The War in Iraq: a Just War?

The most important event of 2003 was the American-led war on Iraq. The legality of this action has been much disputed. At this season of the year, a moral accounting is appropriate.

The Western Christian tradition accepts that war may be justified under certain circumstances. To what extent does the attack on Iraq satisfy the criteria of a ‘just’ war?

The most important condition is that a war should have a ‘just cause’. The most justified cause is self-defence. Chapter 7, Article 51 of the UN Charter recognises the ‘inherent right of individual or collective self-defence’.

The United States and its Allies argued that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and his links with the Al Qaeda terrorists made a war of self-defence necessary. It turns out that the Iraqi dictator had no WMD and no links to Al Qaeda.

Perhaps Bush and Blair believed that he had both. A war may be just, even if based on a mistake, provided it is waged with the ‘right intention’. Most people believe that Iraq posed no threat to the world sufficient to justify war; and that both Bush and Blair, knowing this, manufactured the ‘threats’ to justify the war.

In the Christian tradition war may also be waged to ‘protect the innocent’-for example, to stop or prevent a humanitarian disaster. The attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 was justified on the ground that it was necessary to stop the Serbs killing the Albanian Kosovars. But, repressive though Saddam Hussein’s regime was, there was no actual or looming humanitarian disaster in Iraq, nor was this alleged.

A third criterion for a ‘just’ war is that only a ‘legitimate authority’ can authorise it. All signatories to the UN Charter accept the UN itself as the legitimate war-authorising authority. Under Chapter 7, Article 39, it is the responsibility of the Security Council to determine whether any ‘threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression’ has occurred and to ‘decide what measures shall be taken…to maintain or restore international peace and security’.

The Security Council would have vetoed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But, bypassing this obstacle, America and Britain maintained that they were acting under Security Council Resolution 678 which had authorised the use of force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. The theory that a resolution passed in 1991 retained its war-authorising ‘potency’ twelve years later has been dismissed as nonsense by most international lawyers.

Fourthly, war should only be waged as a ‘last resort’. But the United States and Britain went to war in the face of pleas by UN inspectors that they be given ‘a few more weeks’ to determine whether Iraq in fact possessed any weapons of mass destruction.

The Christian tradition also lays down rules for the conduct of war –such as minimising casualties to civilians – which, on the whole, the Americans observed.

Finally, an important part of this tradition is that war should be expected to produce a ‘better peace’. The jury on this is still out, but one may reasonably hope that the American action will not just improve the situation in Iraq but make the world safer: Libya’s decision to renounce WMD can be seen as the war’s first peace dividend.

The theory of the ‘just war’ does not tell you unequivocally whether a particular war is right or wrong. Rather, it is an attempt to limit the frequency and savagery of wars. Now that war has re-emerged as a usable instrument of policy, it is more than ever necessary to probe the reasons leaders give for going to war and to be alert to the unchanging character of the lies they tell.