An Unnecessary War

How will it be conducted?

Now it has begun. We are at war with Saddam Hussein—without UN authorization, with a fragmented alliance, and with a "coalition of the willing" whose principal role may be rhetorical. There is no reasonable doubt that the U.S. military will prevail against Iraq. There are doubts about the cost- human and economic-the war will impose. There is even more uncertainty about the meaning and the possibility of winning the peace after we have won the war.

So we have begun. With a combination of professional skill and good luck the conflict will be brief. Still, there is a duty—political and moral—to review how the U.S. government decided to resort to war, and another duty to assess how the war will be prosecuted.

From the thousands of words I have read about the road to war, two articles stand out. The most precise definition of how we went to war comes from an ardent supporter of the Bush administration, the columnist George F. Will. He described this as an "optional war" (Washington Post, January 23, 2003), the exact opposite of going to war in 1941 against Japan, in 1950 against North Korea, or in 1991 in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. These were not optional wars but necessary ones, either because our national security was directly threatened or because international order was violated by clear-cut acts of aggression. This war is optional—a war of choice, not imposed on us but pursued by the United States as a conscious policy.

The second stand-out article is by two political scientists, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Steven Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Their piece in Foreign Policy January/February 2003) aroused more than passing interest because neither author could be accused of being pacifist in principle or naive in perspective. Their title "Iraq: An Unnecessary War," summarized their case. Their conclusion: "If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent." To support this broad claim, they assess the essential tenet of U.S. policy—that Saddam Hussein is undeterrable—and they counter each dimension of this claim as it has been made (in ever-changing form) over the last year. Mearsheimer and Walt conclude the war is "unnecessary" from a purely strategic perspective.

My conclusion is that the war fails a moral test of necessity. The category of necessity is not explicitly part of the traditional criteria of just-war theory. Yet it is, I would argue, just below the surface of the traditional tests. War is not, descriptively or normatively, a purely neutral phenomenon.

It can be justified—morally, politically, and legally—but it should not be treated as simply one means among many. It is, in the classical phrase, the ultima ratio. Necessity is a cognate test to "last resort," one of several standards by which the decision to go to war is measured. I use necessity to expand and complement the last-resort criterion.

Together, these ideas establish a standard by which the burden of proof falls on policy and statecraft to demonstrate that war is necessary, because all other measures have failed or will certainly fail. War must be, in the words of John Paul II, "the very last option." This means that war should not be resorted to because it is faster than diplomacy or more demonstrative of a nation's resolve, or more illustrative of our unique power in the world. War must be necessary, virtually the only way to counter a threat, repel an aggression, or assist those under attack. Mearsheimer and Walt assert that this war failed a strategic test of necessity. I believe it lacks convincing moral necessity.

A critique from a necessity standard is less definitive than the multiple judgments which have issued from the diplomacy of the Holy See, including John Paul II's cry that war would be a "defeat for humanity"; Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano's statement that "We are against the war. That is a moral position....Certainly the war is not defensive"; and the conclusion of Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's foreign minister, that a war without UN authorization would be "a war outside international law," and that "a war of aggression would be a crime against peace."

These statements surely provide a more definitive critique than necessity, but they reinforce the narrower case. What asset does necessity bring to the evaluation of how we went to war with Iraq? First, it allows one to join the moral principle with empirical analysis of the policy; a double judgment of "unnecessary war" may well have relevance beyond the case of Iraq. Some of the architects and supporters of U.S. policy have a target list which extends beyond Iraq. The administration's case for Iraq envisions the U.S. role in the world as judge, jury, and posse when it comes to ridding the world of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The necessity test presumes real dangers and threats in the world to the United States and international order. It resists the notion that war is the only answer.

The Bush policy fails the necessity test in part because of how its case is made. In making that case the administration moved successively from one rationale to another: from disarming Saddam to regime change and then back to an argument of U.S. self-defense when it was clear that a Security Council resolution was impossible. Saddam's past record, present behavior, and future aspirations provide a clear basis for "just cause," but the shifting sands of the U.S. case cause suspicion about our purposes and intent. Too often it seemed we were simply determined to go to war; any mix of reasons would suffice. Saddam is a threat, so are WMD, and so are terrorists. Virtually no one doubts this or should doubt it. Still, foreign policy is designed to address hard problems with multiple measures. War is one possible response but it is the most difficult to justify- again it should be "the very last option." The necessity test must be met; we have entered this war without doing so. On classical jus ad bellum grounds, the U.S. policy yields a Scotch verdict: "Not proven."

That conclusion is now of secondary importance to assessing how the war will be fought. However one interprets necessity, one can only hope for a quick and limited conflict—for the sake of our fellow citizens in the military, for the civilians of Iraq, and for that country as a whole. Quick and limited can be complementary terms, but they also can stand in tension. A quick war pursued without moral restraint will sacrifice the principles of civilian immunity and proportionality. Arguments were used in World War II to violate these principles in pursuit of a faster end to the war.

There has, however, been a quite extraordinary change since 1945 in the enforced standards of military conduct and in the public expectation about how war should be prosecuted. The Gulf War of 1991 was testimony to specific efforts to limit civilian damage. It also generated a critique; civilians were not intentionally attacked, but civilians suffered significantly from attacks on dual-use targets. Such targets fulfill both military and civilian functions (the electrical grids and the communication system).

A decade later, the centrality of civilian casualties in any war has been a highly visible part of the debate leading to war. There are clear signs from the U.S. military that more restrictive rules will be employed. Yet, proposals for a quick war include proposals "to shock" the Iraqi military in a bombing barrage that will surely pose a major test for restraints. The failure to establish a secure basis for jus ad bellum in this unnecessary war, makes strict observance of jus-in-bello principles an absolute necessity.

Published in the 2003-03-28 issue: 

The Reverend J. Bryan Hehir is president of Catholic Charities USA and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and International Affairs at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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