The Just War Theory and the War in Iraq

The purpose of this paper is to interact with the war in Iraq; whether it is justified or not in light of the Just War Theory and examine both positions before coming to a reasonable conclusion. Since the question at hand is one that is passed, the topic may seem futile. However, this discussion is still of great benefit since we know that in future wars (sad reality) this question will once again become predominant. The question before us is: “Is the War in Iraq just or unjust?” The answer to this question will determine if Christians should or should not support the current war in Iraq. Our duty as Christians is to pray for our leaders no matter if we agree or not (I Timothy 2:2). The conclusion one reaches on this pertinent question must not hinder the biblical mandate to pray for our leaders. The issue of the war in Iraq has caused some division in the Church of Christ. This debate is primarily limited to the United States, since it is unanimous that Christians throughout Europe are adamantly opposed to this war. However, here in these United States the debate rages on with some very intellectual thinkers expressing their positions on both sides. Formal discussions on what constitutes a morally justifiable war can be found in many religions but the Church of Christ draws primarily on classic Just War theory, which finds its origins in Christian writings in the early church and medieval thinkers. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is generally acknowledged as the first to offer a considerable treatment of the war and justice in his famous work The City of God. While realizing the enormous loss of life that accompanies war, Augustine notes that a just war is better than an unjust peace. Augustine affirmed the biblical mandate to love our neighbors, but at the same time, he drew from Paul’s injunction to submit to governing authorities, “who do not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:1-7). Augustine acknowledged this tension but maintained that the use of force is necessary–though always regrettable in a fallen world.[1]

There were many voices in establishing the tradition of the just-war theory, but none so significant as medieval scholar and thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He contributed significantly to the development of Just War theory in his Summa Theologica in the 13th century. He formalized three criteria for a Just War – 1) The cause must be just, 2) The chances of success must be reasonable and 3) the authority to wage war must be competent.[2] Further Aquinas laid the groundwork for other criteria that would eventually be integrated into this tradition. Nevertheless these three criteria have served as a standard when referring to the Just War tradition.

After September 11, 2001, this issue has come to the core of religious discussion. In examining these two perspectives it is fundamental to frame the debate. In order for this to take place there are a few preliminary comments that need to be made. First, it is unequivocal that the United States was attacked by terrorists that belong to Middle Eastern descent. Secondly, terrorism in general is an abomination to most countries in the world. Thirdly, Osama Bin Laden is the master mind behind the attack in the US. Fourthly, our foreign occupation has led to severe hatred of American policy in the Middle East. Finally, it is also undeniable that this war is religious in nature and has as its purpose the advancement of a religious cause.

This context makes at least one issue absolutely clear, and that is, that terrorists are responsible for the massacre that occurred on 9-11. Hence, the issue at hand is how a nation responds to terrorist attacks. A large number of Christians believe that this war is unjustified. This paper will now explore the arguments used by those who do not favor the war in Iraq following the same three criteria given by Aquinas.

According to the Bush administration, the preemptive strike in Iraq was another installment in its war against terrorism.[3] A preemptive war will bring about a highly desired regime change ousting Saddam Hussein and bringing freedom to the Iraq people. However, according to those who deny the necessity of a preemptive strike, the criteria used to determine the justification for war oppose the Iraq invasion. In fact, none of them have been met. The first criteria requires the nation to have a sufficient cause to preemptively strike. Historically, the church believed this involved a) self-defense b) against an act of aggression and c) used as a last resort.

The right to preempt an anticipated attack can be extrapolated from the self-defense principle if preemptive strikes meet a high standard of justification.[4] In other words, the attack being prevented must be imminent, not just speculative. If there is to be a preemptive strike mere conjecture or a vague fear of another attack is not sufficient reason to launch an attack. Of course, there are at least a couple of questions that can be raised at this point; does Saddam Hussein possess the weapons of mass destruction (known as WMD)? And also, if he does, does he intend to use them in the near future against the US or her allies? In light of recent discoveries, inspectors have produced a massive document commenting on their search and have discovered that Hussein does not possess WMD’s. This has been confirmed by numerous sources including Secretary of State Colin Powell and recently by President Bush. It seems that as a result of the Gulf War, Iraq had virtually its entire weapon’s program destroyed– including its nuclear weapons’ capability.

The second criteria in a Just War is a reasonable chance of success. Though this requirement is not decisive by itself, it proves to be another argument against the war in Iraq. George Husinger writes that any one who has read Tolstoy’s War and Peace or who remembers the Vietnam War should know that when success is made to sound too easy, skepticism is the order of the day. Precious human lives and scarce economic resources are at stake.[5] This is a considerably powerful argument since the US has her own example of a war that was thought to be easily won. The Vietnam War caused thousands of casualties and further pummeled the US economy for years. In the same manner, promises of prosperity and peace that were made regarding Iraq are now being postponed. In fact, there is even talk that the first elections ever held in Iraq may have to be postponed. So the war that appeared to be easily won is turning out to be similar to that of Vietnam. In this case, the money numbers are higher reaching, almost 200 Billion dollars spent in a war that in a sense has just begun.

One final criteria for a Just War is that there must be legitimate authority. If the US possesses legitimate authority then there may be some basis to launch a preemptive strike, but, here again, the facts are against it. Unilateral action by the United States to overthrow the government of another sovereign nation, writes George Bisharat, would constitute a grave breach of international law.[6]Yet this is exactly what the administration did. With the exception of England and Israel (and Poland) almost all other countries are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq. It appears that even in the domestic front major American political figures have spoken out against the war. In the end, it seems clear that the position held by those who deny a preemptive strike in Iraq seems very powerful and relatively convincing.

But, as in all fair discussions, there is another side of the story to which we now turn. President Bush has made the WMD’s a primary reason for invading Iraq post 9/11 (It is important to notice that there have been alterations in Bush’s arguments to invade Iraq since the WMD’s were proven to not have been in Iraq when war was declared). Once again the question at hand is: Was the war in Iraq justified? For those who affirm that war was justified– although the weapons were a key rationale for removing Saddam–the case was always broader. Robert Kagan writes that,

Saddam’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction was inextricably intertwined with the nature of his tyrannical rule, his serial aggression, his defiance of international obligations, and his undeniable ties to a variety of terrorists, from Abu Nidal to al Qaeda.[7]

This combination of evil behavior and a lack of compliance with international law such as the Geneva Convention made Saddam Hussein’s removal necessary and desirable. Both former President Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirm that this is the case. It is true that the weapons of mass destruction were a main factor resulting in the invasion of Iraq; however Hussein’s behavior and ties to terrorism were also justifications for the invasion, according to the Bush administration. Was there reasonable chance of victory? The answer here is a resounding yes. After all, the American troops alone boast of the most powerful military in the world. Further, with the removal of Hussein the chances of a faster triumph increase tremendously. The logic is simple: if the leader falls so does his army. But the US was well aware of the loyalty of Saddam’s military and that they would not give up. The objective here was to liberate the Iraqi people from the tyrannical rule of a man who has achieved through brute force total dominance at home; who raged war against Kuwait in 1990 and who spent billions of dollars on weapons, both conventional and unconventional. Behind the horrors of a dictator rests the even greater threat that Saddam would rebuild his military capability, including WMD’s, and use this arsenal against other nations and his own people. If the US did not move when it did, the consequences would have been horrific. Then, chances of winning the war would have decreased substantially.

Lastly, was there legitimate authority to wage war against Iraq? Perhaps this is the most controversial point. Though most of the world believed the US should not have invaded Iraq, President Bush and the Coalition had made a broad declaration of war on all “Terrorists.” The Iraq Liberation chronicled Saddam’s use of chemical weapons and declared that Iraq has persisted in a pattern of deception and concealment regarding the history of its weapons of mass destruction programs. It continued:

It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.[8]

Then September 11th occurred, which shocked the nation and the president. The attacks caused the administration to take a closer look at international threats, since it was clear that little attention had previously been given to them. In fact, neither of the candidates in 2000 gave any attention to Iraq as a threat even though there had been 10 years of confrontation with Iraq. This may appear to be more of a justification than an argument for legitimate authority, but this leads to the support received by the president to attack Saddam’s regime. With this threat in mind, it was no surprise that as President Bush began to move toward war with Iraq in the fall of 2002, he gained substantial approval and support from Democrats as well as Republicans. A majority of Democrat Senators including John Kerry and John Edwards voted in favor of the resolution to use force against Iraq. The President had all the authority he needed. At this point who would not support him, since the previous administration (Clinton) was a major voice in setting the tone for the demise of Hussein’s regime.

This analysis is anything but complete, but it reveals the strengths and weaknesses of both con and pro war positions. The pro war position has both emotional and factual appeal. When one considers the despair of a people who has been suffering under a tyrant for over a decade, it is a compelling argument to invade, remove and set people free. Factually, there is overwhelming support from both Democrats and world leaders such as Putin from Russia, that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s and that he was a threat. Further, even if the WMD’s are never found, still the question remains, “what should a president do with all the data in front of him confirming that Saddam Hussein has WMD’s and that he is an imminent threat?” These questions must be carefully considered.

On the other hand, the position that disagrees with the invasion of Iraq is appealing on numerous grounds. First, it appears to follow more closely the Just War Theory. The arguments for not fulfilling the Just War criteria seem to be more thorough and convincing. Secondly, the conclusion that the WMD’s were not present in Iraq at the time of the invasion gives credence to the idea that the preemptive strike was too hasty. Thirdly, if the concentration was on the War on Terrorists as Bush and the Coalition affirmed, then the war should be fought where terrorists were known to live such as in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan (though there are a small amount of troops on the latter location). Finally, the consequences of this war may be catastrophically dangerous. The economy has suffered immensely because of this war and countless lives have been lost. Though the people have been “free” from Saddam’s regime, the people still live in fear. The world continues to be divided and hatred towards America increases. The terrorists are still increasing in large number and the war shows no signs of ending. Augustine says that the use of force is necessary–though always regrettable–in a fallen world in order to restrain evil, but that its ultimate goal must be to restore peace.[9] Is the war in Iraq restoring peace to the world? Only time will tell. As of now, this war appears to be unjustified. It is not fulfilling Augustine’s goal in the use of force, but rather it seems to be decreasing the chances to restore peace.


BibliographyAugustine, The City of God, Book 19

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. II-II, Question 40, “On War.

Kagan, Robert and William Kristol “American’s Responsibility.” The

Weekly Standard, 15 September, 2003, 9-10.

Kagan, Robert and William Kristol “The Right War for the Right

Reasons.” The Weekly Standard, 23 February 2004, 20-28.

Hunsinger, George “Iraq: Don’t go there.” Christian Century, 14 August 2002, 10-11. Augustine, The City of God, Book 19Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. II-II, Question 40, “On War.

Hunsinger, George “Iraq: Don’t go there.” Christian Century, 14 August 2002, 10.

Ibid.,10.Ibid.,11.Kagan, Robert and William Kristol “American’s Responsibility.” The Weekly Standard, 15 September, 2003, 9.

Kagan, Robert and William Kristol “The Right War for the Right Reasons.” The Weekly Standard, 23 February 2004, 20.

Kagan, Robert and William Kristol “The Right War for the Right Reasons.” The Weekly Standard, 23 February 2004, 20-28.

Augustine, The City of God, Book 19

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Republican Party, War. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Just War Theory and the War in Iraq

  1. Anonymous says:

    All good except one big glaring problem as I see it. The whole notion of so-called “international law.” The United States has always had a love-hate relationship with the United Nations, and rightly so. The UN has often been a patsy for the Soviet Union in the past and for murderous dictatorial regimes in the present. The UN could be useful if it were to fulfill its mandates with impartiality but alas it is way too political for this to happen. When we cannot get people in the UN to even agree on what the term “terrorism” means then we have a real problem. A vast number of Muslim/Arab nations have affirmed that what Westerns describe as “terrorism” to them is justified retaliation against foreign opressors.

    In summary, “international law” is a joke, the United Nations is a worthless cash sinkhole full of corruption and teachery (see “Food for Oil” program, etc.) and often usurps sovreignty .


  2. U.T. Brito says:

    Hey Reformed,
    I sorta chuckled while reading your post since there is much truth to it. But further, because of the corruption of the UN. In fact, even yesterday Annan’s son condemned the UN for the food-for-oil debacle. I do believe America did not need permission from any other nation to go to war, but usually you will have at least some international support to back you up or to give you some confidence that what you are doing is correct. I mean, it’s ok to have Tony Blair’s support, but Blair is a lonely voice in England revealing that there is some hidden reason Blair is in all this. I don’t know… for the most part I do agree with you. I also assume you believe the war was unconstitutional, correct?

  3. Pingback: N.T. Wright, Evil, and War on Terror « Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

  4. Pingback: Foreign Policy Links | Resurrectio et Vita

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