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

man unrestrictedly.

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.

Posted by: Harry at November 2, 2002 2:03 AM

So no one should have bothered about the Nazis so long as they kept genocide within their borders?

Posted by: oj at November 2, 2002 4:25 AM

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.

Posted by: pj at November 2, 2002 6:54 AM

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

Stalinist frightfulness.

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


Posted by: Harry at November 2, 2002 12:23 PM

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?....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at November 3, 2002 12:43 AM

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,


Posted by: Harry at November 3, 2002 2:28 AM


The question isn't what we actually do, but what we're amply justified in doing.

Posted by: oj at November 3, 2002 4:44 AM