf War. But it's not. The Gulf of Tonkin attack never happened. September 11 did, with gruesome results. The world has changed.

Like Falk, for the first time in my adult life, I find myself supporting a war against a very real enemy–what Christopher Hitchens correctly calls "Islamic fascism." I appreciate the fact that Falk's endorsement of war against "apocalyptic terrorism" was nuanced, measured and admitted all the possible pitfalls.

I also agree that in retrospect the NATO bombing of Kosovo looks like not such a bad thing. Milosevic is gone, and the United States and the West helped to stop, albeit belatedly, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims–something bin Laden and the Taliban seem to have overlooked. Wars, even just wars like World War II, are inherently awful, but sometimes they are necessary, and sometimes, as in Kosovo, bombing actually works.





Richard Falk (a friend whom I admire and respect for his long advocacy of peace and justice) has said this is "the first truly just war since World War II." I have puzzled over this. How can a war be "truly just" that involves the daily killing of civilians; that is terrorizing the people of Afghanistan, causing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes to escape the bombs; that has little chance of finding those who planned the September 11 attacks (and even if found, no chance that this would stop terrorism); and that can only multiply the ranks of people who are angry at this country, from whose ranks terrorists are born? The stories of the effects of our bombing are beginning to come through, in bits and pieces: the wounded children arriving across the border, one barely two months old, swathed in bloody bandages; the Red Cross warehouses bombed, the use of deadly cluster bombs, a small mountain village bombed and entire families wiped out.

That is only a few weeks into the bombing, The "war against terrorism" has become a war against innocent men, women and children, who are in no way responsible for the terrorist attack on New York. I believe the supporters of the war have confused a just cause with a just war. A cause may be just–like ending terrorism. But it does not follow that going to war on behalf of that cause, with the inevitable mayhem that follows, is just.

Falk talks of "limited military action." But the momentum of war rides roughshod over limits. Atrocities are explained by the deceptive language of "accident," "military targets," "collateral damage." Killing innocent people in war is not an "accident." It is an inevitability. The moral equation in Afghanistan is clear. Civilian casualties are certain. The outcome is uncertain. Use the money allotted our huge military machine to combat starvation and disease around the world. One-third of our military budget would provide water and sanitation facilities for the billion people worldwide who have none.

Let us be a more modest nation. The modest nations of the world don't face the threat of terrorism. Let us pull back from being a military superpower and become a humanitarian superpower. We, and everyone else, will then be more secure.




New York City

Here is bad news indeed: Our friend Richard Falk, speaker of truth to power, guru to activists, antiestablishmentarian par excellence, has cloned himself. We now have the old Falk, on October 8 calling for "A Just Response" in his prophetic voice and on October 29 the new Falk "Defining a Just War" in tones of neorealism.

Those who took to heart the old Falk's admonition that this is "above all, a war without military solutions" are now chastised by the new Falk for being "irrelevant to meeting the central challenge of restoring some sense of security among our citizenry." The old Falk told us that "reliance on the rule of law," possibly through a due process trial under UN authority, "would be a major step in seeking to make the struggle against terrorism enjoy the genuine support of the entire organized international community." The new Falk says this is pie in the sky, since the United States would never agree to such a trial, which in any case would only offer Osama bin Laden an opportunity to have himself declared a bona fide legal martyr.

The old Falk declares "the only way to win this 'war' (if war it is)…is with a credible commitment to the global promotion of social justice." Correction from the new Falk: "Global suffering and injustice…cannot be addressed so long as this movement of global terrorism is at large." True enough, both the old and the new Falk call for limited ends and means. But, given the precedents of US behavior in Central America, Serbia and Iraq, how realistic is that demand? We are bombing a country in which there was nothing left to bomb to begin with.

In dealing with this greatest of contemporary crimes against humanity, a judicious use of force cannot be ruled out altogether. But perhaps the real realist is Donald Rumsfeld, who warns that bin Laden may never be found and that the Taliban are not about to roll over and play dead. We can all hope that this prediction will turn out to be wrong. In the meantime what is needed is better security, better intelligence, better communication and that commitment to global justice, both criminal and social. Easier said than done, but absolutely necessary. Will the old Falk please stand up? We need you, Richard!

Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy



Washington, D.C.

Richard Falk does not bother to tell us on what evidence he bases his assertion that "a response that includes military action is essential to diminish the threat of repetition" of the terrorist acts, though this is the major premise for his conclusion that a war in Afghanistan might be just. Falk thinks that invoking the well-known "extremism" and "fanaticism" of bin Laden's brand of Islam is enough to assure us that he and his adherents will strike and strike again unless they are eliminated–liquidated, to use the apt if archaic terminology of a certain brand of Marxism–as if such a feat were either easy or sufficient. Though Falk's call for carefully limited ends and means is a welcome one, if utopian under the current circumstances, his major premise invites the very excesses he warns against.

The Bush Administration lost the "war against terrorism" the moment it began bombing Afghanistan, and the longer the bombing continues the more serious the loss. Military action in Afghanistan has already inflamed Muslims around the world. Pakistanis are reportedly crossing the border to join the Taliban, while support for the US effort melts away among moderates in that country. Each new instance of "collateral damage" feeds the fires. But, more profoundly, the improbability of achieving anything like a consensual government in Kabul in the wake of the US adventure insures that Afghanistan will continue to be the festering sore nurturing the pathology we are combating.

The military campaign, moreover, has only the remotest chance of capturing bin Laden and the major leaders of Al Qaeda. Even were it to do so, there is no reason to suppose that terror directed at US and other targets would stop. On the contrary, the operation that succeeded in shaking the United States to its roots on September 11 was an amateur affair, guided and financed on a minor scale by Al Qaeda, if we are to believe the intelligence released so far, but scarcely dependent upon such backing. Only determined police work–of the sort being carried out now–by competent and coordinated agencies of law enforcement (something we still lack in this country) could be expected to meet this threat. Military action is irrelevant to it.

We have lost the war. Now it is up to what remains of the left and to religiously based opposition movements to try to moderate the scale of the damage by insisting that the Administration refuse the next step urged by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others, who have openly advocated carrying the war to Iraq and beyond. And we must insist, as well, that the United States reverse course in the Middle East, starting with its unconditional support for Israel and extending to its broad tolerance for the despotic regimes that protect Israel's flanks while helping to slake our insatiable thirst for oil.




Boulder Creek, Calif.

After asserting that the war in Afghanistan is just, Richard Falk undermines his conclusion by explaining how the campaign fails to meet his requirements for a just war. He declares that legitimacy must be based on the adoption of "goals that seem reasonably connected with the attack," yet points out that "goals have not been clarified, and US leaders have used grandiose language about ending terrorism and destroying the global terrorist network." He states that a just war must avoid damage to civilians, yet air campaigns almost inevitably involve serious casualties to civilians and civilian infrastructure. He states that "force must not be greater than that needed to achieve an acceptable military result," but the war in Afghanistan is not based on achieving any specific military result.

He states that the force employed "must not be greater than the provoking cause," but the force applied to Afghanistan quickly exceeded the force used by the suicide bombers. He states that "force must not be directed even against enemy personnel if they are subject to capture, wounded or under control," yet George W. Bush's "wanted dead or alive" declaration violates that requirement. And he states that "force should be used only if nonviolent means to achieve military goals are unavailable," yet the absence of military goals in this instance makes an analysis of this requirement impossible.

If the goal is to bring terrorists to justice in court, history illustrates that nonmilitary approaches work. If the goal is to counter Islamic extremism, recent developments in Iran, for example, demonstrate that nonviolent means can moderate apparently intractable regimes.

Eliminating the underlying causes that fuel terrorism would provide more security in the long run. Patience is necessary, but not passivity. Law enforcement agencies would still vigorously arrest and prosecute criminals. As Falk himself points out, "Excessive reliance on the military will backfire badly, further imperiling the security of Americans and others, spreading war and destruction far afield, as well as emboldening the government to act at home in ways that weaken US democracy…. the militarist fallacy involves an excessive reliance on military force in a manner that magnifies the threat it is trying to diminish or eliminate." And he acknowledges that the Administration is deeply committed to unilateralism, which is characterized by a "determination to achieve security for the United States by military means." Given this recognition, how he believes the United States can wage a just war against terrorism boggles my mind.

By accepting the US prerogative to "destroy and restructure regimes" like the Taliban, Falk puts himself on a slippery slope. Whatever the options may be for dealing with oppressive regimes, vesting that power in the hands of the United States is not the answer. Perhaps Bush will limit the war to trying to overthrow the Taliban, as Falk prefers. But I suspect Falk is deluding himself if he believes that the West can destroy the Al Qaeda network and similar networks that emerge. Such counterproductive reliance on force resembles the effort to stop violence in the United States by beefing up police forces, building more prisons and resorting to capital punishment.




New York City; Pittsburgh

Richard Falk's endorsement of a limited war is fraught with immeasurable harm. Thousands of refugees are fleeing daily; the United Nations is predicting the death of 100,000 children; and hate for Americans is pouring into the streets of Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim countries. We are creating the terrorists that will visit terror upon our children. Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, may be destabilized. Innocents have been killed, and we may face a fractionalized and warfaring post-Taliban Afghanistan.

There was another way. Treat the attacks on September 11 as a crime against humanity (mass or systematic killing of civilians), establish a UN tribunal, extradite or, if that fails, capture the suspects with a UN force and try them. The US experience with Libya demonstrates both the perils of a military response and the possibilities for international justice. US officials believed that the 1986 bombing of Libya led to the downing of Pan Am 103 and that more bombing would lead to a spiraling cycle of violence. The United States turned to the UN, which applied international pressure; eventually the Libyans extradited the suspects for trial.

The objections Falk makes to such a tribunal revolve primarily around his belief that Washington would not accept such a court, in part because the court might not be authorized to give the death penalty. But since when should respected international legal experts like Falk, who generally favor peaceful resolutions of conflicts, shy away from arguing what is right simply because they believe the United States will not listen? Falk says that it is "unreasonable to expect the US government to rely on the UN to fulfill its defensive needs." But Falk did not think that it was unreasonable for the Kuwaitis to rely on the UN to counteract Iraqi aggression in 1990. Is Falk bowing to US exceptionalism–the UN is good for everybody else, but not for the only superpower?

It is remarkable that Falk, while recognizing that the global role of the United States has given rise to widespread resentment that fuels the terrorist impulse, claims that this role "cannot be addressed so long as this movement of global terrorism is at large." But it is now that we must examine this resentment: our tilt in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the use of the Persian Gulf as a US base and support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes. We must do so not to "give in to terrorists" but to promote a more just and peaceful world and to enhance our long-term security. To do so only when the global terrorist movement is no longer "at large" insures that such an examination will never occur.

Developing a proper response to terrorism is incredibly difficult, and no short-term solution seems particularly attractive. Only by taking the road toward creating a more equal, democratic and just world can we create conditions of security from terrorism for our children. Bombing Afghanistan–whatever the justness of the cause–seems the wrong way to start down that path.

Center for Constitutional Rights



Montpelier, Vt.

Richard Falk deftly analyzes the inadequacies of the "antiwar/pacifist," "legalist/UN" and "militarist" approaches to the war on terrorism. As someone who has made a career in conflict emergency response in the UN, I don't entirely disagree with Falk's pointing out the UN's difficulties under its charter in dealing effectively with Al Qaeda, a "transnational actor that cannot be definitively linked to a state," which is "more the sponsor of the state rather than the other way around." Nevertheless, the UN has an important role in defining the casus belli that was the September 11 attack and certifying the armed response now under way, and Falk misses that point. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has issued a statement that the attacks involved "a widespread, deliberate targeting of a civilian population" and constituted a crime against humanity. She then noted that all countries have a responsibility under international law to help bring the attackers to justice, but that in the absence of ratification of the 1998 International Criminal Court by the required number of countries, there was no appropriate venue for prosecution. This is where I had hoped that Falk's synthesis at the end of his piece was heading, arguing for appropriate "limited means and ends." For there are now dozens if not scores of venues for the prosecution of, inter alia, war crimes, torture, genocide, slavery and piracy: the national courts of countries that are signatories of the Geneva Conventions, the torture and genocide conventions. In fact, under the concept of universal jurisdiction, which has evolved steadily if quietly in the past few years, no less than nine European countries have brought prosecutions. (It was the 1998-99 extradition hearings in Britain of Gen. Augusto Pinochet that revealed the extent of this evolution.)

Limited means and ends. US intelligence locates terrorist concentrations; aircraft attack training and administrative centers and suppress air defenses; special operations forces surgically attack the concentrations, arresting those who surrender and killing those who resist violently. Then, the terrorists are brought before national courts in Europe for prosecution in cases brought by relatives of the dead or by the governments in the countries concerned. Austria, Belgium, France and Spain have already prosecuted foreign individuals, under the aegis of universal jurisdiction, for crimes of murder, arson, assault, disappearance and crimes against humanity, all of which occurred on September 11. It is precisely the enormity of the attacks that might make the Administration and Congress more amenable to ratification of the International Criminal Court statute, and to support of the concept of universal jurisdiction.

Falk is a strong proponent of universal jurisdiction and was one of the organizers of a panel of international legal scholars in January 2001 that produced the "Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction," an attempt to clarify the concept and to address the practical problems of bringing prosecutions. He apparently didn't see universal jurisdiction as an important component of a limited and appropriate US response to September 11.




University Park, Md.

I have admired Richard Falk's writing over the years, but his article on a "just war" misses the mark. To label the September 11 attacks "apocalyptic terrorism" is ludicrous–worthy of Bush Administration propaganda. So also is his point that Osama bin Laden's "proclaimed goal" is a genocidal war of "Islam against the West." That's nonsense right out of the odious Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Isn't a war to rid the world of evil apocalyptic?

Falk should take some time to read bin Laden's proclamations rather than impose Huntington's words on him. He'll see that the number-one driving force behind bin Laden is the US occupation and corruption of Saudi Arabia. On this point bin Laden is correct, and Falk is wrong in saying that his "persisting threat [is] well outside any framework of potential reconciliation or even negotiation." The United States has only to agree to leave Saudi Arabia and bin Laden would give up his war on the United States. That's a negotiable proposition, except for the fact that the United States would never consider giving up its occupation of Saudi Arabia. It would destroy all Islamic nations with nuclear weapons before considering that. Who is apocalyptic?

It is well to remember that the United States is at war with Arab nationalism and has been for years. The only new thing is that a major attack occurred on US soil. If Falk and others don't like being attacked, they need to find a way of putting an end to war, not of legitimizing it. Let's face it: The United States has been dealing out terror on a huge scale for a century. That is what should make us outraged.




Bennington, Vt.

Richard Falk wrote an edifying gift to those who make a distinction between anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism. The former means a priori rejection of whatever position Washington takes on a given international issue. Anti-imperialism, on the other hand, is a normative critique of the context, purpose and implications of particular policies. Falk is on solid ground in characterizing the current military action "against apocalyptic terrorism" as a just war. The point I wish to add to Falk's analysis is that the primary victims of the Taliban have been and will be the people of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar and company might soon conclude that the pathological crime of September 11 was unwise, but the chances are nil that they will come to admit their role in the destruction of Afghanistan and the decimation of its people.

It is therefore possible that at the end of the ongoing war in Afghanistan Osama bin Laden will be out of the picture, but the Taliban under a new leadership will be allowed to stay on in exchange for severing its alliance with global terrorists. What will not change, however, is the theocratic regime's cruelty toward the Afghans who disagree with it. For the raison d'être of the Taliban, representing a radical version of puritanical Islam, is denial of human rights and suppression of the idea of political equality. Events in the Islamic Republic of Iran illustrate the point. The militant puritans controlling the Iranian state and society are trying to normalize, in the hope of reviving the country's depressed economy, their diplomatic and trade relations with nearly all nations of the world, but they continue to brutalize their secular critics at home.




North Andover, Mass.

Professor Falk has been a clear voice in opposition to many of the worst crimes of the century, and I am sad to hear him speaking out in defense of any kind of killing. The modern way of waging war renders the abstractions of just-war theory obsolete. I was most disturbed by Falk's statement, "Whatever the global role of the United States…it cannot be addressed so long as this movement of global terrorism is at large and prepared to carry on with its demonic work." Does this mean that paramilitaries in Colombia, killer soldiers in Israel or pilots dropping bombs on Iraq should be given free rein to terrorize people while we focus our energies on opposing global terrorism? People are suffering now in Afghanistan, in Colombia, in Palestine, in Iraq and so many other places as a result of our government's violence. Perhaps, if we can make the world more just there will be fewer people angry enough to commit the kinds of unspeakable crimes we witnessed on September 11.




New York City

Falk ends his excellent analysis with a call to action: It is "only the vigilance of an active citizenry" that will lead to victory. Americans must understand, however, that it is not just in America that people are terrified; and it is not just here that the potential for "apocalyptic terrorism" exists, although we are certainly the preferred target. A sense of foreboding has descended, worldwide; our collective future hangs in the balance, and at this juncture it is not at all clear that the United States will preserve it by observing the four principles of discrimination, proportionality, humanity and necessity. What does seem clear, however, along with our greatly narrowed access to information since September 11, is that no one at higher levels of government is willing to listen. Where and when and how will this "active citizenry" be heard?







Princeton, N.J.

With each passing day, my assessment shifts to reach the conclusion that the United States is waging an unjust war in Afghanistan, and it is doing so in a manner that is likely to have severe blowback consequences. I was misled by the language of George W. Bush, Colin Powell and others, which seemed at the time to exhibit an understanding that this was a drastically different kind of war that required a core reliance on nonmilitary approaches. I accepted the claim that it was necessary to make some selective use of force so as to displace the Taliban and to disable to the extent possible the Al Qaeda network. I also proceeded from the premise that the threat posed was of an unprecedented magnitude, both because it successfully used weapons of mass destruction against US civilian society in a gruesome manner that revealed its pervasive vulnerability, and because there was every likelihood of efforts to repeat the attack in even more devastating forms in the future.

Particularly in response to Howard Zinn, with whom I cannot imagine ever disagreeing on any core issue, my initial reference to the Afghanistan war as a just war was a technical matter. It qualified as a just war because the scope of the military response seemed initially to be proportional to the gravity of the attack and the continuing threat of further attacks, but as with World War II, the prospect of significant civilian casualties is consistent with such a conclusion, and an inevitable effect of any recourse to war, however justified the cause. War, even as a necessary instrument to restore security, is inherently cruel in its effects on innocent civilians, creating an urgent moral imperative that we work for nonviolent forms of global governance and conflict resolution. Tragically, we are not there yet and must adopt the least bad available alternative, which I had hoped (falsely, it turns out) would be a limited war with primary reliance on nonmilitary solutions. And, of course, I am ready to join Zinn and others in seeking to make our country "a humanitarian superpower," but in the meantime nothing is possible until the Al Qaeda sword dangling above our collective existence is removed.

To clarify, the September 11 attack was a criminal, warlike assault on this country that engaged the right of self-defense under international law and morality. How to exercise this right under such unprecedented circumstances, in which the main adversary is a nonstate actor, challenged the imagination to combine effectiveness with legitimacy. I can now say, as some of my critics perceived from the outset, that our government seems incapable of learning from its past moral and political disasters, especially the excessive reliance on bombing to achieve political goals. Any satisfactory US recourse to war had to make every reasonable effort to minimize civilian casualties. The use of cluster bombs, the reliance on B-52 carpet-bombing, the failure to adapt tactics in light of targeting errors, combine to produce disastrous results from a moral, legal and political perspective. The political impact of relying on indiscriminate and cruel high-tech military tactics while shielding one's own forces from serious risk of casualty confirms the worst images of the US role in the world, especially in the Islamic portions of the Third World. The predictable result is to inflame anti-Americanism around the world and to sow seeds of doubt and despair among our like-minded European allies.

But having acknowledged this much does not imply an acceptance of several lines of criticism. I can assure Peter Weiss that my values and worldview did not shift in a matter of a couple of weeks but that the nature of the challenge required a response that had some reasonable prospect of being effective. We must start with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, although we should act to make our hopes and dreams come true. The nonstate, multistate locus of this terrorist adversary does not fit the existing structures of law and authority. In dealing with warlike attacks on major countries, the UN is not entrusted with either the capabilities or the mandate to fashion a response. International society is still based on a self-help system as far as major states are concerned, a fact acknowledged by the veto power given to the permanent members of the Security Council.

Where should we go from here? I agree very much with Mansour Farhang that the removal of the Taliban is an independently beneficial goal, especially for the Afghan people, and should have been stressed by the US government. Ample justification for "humanitarian intervention" exists, but its humanitarian character is lost if the means relied upon abandon the constraints of law and morality and do not exhibit a credible commitment to the protection of the Afghan people. Such a commitment requires interveners to take casualty risks to the extent needed to avoid killing large numbers of civilians and damaging their social infrastructure. If the tactics contradict the mission, as now seems the case in Afghanistan, the case for humanitarian intervention is undermined.

Is it "ludicrous," as Robert Merrill suggests, to label the September 11 attacks as "apocalyptic terrorism"? I think not. Some have tried other labels to express their distinctiveness: Michael Ignatieff has referred to "nihilistic terrorism" and others to "megaterrorism." I think "apocalyptic" captures best the horizons of destructive violence and purifying religious salvation that animate Osama bin Laden and his followers. The point is to find language that distinguishes these attacks from prior instances of terrorism associated with ongoing conflicts over national self-determination. I have read the utterances of bin Laden, and they express an unmistakable genocidal intention, backed up by fanatical views and practices. The presence of US forces near Islam's holiest sites may have pushed bin Laden over the edge, but the whole tenor of Al Qaeda, its attitude toward the totality of "Crusaders," "Jews" and "Americans," and its training programs and tactics suggests a commitment to intercivilizational warfare. To understand such operations as preparing the ground for negotiations I find implausible. Besides, it is not a breach of any fundamental code for a government, as in Saudi Arabia, to seek a foreign military presence to safeguard its security. We may not like the regime in Riyadh, but it is playing by the international rules of the game of world politics.

We find ourselves trapped between a severe continuing threat to our security and a government that is acting in such a way as to aggravate that threat. At the same time, it is not obvious what can and should be done. It is clear that the roots of terrorism are intermingled with unjust policies, and that these should be abandoned as early as possible for both pragmatic and intrinsic reasons. Pushing for a viable Palestinian state is now finally surfacing on the Western agenda in an explicit manner. Recognizing the need to address poverty, oppression and corruption in the Islamic world is clearly essential if the underlying needs of human security are to be satisfied. Even more ambitious, it should be part of the progressive discourse to propose the sort of UN–and accompanying arrangements like independent peacekeeping and enforcement capabilities, an international criminal court and police force–that is needed to overcome the deficiencies of a self-help system of world order that treats war as the ultimate arbiter. To reach these results, however, will require that the militarist political culture here at home be challenged and transformed. These undertakings are urgent, but they cannot be undertaken successfully in the midst of the atmosphere of fear and foreboding that currently grips the vast majority of Americans, a mood accentuated by the anthrax ordeal.

Finally, the disorienting character of September 11 underscores the relevance of discussion and debate. The Nation has been an admirable forum for the expression of diverse views, and I hope that this role will be maintained. I would also hope that all of us who take part exhibit the realization that we would benefit from listening to those with whom we disagree, and that no one has any plausible basis for certitude or condescension.



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