Over the centuries, and from this humble if powerfully cast beginning, just war teaching evolved into a complex doctrine. It is a tradition that relies on prudential judgments on a number of critical matters. Today, most importantly, its teaching is urged upon relevant decision-makers, those charged with the solemn tasks of making the determinations about whether, and when, a resort to force is justified.
There are critics of the just war tradition who claim, wrongly, that it is mere window-dressing--so many nice sounding nostrums behind which is little more than crude realpolitik. They mistakenly assume just war theory exists to justify any war a nation decides to fight. In fact, the tradition challenges precisely any use of force that is reckless or misguided.
For pacifists, of course, war is never justified; the complex discriminations of just war tradition are beside the point altogether. Other critics insist that the just war tradition may have worked well in previous eras, but has outlived its usefulness. It is, quite simply, out-of-date. These critics hold that, given today's weapons technologies, the rule of discrimination-requiring armies to distinguish combatants from non-combatants-can't possibly be met.
Some go further, claiming that the word "justice" itself can be given any meaning. Each side in a conflict naturally thinks its cause is just, goes this argument, and there is really no clear way to adjudicate between such subjective claims. It is impossibly old-fashioned, in this view, to believe that one can actually make a determination about what is more just, or less unjust, in the contemporary world.
Let's look at the criterion of imminent threat more closely. Who is in danger of being harmed? What is our responsibility if a threat is imminent? On this score, modern just war thinking is deeply indebted to the traditions of international law, which assume a world of sovereign nation-states. The violation of a state's sovereignty is the test of a threat or a harm: Am I the victim of aggression that violates my sovereignty? This was the case of Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait. Kuwait, as a member of the United Nations, was able to evoke the United Nations Charter that bases membership--and the crime of aggression--on state sovereignty.
But just war teaching also makes provision for what some have called "anticipatory self-defense," that is, the right to defend oneself if one possesses reliable knowledge that, unless one moves to preempt a threat now, there is a high probability that one could be subjected to a devastating blow later. That `later' must be imminent--not projected into the future by decades. Assessments of imminent threat will be based not only on what sorts of weapons a potential aggressor has, but on his past history. Does that history include unprovoked attacks on others? Does it include the use of weapons that do not, by definition, discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. And so on.
These matters are never simple, particularly so if you add St. Augustine's argument that the obligation of charity means a war may be occasioned by a charge to protect the innocent. The innocent are not limited to one's own nationals-certainly not within Christian just war teaching, which does not privilege sovereignty as a value above all other political values. The obligation of caritas extends beyond the boundaries of one's polity to encompass the innocent in other countries if they are being brutalized, murdered, terrorized, or threatened by overwhelming or despotic force.
This is the question British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been asking repeatedly in recent months: Is it moral to permit the intense human suffering and the terror of living under one of the world's most brutal regimes to continue? Is there no obligation to remove the dread hand of tyranny if one has the means to do so, and if the harm that comes from an armed effort to disarm Saddam will in all likelihood be less than the palpable, continuing harm of allowing him to remain in power?
Circumstances like the ones we face now force the just-war thinker to get very concrete very fast. Iraq's tons and tons of weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical, weapons that have already killed tens of thousands of combatants and non-combatants in direct violation of the 1922 and 1925 conventions outlawing chemical and biological weapons, and that could do untold harm if released in even minute amounts.
The just war tradition gives us a map to negotiate this difficult terrain. It helps us to think about the nature of a threat and what might be done about it within a framework of moral restraint. That we are discussing the Iraq crisis in these terms is a tribute to the continuing relevance of the just war tradition.
We have many guides in this effort. It is time for more among us to take seriously the witness of Iraqi dissidents. With fully one-sixth of the country in exile, we know a great deal about the nature of that regime. Massive troves of internal Iraqi government documents captured during the 1991 Persian Gulf War are now being sifted by Muslim scholars. They confirm what just-war theorist, Michael Walzer, stated recently in an intereview: The Saddam Hussein regime is a fascist regime of unspeakable brutality.
International human rights organizations, Iraqis in exile, scholars who study the Saddam regime have opened up to us in excruciating detail a world of horror that is only too understandable, given that Saddam Hussein's great role model is that left-wing fascist, Joseph Stalin. When Iraqi exiles and dissidents tell us that the level of suffering of the people of Iraq at the hands of Saddam and his henchmen is beyond anything we can imagine, perhaps we should listen. And then think about our responsibility.