Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-4btjb Total loading time: 0.452 Render date: 2022-05-29T08:30:55.889Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 January 2004

Neta C. Crawford
associate professor (research) at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University ( and associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics,Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention


This article addresses three sets of questions. First, the George W. Bush administration claims that its cause and conduct in counterterror war are just. Such a claim invites moral assessment. How do normative beliefs and ethical concerns affect U.S. conduct in the counterterror war? Is the war just in cause and conduct? Second, many observers argue that warfare is “transformed.” How so? And is it possible to fight a just counterterror war in this context? Third, the transformation of war raises new questions for just war theory itself. Is the framework still useful? I argue that it is extremely difficult to fight a just counterterror war given the nature of terrorism and the realities of contemporary warfare. Yet I show that the Bush administration has made an effort to engage in a just counterterror war by meeting the criterion of self-defense and seeking to avoid noncombatant harm. Even so, current U.S. policy and practice in the counterterror war are not just. But any government would have a problem fighting a just counterterror war in the current context; indeed, the utility of just war theory itself is challenged. I discuss 12 conceptual and practical problems that arise at the intersection of just war theory and counterterror war, including the limits of self-defense, preemption, last resort, and discrimination. Despite these problems, I argue that just war theory is a useful method of inquiry into the problems of contemporary war. Our nation's cause has always been larger than our nation's defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty …. Building this just peace is America's opportunity, and America's duty. —George W. BushBush 2002.The Americans who conduct those operations are a tough and proud bunch. Their cause is a just one. It's to stop terrorists from killing Americans and others.—Donald H. RumsfeldRumsfeld 2001e.This is not a linear war; this is not a sequential war …. This is a different kind of conflict. This is asymmetric warfare. We have to use all the instruments of national power.—General Richard MyersMyers 2001b.

2003 by the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Apfel Roberta J.Bennett Simon1996 Minefields in their Hearts: The Mental Health of Children in War and Communal ViolenceNew HavenYale University Press
Augustine Saint Bishop of Hippo [440] 1998 The City of God against the Paganstrans. R.W. Dyson CambridgeCambridge University Press
Bennet James2002 Israelis hit home of a Hamas chief; his fate unclear The New York Times 23 July A1Google Scholar
Blair Tony1999 Doctrine of the international community. Speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, 22 AprilLondonForeign and Commonwealth Office
Buettner Russ2001 Stray U.S. bombs kill 13: Friends and foes angered New York Daily News 29 October 14Google Scholar
Bumiller Elisabeth2001 President rejects offer by Taliban for negotiations: Demands surrender of bin Laden—U.S. bombs fall in Kabul The New York Times 15 October A1Google Scholar
Bush George W.2001 Address on terrorism before a joint meeting of Congress. Transcript The New York Times 21 September B4Google Scholar
Bush George W.2002 Remarks at 1 June graduation exercise of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. White House transcriptAvailable at Accessed 1 June 2002
Cheney Dick2002 In Cheney's words: The administration case for removing Saddam Hussein The New York Times 27 August A8Google Scholar
Chesterman Simon2001 Just War or Just Peace: Humanitarian Intervention and International LawOxfordOxford University Press
Coates Anthony1996 The new world order and the ethics of warIn The Ethical Dimensions of Global ChangeHolden BarryLondonMacmillan205–25
Cohn CarolSarah RuddickFeminist ethical perspectives on weapons of mass destructionEthical Perspectives on Weapons of Mass DestructionSohail HashmiSteven LeePrincetonPrinceton University PressForthcoming
Conetta Carl2002 Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a higher rate of civilian bombing casualties Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report Number 11 18 JanuaryGoogle Scholar
Crawford Neta C.2000 The passion of world politics: Propositions on emotion and emotional relationships International Security 24 4116-56Google Scholar
Crawford Neta C.2002 Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian InterventionCambridgeCambridge University Press
Department of Defense 2001 Quadrennial defense review report30 September Washington, D.C.U.S. Government Printing Office
Donagan Alan1994 The relation of moral theory to moral judgmentsThe Philosophical Papers of Alan Donagan, Volume II: Action, Reason, and ValueChicagoUniversity of Chicago Press194–216
Elshtain Jean Bethke1992 Reflections on war and political discourse: Realism, just war, and feminism in a nuclear ageJust War TheoryJean Bethke ElshtainNew YorkColumbia University Press260–79
Falk Richard2001 Defining a just war The Nation 29 October 11 15Google Scholar
Filkins Dexter2002 Flaws in U.S. air war left hundreds of civilians dead The New York Times 21 July 12Google Scholar
Frey R. G.Christopher W. Morris1991 Violence Terrorism, and JusticeCambridgeCambridge University Press
Friedman Thomas L.2001 World War III. Op-ed The New York Times 13 September A27Google Scholar
Gordon Joy1999 A peaceful, silent, deadly remedy: The ethics of economic sanctions Ethics and International Affairs 13 123-42Google Scholar
Harding LukeRory McCarthyRichard Norton-Taylor2001 Refugee crisis builds as Taliban consider deal The Guardian 19 September 1Google Scholar
Hehir J. Bryan2001 What can be done? What should be done? America 8 October 9 12Google Scholar
Heymann Philip B.2001 Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic SocietyCambridgeMIT Press
Hoffman Bruce1998 Inside TerrorismNew YorkColumbia University Press
Hoffman Bruce2001 Rethinking terrorism in light of the war on terrorism. Testimony before the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland SecurityU.S. House of Representatives, 26 September
Holmes Robert1989 On War and MoralityPrincetonPrinceton University Press
Howard MichaelGeorge J. AndreopoulosMark R. Shulman1994 The Laws of War: Constraints on Warfare in the Western WorldNew HavenYale University Press
Johnson James Turner1975 Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War: Religious and Secular Concepts, 1200–1740PrincetonPrinceton University Press
Johnson James Turner1981 Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical InquiryPrincetonPrinceton University Press
Johnson James Turner1992 Threats, values, and defense: Does the defense of values by force remain a moral possibility?Just War TheoryJean Bethke ElshtainNew YorkColumbia University Press55–76
Johnson James Turner1999 Morality and Contemporary WarfareNew HavenYale University Press
Kaldor Mary1999 New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global EraStanfordStanford University Press
Kant Immanuel1999 Metaphysical Elements of JusticeIndianapolisHackett
Kant Immanuel1983 To perpetual peace: A philosophical sketchPerpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History and Morals, trans. Ted. HumphreyCambridgeMass. Hackett107–43
Keegan John1993 A History of WarfareNew YorkKnopf
Kelsay John1993 Islam and War: A Study in Comparative EthicsLouisville, KyWestminster
Kennedy Helen2001 Taliban balks, won't hand over bin Laden: Demands proof he was involved New York Daily News 22 September 2Google Scholar
Koch Ed2001 Appeasement is no answer to terrorism Newsday 19 October A49Google Scholar
Ladd John1991 The idea of collective violenceJustice, Law and ViolenceJames E. BradyNewton GarverPhiladelphiaTemple University Press
Latham Andrew2002 Warfare transformed: A Braudelian perspective on the “revolution in military affairs.” European Journal of International Relations 8 2231-66Google Scholar
Lichtblau Eric2002 U.S. raids foil plots to send arms to al Qaeda and others The New York Times 7 November A18Google Scholar
Luard Evan1987 War in International SocietyNew HavenYale University Press
Machel Graça2001 The Impact of War on Children: A Review of Progress since the 1996 United Nations Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on ChildrenNew YorkPalgrave
McNeill William H.1982 The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000ChicagoUniversity of Chicago Press
Morgenthau Hans J.1967 To intervene or not to intervene Foreign Affairs 45 3425-36Google Scholar
Morgenthau Hans J.1985 Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace6th ed. Kenneth W. ThompsonNew YorkKnopf
Myers Richard2001a Interview with ABC This Week21 October. Available at Accessed 21 October 2001
Myers Richard2001b Department of Defense news briefing, with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld22 October. Available at Accessed 22 October 2001
Myers Richard2001c Department of Defense news briefing, with Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 25 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 25 October 2001
Nardin Terry1992 Ethical traditions in international affairsTraditions of International EthicsTerry NardinDavid R. MapelCambridgeCambridge University Press1–22
Nardin Terry2002 The moral basis of humanitarian intervention Ethics and International Affairs 16 157 70Google Scholar
National Commission on Terrorism 2000 Countering the changing threat of international terrorismWashington, D.C.U.S. Government Printing Office
National Defense Panel 1997 Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st CenturyWashington, D.C.U.S. Government Printing Office
National Security Council 2002 The national security strategy of the United States of AmericaWashington, D.C.Office of the PresidentSeptember
Pape Robert1996 Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in WarIthacaCornell University Press
Pierce Albert C.1996 Just war principles and economic sanctions Ethics and International Affairs 10 99 113Google Scholar
Pillar Paul R.2001 Terrorism and U.S. Foreign PolicyWashington, D.C.Brookings Institution Press
Powell Colin2002 Perspectives interview The New York Times 8 September 18Google Scholar
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001a A new kind of war. Op-ed The New York Times 27 September A25Google Scholar
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001b Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, briefing on Enduring Freedom, 7 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 7 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001c Rumsfeld interview with CNN Live, 8 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 8 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001d Department of Defense news briefing, Rumsfeld with General Richard Myers. 18 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 18 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001e Department of Defense news briefing, with General Richard Myers. 22 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 22 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001f Interview on Voice of America. 23 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 23 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001g Interview with USA Today. 24 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 24 October 2001.
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001h Interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN. 28 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 28 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001i Remarks at stakeout outside ABC-TV Studio. 28 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 28 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001j Department of Defense news briefing, with General Richard Myers. 29 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 29 October 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2001k Department of Defense news briefing, with General Richard Myers. 4 DecemberAvailable at Accessed 4 December 2001
Rumsfeld Donald H.2002 In his own words. Interview The New York Times 4 September A10Google Scholar
Schelling Thomas1991 What purposes can “international terrorism” serve?Violence, Terrorism, and JusticeR. G. FreyChristopher MorrisCambridgeCambridge University Press18–32
Spector Bertram I.1999 Negotiating with villainsInternational Negotiation: Actors, Structure/Process, ValuesPeter BertonHiroshi KimuraI. William ZartmanNew YorkSt. Martin's309–34
Stern Jessica1999 The Ultimate TerroristsCambridgeHarvard University Press
Stufflebeem John D.2001 Department of Defense news briefing. 24 OctoberAvailable at Accessed 24 October 2001
Tilly Charles1992 Coercion Capital and European States, A.D. 990–1992OxfordBlackwell
United States Catholic Bishops 1983 The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our ResponseWashington, D.C.United States Catholic Conference
Walzer Michael1992 Justice and injustice in the Gulf WarBut Was It Just?: Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf WarDavid E. DecosseNew YorkDoubleday1–17
Walzer Michael2000 Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Third EditionNew YorkBasic Books
Walzer Michael2001 First, define the battlefield The New York Times 21 September A27Google Scholar
Weiss Thomas G.Cortright DavidLopez George A.Minear Larry1997 Political Gain and Civilian Pain: Humanitarian Impacts of Economic SanctionsBoulder, Col.Rowman and Littlefield
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *