From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Commentary: War now would not be justifiable
Thu, 20 Feb 2003 15:30:09 -0600
Feb. 20, 2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph of Joseph L. Allen is available.
A UMNS Commentary
By Joseph L. Allen*
President Bush has said that he would decide about attacking Iraq "within
weeks, not months." I believe that such an attack would be unjustifiable in
terms of the Christian just-war criteria for resort to war.
Four criteria are especially pertinent.
First, the criterion of just cause is about grave wrongs to be repaired or
prevented. There is little question that Iraq's recent actions constitute
grave wrongs. It has used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own
people, has biological weapons and has sought for years to develop nuclear
weapons. Saddam Hussein has gone to great lengths to hide evidence of these
weapons and has shown no scruples about using violence against his neighbors
or his own people.
The Bush administration claims that Hussein has aided al-Qaida. Evidence for
that claim is thus far unconvincing, including to some in the CIA. Although
Saddam could possibly provide al-Qaida with weapons of mass destruction, it
would be out of character for him to give them to groups over which he has no
Nevertheless the situation calls for strong action of some kind to prevent
the grave evils he might inflict. Yet that does not settle whether the United
States should resort to war. Other criteria must also be met.
Second, the criterion of proportionality asks whether the evil effects of a
war would be disproportionately great. Some of these are that casualties on
both sides will likely be far higher than in the Gulf War; Iraq might use
chemical or bacteriological weapons against its neighbors (including Israel)
or against the attacking forces; Israeli retaliation might trigger a wider
war and vast Middle Eastern unrest; the United States might use nuclear
weapons against Iraq (it has threatened to do so) with ominous results; and
reaction among Pakistan's radical Islamists against our attack could lead to
the overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf's government - a disaster for the
war on terrorism and relations with India.
Furthermore, war against Iraq could draw attention and resources from the
crisis over North Korea and the war on terrorism. And how long would the
United States occupy Iraq, what would that entail in antagonism among Middle
East Arabs, and would the resulting Iraqi government be a stabilizing
influence in the region? These issues raise serious doubt that the benefits
of war against Iraq would outweigh its evils.
Third, war is justifiable only as a last resort, after all other alternatives
have been seriously considered and found inadequate. The Bush administration
claims that last resort has virtually been reached and proposes to launch
what it calls a "pre-emptive attack." That term is misleading. A pre-emptive
attack seeks to anticipate an imminent enemy attack, as the Israeli attack on
the Egyptian air force did in June 1967. But there is no reason to believe
that Iraq is about to attack. The proposal is in fact for a U.S. preventive
attack, responding to a more distant danger.
Without an imminent danger, there is time to explore other alternatives. One
is to extend U.N. inspections by months or even years. As long as the
inspectors are doing their work, the Iraqis are unlikely to make progress
toward nuclear weapons or to attack anyone. And the longer inspection goes
on, the more opportunity the United States has to build broad international
Another alternative is deterrence. It worked for nearly half a century
against the Soviet Union, which had leaders as unscrupulous and threatening
as Saddam Hussein. The administration claims that Saddam cannot be deterred,
but he has never gone to war where a clear deterrent threat was present. Not
to persist with inspection and deterrence is not to have arrived at last
A fourth criterion, right intention, is about inner attitudes embodied in
outer actions. High-level U.S. leaders have disdained and ridiculed the
opinions of their critics, both foreign and domestic. Behind this attitude
seems to lie excessive confidence in their own wisdom and goodness. The term
"axis of evil" conveys that the designated countries are unambiguously evil
and that we are good. Moral matters are not that simple. For example, the
government of Iran, a so-called "axis of evil" country, is deeply divided
politically. And we, like people everywhere, are mixtures of good and evil.
Moral self-righteousness alienates former friends around the world and makes
our road more difficult.
We are seeing in U.S. national security policy a radical departure from that
of any other presidential administration since the Second World War. It
involves the wholesale discrediting of policies, such as deterrence and
continuing international consultation, that have shown their value over
decades. Central to this radical change is a unilateral attitude, a disregard
for the opinions of people beyond our borders, an assumption that because the
United States is the one superpower, it no longer needs to try to win the
hearts and minds of other people. This attitude invites great difficulties.
I believe that we were justified in going to war against Iraq in 1991. I
believe that we are justified today in using force to combat al-Qaida and
other terrorists. But I have grave doubt that at this time we would be
justified in attacking Iraq. In spite of Iraq's grave wrongs, the proposal to
launch a preventive attack is dubious on several counts: proportionality,
last resort and right intention. We have other alternatives - continuing U.N.
inspection together with deterrence over the long term. What is most needed
now is less crusading rhetoric and more exploration of the options before us.
# # #
*Allen is professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Perkins School of
Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. He interprets and
responds to war from the perspective of the just-war tradition, and is the
author of War: A Primer for Christians.
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.
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