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Ethics and War: The Just War Tradition and the Bush Doctrine

Remarks made at the USC Teach-In on the war with Iraq
March 27, 2003

Steven L. Lamy, Professor and Director
School of International Relations

I am concerned that people in the US have not had an important set of conversations about some of the more important ethical issues about this war and the new policy strategy that led to this war -- the Bush Doctrine.

In September 2002, the Bush Administration announced its national security strategy as is required by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The three key elements of this new security doctrine are as follows:

  • The two Cold War strategies of deterrence and containment are officially replaced by a new strategic principle -- preventive war.
  • A doctrine of perpetual preeminence or the single superpower goal that requires a dramatic increase in military spending and an activist global foreign policy. An American Empire without colonies.
  • A discounting of arms control treaties and nonproliferation agreements and an assertion of the right of self-defense. The emphasis is on counter-proliferation or the idea that the U.S. must deter and defend against any threat before it is unleashed.
Is it ethical and moral for the US to pre-emptively attack another country because our leaders perceive a country to be a threat? What proof is required? Can any country unilaterally attack another country whenever they perceive a threat?

To start, letís consider the Just War tradition and our current war with Iraq? Although centuries old, the Just War tradition is still developing and still being rethought as the methods and purposes of war change. The two parts of this tradition are jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum -- justice of war

The principles that define a just war include the following:
    Last Resort
    War must not be entered into with undue haste. War is an option only if all other means of resolution are exhausted.

    Legitimate Authority
    Any decision to go to war must be made by a duly constituted governmental authorities not any disgruntled groups or unofficial communities.

    Right intention and just cause
    War is unacceptable if motivated by aggression or even revenge. Self-defense, recovery of possessions, righting a wrong, and responding to an aggressor are examples of just causes.

    Chance of Success
    Only when there is a reasonable chance of success of an acceptable outcome is war justifiable.

    Goal of Peace
    It must be possible to envision a peace that is preferable to the situation that would prevail if the war were not fought.

Jus in bello -- conduct in war

The principles that define the proper or just conduct of war include:
    The Principle of Discrimination
    The direct targeting of noncombatants is not allowed.

    Restraints on the Conduct of War
    Proportionality and the banning of certain weapons and certain behavior.

There are convincing arguments on both sides of this debate. Clearly, the Bush Administration believes that this is a just war and the removal of Saddamís regime is a just cause. There are equally convincing arguments by those who oppose the unilateral and pre-emptive Bush Doctrine. Most disturbing to some is the lack of debate within our society before the war even began. Now that the war has begun we must consider the just war principles. But we will eventually have to consider the lessons of this war and the impact of these lessons on U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps we could begin to discuss several significant ethical dilemmas and questions about the how countries wage war. Here are a few questions that we might consider:

  • New technologies such as precision guided missiles and smart bombs raise questions about war as a last resort. With these new high tech weapons are we more inclined to use these new weapons? Are we more inclined to start a war?
  • Soldiers are well trained and follow the rules of just war. However, the more we rely on technology and precision guided weapons, the less we rely on soldiers. Maybe, this means we rely lesson just war principles?
  • Casualties drive citizens and politicians to withdraw support for war. This may drive politicians to use high tech weapons rather than more conventional forms of warfare. It might also lead military leaders to take risks that could endanger civilians. Would military leaders target a military site next to a school if they really believed their weapons might fail?
  • If one side is guilty of war crimes, does this justify violations by the other side?
  • War crimes are more likely in an asymmetrical war. When one side is more powerful, is the other side more likely to use unethical behavior?
  • Finally, one argument we hear is that the US should use its power to wipe out the enemy. Why follow rules? Why should war be regulated? Anything goes if you want to win? But if the goal is to build peace the US must follow the rules and moral codes.
  • Every citizen of this country must consider both the costs and benefits of the Bush Doctrine. Is this an ethical strategy?
It is time for a real debate about the role of the U.S. in this world. Will the US be the hegemon? Leader? Partner? All of our choices have costs and benefits and we need to have those tough moral discussions.

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