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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Totaling up; It Was an Unjust War

David DeCosse

The war in Iraq, on balance, was unjust. The speed of Saddam's fall does not negate this fact. Nor does the welcome moral reality of a dictator's defeat. And nor does the Bush Administration's wish to consider the overthrow of Saddam one step in a domestic and world campaign for "moral clarity."

In fact, an accurate moral assessment of the war reveals the limits of such ideological, hyped thinking.

There is seldom absolute moral clarity in war. But for centuries, just war theory has been used to assess the morality of war. In Western culture, the theory originated with great thinkers like Cicero, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. In essence, the theory provides a coherent set of ethical principles with which to assess war. These principles provide a middle, prudent way: They lift war out of the moral chaos into which it can easily sink; they also restrain war from the false glory it readily seeks.

In the aftermath of the fighting with Iraq, two just war principles in particular - "just cause" and "proportionality" - reveal the injustice of the war.

Leading up to the war, President Bush offered a series of causes to go to war. Among them: Saddam was evil; United Nations resolutions must be enforced; the Iraqi people should be liberated. But the cause most often cited by the president was self-defense.

Invoking the specter of 9-11, the president argued that the nexus of a tyrant like Saddam, vast stores of weapons of mass destruction, and the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda operatives or sympathizers was a mortal threat to the United States that justified war.

For the president, it was not necessary that there were manifest signs of that threat. After 9-11, such signs could no longer be expected. What was necessary was to act preventively now or risk an all-but-certainly catastrophic future.

While self-defense is the classic instance of a just cause, the highly speculative nature of the president's self-defense argument was a moral problem from the start. Many critics rightfully said that the president's unspecified and distantly future nature of the threat from Saddam failed a crucial ethical test: The certainty of war's death and destruction could not be justified in the face of such distant uncertainty.

In the aftermath of the fighting, this judgment not only holds sway but also appears prescient. The failure thus far to find weapons of mass destruction casts doubt on whatever threat it was that Saddam had posed. Accordingly, the already doubtful self-defense argument used by the president risks, in moral terms, being that much more undermined. Also, a crucial moral question can now be raised about the democratic consent of the American people to go to war on the basis of such possibly erroneous information.

Without the weapons of mass destruction, it has not been surprising to hear the administration now speak of the war in terms of liberty, liberation, and democracy. The president's speech aboard the Abraham Lincoln was almost entirely in that key.

The administration clearly deserves moral praise for the pursuit and, where accomplished, achievement of these aims. But the just war principle of proportionality requires that these moral outcomes never be detached from their close and obvious consequences. The principle asks whether the harms caused by this war are proportionate to the good achieved by it.

In the case of Iraq, the principle points to the following moral problems: the post-war chaos in Iraq; the glacial pace of positive changes, if any, to the situation in Israel and the West Bank; ongoing terrorism like the recent attacks in Riyadh and Morocco; needlessly deteriorating relationships with allies like France, with countries throughout the world, and with the United Nations; and, not least of all, the disturbing and increasingly martial character of the American people.

David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. This op-ed originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on May 16th.

May 16, 2008
All About Ethics