Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

'Just War Theory' Calls for Restraint:
Stop the Starvation, Win the War

By Rob Elder

When Americans fight, we want to win. We also want to be the guys in the white hats. Rules exist for fighting an ethical war. David Perry, my colleague at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, has restated the main philosophical principles of "just war theory'' in everyday English.

First, ask whether the war itself is justified: Is it triggered by an unprovoked invasion? Are we fighting to restore peace, and to rectify an injustice? On these counts, most Americans unhesitatingly would say `yes'' about the war on terrorism.

On other points, some are less sure: Are our objectives in proportion to the damage likely to be caused? Is there high probability of success? And could less destructive means be used?

Second, the world generally recognizes—but does not always follow—rules for how you fight an ethical war. Don't target non-combatants. Don't depict the enemy as subhuman. Avoid weapons that cause unnecessary suffering for civilians—land mines, for example. Choose weapons and tactics likely to bring about a stable peace.

While many Americans would approve the present bombing of Afghanistan on these criteria, some of those who have examined it most closely do not, particularly on the stable peace point.

U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has questioned whether the bombing will achieve our goals. "How much longer does the bombing continue? Because we're going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world . . . and that fact is going to make the aftermath of our 'victory' more difficult.'' John J. Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago political scientist, argues that neither the bombing campaign nor the use of American ground troops is a good option for defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"The moment for dramatic demonstration of American military power has passed,'' he wrote in the New York Times on November 4. "American air power is of limited use because there are few valuable targets to strike in an impoverished country like Afghanistan . . . the inevitable civilian casualties caused by the air assault are solidifying Taliban support . . . Americans must face a hard reality: massive military force is not a winning weapon against these enemies. It makes the problem worse.''

A better way, according to Mearsheimer and others, is to use clever diplomacy, increased humanitarian aid, intelligence-gathering, and narrowly controlled, precisely-targeted military strikes.

Carpet-bombing by B-52s is anything but precise. It has done some damage to the Taliban, but accidental hits on civilian villages and Red Cross warehouses have not built support for our side.

In fact, our massive and sometimes indiscriminate counterattack may turn many Muslims against us and thus assist Osama bin Laden in inciting a series of civil wars throughout the Middle East. We and the terrorists are competing for the loyalties of people not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan and other nations. If these countries end up with governments friendly to Al-Qaeda, bin Laden wins.

The Bush administration has given little evidence of being prepared to help establish a viable government in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance is mostly made up of the wrong ethnic group to command national loyalty. As columnist Maureen Dowd puts it, the U.S. appears to "be hoping that somehow a Southern Alliance will materialize like a genie from Aladdin's lamp.''

So, what are our practical alternatives? Interestingly enough, the most ethical tactics also offer our best chance to win loyalties and build anti-terrorist alliances.

First, use the imminent arrival of the holy month of Ramadan as a reason to stop massive bombing attacks. For our Muslim allies, that's important. Announce that we'll observe this quiet time only in so far as the Taliban does. If they make troop movements, we can bomb them, avoiding locations that endanger civilians and the trucking of wheat over the Khyber Pass.

Second, head off the starvation of 6 million Afghans this winter by airlifting equipment to repair the badly rutted roads that go over the pass and are the only link to the millions of people in the mountains north and west of Kabul.

Far more than the rations dropped by American planes, a quarter-billion pounds of wheat being trucked in by the World Food Program will literally make the difference between life and death for people left on the brink of starvation by drought, war, and bombing. The first snows will render the roads impassable.

At the present pace, enough wheat will be hauled in to feed two million of the six million who need it. Imagine the world reaction if four million Afghans starve while the United States is bombing their country. We would not have caused the tragedy, but we'd get the blame.

And that's important, because killing bin Laden is not our only objective. He's the best known, but far from the only, venture capitalist of terrorism. Absolutely, he should be captured and prosecuted—and, in my opinion, executed. But the way we wage this war will determine whether a large part of the world swallows the notion that the United States is the Great Satan—or sees us as guys in white hats, with whom they want to make common cause against terrorists.

This essay originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on 11 November 2001.

Rob Elder is Senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and retired editor of the San Jose Mercury News.

For more ethical perspectives on the terrorist attacks, click here.

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