War With Iraq: Right or Wrong?

Jeffrey Tiel

August 1, 2002

The Bush administration has apparently been committed to war with Iraq for some time and also is apparently trying to convince the American public that its cause is just. But it is far from clear that the kinds of reasons publicly offered compel the conclusion that war is just. On the other hand, there may be excellent moral reasons to go to war.

One reason the President himself has often cited is the Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction. That this cannot be a sufficient reason for war should be clear from the fact that other nations such as England, France, and North Korea possess these weapons and yet no argument for warfare is being offered in those cases even though North Korea functions as an enemy of the United States and France is, well . . . France is what France is. Clearly, something more than being nasty and possessing weapons of mass destruction is necessary for the justification of warfare. It’s especially important for first world nations to realize the moral paradox they create when they insist on the deterrent imperative of their possession of such weapons while urging their fellow nations to commit to non-proliferation. All nations have the right of self-defense, and if that right entails the possession of deterrence weapons for one, then it entails the right of possession for any.

The President usually advances a corollary to the previous argument, namely that Saddam Hussein has used these weapons on his own people, or at least on people over which he rules, since Hussein’s definition of "own people" and the President’s appear to differ quite dramatically. Nevertheless, the President raises an intriguing point, that Hussein not merely possesses but uses these weapons, and not only uses them, but uses them unjustly. Does this warrant warfare though? Surely not, as tyrants have been killing their "own" people for centuries with all kinds of weapons without justifying warfare. The President’s Constitutional oath commits him to the military defense of these United States and Kurdistan is not such a state. No nation is morally bound to warfare in defense of any people other than its own, though it might be justified in intervening on behalf of a third party. But even if we were to debate the question of whether it would be prudent to engage Hussein on behalf of the Kurds, the Kurds are not now being attacked systematically by Hussein, nor are they undergoing any attack by weapons of mass destruction. Third-party defenses usually require some kind of imminent or ongoing harm.

A third argument that rarely is raised at this point is that under the terms of the Gulf War ceasefire, Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program was to be destroyed. This would eliminate any Iraqi claim to a national right to possess such weapons, since Iraq lost an unjust war and agreed to these terms. Hence, one might argue, the moral justification of the Gulf War itself could be used to justify a continuation of hostilities, since the ceasefire is technically null and void. While this argument offers a possible technical justification of at least some parts of the moral conditions for making war, it fails to address two critical points. First, just because a war might be technically permitted, it does not follow that it is prudent. The risk to American soldiers, themselves citizens under Constitutional protections, must be considered before engaging in a permissible war. Second, the original cause of the Gulf War has been rescinded, as the Kuwait monarchy is back in power, and no Iraqi forces are on Kuwaiti soil, so it is far from clear that the "original" justification could actually be employed. Hence, under this argument the war would have to be justified strictly on the basis of a treaty violation, when wars really require a justification that appeals to the severe and continued loss of human life and property.

That really leaves the administration with just one option: to connect Iraq with the already recognized, if not declared, war on terrorism. And since the President made clear from the beginning that he intends to make no distinction between those states that sponsor/harbor/protect terrorists and the terrorist organizations/members themselves, then war with Iraq is justified and prudent under our current war with terrorists. Cold war terror groups shriveled under the loss of their sponsoring states, because terrorist organizations with the abilities of Al Qaeda require the intelligence and funding of a state. The threat or actual destruction of the governing powers in such states, as seen in Afghanistan already, can significantly curb the international power of terrorist organizations. With their havens systematically destroyed, other governments currently or considering supporting terrorist operations will be faced with the loss of what tyrannical regimes love most, their own power.

One hitch in the argument appears to be the demand by some that a direct line of responsibility for the NYC attack be drawn to Iraq in order to justify war with Iraq. But this demand is clearly a mistake on both moral and legal grounds. There is no dispute that Iraq is engaged with many terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda, even if we grant for the sake of argument that the NYC attack was a surprise to Iraq. Nevertheless, since the war to crush terrorism requires the destruction of the governments of the sponsoring nations, when those governments have a choice to abandon that support and refuse to do so, they are fully responsible and therefore morally targetable in a war. Just as the United States held the Japanese army (whether they were aware of the Pearl Harbor planning or not) as well as the navy responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor, so all the elements of the openly declared war by Islamic-related terrorist groups and their sponsoring nations are targetable for destruction whether they knew about 9/11 or not. Being a part of the organization (even as loose as terrorist organizations might be,) not knowing all of its secrets, renders one a legitimate target in warfare. It is the recognition of this principle that permitted the RICO laws their tremendous effectiveness in undermining organized crime in the United States.

Finally, one might wonder whether this argument does not in fact justify military attacks on several other terrorist sponsoring states, and if so, why should war with Iraq be particularly pressing? First, the President is indeed justified in launching invasions of multiple nations (on his own strategic timetable), and carrying out such a program will have a terrifying effect on terrorist governments. Just as the Israelis should think seriously about killing all of Arafat’s national command structure (including Arafat) for its repeated use of terrorist attacks and then awaiting a Palestinian leader who seriously shuns terror (immediately destroying each successor that adopts the old tactics), so the United States should do or threaten the same to the multiple hostile terrorist states currently recognized. The loss of life and property has reached warfare proportions. And secondly, depending upon the classified information to which the President is privy, since Iraq may have an increasing ability to offer a weapons of mass destruction deterrent, he may think it not only morally justified (which we can tell) but prudentially wise (which we cannot tell) to make Iraq the next target. And if such is the case, since we have adopted representative government, our duty as citizens is to support him.

Jeffrey Tiel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Ashland University.