IS THE “WAR ON TERRORISM” A JUST WAR?
Department of Philosophy
Notre Dame de Namur University
Presentation at the
conference on “Terror and Justice”,
US troops acting as “advisors” in the
· While states are slashing spending on education and tens of millions lack health care, the Pentagon budget is being dramatically increased and is rapidly approaching $400 billion a year.
The Bush administration has made it clear that it is
planning a major military assault on
· VP Cheney tells us that we should be prepared to be at war for the rest of our lives.
Mainstream media has been largely uncritical of these developments—indeed it has seen its main goal as acting as a cheerleader for administration policy. Stunned by the attacks of September 11, most of the population has supported, or at least accepted, the use of military force and escalating military spending. At the very least, many see it as a necessary evil.
Philosophers, however, should never accept the received wisdom without subjecting it to critical scrutiny, and there is no more urgent area for critical scrutiny than what the Bush administration claims is a “war on terrorism”.
traditional framework for asking questions about the morality of military
intervention is known as just war theory. I’ll begin by sketching the generally
agreed principles of that theory and then use it to assess first the war on
2. Just War Theory.
Two main areas. (a) Principles that need to be
satisfied for war to be justified—jus ad bellum. (b) Principles for the just
conduct of a war—jus in
(a) Jus ad bellum.
(i) Just cause—e.g., self-defense, responding to aggression, restoring rights unjustly denied, etc. These are examples—there is no definitive list.
(ii) Proportionality—probable good must outweigh likely evil (e.g. innocent deaths).
(iii) Last resort—if there are any courses of action other than war with a reasonable chance of achieving the same goals, they must be considered first. War should only be considered when it is clear that other means are unavailable.
(iv) Right intention—intervention should be directed to the goal set by the cause and to the eventual goal of a just peace. The war should not be used as an excuse to pursue other goals or hidden agendas.
(i) Proportionality—minimum necessary force should be used, and force should be proporttionate to the importance of the particular objective for the cause as a whole.
(ii) Discrimination—every effort must be made to avoid attacking non-military targets and non-combatants. Not sufficient merely to avoid targeting non-combatants intentionally. States are responsible not just for the intended consequences of their actions, but for the unintended but forseeable consequences of their actions too.
the nature of modern warfare—in particular high intensity bombing
campaigns—these are stringent criteria. Let’s see how the war in
3. The War on
First, was there a just cause to go to war? Three main justifications have been offered by the administration.
a letter to the UN Security Council, the
Article 51 provides no justification for the
British ambassador to the
any case, the
the US government calls “terrorism”—violent acts by political groups that it
disagrees with—can’t be ended by militarily targeting particular groups, like
the shadowy al-Qaeda network. Terrorism is a symptom, not the underlying
problem. You can’t get rid of the symptom without tackling the underlying
causes, and far from tackling those causes, the
second justification for the war is that it was necessary to bring the
perpetrators of the September 11 attacks to justice. But who was
responsible for the attacks? The immediate perpetrators died in the attacks
themselves, but the
There’s no doubting that bin Laden is a nasty piece of work—and the US government should know because they helped create him, when they were busy giving billions of dollars of support to the most extreme Islamic organizations fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The CIA helped bin Laden bring to
But did bin Laden mastermind the September 11 attacks or is
he just a convenient scapegoat—someone who the
In 1999, however, the New York Times reported that
In their war against bin Laden, American officials portray him as the world's most dangerous terrorist. But reporters for The New York Times and the PBS program ‘Frontline,’ working in cooperation, have found him to be less a commander of terrorists than an inspiration for them....
Larry Johnson, the State Department deputy counterterrorism director from 1988 to 1993, said Administration officials had “tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a Superman in Muslim garb -- he's 10 feet tall, he's everywhere, he knows everything, he’s got lots of money and he can't be challenged.”
After the trial two years ago of those charged with bombing the embassies in, Frontline reported that “There was ... no direct evidence presented at trial that bin Laden himself ordered the bombings....”
As for the September 11 attacks, the
But if the
Furthermore, the Bush administration was apparently quite determined that it would not take yes for an answer. According to Australian journalist John Pilger,
... in late
September and early October, leaders of
According to reports in
The offer was that he would face an international tribunal,
which would decide whether to try him or hand him over to
Either way, he would have been out of
But who really killed the deal?
One final point about justice. If
But you can’t seriously talk about justice if the only
people who can get prosecuted are those that the
(c) Human rights.
The third justification for the war was that the Taliban
The Taliban were certainly extremely unpleasant, but it’s worth remembering that they came to power with US support in 1996, and the Bush administration had no criticisms of their human rights’ policies before last September and in fact gave the Taliban a $42 million grant less than a year ago.
It’s also worth remembering that the
But have US actions really improved human rights in
As the British journalist Robert Fisk put it: “we’re ready to hire one gang of terrorists—our terrorists—to rid ourselves of another gang of terrorists [the Taliban].”
Even ignoring the death and destruction caused by the war itself, the human rights situation is little improved and may even be worse. Women have not been liberated by the war, large areas of the country are once again being run by war lords who do as they please, and Sharia law remains in place. A Chicago Tribune story last month reported that “the [Kabul] jail is filled with teenage girls accused of crimes ranging from falling in love to having illicit affairs, from leaving unbending parents to running away from abusive husbands.”
According to one Afghani judge, adulterers will continue to be stoned to death, “but we will use only small stones.” Public executions and amputations will continue, but while “the Taliban used to hang the victim’s body in public for four days ... [w]e will only hang the body for a short time.”
This hardly seems sufficient justification for war.
I’ll be quick on the other criteria, beginning with
proportionality. Critics of the war raised two serious objections from the
outset. First, that the war put at risk several
million people who were dependent on food aid to survive. Apart from the PR
execerise of dropping small amounts of food along with the bombs, the
Second, the nature of the
I’ve already talked about the fact that the
It’s no secret that since the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, US oil companies and their friends in the State Department have been salivating at the prospect of gaining access to the huge oil and natural gas reserves in the former Soviet republics bordering the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia, which have been estimated as worth $4 trillion.
According to the Middle East Economic Digest,
Relations cooled in the late 1990s, but when the Bush
administration took office it cozied up to the regime again in the hope of
reviving the pipeline project. September 11 allowed a change in plan. A
military response was required as a demonstration of force, but as an added
benefit it could be used to replace the Taliban with a more compliant regime,
willing to give the
According to a recent report in
the New York Times, “The State Department is exploring the potential for
post-Taliban energy projects in the [Central Asian] region....” Secretary of
State Colin Powell estimates that
Finally, with respect to the conduct of the war, what I’ve
said so far should be sufficient to cast doubt on whether the principles of
proportionality and discrimination have been met. In particular, the
Given the nature of the weapons being used, however, such
casualties were all too predictable. Even smart bombs miss their targets at
least 20 percent of the time, and in addition the
So I conclude that on every criterion, the war on
4. The “War on Terrorism”.
If the war on
The media critic Jeff Cohen offers the following definitions of ‘terrorist’:
1. One who engages in acts or an act of terrorism.
2. One who leads an armed group that kills civilians as a
means of political intimidation -- unless he terrorizes Haitians while on the
CIA-payroll, as did 1990s death squad leader Emmanuel Constant, in which case
3. One who targets civilian airliners and ships -- unless he blows up a Cuban civilian airliner, killing 73 people, and fires at a Polish freighter, like Orlando Bosch, in which case he is coddled and paroled by the Bush Justice Department in 1990, and his extradition is blocked.
4. One who leads a group that engages in kidnapping and murder -- unless the victims are Hondurans attacked by CIA-backed death squad Battalion 316, in which case Battalion architect Gustavo Alvarez becomes a Pentagon consultant, while the then-ambassador to Honduras who downplayed the terror, John Negroponte, is appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations days after Sept. 11.
5. One who uses rape and murder for political purposes -- unless the victims are four U.S. church women sexually assaulted and killed in 1980 by members of El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military, in which case excuses and distortions pour forth from then-U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“these nuns were not just nuns; they were also political activists”) and Secretary of State Al Haig (the nuns “may have tried to run a roadblock”).
6. One who designates civilians as “soft targets” to be attacked in the cause of political transformation -- unless the targets are Nicaraguans killed by Contra guerrillas armed and directed by the U.S who, according to Human Rights Watch, “systematically engage in violent abuses…so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war.”
7. One who facilitates a massacre of civilians -- unless the victims are 900 Palestinians shot and hacked to death in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese Christian militia as Israeli soldiers stood guard, in which case Israel’s then-Defense Minster (now Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon remains a U.S. “War on Terrorism” ally after being censured as indirectly responsible for the massacre by an Israeli commission of inquiry.
It is hard not to conclude that the “war on terrorism” has
become little more than a convenient excuse for the Bush administration to push
through a domestic and foreign agenda which it would otherwise be unable to get
away with. At home it has meant a significant curtailment of civil liberties.
In terms of foreign policy it has permitted the
The only way to seriously address the problem of terrorism—whether
that’s terrorism committed by US enemies, by US allies, or by the
US political and economic elites ruthlessly pursue their own interests around the world often in flagrant disregard of the most elementary moral principles. In the words of a statement distributed by a group of US intellectuals recently, “Most US citizens are unaware that the effect of US power abroad has nothing to do with the ‘values’ celebrated at home and indeed often serves to deprive people in other countries of the opportunity to attempt to enjoy them, should they care to do so.”
If we genuinely want to combat injustice and violence in the world—whether its commited by al-Qaeda or our own government—the most important goal for people in this country is to change US government policy, including its support for repressive regimes around the world, the double standards with which it frequently operates, and its willingness to use massive levels of violence to pursue its own goals. That’s a daunting task, but I think it’s the only way of ultimately achieving a world based on justice.
I. Mainstream media in the
Common Dreams ("News and views for the progressive community")
CounterPunch (Political newsletter edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair)
Democracy Now! (News and analysis from Pacifica Radio)
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (Media watchdog)
Flashpoints (Investigative news program from KPFA, 94.1 FM)
International Socialist Review (Bimonthly magazine)
In These Times (Biweekly magazine)
Robert Jensen (Journalism Professor at the
The Progressive (Monthly magazine)
Socialist Worker (Weekly newspaper)
WorkingForChange (Resources from Working Assets)
Z Magazine (Monthly magazine and extensive website)
B. International Media
Al-Ahram Weekly (
Al Jazeera (
The Guardian (
The Hindu (
The Independent (
Le Monde Diplomatique (France)
John Pilger (Australian journalist based in
II. Reading on the background to 9/11.
Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of
John K. Cooley, Unholy Wars:
Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Holt, 2000)
Michael Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Holt, 2001)
Jonathan Neale, "The Afghan Tragedy", International Socialism (Spring 1981),
Jonathan Neale, "The Long Torment of
Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil &
III. 9/11 Course Anthology
Here's a link to the Jeff Cohen article on defining 'terrorism' that
http://www.acs.ohio-state.edu/students/sif/Gasper.pdf. I think my
list of websites for alternative sources of news and analysis is on
my computer at school--I will send it to you as soon as I locate it.
Here are a few of other links.
(1) "Using Afghan Women to Sell
(2) "New Crusade: The
(3) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "War":
(4) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Just War Theory":