Applying `Just War' Standards to the Gulf

A SMALL but vocal minority of Americans continues to call into question the morality of America's involvement in the Gulf war. President Bush has attempted to clarify the moral issues at stake in this war, stating his view that war with Iraq is a ``black and white'' issue, a clear contest of ``good against evil.'' But despite the president's own sense of moral certainty that our cause is just, critics have challenged the war on moral grounds. When he asserted in the state of the union address that ``Our cause is just; our cause is moral; our cause is right,'' the president revealed how sensitive he is to the kind of moral criticism that has been forthcoming from the US Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and others well versed in the application of ``just war'' theory.

The idea of ``just war'' is rooted in Western religious heritage. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have all tried to develop guidelines for deciding when the use of force in a particular circumstance can be morally justified. The theory of just war is grounded in Christian thought, but no longer represents a uniquely Christian perspective. Just-war thinking today forms the accepted moral framework within which debate over the issues of war and peace takes place. Both supporters and critics of our Gulf policy appeal to it.

Some of the basic Christian assumptions about the use of force can still be discerned in today's version of the theory. The theory affirms ancient Christian commitments to the idea that one ought not to return evil for evil, and recognizes the duty all of us have not to harm others. The presumption of the theory is against the use of force. Stringent conditions are set forth to determine whether the use of force in a particular situation can be justified. All of the conditions must be met, not just some of them; no war can be considered just that does not meet the conditions; and no war that is not just should be waged.

Although not all ethicists hold to the same list, the following represents generally accepted conditions that must be met if a war is to be deemed ``just:''

The war must be sanctioned by a legitimate and competent authority;

The cause must be just;

There must be a right intention and announcement of that intention;

Combat must be a last resort;

One must have a reasonable hope of success in going to war;

The end sought must be peace;

By going to war one must preserve values that otherwise could not be preserved.

There are additional criteria governing the actual conduct of war, such as non-combatants must be protected, and the war cannot be conducted using weapons that are disproportionate to the end of restoring peace. This last criterion rules out everything from dumb-dumb bullets to chemical and nuclear weapons.

Given this framework, it is clear why debate over the morality of US involvement in the Gulf war continues. Although the war has been sanctioned by proper authority, there is a reasonable hope of success, and, so far, attempts have been made to protect non-combatants and refrain from using inappropriate weapons, there is room for debate over the other just-war conditions. The president has announced at least three stated intentions for our military presence - preserving the ``American way of life,'' stopping aggression, and creating a new world order. These are not morally equal reasons, and failure to clarify our national intention could determine whether our cause is just.

THE US, for instance, has refused to consider a region-wide peace conference. And there is good reason to believe that the economic sanctions needed more time to work, which goes to the issue of last resort. No one opposing our current military effort wants to endorse the actions of Saddam Hussein, but whether setting an artificial deadline and going to war was truly a ``last resort'' is highly questionable.

Just-war theory not only acknowledges that war is a terrible thing but attempts to make the use of force a difficult matter to justify. Many would contend that we've met all conditions of the theory, and that our cause is ``moral, just, and right.'' But that needs to be sustainably argued, not simply asserted by authority.

The theory of just war seeks not only to restrain violence, but also to defend peace while promoting justice. Its prominence in our current debates over the war testifies to its historical resiliency and contemporary relevance, and makes a war even against Saddam Hussein difficult to defend on moral grounds. Those who apply the theory stringently will find it a reliable ally of peace in conflicts between nations.

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