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Justifications of the Iraq War Examined1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Abstract

This article examines three arguments according to which the Iraq war has been justified: preemptive or preventive self-defense, law enforcement, and humanitarian rescue. It concludes that for empirical and moral reasons, the Iraq war lacks a just cause. In the course of making that judgment, the article explores moral and practical implications of a preventive war policy. It also examines efforts to invoke one justification—rescue—retrospectively to justify the war. The article claims that such ex post justifications confuse the meaning of intention and, wittingly or unwittingly, allow leaders to authorize a resort to force in bad faith. Retrospective justifications also fail to understand that different burdens are attached to ad bellum rationales. That claim is premised on the idea that self-defensive wars join duty and interest in ways that wars of rescue do not. To assume that arguments can shift from self-defense to rescue, without recognizing that these entail different kinds of sacrifice, is to discount the respect due to those whose sacrifice is required. If altruistic policies are expected to be carried out by soldiers, stronger reasons than self-defensive purposes are necessary to justify the risks, reasons that avoid the allegation of leading in bad faith.

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Copyright
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2008

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References

2 Stanley Hoffmann, “What Is to Be Done?” New York Review of Books, May 20, 1999, p. 17. Hoffmann penned these words in the context of the Kosovo crisis, but his words obviously have more general applicability.

3 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 40, a. 1. See also Jeff McMahan, “Just Cause for War,” Ethics & International Affairs 19 (Fall 2005), pp. 1–21.

4 “President Says Saddam Hussein Must Leave Iraq within 48 Hours,” at http:\\www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/print/20030317-7.html; accessed on March 19, 2003.

5 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 81.

6 “Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” at http:\\www.dni.gov/nic/special_keyjudgements.html; accessed on November 10, 2004.

7 For a discussion, see Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 20–39.

8 See “Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence,” at http:\\www.globalsecurity.org/intell/library/congress/2004_rpt/iraq-wmd-intell_toc.htm; accessed on November 10, 2004.

9 Ibid.

10 “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD,” at http:\\www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/index.html; accessed on November 14, 2004.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 76. For another discussion, see David Luban, “Preventive War,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 32 (2004), pp. 207–48.

14 “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (September 17, 2002), at http:\\www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nssall.html; accessed on November 23, 2004.

15 Ibid., pp. 9–10.

16 Two of the nine rubrics in the National Security Strategy statement highlight the goal of prevention, and the section from which I have cited the president's comments is entitled “V. Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

17 “President Says Saddam Must Leave Iraq within 48 Hours.”

18 Whitley Kaufman, “What's Wrong with Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force,” Ethics & International Affairs 19 (Fall 2005), p. 29.

19 “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” p. 10.

20 See Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).

21 Neta Crawford likewise identifies instabilities for international security growing out of a context of mutual fear wrought by preventive war doctrine. See Neta Crawford, “The Slippery Slope to Preventive War,” Ethics & International Affairs 17 (Spring 2003), pp. 30–33, at http:\\www.cceia.org/resources/journal/17_1/roundtable/868.html; accessed on March 30, 2005.

22 I owe this example to Henry Shue.

23 See, e.g., Walzer's account of the “legalist paradigm” in Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 58–63.

24 “President Says Saddam Hussein Must Leave Iraq within 48 Hours.”

25 Ibid.

26 U.N. Resolution 687 (1991), at http:\\www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/sres/sres0687.htm; accessed November 10, 2004. I owe this digest of the relevant resolutions to the research assistance of James Bourke.

27 Michael Walzer, Arguing about War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 144.

28 Thanks to James Bourke for input and commentary on these legal points.

29 For discussions, see Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 101–8; Walzer, Arguing about War, pp. 67–81; and Terry Nardin and Melissa S. Williams, eds., Humanitarian Intervention, NOMOS XLVII (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

30 “President Says Saddam Hussein Must Leave Iraq within 48 Hours.”

31 See “Text of a Letter from the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President Tempore of the Senate,” March 21, 2003, referring to the president's determination to deploy forces against Iraq on March 18, 2003, at http:\\www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030321-5.html; accessed on November 24, 2004. See, e.g., “President Addresses Nation, Discusses Iraq, War on Terror,” at http:\\www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/06/20050628%26%238209;7.html; accessed on June 30, 2005.

32 For a discussion of general and specific duties, see Onora O'Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue: A Constructive Account of Practical Reasoning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chap. 5.

33 Walzer, Arguing Against War, p. 68.

34 See Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 101–8.

35 Kenneth Roth, “Was the Iraq War a Humanitarian Intervention?” Journal of Military Ethics 5 (2006), pp. 84–92.

36 David Luban, “Just War and Human Rights,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1980), pp. 160–81. As I make plain below, the language of forfeiture is not entirely fitting to Luban's position because one plank of his argument holds that certain states lack legitimacy owing to the absence of popular consent. The language of forfeiture (in contrast to the language of lack) would presume having legitimacy in the first place. Yet Luban cites approvingly Walzer's language of forfeiture (p. 180). Luban reasons about states that lack legitimacy and states that forfeit their claim to nonintervention owing to human rights violations. For the sake of simplicity, I will cluster both examples under the rubric of forfeiture. The point of the language is to highlight the contingency of the value of sovereignty and the claims that it generates within this line of human rights argumentation.

37 Ibid., pp. 167–72.

38 Ibid., p. 169.

39 Ibid., pp. 174–76. On rights of security and subsistence, Luban cites the work of Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), at ibid., p. 174, n. 24.

40 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 90–95.

41 Luban, “Just War and Human Rights,” pp. 175, 178. I say “may” because issues of proportionality or the gravity of the infringement are necessary ad bellum considerations, as Luban notes (p. 175).

42 Roth, “Was the Iraq War a Humanitarian Intervention?” p. 86.

43 Terry Nardin, “Humanitarian Imperialism,” Ethics & International Affairs 19 (Summer 2005), p. 23. Nardin's comments are directed to Fernando R. Tesón, whose ideas I discuss below, but they are pertinent to all arguments that diminish or dissolve the value of sovereignty in the effort to defend human rights on one or another view of postinternational global relations that blurs distinctions between internal and external relations. See, e.g., Jean Bethke Elshtain, “International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force,” Ethics & International Affairs 17 (Fall 2003), pp. 63–75; and Jean Bethke Elshtain, “The Responsibility of Nations: A Moral Case for Coercive Justice,” Daedalus (Winter 2003), pp. 64–72.

44 Fernando R. Tesón, “Ending Tyranny in Iraq,” Ethics & International Affairs 19 (Summer 2005), p. 2.

45 Ibid., p. 4.

46 David Mellow, “Iraq: A Morally Justified Resort to War,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 23 (August 2006), pp. 293–310, at p. 302. There are several other problems with Mellow's argument—e.g., confusing the jus ad bellum criterion of right intention with right motives—which I will not pursue here. Mellow presents his argument as a defense of the Iraq war both “prospectively and retrospectively” (p. 293). However, it is unclear why a retrospective defense would be necessary if a prospective defense is successful. That is to say, Mellow does not make clear which of his reasons sort themselves out into prospective and retrospective rationales.

47 Tesón, “Ending Tyranny in Iraq,” p. 10.

48 Mellow, “Iraq: A Morally Justified Resort to War,” p. 303.

49 Tesón, “Ending Tyranny in Iraq,” p. 8. In a similar vein, Thomas Cushman writes in defense of the Iraq war as a humanitarian intervention: “One precondition for accepting the humanitarian case for the war is the acceptance of a certain kind of consequentialist ethics that judges actions based on their outcomes rather than the intentions and motivations of the actors involved.” See Thomas Cushman, “Introduction: The Liberal-Humanitarian Case for the War in Iraq,” in Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 9.

50 Tesón shifts his ground throughout his argument. In places he wishes to assign humanitarian motives, not only intention, to the Bush administration, and assigns to them prospective and not retrospective justification. He writes: “Liberating Iraq was always part of the motivations for the invasion” (p. 10); “There is no question that the Coalition intended to do exactly this [rescue victims of tyranny]. It aimed to do it, it committed itself to doing it, and it did it” (p. 11).

51 Williams, “Moral Luck,” pp. 22–27.

52 Mellow, “Iraq: A Morally Justified Resort to War,” p. 303.

53 Thanks to Mark Wilson for enabling me to see the point in this way.

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