Commentary: War now would not be justifiable
2/20/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph of Joseph L. Allen is available.
A UMNS Commentary By Joseph L. Allen*
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
Four criteria are especially pertinent.
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.
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 control.
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.
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 support.
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 resort.
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.
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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