If you google some of the combinations of “Iraq,” “Just War,” “morality,” “War on terror,” and the like, you will find that nearly every writer commenting negatively on the morality of the war makes almost immediate reference to the UN. Even Catholic writers, who presumably have a longer perspective than 60 years when writing, often reference the UN Charter or resolutions in their discussion. Interestingly, the two most recent popes have highlighted other issues in their discouragement of going to war, and I will deal with those in Part V.
Discussions since then of the war’s morality are less likely to include explicit references to the UN, but if you poke them a bit, you will find them running like a subterranean river underneath. It is all a bit disquieting. One can easily see how the UN could be the moral authority for post-Christian thinkers, but how has the idea so rapidly, and yet so quietly, taken over the thinking of Christians?
Even those angry and frustrated by the actions of the UN were (and are) likely to say “It’s too bad that the UN is such a mess, because it’s all we’ve got.” Is it
The Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Europe show the same thing, as do the traditional denominations in the US and Canada. In all discussions of Just War, they regard the UN, not individual nations, as the legitimate authority. Notably, the Orthodox churches do nothing of the kind. Non-Christian religious traditions make little reference to the resolutions of the General Assembly as having much to do with any moral question whatever. Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems – they make some nice comments about the UN and everyone working together and all that. The Dalai Lama does not look to the UN for moral guidance, nor do the Sufi mystics.
Nor do the nonwestern nations assign much moral importance to the UN, unless it is to their advantage. Do the Russians, the Chinese, or the Saudis ever reference the UN in explaining why they do what they do? Don’t be silly. Unless the UN is already going where they want to go, they don’t mention it.
The churches of the West have turned over moral authority to the UN because it is their brainchild, or even daughter. Catholics developed international law for over a century before anyone else even got involved (though there are strong winds of it in Jewish thought dating back centuries). The internationalism of the UN is a derivative of the Vatican’s view of itself as transcendent over mere nations. But Vatican City is in Europe and European in outlook; Catholic thought and later, Protestant thought are inextricable from European thought. The overlap is so enormous in science, art, philosophy, and law that it is impossible to discuss these without reference to each other.
Digression: I know the preferred explanation of the arc of Western history, such as recently made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, is that it was Other Forces, with a large emphasis on science, that made us into our exalted selves, and that the church was a bystander, obstacle, or passive participant rather than a force for progress. I find that ludicrous. It comes from knowing the secular narrative and selectively choosing bits of historical data to illustrate it. End digression.
This reassignment of moral authority by the churches is informal, perhaps even unconscious. If you put the specific question before the Methodists or the Catholics, I imagine they would soundly reject the idea that the UN had a moral jurisdiction to which they were subject. Yet in general, their pronouncements suggest exactly that. In deciding whether a nation’s actions are proportionate or justified, the intellectuals of the western churches believe it is the UN’s call to make. Only occasionally, when they believe the UN has not gone far enough in its pacifism, do the mainstream denominations assert that they have a higher authority all their own. Until then, they are happy to sublet the space to the Security Council.
Simple pronouncement. The idea of the United States is better than the idea of the United Nations. The latter idea aims higher and claims more, but is thus even more spectacular – and potentially diabolic - in its fall. The idea of the US is a plan to have an actual good government somewhere on the earth, and we have succeeded about 75% with that. The UN, with its exalted goals, has succeeded about 15% - and that total is not rising.
This is not just an I-support-George-Bush-and-the-neocons argument. If you were to tell me that in 2011, President Clinton and Congress, plus Prime Minister Brown and Parliament, declared that we should invade Greater Bumblestan but the UN said no, I believe it is much more likely that the Hillary and Gordon would get it right than that the Security Council did.
This is because nations have to actually eventually do something, and the UN does not. The UN will never do anything but talk, harbor spies, and spend money (see Part III). It is not capable of doing anything but talk, harbor spies, and spend money. It was designed that way, though not intentionally. The three things it is actually dedicated to preserving are the right of western intellectuals to talk like moral authorities, the right of dictators to use international organizations as espionage tools, and the right of rich people in poor nations to demand money. If one nation wishes to do anything, the UN can always counsel inaction, because it pays no cost for inaction. Nations do pay a cost. Nations, real actors in a real world, know that both intervention and nonintervention are unstable, calculated risks.
There is a wide variety of ethical perspectives one can take to judging war, but most of them answer back to Just War doctrine in some way. More importantly, most of the political discourse in America and Europe has sprung from this approach, implicitly or explicitly. Just War Theory actually does take into account the cost of inaction, so let’s run through the criteria. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Just War gets us off to a solid start.
Historically, the just-war tradition—a set of mutually agreed rules of combat—commonly evolves between two similar enemies. When enemies differ greatly because of different religious beliefs, race, or language, war conventions have rarely been applied. It is only when the enemy is seen to be a people with whom one will do business in the following peace that tacit or explicit rules are formed for how wars should be fought and who they should involve. In part the motivation is seen to be mutually beneficial—it is preferable to remove any underhand tactics or weapons that may provoke an indefinite series of vengeance acts. Nonetheless, it has been the concern of the majority of just war theorists that such asymmetrical morality should be denounced, and that the rules of war should apply to all equally; that is, just war theory should be universal.
Jus ad bellum includes: 1) having just cause, 2) being declared by a proper authority, 3) possessing right intention, 4) having a reasonable chance of success, and 5) the end being proportional to the means used. All of these were used in the run-up to the war – all discussions of whether sanctions were working, whether Saddam had any connections to Al Qaeda, or whether democracy was possible in Iraq fall under one of these categories.
We might learn from actions in retrospect, but we can only judge the morality of actions in real time. We cannot acquire new justifications post hoc (“Hey look! Saddam had the Lindberg baby!”), nor can we deny previous justifications on the basis of information that was not then available – that is, we can fault the police for breaking down the wrong door, but not for finding methamphetamine instead of cocaine with a legitimate search warrant.
For those who immediately suspect that I am using this to skirt the WMD issue, I contend that this limitation works more against my argument than for it. We now know for certain that sanctions were not working – we only thought it likely then. We now know for certain that France and Russia were going to veto any resolution to the Security Council because of the Oil For Food money they were raking in – we only suspected it then. We now know for certain that Hussein supported religious as well as secular terrorists (including even AQ) – we only thought it probable then. If we get to use post hoc justifications, our reasons for going into Iraq are strengthened, not weakened.
JUST CAUSE The framing of the question pretty much dictates one’s answer. If, in your discussion of whether to go to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, you are picturing Iraq and the US as the only players in the room, you are likely to decide that Operation Iraqi Freedom was only marginally justified. This would be a traditional framing of a Just War debate. I still think there is something to go on to make a case for justification – funding declared enemies of the US, and an attempt to assassinate an ex-president, for example. But if one’s goal in determining the morality of the US is to narrow the question to the simplest possible framing, then this argument that we should not have done so has considerable merit.
The consequence of that refining the question is that we are not ever likely to see those conditions met in the modern world. Our conflicts are increasingly with non-state actors surreptitiously supported by states. Twisted governments will simply maintain distance and deniability while funding and supplying our enemies. The type of warfare we automatically picture – the land invasion of bordering states or naval battles to secure access to an area – is already mostly a thing of the past, and will be increasingly rarer. Odd that those who are readiest to refuse this deniability to America and see the CIA behind every conflict abroad are the quickest to grant deniability to regimes which actively support Islamic terrorism.
Expanding or restricting this category is double-edged, as it is inversely related to the Chance of Success requirement. For this section, it is enough put forward the notion that this bar should get lower in response to a changing world. The raising of the bar for Chance of Success I will discuss in that section.
If we consider the US and Iraq as parts of a large, complicated international battle, the just cause is clearer, even obvious. 1. Saddam repeatedly broke treaties he had signed after the Kuwait invasion, sending aircraft into the No-fly zone, refusing to allow inspections, possessing prohibited weapons. Those were enough in themselves. 2. Iraq did not destroy all WMD, as required; did not document the supposed destruction of others, as required; continued to pursue WMD, especially chemical weapons, as prohibited. Those were enough in themselves. The almost gleeful focus on “no-WMD’s” misses the point: we found little gold but much silver. For those who find this single issue large enough to need more persuading I will add a further point. Israeli intelligence continues to believe that Iraq did have WMD which were dispersed out of the country by a dozen routes in late 2002 and early 2003 in a Sarindar operation. I trust Israeli intelligence on this more than I trust the CIA. 3. The Baathist government funded, harbored, and trained Islamic terrorists of many stripes, including religious terrorist groups and including Al Qaeda in specific. That in itself is enough. 4. Saddam’s depredations against his own people are a more iffy justification. It is a fair argument that many despots in the world do such things, we seldom invade them, why pick on Iraq? I would counter that the existence of many evils does not mean we should do nothing until we can do everything, but I agree that Baathist persecution of its internal enemies is a weak argument for war if considered alone. While not enough in itself, #4 is a significant supporting argument.
The US rationale in the more complicated, state/non-state setting was: State support for non-state actors has to be consequated. A. Iraq has one of the craziest dictators, though there are worse nutjobs. B. Iraq is one of the more powerful of the insane states, able to create real trouble because of its military, its oil, and its location. C. Iraq keeps sticking its neck out, throwing itself on the world stage claiming to be a Big Falafel. Conclusion: North Korea or six African nations may be worse, but Iraq is the best overall nomination to be changed.
The cloudiness creeps in because these are not strictly national issues, and people believe the determination of just cause was not America’s to make. See how the UN-as-authority argument has smuggled itself back in, eh? The US, with the UK, Australia, several Eastern European countries and even some Western European ones are not considered to be an adequate international determination; people think that whether just cause was obtained was decided in the negative by the Security Council of the UN. Oh gee. Too bad, then. Necessary or not, we can’t go. Rubbish.
LEGITIMATE AUTHORITY I think my views are more than clear on this. A US President acting with Congress is more than enough. Throw in 20 other countries – heck, you could even throw in UN resolutions up to the penultimate one, which declared force would be allowable – and this issue is null. Unilateral was never more than code for “without UN approval.”
CHANCE OF SUCCESS In a conventional sense, this would not bear even discussing, given the relative size of the Coalition forces versus the Iraqis. Thus in traditional Just War theory, there would be no moral objection to US actions on this ground. But in asymmetric warfare, where the goal is not to subdue a people but to democratize them, not to conquer a government but make it grow up, whether we ever did (or still have) a reasonable chance of success is a fair question. Many on both the left and right estimated that bringing democracy to the Middle East would be like teaching a pig to sing. They still might prove right, even though things look encouraging now.
There is a reverse relationship between the flexibility of this requirement and Just Cause. If we can expand the right of nations to act against states because of their relation to non-state terrorists, then we must measure success in terms of the larger, more complicated situation as well. Otherwise we are simply taking pointless revenge on states which displease us. Such states might deserve to be punished, but we would not hold the right to administer that punishment. Who does? Don’t know.
A particularly nasty conflict-of-interest comes up here. Those who were in favor of going to war in Iraq have an interest in whatever PR help they can get in the information war to actually make the change occur. It provides some post hoc evidence proving them correct in their estimation of success. The other side of that conflict-of-interest is even nastier. Those who predicted failure then have an interest in seeing failure occur. The metric for “chance of success” then is unstable. It can be undermined as things go along.
RIGHT INTENTION The arguments that Bush and the neocons were determined to go into Iraq regardless of circumstances I dismiss out of hand. One can isolate quotes from the Clarke book or the Woodward book or other well-placed sources, but this is political PR rubbish. There are too many comments and actions, from those books and a dozen other sources, that show the opposite. The many ironies of when we helped an ally who later became an enemy are likewise barely worth responding to. Every country has shifting needs and alliances. Russia was among the Allies in WWII. Countries change sides in the middle of a war, never mind twenty years later. Most of the complaint against US motives stem from a belief that we should act only from altruism, never self interest. (I noted last year that his is a worse, not greater moral justification). Some few even raised the complaints in order to work against US interests, adopting an elevated moral pose as a disguise. Progressives seriously underestimate how many of these there are. Redefining patriotism to include other values fools them every time. (Conservatives likely overestimate how many of these there are. We get nervous because they get significant press and are treated as if they are morally serious. But outside of the academic world, I don’t find much opposition to American interests, just a fashionable cynical streak about them.)
Simplest contradictions to this argument: If Bush wanted to increase his re-election chances, he would have invaded in 2004 instead. If the neocons had just want to make a buck for their oil buddies, we could have saved a bundle by simply buying it on the sly or by declaring Saddam to be rehabilitated enough. If America wanted to manipulate the data, we could easily have "found" WMD after we got there. Good enough or not, Bush’s stated motives are the ones which best fit the available data.
PROPORTIONAL (Some discussions of Just War would divide this into two sections: Last Resort and Comparative Justice) This is where I believe the strongest argument against the morality of the war can be made. Pope John Paul II at least partially agrees with me on this. The questions of pre-emption, sanctions, and installing a new form of government come under this section, which I will discuss in Part V.