November 1, 2002
A just war?
: Many of the country's leading ethicists oppose a strike on Iraq. But a look at the centuries-old theory of just war suggests that military action may be in fact be morally necessary. (Jean Bethke Elshtain, 10/6/2002, Boston Globe)
If, as some argue, the state is the sole arbiter of its own affairs, your stance is likely to be one of extreme caution when it comes to a preemptive strike. In my view, however, just war demands that we see a sovereign state as an actor that either does what states are supposed to do - provide basic civic peace, rule of law, and security for citizens - or does not. When a state destroys or is prepared to destroy its own citizens and to propel its violence outside its own borders, it becomes a criminal entity. Under just war theory, states themselves must often come under severe moral scrutiny.
In other words, a state's right to direct its own affairs is not, and has never been, absolute. It may forfeit that right if it commits aggression against another state (as Saddam did against Kuwait), or if it harms in substantial and grave ways its own people or a group of its own people (as Saddam did when he used chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds), or if it provides substantial and essential material support to others who wish to inflict such harms (as Saddam allegedly did by supporting Osama bin Laden, whose ''fatwas'' call for the murder of all Americans, wherever they are found). [...]
Our great power brings with it a solemn responsibility. That responsibility isn't limited to protecting the citizens of the United States alone. There is an underlying strain of isolationism in much of the current debate. Again and again an image of ''Fortress America'' emerges as we are enjoined not to meddle abroad. Much of this discussion is partisan, of course, as the argument turns on which administration is doing the alleged meddling. But much of it implies a retreat within our borders. Sovereignty trumps other concerns for those who espouse a kind of quasi-isolationism.
Justice falls by the wayside in such preachments. The Iraqi victims of Saddam Hussein are not considered worthy of serious consideration. But just war theory demands that we consider them, as well as Saddam's potential victims outside Iraq. That is why we must put relentless pressure on him to conform to UN resolutions, and, if he fails to do so, insist that he pay the consequences - not because we want a war but because force can sometimes be put at the behest of a more just international order.
I don't get it--how is it possible to reconcile Christ's commandment that we "love one another" with the idea that we have to stand aside while a dictator oppresses our fellow men? What is unjust about freeing people from such rule?
Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2002 10:53 PM
Not necessary to reconcile the two if you
don't follow the first. I do not love my fellow
Elshtain does at least get to the big idea,
crossing borders. I had thought that was one
lesson learned from the 1930s: the USSR and
Nazi Germany may have been about equally
admirable, but Germany was the one exporting
its behavior to others. Except for knocking
off the occasional Moldavia, Stalin was not.
That, presumably, explains why we are
threatening to do something about Iraq but
not about Sudan.
But the last year's miles and miles of
commentaries have demonstrated that if
the lesson about borders was learned once,
it has mostly been forgotten.
So no one should have bothered about the Nazis so long as they kept genocide within their borders?
Harry's view is utterly unChristian.
Orrin, you're right about the traditional Christian view. St Thomas Aquinas held that it was an act of love to resist evil with force, not only for the victims rescued, but also for the evil-doer, who would be further corrupted by being allowed to persist in his evil and who would be more likely to reconsider if faced with opposition. In his defense of the death penalty, he argued that it was an act of love to execute the murderer, because this sentence would bring home to him the enormity of his crime and give him the best chance of repentance.
However many modern Christians have found traditional views hard to argue and prefer the simpler, pacifistic viewpoint, irreconcilable though it is with the Bible.
Harry is not a Christian, so that explains that.
As for the Nazis, I have said that the lesson,
for outsiders, was that exporting bad behavior
across borders is what gets outsiders'
attention. In fact, no one was anxious to
interfere with German frightfulness as long as
they had kept it home. Same, tripled, for
If you're going to interfere, in the name, perhaps,
not of Jesus but of us, then you are going to
be busy in Sudan, China, Indonesia, Sierra
Leone, Cuba etc. etc.
I'm all for it, as a matter of fact, but there's no
market for it, none at all, and Christians are
indistinguishable from non-Christians on this
Is it not rather curious, though, that dictators who do nasty things to their own citizenry (and consistently get away it) have a nasty tendency to try to "export" this particular behavior?....
Depends, Barry. Hastings Banda didn't but
then he didn't have the capacity. Nor
Emperor Bokassa I.
Hitlerite Germany was more dangerous to
outsiders than similar regimes in, say, Hungary.
The logic of the nation-state works against
interfering in other states, no matter how
awful, as long as they keep it home. Turkey,
with whom we are great allies, is a case in
point. Its record is not much different from
that of its neighbors Syria, Greece, Russia,
The question isn't what we actually do, but what we're amply justified in doing.