The Time Has Arrived: Bush Policy on Iraq Meets Just War Criteria

By Richard Land
Feb 6, 2003

For many centuries Christians have employed Just War theory as a framework for the discussion of issues of war and peace. This theory was adopted by early church leaders, particularly Aquinas and Augustine, to deal with the reality of war in a fallen, sinful world and to determine when military action could be justified within a Christian framework.

There are two dimensions to Just War theory—one that weighs whether or not to engage in armed conflict (jus ad bellum) and the other that examines how to conduct the military exercises (jus in bello). According to Just War theory, the aim of any armed conflict should be to keep the peace and maintain justice. Christians are to pray for their enemies and not to seek personal vengeance. Christians expect the government to exact justice.

Jesus made clear individuals are not to seek private retribution for wrongs done against them. Romans 13 tells us God ordained the civil magistrate to punish evil-doers and reward those who do right and that the state bears not the sword in vain. The Greek word Paul used for sword in this instance was the lethal instrument used to decapitate those found guilty of capital crimes.

We do not have the right to take the law into our own hands. Only the government is authorized to use lethal force. This is the foundation of Just War theory.

For most of Christian history, Just War theory has been the guide that governs when armed conflict is acceptable under the authority accorded the state by God (Roman 13:1-4). More than a century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill reminded us that “war is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state …which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.”

Sometimes war is necessary; sometimes war is permissible under certain criteria. The theory requires a “just cause” be in place. Only defensive war is defensible.

Lethal military action must have a just intent; the motive must not be revenge, conquest, or economic benefit. And such action must be a last resort.

The theory requires a legitimate authority to make the decision to wage war. The legitimate authority for the exercise of American military forces is Congress.

Sadly, the resort to armed conflict is the price human beings must periodically pay for the right to live in a moral universe. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. We must not shrink back when crazed madmen threaten the peace.

There is an eerily similar episode in America’s early history to this contemporary situation, where a sworn enemy of the U.S. targeted her citizens and friends. The Islamic Barbary States of North Africa were giving safe harbor to pirates who were interrupting American and European shipping traffic and taking crew, passengers and cargo hostage for ransom. Presidents Washington and Adams had acquiesced to the tyrannical practice of paying tribute to these rulers for safe passage for their ships, thereby encouraging these villains to continue in their evil-doing.

President Jefferson was repulsed by this practice, and when the ruler of Tripoli tried to increase the tribute, Jefferson declared war and sent a fleet of ships into the Mediterranean in what is known to history as the Tripolitan War (1801 – 1805), which concluded with a peace favorable to the U.S.

We can learn from the wisdom of Jefferson. There is a point at which military action is required.

When resort to military force is necessary, can it be justified, and under what circumstances? While there have been persistent elements of pacifism within the Christian tradition, for most Christians, in most places, at most times, the answer has been that, yes, resort to military conflict by legitimately constituted civil authority is justifiable.

Scripture tells us that some soldiers inquired of John the Baptist as to what they should do in advance of the coming Messiah (Luke 3:14). “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay,” he told them. In other words, be just and continue in your service in the military. From this verse, we find no indication that a person of faith must avoid military service or that war is unacceptable in a Christian context.

Just War theory was never intended to justify war. Instead, it tries to bring war under the sway of justice as understood by Christians and to ensure that war, when it does occur, is hedged about by limits that reduce its barbarity. In fact, if all parties accepted just-war criteria, there would be no wars or acts of terrorism, because the theory’s first rule clearly states no action is just unless it is a defense against aggression. In an idyllic world where everyone adhered to just-war theory, there would be no aggression.

The intent of a just war must be to secure justice for all involved. It is to be a last resort only authorized by legitimate civil authority. There must be limited goals, and the question of proportionality must accompany all actions. Underlying all of these criteria is the question of noncombatant immunity. No war that does not disqualify noncombatants as legitimate military targets and that does not seek to minimize collateral civilian casualties can be just.

Can such goals be achieved without disproportionate casualties? Are there no effective alternatives to avoid conflict? Will measures be taken to ensure the minimizing of noncombatant casualties? If so, then resort to armed force is justified.

Perhaps most importantly, a legitimate authority must authorize the use of armed force. For Americans, the duly constituted authority is the government of the United States.

The key Scripture passage supporting Just War theory is Romans 13:4. The Apostle Paul writes that it is God who ordains the secular state to reward good and to punish evil. God established the state to “bear the sword,” that is, to use lethal force to keep the peace and maintain justice. This limits the use of force and insists that peace, not vengeance, is always the object of war.

The Bush administration’s stated policies concerning Saddam Hussein and his headlong pursuit and development of biochemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction are prudent and fall well within the time-honored criteria of Just War theory as developed by Christian theologians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D.

First, the President’s stated policy concerning using military force if necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction is a just cause. Again, in Just War theory only defensive war is defensible; and if military force is used against Saddam Hussein it will be because he has attacked his neighbors, used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, and harbored terrorists from the Al Qaeda terrorist network that attacked our nation so viciously and violently on September 11, 2001. As the President stated in his address to the U.N. September 12, 2002:

“We can harbor no illusions. … Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He’s fired ballistic missiles at Iran and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Israel. His regime once ordered the killing of every person between the ages of 15 and 70 in certain Kurdish villages in Northern Iraq. He has gassed many Iranians and forty Iraqi villages.”

Disarming and neutralizing Saddam Hussein is to defend freedom and freedom-loving people from state-sponsored terror and death.

Second, just war must have just intent. Our nation does not intend to destroy, conquer, or exploit Iraq. As President Bush declared forthrightly in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly:

“The United States has no quarrel with the Iraqi people. … Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause, and a great strategic goal. The people of Iraq deserve it; the security of all nations requires it. Free societies do not intimidate through cruelty and conquest, and open societies do not threaten the world with mass murder. The United States supports political and economic liberty in a unified Iraq.”

This is clearly a just and noble intent.

Third, just war may only be commenced as a last resort. Saddam Hussein has for more than a decade ignored Security Council resolutions or defied them while breaking virtually every agreement into which he has entered. He stands convicted by his own record as a brutal dictator who cannot be trusted to abide by any agreement he makes. And while he prevaricates and obfuscates, he continues to obtain and develop the weapons of mass destruction that he will use to terrorize the world community of nations.

The world has been waiting for more than a decade for the Iraqi regime to fulfill its agreement to destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction, to cease producing them or the long-range missiles to deliver them in the future, and to allow thorough and rigorous inspections to verify their compliance. They have not, and will not, do so and any further delay in forcing the regime’s compliance would be reckless irresponsibility in the face of grave and growing danger.

Fourth, just war requires authorization by legitimate authority. It was wise and prudent for President Bush to go before the U.N. General Assembly and ask the U.N. Security Council to enforce its own resolutions. However, as American citizens we believe that, however helpful a U.N. Security Council vote might be, the legitimate authority to authorize the use of U.S. military force is the government of the United States and that the authorizing vehicle is a declaration of war or a joint resolution of the Congress.

When the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba presented a grave threat to America’s security, President Kennedy asked for the support of the U.N. and the Organization of American States, but made it clear, with or without their support, those missiles would either be removed by the Soviets, or we would neutralize them ourselves. The American people expected no less from their president and their government.

Fifth, just war requires limited goals and the resort to armed force must have a reasonable expectation of success. In other words, “total war” is unacceptable and the war’s goals must be achievable. We believe the administration’s stated policies for disarming the murderous Iraqi dictator and destroying his weapons of mass destruction, while liberating the Iraqi people for his cruel and barbarous grip, more than meet those criteria.

Sixth, Just War theory requires noncombatant immunity. We are confident that our government, unlike Hussein, will not target civilians and will do all that it can to minimize noncombatant casualties.

Seventh, Just War theory requires the question of proportionality be addressed. Will the human cost of the armed conflict to both sides be proportionate to the stated objectives and goals? Does the good gained by resort to armed conflict justify the cost of lives lost and bodies maimed? The cost of not dealing with this threat now will only succeed in greatly increasing the cost in human lives and suffering when an even more heavily armed and dangerous Saddam Hussein must be confronted at some date in the not too distant future. Every day of delay significantly increases the risk of far greater human suffering in the future than acting now would entail.

How different and how much safer would the history of the twentieth century have been had the allies confronted Hitler when he illegally reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 in clear violation of Germany’s treaty agreements? It is at least possible that tens of millions of the lives lost in World War II might not have been lost if the Allies had enforced treaty compliance then instead of appeasing a murderous dictator.

I am extremely grateful that we have a President who has learned the costly lessons of the twentieth century and who is determined to lead America and the world to a far different and better future in the twenty first century.

The face of warfare has changed in the 21st century. Unconventional threats to our liberty and well being—terrorism, biochemical, and other weapons of mass destruction—are as real, if not more potent, as the dangers posed by the weapons of conventional warfare.

The U.S. government is wise to adopt a more “forward-leaning” strategy, as it seriously plans for preemptive strikes on a bloodthirsty enemy that hides its intentions and its arms.

“Anticipatory self-defense is not a new concept,” Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, told reporters the other day as she was explaining why pre-emption was replacing containment and deterrence as the foundation of American defense policy and serving as the justification for striking Iraq before Iraq strikes. “You know, Daniel Webster actually wrote a very famous defense of anticipatory self-defense,” she said. (New York Times, September 27, 2002)

Rice’s reference was to the Caroline incident in which Daniel Webster, as the U.S. Secretary of State in 1837, reprimanded the British for destroying the American ship, Caroline, for its role in supporting rebels who were seeking the liberation of French Canada. The British said the attack was in self-defense. Webster said for a government to justify preemptive military action, the necessity of self-defense must be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment of deliberation.”

It is my belief that the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and his henchman is so close at hand that to tarry is to allow him at least precious time to complete his work on weapons of mass destruction, and at most, to risk grave danger and injury to innocents when he uses these deadly weapons.

Conducting war in a just manner is an act of Christian love that seeks to accomplish the divinely ordained duty of the state: to punish and restrain evil and to protect and reward good. The Bush administration’s policy vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein fits well within the framework of Just War theory.

Interview with Richard Land in Rheinischer Merkur (German newspaper), February 6, 2003

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