Just War Against Iraq in 2003?

Accounting for Walzer’s Instruction on Anticipation

Norman K. Swazo

Professor of Philosophy

University of Alaska, Fairbanks

Fairbanks, AK 99775-5740


Writing at the outset of the last quarter of the twentieth century, just war theorist Michael Walzer took note of the distinction between matters of fact and matters of judgment and said: "aggression often begins without shots being fired or borders crossed." The notice is significant in light of Walzer’s observation that if the answers to questions of fact remain disputed, "it is only because of the lies that governments tell." And why do they lie? "Governments lie to absolve themselves of the charge of aggression."

Given the current press towards war against Iraq, the protagonists being both the US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one must ask whether, as a matter of fact, aggression has not already begun. Clearly, the government of Iraq believes and charges as much, given the statements of Iraq’s Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and its UN Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri. Obviously, if aggression has indeed already begun, we who are citizens of the United States are in particular obligated to arrive at some moral judgment of the matter. Walzer’s theoretical engagement of the issue of preemptive strike is instructive for this purpose.

Walzer grants that "Both individuals and states can rightfully defend themselves against violence that is imminent but not actual." President Bush, assuming and asserting his constitutional responsibility as commander in chief intent on assuring the security of the citizens of the United States, alleges that the U.S. may take preemptive military action against the government of Saddam Hussein to prevent Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction. The UN Security Council—which functions, to its discredit, as an "oligarchy" (as Walzer put it) bullied by the US—has acquiesced in this claim, lending its support via resolutions to US insistence that Iraq prove itself innocent of possessing and seeking to use weapons of mass destruction. Anyone who cares one iota about justice will rightly find this imperative afoul of accepted norms of judicial procedure in the context of democratic society and international law. Who raises the hard questions of Bush, Blair, Cheney, or Rumsfeld about the latest version of the doctrine of preemption? No one.

But the questions must be raised in the interest of American critical citizenship and vigilance against government lies that would, if they could, absolve them of the charge of aggression. Walzer makes it clear that in "most legal accounts" the right of self-defense—hence the claim that preemptive strike is legitimate—is "severely restricted." Citing the restrictions as expressed by US Secretary of State Daniel Webster in 1842 ("the favored [formula] among students of international law"), Walzer asserts "it is no longer clear whether the right has any substance at all": "in order to justify preemptive violence, Webster wrote, there must be shown ‘a necessity of self-defense…instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.’" Assuming Webster’s standard to be adequate to evaluating proposed preemptive war with Iraq, the facts as the citizens of the United States know them thus far hardly warrant preemptive action—even if one yields to claims by such as US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that war with terrorists calls for different rules (if any) and different anticipatory strategy and tactics.

But, more to the point, as Walzer teaches us, there is a problem with use of this standard: "The debate is couched, I suppose, in strategic more than in moral terms. But the decision is judged morally, and the expectation of that judgment, of the effects it will have in allied and neutral states and among one’s own people, is itself a strategic factor." Indeed. Proposed war with Iraq is yet to clarify who will count as allies and who as neutral states, despite President Bush’s tendency to dichotomize states, falsely, into those "with us or against us." Whether ally or neutral state, it is incumbent upon all to distinguish between a preemptive strike that is "necessary and determined", in Webster’s sense, and what Walzer calls "preventive war, an attack that responds to a distant danger, a matter of foresight and free choice." Anyone surveying the facts as currently laid out by the governments of the United States and Great Britain cannot conclude, on the basis of those facts, that war with Iraq is necessary and determined. In short, if there is to be war with Iraq, it cannot but be either a preventive war or a starkly real act of aggression.

The Bush Administration cares for neither characterization. To speak of preventive war is to concede that the danger is distant and the decision to go to war itself a free choice. To speak of aggression is…well…to put the United States in the category of a rogue state acting contrary to both positive and customary norms of international law governing the right to go to war. Yet, any critical citizen must consider that the government of the United States is capable of telling lies to cover over what is, quite simply, an act of aggression.

Writing during the time of the Cold War, Walzer spoke of preventive war in the context of balance of power interests, such war "presupposing some standard against which danger is to be measured." During the Cold War the standard was, indeed, strategically that of balance of power, given the doctrine of mutual assured destruction in the event of thermonuclear warfare between the former USSR and the United States. Today, at least given the official pronouncements of the substance of the Bush Administration’s defense policy, balance of power is no longer the standard. Nevertheless, Walzer still speaks aptly, saying, "That standard does not exist, as it were, on the ground; it has nothing to do with the immediate security of boundaries. It exists in the mind’s eye…"

The standard today is, quite simply, American primacy, the United States determined to be the unchallenged and unchallengeable hegemon in the international system. The Bush doctrine of preemption and any claim to the legitimacy of preventive war are properly to be evaluated according to this now explicit "standard." The Bush Administration’s defense policy is like to that of those statesmen of late modernity who defended the concept of balance of power in defense of an international order; it is unlike them, however, in that President Bush advances a rhetoric of US response to what Walzer calls "a supreme emergency"—Western civilization, and not just the territorial integrity of the US and its allies, is allegedly in dire peril.

President Bush charges the Iraqi government with taking action that counts as "imminent danger", hence providing to the US and a coalition of states "lawful cause." Yet, it remains amply unclear what the moral or legal warrant is for the Bush Administration’s call for "regime change." A government set on primacy and seeing itself as a "regional" military power in the Middle East as part of its hegemony surely has strategic interest in regime change as well as assuring that there are no weapons of mass destruction that can be used against its forces when the hegemon chooses to intervene militarily. But strategic calculations are hardly moral or legal warrants for preemptive strike or preventive war. They are, quite simply, acts of deliberation that imply acts of aggression. Not even the Hobbesian expectation of a present "fear" is at play here, such that one might assert (as Hobbes would) that fear itself and alone justifies war and so would in this case justify war with Iraq. Hardly.

The Bush Administration believes fervently that balance of power is not in the interest of international peace. It believes, instead, that US military preeminence and its assumption of constabulary authority internationally can and will keep the peace. The usual utilitarian calculations are operative in the doctrine of preemptive strike, given that the anticipated costs of otherwise protracted war are minimized by preemption. Yet, as Walzer concluded, "Given the radical uncertainties of power politics, there probably is no practical way of…deciding when to fight and when not…on utilitarian grounds." Thus, Walzer’s caution could not be more apropos today: "It isn’t really prudent to assume the malign intent of one’s neighbors; it is merely cynical, an example of the worldly wisdom which no one lives by or could live by." Yet, who today asks whether statesmen such as Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld have succumbed to this sort of cynicism and so portend not only imprudent, but also immoral and illegal, action on the part of the US military?

Like Walzer, we as critical citizens are obligated to ask: Who is threatened such that preemptive strike or preventive war is said to be warranted? Fear, while a subjective contributing cause of war and thereby included in most anticipatory strategic calculations, fails the sufficiency criterion of justification. Failing a presentation of compelling evidence by the governments of the United States or Great Britain, there is no threat from Iraq in the relevant sense of manifest act or declared intent to commit "material injury" to the bona fide legal interests of these states. Further, as far as weapons of mass destruction are concerned, there is no "formally or tacitly agreed-upon limit" (at least in the legal sense) that Iraq has violated absent its party to a relevant bilateral or multilateral treaty. Following Walzer, we can call upon the governments of the United States and Great Britain to demonstrate unambiguously that Iraq poses (1) "a manifest intent to injure," (2) "a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger," and (3) there obtains "a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk." None of these requirements is demonstrated by the US or the UK. Therefore, until such demonstration is given, any proposed war with Iraq fails to have its moral or legal warrant.

Indeed, might one not conclude, and conclude reasonably and with ample justification, that were there the requisite evidence, the United States nevertheless pursues a policy that is "too suspicious" for its own good? Surely we need not await this "practical wisdom" after the fact of war with Iraq, when it shall then be too late for all engaged in such atrocity. No, prior to the fact one must aver: In fact, if one takes the statements of Edmund Burke, Roger Bacon, and the Swiss jurist M.D. Vattel into account (insofar as these are mentioned by Walzer in his treatment of the problem of anticipation in war), it is the United States’s own declared designs for global military preeminence—"formidable augmentations of power," to use Vatell’s words—that speaks of an "imperious thirst of rule" even as the Bush Administration sharply displaces the concept of international legal order with that of international security order.

Walzer points us in yet a further direction of critical assessment, to what he calls "a deeper issue": "When we stipulate threatening acts, we are looking not only for indications of intent, but also for rights of response." Walzer’s attention here to the right of response has the instructive value of teaching us not to "underestimate the importance of the shift from diplomacy to force." In point of fact, contrary to Clausewitz, we cannot concede before his claim that war is "the continuation of policy by other means;" and so we cannot accept the forfeit of diplomacy with Iraq by the Bush Administration on the purported grounds that diplomacy entails appeasement. Further, British Prime Minister Blair is hardly in the position of serving the critical function of a Churchill speaking against the equivalent of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Hitler. Rather, like Walzer, we must assert that national security, even the international security order Bush and Blair champion, is first and foremost "a question of moral security." To see it otherwise, even in the face of all that is said to justify a global war against terror, is to jettison any claim to warrant along with the right of response. It is, in short, to commit an illegal and immoral act of aggression.