Justifiable Wars?

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In an article published nationwide on May 5 2009, Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations asks, When is War Justifiable? Suggesting that his concept is more useful, Haass disregards the Just War theory that has prevailed for over 1600 years, indicating that it is too subjective, too confining, and too impractical.

His question merits a distinction of the terms just and justifiable, for they have different meanings. The term just as it relates to war indicates conformity with specifically defined ethical guidelines; guidelines that reduce the inherent subjectivity that characterizes all philosophical concepts.

A justifiable war, meanwhile, refers to an act that is excusable according to criteria not necessarily validated by ethical standards. Thus, a war can be justified by the electorate; a dictator’s views; various political ideologies; by socio-economic circumstances; and even biological criteria such as self-preservation.

Hence, the answer to the question, when is war justifiable is, in short, anytime and by anyone.

Although the Just War theory, is somewhat subjective (so is the term justifiable), its modern-day guidelines makes it quite practical and anything but confining.

Like law, an important characteristic of “rules of war” is that they must be universal. The Just War theory complies with this principle. Insofar as we abide by these rules, we establish needed credibility and avoid charges of double standard. If we set our own individual rules to justify war, however, other nations—including our enemies–will conduct themselves accordingly; the international community would then become a cluster of pariahs and rogue states.

Haass’ concept rejects war-as-a-last-resort principle, suggesting instead that we ought to prepare to respond militarily when our individually defined interests are threatened. This situation undoubtedly increases the possibilities for unilaterally waging wars.

The concept of justifiable war, adds Haass, can be applied either to a war of choice, one that involves “less than vital interests and the existence of alternative policies,” or to a war of necessity, “in which the most vital interests of a country are threatened and where there are no promising alternatives to using force.” However, who defines what “less than vital interests” consists of and according to which criteria? Moreover, since a war of necessity lacks alternative policies by definition, anointing a conflict as such precludes policy makers from seeking those very important alternatives when they are most needed.

Haass includes wars of necessity and self-defense wars as wars that are “undoubtedly” justifiable. The Just War theory, however, would question both types of war since it would not automatically consider either one ethically just. There is always the possibility that unethical circumstances might instigate a war of self-defense, and most certainly a so-called war of necessity.

Haass does provide some measurable standards that help to justify a war. His application of these standards, however, is transparently bewildering. A war needs to be “justifiable to Congress, to the American people, to the world,” he says. Accordingly, Haass finds the second Iraq war not justifiable, even though the historical record attests that this war found ample justification within the Bush administration, the Congress, and the American people.

There was much less international support to this war, but even here, Haass’ standard is worrisome. An ethical and law-abiding nation should marshal world opinion when deliberating war. However, the Just War theory would never consent surrendering the nation’s right to justly defend itself or to rightfully assist others in the absence of world justification, simply because its decision to safeguard human lives is not a matter of politics but of principle.

The major problem with justifying wars according to political criteria alone is that they easily lead to preventive wars; these are wars that are not only ethically wrong because they treat human lives as objects but also–for those who set ethics aside–they are legally proscribed by the international community because they create instability in world politics. Although not publicly admitted, according to Pentagon military doctrine, this is the type of war we fought in 2003 when we invaded Iraq.

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