Fallacies in Defense of the Invasion of Iraq
by David Gordon
Was the invasion of Iraq morally justified? The answer to this question depends crucially on the view of morality one adopts. The evaluation of the war by a utilitarian, e.g., may well differ from that of a proponent of traditional just war theory. I shall adopt the latter perspective here, without essaying the task of showing that this theory ought to be chosen. Our initial question has now been limited: was the invasion of Iraq justified according to the requirements of the traditional view? I shall be concerned with the rules of jus ad bellum, which govern when a war may be undertaken. (Disturbing developments indicate that the rules of jus in bello, which govern the conduct of war, have not been followed; as an example, American troops have not shrunk from using torture. But these will not been canvassed here, since supporters of the war might claim that they show only that an otherwise just war should be fought in a different manner.)
Once the initial question has been limited in this way, it becomes easy to answer. The invasion of Iraq fails to meet these traditional requirements. The issue is not even close: there is an open and shut case against the war. This is not surprising: as Cardinal Journet has noted, the criteria for a just war are very difficult to meet: “Following St. Augustine, St. Thomas recalls the conditions for a just war: (1): it must aim at peace; so that a war, however just on other counts, would become absolutely illicit if waged only out of hate or ambition; (2) it must be undertaken for a just cause, for example to constrain a nation to repress great disorders or repair grave injustices; (3) it must be declared by the legitimate authority. . . After reading this specification for a just war we might well ask how many wars have been wholly just. Probably they could be counted on the fingers of one hand.” 
If this is correct, though, we must confront a paradox: several eminent authorities claim that the war in Iraq does meet the traditional just war requirements. How can this be? Disagreement in moral matters is hardly unusual, but how can there be a dispute about whether a set of clear criteria applies? Jean Bethke Elshtain, in an Epilogue to the 2004 edition of her Just War Against Terror, and Alexander F. C. Webster and Darrell Cole, in The Virtue of War, maintain that the war in Iraq is just. Am I wrong in thinking it obvious that the war is unjust? I have so far merely asserted my view: what is its basis? I propose to answer this by an examination of the arguments presented in the two books just mentioned. As will soon become evident, to show why these arguments fail is at the same time to show that the war is unjust.
For Elshtain, the justice of the war is simple and straightforward. The war was justified on two grounds, which we shall examine in order. First, was not the United States faced with a buildup of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by a hostile power? “The core around which a justification for war was based is uncontroverted, namely the materials and weapons that were catalogued and that Iraq admitted it possessed as of 1998. If we add to what they admitted having produced what intelligence suggested they were in the process of producing, you have a threat of serious proportions.”  At first, I imagined that Elshtain had composed her Epilogue before the failure of all attempts to find these nefarious objects had become manifest.
Quite the contrary, she is well aware that the WMDs are nowhere to be found; nevertheless, she contends that we have good reason to think that they were at one time present. And even if they were not, did not Saddam Hussein at least wish to acquire them? What more can any reasonable person want? The Iraqi regime evaded efforts by UN inspectors to discover their stocks of weapons; surely there can be no reasonable doubt that Saddam had such weapons. “The ‘I told you so's' are, at this point, either ignoring the evidence or rushing to judgment because massive caches of WMDs have not been uncovered. But the interesting, and reasonable, question at this point is: what happened to the weapons and what did Secretary of State Madeleine Albright mean when she said. . .that Iraq's weapons program could ‘destroy all humanity'? Was she ‘lying' too? If. . . the Bush administration made it all up because they wanted a war, it means the UN and the Clinton administration made it all up too.”(p.189) Elshtain suggests that the weapons have been dispersed to Syria or elsewhere.
Elshtain's reasoning here is curious. She says that the Bush administration cannot have been lying, because then the Clinton administration would also have been lying. But it does not seem to have occurred to her that the situation between the close of the Clinton years and the invasion might have changed. Did not the UN inspectors destroy large caches of weapons? Even if Iraq at one time had a program to develop such weapons, might not Saddam have changed his mind? It hardly follows that if Albright was right, then Bush must also have been accurate. Further, doubters of either administration need not claim that lying is involved: perhaps overestimates about WMDs were based on reckless misjudgment or simple error. Aside from this, I must confess that it does not seem quite so ridiculous to me as it does to Elshtain that one or both administrations lied.
Let us put all this to one side. Suppose that Saddam did possess WMDs: would this suffice to justify war against him? Certainly, self-defense counts as a legitimate cause of action in just war theory; but the mere possession of such weapons by an unfriendly power hardly counts as an imminent threat of invasion. Nations have conflicting interests and generally choose to rely in part on armaments to defend these interests. Even powers hostile to the United States are within their rights in acting to secure dangerous armaments. The fact that the position of the United States has been worsened through such an arms buildup by an unfriendly power does not justify war under the traditional criteria. To doubt this at once generates absurd results. Two nations hostile to each other could each be justified in going to war to counter the arms buildup of the other. Was Iraq justified in attacking the United States when it increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf? If not, why does Elshtain think that we are justified in going to war because of Iraqi armaments? It won't do to answer that the Saddam Hussein regime was in various and sundry respects evil in a way that the Bush administration is not. This point is relevant to her second justification for war, not the one that presently concerns us. (The argument that, since Iraq was obligated by agreement after the Gulf War to end WMD programs, the US could intervene, is a better one and will be considered below. Here I am concerned only to stress that there is no general obligation on nations, the violation of which justifies war, to refrain from buildups of WMDs or other deadly weapons.)
Besides this general point, a specific feature of the situation in Iraq rendered nugatory the threat of WMDs. Even if Saddam had managed to acquire these weapons, how could he use them against the United States? Iraq had no delivery system capable of reaching the United States with them. The distinguished diplomatic historian Paul W. Schroeder has well stated the essential point at issue: “The more one thinks about it, the more implausible it becomes to claim that the United States, a superpower with an historically unprecedented position of unchallenged military superiority, is threatened by an impoverished, ruined, insecure state halfway round the world.”2a.
Elshtain is aware of this, but she brings to bear a counterargument. “[W]hile Saddam certainly did not possess the ability to use conventional weapons against us. . . the threat nevertheless did exist in light of the minute amounts of biological and nerve gas material needed to kill large numbers of noncombatants. Putting together the admitted [by whom?] existence of chemical and biological weapons with the clear and present danger that such weapons could be transferred to international terrorist groups, the prudent statesperson could find reasons to act in order to reduce the threat.”(p.188)
Elshtain's argument is I think this: Because the damage WMDs would inflict is very serious, one does not need conclusive evidence that Saddam planned to use them against us. So long as there is a reasonable chance the weapons may be used against us, may we not act? To argue in this way is to make a fundamental mistake about just war theory. It is indeed part of prudence to take account of grave dangers that are less than certain. It is not a good argument against giving up smoking that tobacco use only increases the probability of lung cancer, rather than rendering certain the onset of that disease.
It was then entirely reasonable for the United States to bear in mind the possibility that Saddam had WMDs and planned to use them against us, even in the absence of convincing evidence that he had these weapons. So far Elshtain is right; but she errs in thinking that the bare possibility suffices to justify war. Just war theory cannot be reduced in toto to the calculations of prudence. Even if, which I do not concede, national self-interest would have justified an assault, it does not follow that just war theory does so. Morality, after all, sometimes imposes restraints on the dictates of self-interested prudence. In the traditional view, there must be an imminent danger of attack to justify war. To “take out” in advance a dangerous potential enemy is not self-defense. 
But, one might object, am I not saying that just war theory is a suicide pact? Is a nation to ignore grave danger because the precepts of a theory say so? Does not this view convert just war theory into a recipe for disaster?
Not at all. A nation is free to counter possible threats to its security by, e.g., arming itself against the threatening power, forming an alliance against it, endeavoring to persuade it to adopt a friendlier policy, etc. All that just war theory here rules out is war based on the bare possibility of a grave danger.
This is not the place to spell out the alternatives to war against a hostile power. But the failure to realize one point often throws discussions of war on the wrong track. It should not be taken as given that a particular nation is “hostile” when one is considering the justice of going to war. One needs to ask, why is the nation hostile to us? Elshtain falls into this mistake. She says that it is possible Saddam Hussein intended to use WMDs against us: therefore we may interdict such use by initiating war. She fails to ask why he might entertain such hostile designs, if he in fact did so. Might it have something to do with our endeavoring to overthrow him from power? If one country threatens another, it is not a proper use of just war theory for the threatening power to claim that it is acting in self-defense by going to war when the threatened power responds with aggressive actions of its own. Of course, Elshtain can respond that the hostile actions of the United States were justified responses to previous Iraqi offenses; but this merely pushes back the argument one step. To apply just war theory correctly, one cannot simply begin in medias res, as Elshtain does. 
I have so far contended that Iraq was within its rights to endeavor to acquire WMDs. (Again, I have put aside the argument that Iraq was bound by the peace terms of the Gulf War not to do so.) But suppose that this contention is mistaken: assume that possession of such weapons by Iraq was illegitimate and, very much contrary to fact, evidence indicated that Iraq at the time of the American invasion held such weapons. Would the United States then have been justified in going to war?
Once more the answer is obvious: it would not have been. As Elshtain herself recognizes, one of the requirements of the traditional view is that a “war should be a last resort after other options have been considered seriously. Other measures need not have been tried, in turn, but they must at least have been considered.” (p.184) Would it not have been possible to take action against WMDs without a full-scale invasion? Elshtain notes that sanctions have not been effective, but this is hardly the only measure short of war that might have been adopted. One could have insisted, under threat of force, that massive inspections be allowed. (I hasten to add that I do not support this in the actual situation. I am considering only the hypothetical situation mentioned in the preceding paragraph.) Elshtain thinks a preemptive invasion was a “judgment call” but fails to show that what President Bush termed “regime change” was needed to deal with the supposed WMDs. Here also is our long-delayed response to the point that the United States had the right, by the truce terms of the 1991 Gulf War, to forbid Iraq from producing WMDs. The fact that a country is in violation of a treaty does not constitute grounds for war, if less drastic measures are available to secure compliance.
In a treatment of just war, it would be entirely inappropriate to engage in unjust tactics of controversy. Were I to end my comments on her discussion here, I would be guilty of exactly this failing. She rests her case for armed intervention not only on the danger of WMDs, but also on the violations of human rights committed by Saddam Hussein's government. May the United States not justifiably act, in Cardinal Journet's phrase, “to repair grave injustices”? Elshtain points out that the Bush “administration cited other reasons [than WMDs] that were more akin to the classic just war insistence that crimes against the innocent should be punished. These other reasons concerned primarily Saddam's well-documented attempted genocide against the Kurds; his destruction of the entire way of life of the Marsh Arabs; and the mass murders against the Shiite Muslims in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.”(p.186)
Is not Elshtain here relying on a dubious premise? She speaks of the need to “punish” crimes against the innocent. But punishment is a response to past actions: it is not an attempt to prevent or deter present wrongs. Does a nation have the right to assume judicial authority over the affairs of another nation, as Elshtain suggests? Michael Walzer has put well the case that it does not: “[H]umanitarian interventions to stop massacre and ethnic cleansing can also legitimately result in the installation of a new regime. But now [September 2002] that a zone of (relative) safety has been carved out for the Kurds in the North, there is no compelling case to be made for humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The Baghdad regime is brutally repressive and morally repugnant, certainly, but it is not engaged in mass murder or ethnic cleansing; there are governments as bad (well, almost as bad) all over the world.” 
Elshtain's doctrine, in which the United States is viewed as a universal enforcer of morality, is an example of what Carl Schmitt aptly termed “the tyranny of values.” When a country views its antagonists as criminals, it ignites unprecedented ferocity. “The discriminatory concept of the enemy as a criminal and the attendant implication of justa causa run parallel to the intensification of the means of destruction and the disorientation of theatres of war. Intensification of the technical means of destruction opens the abyss of an equally destructive legal and moral discrimination. . . Given the fact that war has been transformed into a police action against troublemakers, criminals, and pests, justification of the methods of this ‘police bombing' must be intensified. Thus, one is compelled to push the discrimination of the opponent into the abyss.” 
Elshtain has failed to arrive at a convincing argument that the United States had a just cause for invading Iraq. Alexander F.C. Webster and David Cole, like Elshtain, consider the war against Iraq just, or, in the terminology they prefer, a “justifiable” war; and they use some of the same arguments as she does. But they emphasize to a greater degree the need to counter terrorism. Saddam Hussein supported “terrorist organizations who pose an imminent threat to U. S. citizens.” 
These authors have painted with an overly broad brush. They warn of a worldwide war of militant Islam against the West, with terrorism the principal weapon of the advocates of jihad. Are we not justified, these authors ask, in taking action against this threat? “We need not have any moral qualms about the war against international Islamic terrorism.”  But they fail to tie Saddam's regime to the supposed war of Islam. Attempts to link Saddam to Osama bin Laden have failed. Saddam's support for terrorist organizations consists, one gathers, of subventions to the PLO and other anti-Israel groups. Support for these groups certainly goes counter to American policy; but this hardly constitutes an assault on the very being of the United States.
Against this it may be argued that terrorists are somehow linked in a universal fraternity. Do not Islamic terrorists aim to destroy all enemies of their religion?  Let us grant the premise: the question then becomes, whom do these groups consider an enemy? Is it anyone who does not adhere to exactly the brand of Islam that they favor? Quite the contrary, terrorist groups often have local agendas in mind. As Michael Mann has noted, “In designing his war against terrorism, Bush the Younger . . . [makes] no distinction between national and international terrorism. The US State Department's annual list of proscribed terrorist organizations gives details of them all, but it does not tell us whether they have recently attacked Americans. The Bush administration has been attacking both indiscriminately, driving them together in self-defense against the US.” 
If my argument has been so far correct, no just cause for war against Iraq existed at the time of America's invasion. WMDs, whether real or alleged; past atrocities of Saddam's regime; and Saddam's support for terrorism fail to meet the requirements for just cause of the traditional view. Nor will it do, I think, to argue that the combination of these claims add up to a just cause of action. But suppose that I am wrong. Let us assume that there were adequate grounds for American action. Granted this premise, was America's war a just one?
I do not think so. A crucial part of the traditional view is that the war must be launched with the right intention. It is not enough that a just cause of action be present: the invading power must intend its resort to war to respond to the correct cause, and only to that. Suppose, e.g., that the just cause of action was a reasonable belief that Iraq possessed WMDs and intended to use them in a direct attack on the United States. A war begun for this motive must then be intended only to end this threat. If the invasion aimed at other things as well, such as securing oil supplies for the United States or gaining a base of operations to strengthen American power it the Middle East, it would not qualify as just.
Elizabeth Anscombe, in an essay written with Norman Daniel at the beginning of World War II, has, with her characteristic incisiveness, arrived at the essence: “If war is to be just, the warring state must intend only what is just, and the aim of the war must be to set right certain specific injustices. That is, the righting of wrong done must be a sufficient condition on which peace will be made. . . it is a condition of a just war that it should be fought with a just intention; not that it should not be fought with an unjust intention. If the government's intentions cannot be known because they are vague, that vagueness itself vitiates them.” 
It is evident that American policy fails this standard. Far from seeking only a limited end, Bush demanded a “regime change.” Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who rank high in the counsels of the administration, go further and demand that other countries in the Arab world, including Iran and Syria, be “democratized” so that they will favor American values and interests.  In a recent volume by two influential neoconservatives, we read: “There is today not a single Arab state that qualifies as a democracy. . . But promoting democracy in the Middle East is not a matter of national egotism. It has become a matter of national well-being, even survival.”  America's invasion will turn Iraq into a democracy; this happy outcome will bring pressure to bear on the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran. (The thought that people might freely choose to oppose American policy seems not to have occurred to them.)
The war in Iraq, then, fails the tests of just war on numerous grounds. Iraq posed no threat to the United States, nor were there sufficient “humanitarian” grounds to justify America's violent course of action. Even if there had been a valid reason to invade, America's aims in the war went far beyond what the rules of jus ad bellum sanction. The war for “democracy” in Iraq confirms the wise words of Gustave Thibon: it is a war “waged for idols. . . [war] will itself be an idol. An evil so atrocious and so universal, a course so straight to the abyss of nothingness, cannot be borne with unless it be erected into an absolute in hearts poisoned with hatred.” 
 Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate (London and New York: Sheed and Ward), Volume I, pp.306—307. Carl Schmitt mocks Journet, but fails to refute his analysis. See Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth (New York, Telos Press, 2003), p.58n.
 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2004), paperback edition, p.187. All subsequent references to this book will be by the page numbers in parentheses in the text.
 The “Chicago School” approach of Gary Becker, Richard Posner, Eric Posner, et hoc genus omne supports preemptive action against potentially threatening dangers by appeal to the precepts of decision theory. But these authors do not profess to be following the traditional view. See Eric Posner and Alan O. Sykes, “Optimal War and Jus Ad Bellum,” University of Chicago Law and Economics, Olin Working Paper Number 211, April, 2004.
 I am not saying that only a completely “innocent” nation is justified in going to war in response to an invasion. Rather, the point concerns the morality of preemptive actions to deal with possible actions by a hostile power, when one's own actions have helped to bring about that hostility.
 Carl Schmitt, Nomos, p.321.
 Ibid., p.19.
 The Frum and Perle book earlier cited should be consulted as an example of neoconservative aims in Iraq.
 Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq: Saddam's Tyranny and America's Mission (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), p.110.
 Thibon's remarks are quoted in Journet, Church of the Word Incarnate, p.307.
This essay is taken from Neo-Conned! Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq, to be released later this Spring by Light in the Darkness Press, an imprint of IHS Press.
January 28, 2005
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