The Washington view about war with Iraq has moved precipitously from "a rumor of war" to "foregone conclusion." Although prominent policy makers, including Republicans, have questioned the wisdom of the Bush administration’s call for regime change, many end their remarks with, "the president has yet to make the case"-anticipating, of course, that he will.

No one can pretend that just-war principles have ever governed U.S. foreign policy. But in recent years, debates about the use of force-in the Persian Gulf, in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in response to September 11-have been informed, at least partially, by the ethical criteria of the just-war tradition. But a focus on these criteria was visibly lacking at the Senate Foreign Relations committee hearings on Iraq in July and August. And National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice observed recently that removing Saddam Hussein from power might be the moral obligation of the United States, without specifying the moral grounds. Does the just-war tradition have any relevance to the decision to go to war with Iraq?

American culture generally-and decision makers in particular-rarely accept what some just-war thinkers consider a foundation stone: there is a "presumption against the use of force," and who regard the just-war criteria as impediments to which exceptions might be made in a specific case. Yet others understand the just-war tradition as permitting the use of force once certain conditions are met. In practice then, just-war thinking becomes a pro forma checklist to be met by decision makers who want U.S. citizens to consider the use of force moral and legal. Often enough, at the top of their checklist sits the selection of a norm-laden nom de guerre, Operation Just Cause (Panama), or Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), signifying an adherence to ad bellum concerns. The preponderance of the checklist focuses on the in bello problems of proportionate response, avoidance of civilian casualties, and insuring that war is a last resort. This checklist approach was clearly manifest in the congressional debates that preceded the war against Iraq in 1990-91.

Catholic intellectuals and church leaders have contributed to the checklist mentality by failing to respond to the changing conduct of war. In contrast, "The Challenge of Peace," the Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, made a substantive and politically effective contribution to U.S. thinking about the morality of nuclear weapons and war-fighting doctrines by directly linking these security challenges to dictates about the just-war responsibility of U.S. decision makers. The two letters that followed (the bishops’ 1994 anniversary reflection on "The Challenge of Peace," and "Living with Faith and Hope after September 11") had their strengths, but neither provided a compelling and comprehensive framework tied to the genuine security concerns of Americans. Now we face, according a Defense Department "Nuclear Posture Review," leaked last Feburary, the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Iraq and the possible use of low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy hardened Iraqi bunkers. In these circumstances, we desperately need the contemporary equivalent of the bishops’ 1984 letter, which noted that the moral acceptance of policies (in this case, deterrence policy) be strictly conditioned. We need a bold restatement of their central message: "peacemaking is no longer an optional commitment of faith."

In a world with only one superpower, U.S. Catholics must thoroughly debate the meaning, scope, and relevance of just-war thinking. Whatever the uncertainties and real threat of terrorism today, virtually no existing war scenario places this country at risk-militarily, politically, or socially. While there can be rightful concern about the number of American lives lost in battle, the major moral dilemmas facing the country right now lie in the damage levels that could be inflicted on Iraq and the conditions under which we proclaim victory. Such an unbalanced military situation is unprecedented. Yet it has not led to any reassessment by Catholic leaders of what might constitute a "just war" for the United States in these circumstances. Our failure to think ahead is coming back to haunt us in an atmosphere of the "foregone conclusion" of war with Iraq.

To understand the specific challenges that have gone unmet and have helped to create the untenable situation faced by just-war thinking, consider the last dozen years, and the wars in the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Three unresolved dilemmas-one regarding ad bellum concerns, the other two in bello controversies-make up the legacy of the three U.S. wars. These dilemmas challenge the ability of the just-war tradition to prohibit or to limit the character of a new war against Iraq. The first area of concern lies in the ad bellum criteria of right authority. The Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan were all fought under ad bellum criteria to defend and re-establish important international norms.Yet only in the case of the Gulf War did the United States seek and receive authorization of the international community via a UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the use of force.

The unwillingness of the U.S. to seek Security Council endorsement in the Kosovo case generated criticism, while similar U.S. inaction was a surprise in the war against Afghanistan. Amid mounting criticism of projected unilateral U.S. military action, the Bush administration now indicates it seeks such authority from the Council. But the Council may only provide authorization for military action aimed at potential weapons facilities, and only after an inspection phase has fizzled. If the UN does not grant the United States authority to wage a war aimed at regime change, will President Bush accept this as right authority limiting U.S. policy? Or, will the United States argue that, its attempt at Security Council consensus having failed, it has exhausted the last possible peaceful means to resolve the dispute with Iraq, and thus "has the right" to wage war?

The two in bello concerns at stake are dynamically interrelated. Our failure to clarify just-war thinking on these matters during the past decade will prove costly if a war with Iraq ensues. The first controversy-one with a cruel irony-lies in use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs), or "smart weapons." In response to legal and ethical concerns about the civilian casualties in war, the United States developed PGMs, which now assure that the accidental bombing of unintended targets rarely occurs. When it does, it has usually resulted from faulty intelligence in the identification of targets, not as a result of cross winds or poor pilot judgment. Thus, there has been a real and significant reduction in the loss of civilian life during warfare. This use of PGMs, however, has driven the United States into an ethical trap. Given the near certainty that bombers can hit any target without concern for inadvertent civilian death, U.S. war planners have been able to expand, over the last decade, the list of targets considered "military" and acceptable for bombing. In the Persian Gulf War, the decision to destroy urban-based infrastructure was justified by the logic that such aerial bombardment destroys the energy, economic, and communication capacity of the civilian structure for war, thus isolating the enemy’s leadership from its troops and from civilian society. The more infrastructure destroyed, the more quickly the enemy is willing to surrender, or so the theory goes.

The ethical fallacy here is that the war is more humane because it is shortened by the expanded and intense destruction of electric grid systems, water treatment facilities, waste disposal systems, and bridges that carry fiber-optic cables. In a world of "smart weapons," all of these areas are now defined as targets of military necessity (because they can be bombed without large numbers of civilian casualties). Such facilities, which would have been targeted in an earlier era only if a nation was engaged in carpet bombing or "total war," have now been made accessible targets by the "humane" nature of the weapons. This thinking is fundamental to the air-land battle strategy adopted in the Gulf War and, undoubtedly, it will be a key component of another war with Iraq. If the United States were committed to fully rebuilding the infrastructure it destroys in such assaults, the ethical quandary might be lessened. But our track record in the first war against Iraq does not inspire confidence. Moreover, this trend toward target expansion is directly related to a second crisis of in bello criteria.

With the Gulf War, massive aerial superiority and the success of PGMs led to a relatively quick end to the fighting. Thus when the U.S./UN-Iraq armistice was signed at the end of February 1991, the number of Iraqi civilian deaths due to the war was rather limited. But by the end of 1991, almost as many Iraqis (some would estimate more) had died from the results of bombing as died during the six weeks of actual fighting. By the end of 1992, more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians died from the lack of clean water and sewage disposal, and the breakdown of electrical service to hospitals.

Ironically then, civilian deaths as collateral damage and noncombatant casualties occur in the wake of war, as a result of bombing during the war. Vulnerable populations, especially children, not killed by wartime bombing, now may die months later due to wartime decisions about what facilities to destroy. Just-war thinking, and ethical analysis in general, have not focused on this cumbersome reality. Thus, we have few guidelines to contribute to the debates about the ethical parameters that ought to guide the search for targeting, or the moral culpability related to "civilian fatalities"-or the more antiseptic term, "collateral damage."

As we move to a point where war appears to be a "foregone conclusion," reflective American Catholics must ask why the just-war tradition fails to capture the minds and thus guide the discussion of pundits and politicians? John Courtney Murray may have provided part of the answer in 1958 when he wrote that the failure of leaders to employ "the Catholic doctrine of war initially rises from the fact that it has for so long not been used, even by Catholics. That is, it has not been made the basis for a sound critique of public policies, and as a means for the formation of a right public opinion."

I have argued two points: that the guiding frame of any debate-to presume against the use of force-has been lost in the public square; and that the use of PGMs has created a dynamic which generates new and unexpected civilian casualties. As a result, we now face a situation that strikes at the heart of what Augustine and Aquinas sought to prevent centuries ago. How Catholics attempt to form "right public opinion" about war with Iraq in the coming months will determine the future relevance of the just-war tradition in American politics. September 16, 2002

George A. Lopez is director of policy studies and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
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Published in the 2002-09-27 issue: View Contents
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