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Was Iraq a just war?

By David Fisher

There has been much recent debate about whether the 2003 Iraq War was legal, with both Tony Blair and his Attorney General summoned before the Chilcot enquiry to give evidence on this. But a more fundamental question is whether the war was moral.

On this question the Chilcot enquiry has been silent, perhaps reflecting a more general scepticism in society about whether moral questions can have objective answers. But there is a way of thinking going back to Aquinas, Aristotle and beyond that insists that there are rationally based ways to answer moral questions.

A key contribution to this is furnished by the just war tradition. This sets a number of tests which have to be met if a war is to be just. It has to be undertaken: for a just cause, with right intention, with competent authority, as a last resort, and the harm judged likely to result should not outweigh the good achieved, taking into account the probability of success; while in its conduct the principles of proportion and non-combatant immunity have to met; and the war end in a just peace.

This may appear over-prescriptive: erecting so many hurdles that war would become impossible. But the just war tradition recognises that wars can be just and may sometimes be necessary. What the tradition insists on are two fundamental requirements, as simple as they are rationally compelling: is there a just cause and will the harm likely to be caused by military action outweigh the good to be achieved by that cause? In other words, is war likely to bring about more good than harm?

So how does the Iraq War fare against these criteria?

Different reasons were adduced at different times for the war. But the declared grounds common to both the US and UK Governments was to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, so enforcing UN Security Council Resolutions.

We now know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. But even that startling disclosure by the Iraq Survey Group would not necessarily invalidate the coalition’s disarmament objective as just cause if there had been strong grounds for believing that Saddam had such weapons.

The problem is that the evidence for such weapons was ‘sporadic and patchy’ in the words of the official Butler report. The Governments’ claim that they were acting on behalf of the UN was also weakened by the lack of substantial international support for military operations, evidenced by the reluctance of the Security Council explicitly to endorse such action through a second resolution. This, in turn, reflected concern that military action was not being undertaken as a last resort: that Saddam should have been given more time to convince the inspectors he had abandoned WMD.  Doubt over whether each of these just war conditions was met did not amount to a knock-down argument against war. But the doubts taken together mutually reinforced each other and so strengthened concern that there was not a sufficient just cause. 

It is, moreover, the single most serious charge against those who planned the Iraq War that they massively under-estimated the harm that would be likely to be caused by military action. Coalition leaders could not reasonably be expected to have forecast the precise casualty levels that would follow military action. But the coalition leaders can be criticised for failing to give sufficient consideration to what would be the effects of regime change and for not formulating robust plans promptly to re-establish civil governance in its wake and ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. They thus acted with a degree of recklessness. Just as they had undertaken worst case assessments of Saddam’s WMD capability, so they had undertaken best case assessments of what would happen after the regime had been changed.

The Iraq War was, like most wars, fought from a mixture of motives. But the concerns over WMD proliferation were genuinely held, however shaky may have been their foundation. The tragedy of the Iraq conflict is that those responsible were trying to make the world a better and safer place and were supported by military forces that have, on the whole, exhibited remarkable restraint and courage. But, as the just war doctrine – forged from painful experience over the centuries – teaches, noble aspirations are not enough.

The war failed fully to meet any of the just war criteria. This gives grounds for concern. The charge against the Iraq War is not, however, that it fell somewhat short of a number of conditions. But rather that such individual failures, when taken together, mutually reinforced each other, so building up cumulatively to support the conclusion that the war was undertaken without sufficient just cause and without adequate planning to ensure a just outcome. It thus failed the two key tests that have to be met before a war can be justly undertaken, designed to ensure that military action is only initiated if more good than harm is likely to result.

Our political leaders may have had noble objectives. But moral fervour is not enough to ensure right decisions are taken. Moral reasoning needs to be guided by the judicious exercise of practical wisdom, which political leaders are required to exercise in its highest form, called by Aquinas statesmanship. It was such statesmanship that was signally lacking in the decision to embark on military action in 2003.

David Fisher is a Visiting Senior Fellow at King’s College, London, where he completed a PhD in War Studies. He has served in senior positions in the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office, and Cabinet Office, including Defence Advisor to the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office and the UK Defence Counsellor to NATO. He is the author of Morality and War: Can War be Just in the Twenty-First Century?.

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  1. Food for Thought

    A Just War or Just A war?

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