Writing in First Things, George Weigel has remarked that “the just war tradition, as a historically informed method of rigorous moral reasoning, is far more alive in our service academies than in our divinity schools and faculties of theology; the just war tradition ‘lives’ more vigorously in the officer corps, in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and at the higher levels of the Pentagon than it does at the National Council of Churches, in certain offices at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or on the Princeton faculty.”
According to the tradition, the criteria for judging a war to be just are that it be for a just cause, have a reasonable likelihood of success, be unlikely to cause more evil than it prevents, be declared by a competent authority, discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and be a last resort. For historical reasons, the just-war tradition is most closely identified with the Catholic Church. But its force does not rest on the theological and moral wisdom of the Catholic bishops — which, given how much they have tarnished their reputation in these matters, is a good thing. It has, or ought to have, force for non-Catholic statesmen because its moral criteria are, in the deepest sense of the term, reasonable.
Unfortunately, some Catholic leaders are saying things about a possible war with Iraq that are anything but reasonable. Witness, for example, the recent statement by Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, papal envoy to Iraq, that Saddam Hussein “is doing everything to avoid war.” But clerics have not had to make claims that are obviously empirically false to distort just-war teaching. Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Pope’s secretary of state, says, “We want to say to America: Is it worth it to you? Won’t you have, afterwards, decades of hostility in the Islamic world?” American policymakers should certainly consider these questions before going to war. But they need no instruction from the Vatican to know that, and Church leaders have no special insight into the answers. The just-war tradition leaves determinations of fact and probability and prudential judgments to statesmen, not clerics.
The Pope himself has been careful to reject pacifism, while urging, appropriately, that war be a last resort. The Church has, however, come close to suggesting that a war must have the support of the United Nations to be just. Anyone arguing that the U.N. is a “competent authority” has an uphill climb. To make the case that it is the only such authority is impossible. The Church is also being shortsighted. The United Nations has been its enemy on important moral questions, and will be once more when the war is over. Does the Pope really want to lend it so much moral authority?
Under the traditional doctrines, a war to overthrow the Iraqi regime is amply justified. The cause of preventing nuclear devastation or its threat is just. War has been authorized by the U.S. Congress and will be, prospectively, by the president. Their best determination is that a war would be very likely to succeed and would be likely to bring more good than ill. No targeting of civilians is contemplated. Alternatives have been tried, and have failed, for a dozen years.
It is sometimes thought that the just-war tradition begins with a “presumption against violence.” It does not. As Weigel writes, it actually “begins with the presumption — better, the moral judgment — that rightly constituted public authority is under a strict moral obligation to defend the security of those for whom it has assumed responsibility.” When war is morally permissible, as it is here, it is also morally obligatory.