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Would a U.S. Attack on Iraq Constitute a Just War?

Scholars of War Ethics Disagree

As Congress debates authorization of military action against Iraq, scholars of war ethics continue to discuss under what circumstances an attack by the U.S. would constitute a “just war.”


Mary Schultz
Communications Manager

Earlier this week William Galston, Michael Walzer, John Kelsay and Gerard Bradley explored the conditions for a just war vis-à-vis the Bush administration’s justifications for an attack on Iraq in a symposium sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Institute for American Values, and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.

The panelists differed on their support of the current Bush proposal for action, but all offered cautionary words rooted in the just war tradition of thought. That tradition, which has helped to shape the United Nations charter and international law, seeks to take seriously and reflect the sanctity of human life and the principle of equal human dignity.

In discussing the possible justifications for an attack on Iraq, the theorists considered issues of imminence and severity of the threat from Saddam Hussein’s nation, probability of success of a U.S. strike, and proportionality and fairness of an attack. They also considered the alternatives to a war, as well possible ethical parameters for a war if it is declared.

Kelsay, professor at Florida State University and a noted authority on Islam, argued that the U.S. has a right to use military force aimed at regime change in Iraq, but he expressed doubt that the U.S. should exercise that right.

On the issue of regime change, which some argue is not a justifiable cause for war, he said, “In cases where an existing government shows a long-term pattern of unjust behavior towards its neighbors and its own citizens, one must consider that then an unjust government seems to be no government at all. Citizens chafing under an unjust regime may take measures to remove it, and other governments may assist them if necessary.

“The main limitation on those who would remove an unjust regime is that they consider the likely consequences of their actions. If removal would lead, for example, to an even worse state of affairs then one should forgo action aimed at regime change.

The problems of Iraq “cry out for action,” he said. But “no decision should be made regarding the wisdom of such action until military and political planners have made their best effort to find ways to bring about a course of action that will be proportionate, have a reasonable hope of success and usher in a political climate more suited to peace.”

Bradley, a professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, voiced support for the actions of the Bush administration. However, he emphasized the importance of using a war strategy that clearly targets the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. “I take the central purpose of a proposed attack upon Iraq to be the destruction of, or otherwise to deprive the Iraqi leadership of, weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, nuclear – even though the latter is in its incipient stages.

“These things have no benign uses. Their destruction as such does no genuine injury to those who possess them. Destroying them violates no one’s rights. Destroying them would do many people a great deal of good, not least of all those in the neighborhood of Iraq who come under the possible intimidating effect or force of an Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction.”

Bradley emphasized that the purpose of attacking Iraq must be defensive. “An attack upon Iraq for any other reason than defense of innocents, Americans and others, would not be morally legitimate,” he said. “An attack upon Iraq to avenge past injustices perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and his regime, or to punish Iraq for alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks upon New York and Washington, or to subjugate the Iraqi nation, or just for the sake of regime change, would, in my judgment, be wrong.”

Walzer, a professor at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, focused on the possibility of prevention of war. “At this moment, I think this is an avoidable war, which we should do everything we can to avoid. But there has to be a collective will to avoid it, and that isn’t yet apparent in the international community.

“A lot of my recent writing on this subject has been aimed at European audiences not at American, for I really believe that they can save us from that war,” he said. “Bush said it’s a test of the United Nations. I think it’s a test of our European friends, and I hope they meet the test.”

Earlier, Walzer had argued strongly for the need to push for weapons inspection before resorting to war. “If Saddam is persuaded that the international community is prepared to use force…I think he will yield on the inspection question.”


To reduce the harm if the U.S. does wage war with Iraq, Galston said, the U.S. must make a visible and credible effort to explore all other reasonable options aside from war. The U.S. must also state a public rationale that focuses on enforcement within some viable vision of the international system rather than preemption.

Most important, Galston said, would be long-term commitment to Iraq after regime change. “If Saddam Hussein is analogized to a regional Hitler and if regime change means unconditional surrender, then right here, right now, before we go to war, we must, as a nation, commit ourselves to doing for Iraq what we did for Germany after World War II,” he said.

“We cannot have a drive-by regime change. We must commit ourselves to the political, economic and social reconstruction of that country, such that a decent regime that can stand on its own will be the likely outcome of our efforts.”

The panelists all publicly declared in a letter released earlier this year that the use of force against the killers of September 11 and those who assist them is morally justified. View the letter.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based in Washington, D.C., seeks to promote a deeper understanding of the influence of religion on the ideas and institutions of American Society. Read the complete transcript of this discussion.

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