Traditional Rules for Waging War


January 10, 1991|By William Pfaff

PARIS. — IT IS LATE, probably too late, to consider war in the Persian Gulf in the light of the traditional criteria for a just war. These were the product of medieval Christian philosophical speculation but have been generally acknowledged (if infrequently observed) ever since, at least in the West.

The American strategic policy community in the 1950s and 1960s went back to the principles of just war in some of its debates over the moral issues posed by nuclear weapons. They were also a factor, if a minor one, in the Vietnam War debates -- minor because they are rational moral rules and American controversy tends to become dominated by moral absolutism: absolute pacifism vs. absolutist affirmations about world order, ''Munichs,'' domino effects, standing up to aggression once and for all, etc.

The traditional rules, stated briefly, are that a just war must (1) be undertaken by lawful authority, for (2) the purpose of vindicating an undoubted right, certainly infringed. It should (3) be a last resort, all peaceful measures exhausted, and (4) the good sought must outweigh the evils the war will produce.

There must (5) be a reasonable expectation of victory for justice and (6) the right intention, which is to say an intention to do justice and not merely maintain or aggrandize national prestige or influence. Finally (7), the methods of war must be legitimate and proportionate.

In the gulf affair no doubt can exist about the first criterion, since the U.N. itself has authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second is met as well. Whatever the merits of Iraq's claims against Kuwait, its invasion and the brutalities subsequently committed are undoubted injustices.

Trouble begins with the third criterion. This is what the great debate in Congress and public is about. An important part of the allied camp, and of congressional and public opinion in the U.S., thinks that sanctions should be given more time to work: that the alternatives to war have not been exhausted. The latter clearly is true.

Against this, those who favor early military action make a prudential argument, saying that both sanctions observance and the unity of the alliance are at their peak now, but both will weaken as time goes on. They claim that the allied military force cannot be kept in the field long enough for sanctions to be fully tested. Political tensions in Saudi Arabia, and the arrival of pilgrims to the Holy Places in the spring, will make the foreign troops' presence increasingly unacceptable. Morale problems will mount and the force will lose its military edge.

A belief that the good to be achieved by a war is greater than its evil (rule 4) obviously underlies the whole enterprise. George Bush and his colleagues believe that defeating Saddam Hussein can transform the situation in the Middle East, and confirm the moderate leadership of such figures as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hassan of Morocco. They argue that punishing Iraq's aggression will prevent other acts of international aggression in the future.

One could object that their argument lacks a serious grasp of the dynamics of international conflict; but this is what they say and undoubtedly it is what they believe. Hence, if the administration's own policy assumptions are accepted, the fourth criterion for a just war is met.

The fifth rule is that there must be a reasonable expectation of success. This exists, so far as military operations are concerned. That winning a war will prove a victory for justice is less sure.

Are U.S. intentions pure? No; the desire to maintain U.S. national prestige obviously has played a large part in what has gone on. On the other hand the U.N.'s endorsement of U.S. policy allows )) those favoring war to say that the United States acts on behalf of the international community and its intentions are thereby validated.

Finally, will the methods of war be legitimate and proportionate? The American government says yes: that civilians will not be targeted, etc. Statements such as those of the former Air Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael Dugan, that the Air Force intends to take the war to Saddam Hussein, his family and alleged mistress, in the center of Baghdad, say otherwise. Experience says otherwise. Modern war nearly always proves grossly indiscriminate.

The response to that says modern war is a condition of modern life; that we no longer exist in an 18th Century of professionalized warfare; that a brutal attack might get it all over with quickly and save civilian casualties in the long run, and that commanders will be under orders to limit their attacks to military targets to the extent possible.

Where does this leave us? With a war, I should say, for the justice of which an approximate case can be made but not a solid one. The case rests on a claim that the good done will be larger than the suffering inflicted. This rarely is true of war.

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