Unjust & Indefensible
—Robert E. Lee, observing the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862
In Plan of Attack, his account of the Bush administration’s preparations for the war in Iraq, Bob Woodward reports that on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1991, General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, found himself preoccupied by the words Robert E. Lee spoke after one of the most lopsided victories of the great Confederate general’s career.
Evidently Lee’s cautionary note remained in Powell’s mind a decade later, when-by now secretary of state-he sounded a lonely voice of dissent in an administration intent on war with Iraq. Then and afterward, Powell’s critics dubbed him the “reluctant warrior,” lambasting his belief that force must be an absolute last resort. The epithet was meant to insult; yet in the view of those who affirm just-war theory, Powell’s critics were actually paying him a compliment. For the just warrior must, by definition, be a reluctant warrior.
This essay is written not by a pacifist, but by a former officer in the U.S. Navy-one who has believed in the morality of just-war thinking since being introduced to its principles as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1980s. I believe that there are times when nations must wield the sword to win the peace. Just-war criteria demand, however, that the decision to go to war be a measured and restrained one. The long tradition of just-war thinking as a Christian approach to issues of war and peace is more relevant than ever in the post-9/11 world. I will focus here on the criteria for going to war, the so-called jus ad bellum criteria. Viewed in light of these criteria, the two major conflicts waged thus far in the context of the “war on terror” provide a sharp contrast. While the military action in Afghanistan meets the jus ad bellum standard, the war in Iraq does not. In my view, it cannot be called a just war.
The notion of the justifiable use of force in the Christian tradition emerged almost as soon as Christians began to hold influential positions in the governing bodies of the regions where they lived. By the end of the fourth century, Christians who held in their hands the power of war and peace began to reinterpret Jesus’ great love commandment in light of their new responsibilities. In certain cases, their argument went, the most loving thing is to take up arms to establish or re-establish a just peace.
Just-war theory has a long history, the product of a collaboration across the ages by some of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. Augustine, seeking to reconcile the earlier pacifist tendencies of the church with the realities of a sinful world, was the first to articulate the theory that some wars may be justified. The goal is peace, he argued, and sometimes that goal must be reached by wielding the sword. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas systematized Augustine’s just-war thought into specific criteria. Behind Aquinas’s analysis lay an appeal to natural-law theory, the notion that rules are written into God’s creation, and that humanity’s task is to use reason to perceive and articulate them. Natural law and the “common good,” Aquinas argued, create standards to which we are accountable; and that accountability, writ large at the level of conflict between states, manifests itself as just-war theory.
In the twentieth century, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” aptly summarized the general thinking of those who affirm the just-war tradition: God is creator of all, and God’s creation is essentially good; but the theological reality of the Fall is the sinfulness of humanity, and in this sinful world the use of force is sometimes necessary to restrain evil. Niebuhr set forth his thinking about the use of force between nations in an essay titled “Must We Do Nothing?” published in the Christian Century (March 23, 1932). Responding to the Sino-Japanese conflict that threatened his day, Niebuhr argued that Christians must accept the reality of a fallen world and develop moral systems to deal with that reality. “We may envisage a society in which human cooperation is possible with a minimum amount of coercion,” he wrote, “but we cannot imagine one in which there is no coercion at all-unless, of course, human beings become something quite different from what they now are.” More recently, theologian and ethicist Joseph Allen of Southern Methodist University affirmed just-war theory in his system of “covenantal ethics,” detailed in his 1995 book, Love and Conflict: A Covenantal Model of Christian Ethics. Allen’s approach holds that there are times when the Christian’s duty is to take up arms, either in his own defense, or in the defense of innocents.
Just-war thinking is a moral system that seeks to deal with the world’s realities, acknowledging that armed conflict is sometimes necessary, while establishing criteria that set the bar extremely high for undertaking it. From a stance that affirms both the goodness of God’s creation and the sinfulness of a fallen world, just-war thinking seeks to negotiate issues of war and peace in a morally responsible way, reluctantly conceding that Christians must sometimes take up the sword to attain a just peace. We can hope for the day when that is no longer necessary, but that day will not come until, in Niebuhr’s words, “human beings become something quite different from what they now are.” On September 11, 2001, we were reminded just how far away that day remains.
A Brief Historical Recap
Information about the events leading up to and following 9/11 is available, of course, from a long list of sources. This essay focuses on two books written by journalist Bob Woodward and on The 9/11 Report issued by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. Woodward’s Bush at War covers the first hundred days after 9/11, focusing primarily on U.S. military action in Afghanistan, while his Plan of Attack deals specifically with the Iraq war. In writing both books, Woodward enjoyed extraordinary access to the members of the administration, including President Bush, whose actions he chronicled (Woodward’s reporting is referenced in parts of The 9/11 Report). While the administration took issue with some aspects of Plan of Attack, such as the intensity of the infighting among Cabinet members, the factual details cited here have not, to my knowledge, been refuted.
By the time the Bush administration took office in January 2001, the U.S. intelligence community knew that Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network posed a significant threat to U.S. interests worldwide. Further, the Taliban regime was known to be harboring bin Laden and Al Qaeda, hosting the group’s headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence believed that bin Laden was behind a series of increasingly audacious attacks over the previous decade, beginning with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, including the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and culminating most recently in the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, in October 2000. The outgoing Clinton administration had chosen not to respond to the attack on the Cole, and the incoming Bush administration had been given several military options as a proportional response, none of which it deemed satisfactory. These options included undertaking air and cruise-missile strikes at the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan as well as increasing covert aid to the Northern Alliance, a group opposed to the ruling Taliban.
According to The 9/11 Report, within the first few days of the new administration, National Counterterrorism Coordinator Richard Clarke urged National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice “to give terrorism a very high priority,” and argued further that “We urgently need...a Principals level review on the Al Qida network.” The National Security Council Principals Committee includes the national security adviser, the secretaries of State and Defense, the director of Central Intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new administration did not view Al Qaeda as the top priority, however, and despite Clarke’s warning, nine months passed before the Principals Committee reviewed the subject-nine months during which similar reviews were held on topics such as Sudan and Iraq.
Indeed, for several members of the administration, Iraq was a priority from day one. In Plan of Attack, Woodward recounts how, even before Bush’s inauguration in January 2001, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney requested that outgoing Secretary of Defense William Cohen brief the president-elect on several military issues, with Iraq at the top of the list. Iraq had been a source of international concern for a decade, and the United States had been enforcing the no-fly zones there since the 1991 Gulf War, making Iraq the only place in the world where the United States was engaged in ongoing combat operations. It is not surprising that Cheney was particularly interested in Iraq, given his experience as secretary of Defense during the Gulf War. At any rate, the historical record makes it clear that Iraq was, for many in the new administration, the priority for the first nine months. The Principals Committee review Clarke had requested in January did not take place until September 4, 2001. On that day, just one week before the attacks that would launch the United States into its current “war on terrorism,” Clarke wrote the following message to Condoleezza Rice, as cited in The 9/11 Report:
...are we serious about dealing with the Al Qida threat?...Decision makers should imagine themselves on a future day when the CSG [Coordinating Security Group on Terrorism] has not succeeded in stopping Al Qida attacks and hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the U.S....That future day could happen at any time.
One week later, Clarke’s nightmarish prediction would come true, and the United States would be faced with responding to an enemy hiding in the camps and caves of Afghanistan.
The Three Foundational Criteria
When considering Christian thinking about the use of military force as an appropriate response to the attacks of 9/11, it is important to emphasize again how mindful just-war theory is of our own sinfulness and flawed judgment. In “Must We Do Nothing?” Niebuhr insisted on humanity’s need for constant repentance and self-criticism, arguing that we “must engage in constant self-analysis in order to reduce [our] moral conceit.” Taking this need seriously, just-war theory sets the bar very high for jus ad bellum, laying out six stringent criteria for the justification of war. In Love and Conflict, the clearest and most succinct treatment of the criteria that I have seen, Joseph Allen lists them as follows: justifiable cause; right intention; legitimate authority; proportionality; reasonable chance of success; and last resort. The first three were the original criteria systematized by Aquinas and are foundational for the others.
The first and foremost criterion, justifiable cause, requires that there be a serious wrong to right or a serious right to be defended. Related to justifiable cause is right intention, the ability to articulate a clear and proper objective in going to war. In light of these two standards, attacking Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was justified. Al Qaeda was responsible for a series of attacks that culminated in 9/11; the Taliban provided its agents sanctuary, refusing to hand them over to U.S. or international authorities. Together, they presented a menace to both the United States and the international community. The justifiable cause, therefore, was self-defense and prevention of future attacks. The right intention was the elimination of Al Qaeda training bases and the disruption, destruction, and/or capture of its command and control structures, including the Taliban regime. Beginning in November 2001, that is exactly what the United States did.
Iraq is another matter. Despite clear evidence that Al Qaeda was behind 9/11, Iraq immediately occupied center stage in administration discussions about the appropriate response to the attacks. Indeed, Woodward reports in Plan of Attack that the first mention of targeting Iraq was raised by Rumsfeld himself at 2:40 p.m. on September 11. Meeting with his staff in the operations center of the Pentagon that afternoon, just hours after American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the building, Rumsfeld floated the option of military action against Iraq as a response. In Bush at War, Woodward notes that on the next day, September 12, when the National Security Council convened to begin crafting a response to the attacks, Rumsfeld again raised the possibility of invading Iraq. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, likewise urged making Iraq a primary target of our initial response to 9/11, despite a complete lack of evidence indicating its involvement. Three days later, Condoleezza Rice brought up fears of getting bogged down in Afghanistan, and raised the possibility of military action elsewhere, should our involvement in Afghanistan turn sour. Iraq seemed a logical choice to the Bush administration. By September 17, the decision was made to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan; Iraq would be dealt with after that.
Thus, from the very early hours after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration saw in these tragedies an opportunity to address a problem that had been on its agenda for months. Before any evidence was obtained or even sought, before the call for the return of UN inspectors to Iraq or the assertion that Saddam Hussein had thwarted UN efforts long enough, Iraq was already a target. The 9/11 Report notes that intelligence reports, once they began coming in, offered no compelling evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11 (ultimately the commission found no evidence at all of a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq) and that Iraq was on the agenda before the argument for war was made to the American public and the UN:
Secretary Powell recalled that Wolfowitz...argued that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked. Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. “Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,” Powell told us. “And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem” [emphasis added].
Woodward’s Plan of Attack recounts the decision-making timeline for the Iraq war. As early as November 21, 2001, with the United States in the initial stages of its action in Afghanistan, Bush ordered Rumsfeld to begin planning for war against Iraq. By December 28, initial plans had already been developed, and Bush had given the go-ahead to begin laying the groundwork for the future invasion. A few weeks later, in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union speech, Bush made his now-famous reference to the Axis of Evil-Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Interestingly, early drafts of that speech contained references to Iraq alone. Rice and then-Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Stephen Hadley recommended adding other states to the list, to avoid tipping the administration’s hand with regard to the secret war planning for Iraq. By March 2002, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet was convinced that the invasion of Iraq was simply a matter of time, and indicated as much to the leaders of two Kurdish groups in Northern Iraq; and in an April interview, a full year before the invasion, Bush told a British reporter, “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go.”
The administration claimed to perceive in Iraq a twofold threat-its connections to terrorist organizations and its possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In Plan of Attack, though, Woodward reports that as late as October 2002 the government’s own National Intelligence Estimate undermined the first aspect of this argument: “We have no specific intelligence information that Saddam’s regime has directed attacks against U.S. territory.” And while the case concerning chemical and biological weapons was uncertain at best, the administration incited fear over Iraq’s nuclear capability, invoking images of mushroom clouds billowing over U.S. cities-even as the October 2002 Estimate asserted that “Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one.” In short, based on our own intelligence, the United States had neither justifiable cause nor right intention in invading Iraq-neither as a response to 9/11, for which Iraq was not responsible, nor as a preemptive strike against an eminent threat, which Iraq did not pose.
The third of Aquinas’s original just-war criteria is legitimate authority. In his short book detailing issues of war and peace in the Christian tradition, War: A Primer for Christians, Joseph Allen makes the important point that elected leaders making decisions about the use of force must be held accountable for their decisions, and that the reasoning behind those decisions must be open to public scrutiny. “Otherwise,” he warns, “the leader might be following whims, private passions, likes and dislikes, compulsions.” In other words, legitimate authorities are legitimate insofar as they are truthful toward those who have entrusted them with momentous decisions, such as making war. Does the Bush administration pass this test? With regard to Afghanistan, the administration looked at the evidence, made a judgment based on that evidence, and decided to go to war. With regard to Iraq, the administration saw a problem, saw a convenient opportunity to deal with it by going to war, and then sought justifications to dress up that decision publicly. By misleading the American public about the decision-making process leading up to the war, the Bush administration failed to meet the criterion of legitimate authority, indeed undermined it.
The Final Three Criteria
The principle of proportionality holds that the potential evil prevented by the use of force must exceed the evil caused by it-the harm and suffering war inevitably produces. In the case of Afghanistan, the evil to be prevented was more terrorist attacks. Given the increasing scale and audacity of Al Qaeda’s actions, it seems reasonable to hold that using force to destroy its camps and command-and-control centers was justified. Indeed, it posed a lesser evil than the approach of the previous decade, which was to launch missiles indiscriminately against those targets.
By contrast, it is still not clear what evil was prevented by invading Iraq. I am arguing neither that the Saddam regime was a just one, nor that evils did not occur under that regime; indeed, the world may be better off without Saddam in power. But there are numerous regimes in the world as heinous as or worse than Iraq under Saddam (especially under Saddam’s weakened rule after 1991), yet the United States does not wage war to overthrow those regimes based on that criterion alone. Regarding the other stated reasons for waging war, as we have seen, there is no evidence linking Iraq and Al Qaeda, and no WMD have been discovered. Yet the war and the subsequent occupation have caused more than twenty thousand U.S. casualties; two to five times that number of Iraqi civilians killed; a complete destabilization of the country; a vicious, bloody insurgency; and sectarian violence which approaches civil war, resulting currently in a civilian death toll (according to a July 2006 estimate by the Iraqi prime minister) of a staggering hundred per day. Are these lesser evils than those that would have obtained had the United States pursued other, nonviolent means? That seems hardly credible. Weighing the current massive suffering in Iraq against the trumped-up dangers posed by Iraq’s (nonexistent) WMD program and its (equally nonexistent) connection to international terrorism, one must conclude that the criterion of proportionality is not met.
Reasonable chance of success requires that a nation’s stated goals in going to war be attainable. In Afghanistan, overwhelming U.S. military might, and also its alliances with indigenous fighters who sought at least one of the same objectives-overthrow of the Taliban-met this criterion. Once again, though, Iraq is another matter. In Plan of Attack, Woodward reports that at a Cabinet meeting on July 31, 2002, months before the administration made its case for war to the UN and the American people, Bush declared that the mission in going to war with Iraq was regime change, that success would be removing Saddam Hussein from power. By that meager standard, the United States had more than a reasonable chance of success. But in just-war theory, success must be defined in relation to notions of a just peace, with regard for our covenantal obligations to all of God’s children-our combatants, their combatants, and the civilians who are ultimately affected by our use of force. The daily chaos and bloodshed that have marked the Iraq occupation are a constant reminder that the mere removal of Saddam Hussein is an erroneous definition of “success” under just-war criteria.
Regarding the final criterion, last resort, in Afghanistan, military action was undertaken only when the Taliban flatly refused to turn over Al Qaeda to either the United States or the international community, and continued providing them safe harbor. In the case of Iraq, is there anyone outside the Bush administration who believes we exhausted all reasonable alternatives before resorting to war? By December 2002, Iraq had agreed to allow inspections for WMD to resume. As late as mid-February 2003, the man in charge of those inspections, Hans Blix, asserted that the inspections had uncovered neither WMD nor any substantial evidence that they existed, and the majority of the international community favored letting inspections continue. Of all the nations Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction could have threatened with catastrophic injury, only the United States deemed the potential danger serious enough to go to war.
Of course, by this point the United States had over two hundred thousand troops in theater, poised to invade. In the administration’s mind, bringing those troops home without overthrowing Saddam was simply not an option. So in March, against the will of much of the world community, the United States invaded Iraq. Shortly after the invasion, Michael Walzer, perhaps the most respected expert on just-war theory, wrote this concerning the criterion of last resort:
America’s war is unjust. Though disarming Iraq is a legitimate goal, morally and politically, it is a goal that we could almost certainly have achieved with measures short of full-scale war....At this time, the threat Iraq posed could have been met with something less than the war we are now fighting. And a war fought before its time is not a just war.
With what we now know about the decision making that led to the invasion, it is hard to see how Iraq passes the just-war test, how it satisfies even a single criterion-let alone all six.
Where Do We Go from Here?
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously remarked that “War is all hell.” Indeed. Even in victory, as Robert E. Lee noted, war is terrible, and it is our moral and ethical responsibility to base decisions for its use on a set of very restrictive criteria. Had Bush administration officials followed just-war thinking in their analysis of the use of force in Iraq, they would have avoided a war that must be identified as what it is-indefensible. But they did not, and here we are.
If we believe that the war in Iraq was indeed unjustified, what is our moral obligation now that Iraq stands on the brink of civil war? This is admittedly a difficult question. Is it an acceptable solution to withdraw as quickly as possible? Should we be seeking a broader international mandate to help a freely elected Iraqi government get on its feet while stabilizing what has become a country in ruins? Must we simply “stay the course,” come what may?
My view is that we must redefine success and right intention. Clearly, removal of Saddam Hussein was an inadequate measure of success. For military action to be just, as Joseph Allen has rightly argued, it must take into account our covenantal obligations to all God’s children. In this case, it would be a travesty to leave the people of Iraq to fend for themselves in the midst of the chaos that we, albeit inadvertently, have foisted on them. Whatever the missteps and misjudgments may have been that got us to this point, simply abandoning Iraq now would be morally reprehensible. Success must now be defined as a stable country run by a legitimately elected government.
A broader international mandate and support for rebuilding Iraq would be nice to have, but that bridge may have been burned in early 2003. With or without international help, we should stay in Iraq until the Iraqis can secure their own country, and remain there no longer than we are welcomed by the government the people elected. Whether we achieve that stability by imposing a timeline for withdrawal or by some other measure, such as a division of Iraq into autonomous zones, are political questions outside the scope of this essay. Whatever the solution, we will need to exert a continuing substantial presence. Our moral responsibility is to stay in Iraq long enough to help sort out the mess we created.
Writing this essay has been a difficult task. I supported Bush in the 2000 election. In the days after 9/11, I fully supported our military action in Afghanistan, and still do. Moreover, I was inclined to believe the Bush administration’s assertions about Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 and to trust its case for war. Though I never thought the criterion of last resort was met, Colin Powell’s appearance before the UN on February 5, 2003, did much to convince me that the time had come for military action. I believed there must be intelligence, too secret to share with the world, that justified it. I trusted that the administration was making morally responsible decisions, even as I wept over what would ensue when the bombs began to fall.
I now know that what Powell put before the world in February 2003 was an amalgam of speculation and misinformation, exaggerated to support our decision to go to war. That decision had, for all intents and purposes, been made just months after 9/11, and the rest was simply preparation and maneuvering. I believe that we were indeed misled, and that saddens me deeply. Knowing that this was an unjust war makes the violence and bloodshed of the occupation in its aftermath even harder to take.
The fiasco reminds us that the venerable tradition of just-war theory is as relevant today as it has been since the time of Augustine. Indeed, in a post-9/11 world it is perhaps more relevant than ever, as the world’s only remaining superpower struggles to respond in a morally responsible way to the very real threats that exist everywhere. For all of us who take just-war thinking seriously, and believe that Christians must sometimes reluctantly ply the sword in order to win the peace, these words from Franklin Roosevelt should be constantly on our minds, perhaps even on our lips as a prayer that we offer while weighing issues of war and peace. Comprising what might be called the credo of the reluctant warrior, they are etched on the walls of the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.:
I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea.
I have seen blood running from the wounded.
I have seen the dead in the mud.
I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving.
I have seen the agony of mothers and wives.
I hate war.
About the Author
Chris Dowd is completing his final year of seminary studies in the Master of Divinity program at Southern Methodist University. He is currently serving his internship at Arapaho United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas. This essay is the second-place winner in Commonweal’s 2006 Theological Essay Contest. Funding has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.