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Just Carter
The former president's twisted morality.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

Former president Jimmy Carter condemned President Bush’s foreign policy as “a violation” of “basic religious principles.” In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, Carter said that opposition to war was “an almost universal conviction of religious leaders,” except for a few Southern Baptists with creepy views about Israel and the end times. (Carter does not go into the theological underpinnings of religious opposition to military action.)

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Carter’s op-ed has already been subjected to withering criticism by Josh Chafetz. I will therefore ignore some of the peculiarities of Carter’s rhetoric to focus on one point: the former’s president attempt to draw on the authority of the Christian tradition of just-war thinking while twisting that tradition to suit his antiwar ends.

Carter leads with his strongest bad point: that the just-war tradition insists that war “can [licitly] be waged only as a last resort, with all nonviolent options exhausted.” Here Carter profits from a genuine weakness in the just-war tradition. George Weigel has explained the problem in a recent issue of First Things:

Among those who have forgotten the just war tradition while retaining its language, the classic. . . criterion of last resort is usually understood in simplistically mathematical terms: the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force is the last point in a series of options, and prior, nonmilitary options (legal, diplomatic, economic, etc.) must be serially exhausted before the criterion of last resort is satisfied. This is both an excessively mechanistic understanding of last resort and a prescription for danger.

The case of international terrorism again compels a development of this . . . criterion. For what does it mean to say that all nonmilitary options have been tried and found wanting when we are confronted with a new and lethal type of international actor, one that recognizes no other form of power except the use of violence and that is largely immune (unlike a conventional state) to international legal, diplomatic, or economic pressures? The charge that U.S. military action after September 11 was morally dubious because all other possible means of redress had not been tried and found wanting misreads the nature of terrorist organizations and networks. The “last” in last resort can mean “only,” in circumstances where there is plausible reason to believe that nonmilitary actions are unavailable or unavailing.

As for rogue states developing or deploying weapons of mass destruction, a developed just war tradition would recognize that here, too, last resort cannot be understood mathematically, as the terminal point of a lengthy series of nonmilitary alternatives. Can we not say that last resort has been satisfied in those cases when a rogue state has made plain, by its conduct, that it holds international law in contempt and that no diplomatic solution to the threat it poses is likely, and when it can be demonstrated that the threat the rogue state poses is intensifying? I think we can. Indeed, I think we must.

To Weigel’s analysis I would add only one point: The force of the just-war tradition is a function of its reasonableness, and a “last resort” criterion understood as Carter appears to understand it would be unreasonable.

Carter’s other points can be dealt with more quickly:

1) “The war’s weapons must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.” This is right; but Carter defines this requirement in a way that seems to preclude any military campaign that might claim the lives of noncombatants. The just-war tradition is more realistic than that, requiring only that the deaths of noncombatants be unintended, be kept as low as possible, and be less evil than the consequences of inaction.

2) “The violence must be proportional to the injury we have suffered.” This criterion appears to be an invention of Carter, designed to let him knock down the strawman that Iraq has been tied to 9/11. The just-war tradition actually requires the violence of a war to be “proportional” to the evil it is meant to prevent. It is not a theory about the acceptable scope of vengeance.

3) “The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.” True again. But Carter seems to assume that this requires Security Council backing. It clearly does not. President Bush has the authority to conduct war, sanctioned by the Congress. He does not claim to be “representing” the world in the same way he represents the United States. An analogous argument could be made for the leaders of our probable coalition partners.

4) “The peace [a war] establishes must be a clear improvement over what exists.” Carter claims that “the aftermath of a military invasion will destabilize the region and prompt terrorists to further jeopardize our security at home.” He also worries that military action without U.N. sanction would “undermine” it as “a viable institution for world peace.”

Stated the way Carter does, it sounds as though a war could not be morally justified unless negative outcomes could be definitively ruled out as possibilities. But this would be unreasonable. The just-war tradition actually asks for statesmen to make prudential judgments. The possibilities Carter outlines ought to weigh in those judgments. But so must happier possibilities, as well as the possibilities of an Iraqi regime armed with nuclear weapons.

Anyone who considers Carter’s foreign-policy record — during and after his presidency, and including this latest op-ed — must be reassured that he is not the person making those judgments.



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