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‘Just War’ Theorists Weigh Impact Of U.S. Strikes on Terrorist Camps

BY Joseph Esposito

August 30-September 5, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/30/98 at 2:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON—Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican who represented Michigan in the Senate from 1928 to 1951, is largely remembered for his statement, “In foreign policy, all politics stops at the water's edge.”

This call to bipartisanship is still largely followed when U.S. interests are perceived to be in jeopardy.

So when President Clinton launched missile strikes at terrorist camps in Sudan and Afghanistan Aug. 20, he was given strong support from Congress and the American public. This was in sharp contrast to the criticism he has received as a result of the Lewinsky scandal, which has tarnished his presidency.

Broad endorsement for the U.S. government's action also was based on the recognition that terrorism, which has invaded the lives of many Americans during the past two decades, needs to be decisively addressed. Many were horrified by the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania Aug. 7, which claimed 12 American and nearly 300 African lives.

Despite this understandable sense of patriotic support and moral outrage, people of faith often question and pray whether particular military actions, which sometimes claim innocent lives, are just. That is an appropriate response because Church teachings have encouraged us to do so.

For Catholics and, indeed, for other Christians and even non-Christians, one enduring standard here has been the concept of “just war.” Partly built on the framework developed by St. Augustine, the doctrine is largely attributable to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th-century doctor of the Church.

The just war theory stipulates when military force is morally appropriate (jus ad bellum) and what action is reasonable (jus in bello). To determine whether force can be justified, several standards need to met, including whether the cause is just, whether the intent of the action is reasonable, and whether the response is made under lawful authority.

Among other considerations are proportionality — whether the magnitude of the response is consistent with the transgression — and taking care that innocent people are not punished. Retribution itself is not sufficient reason to wage war.

Several 20th century popes have addressed the issue of war, including Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Probably the most notable guidance to come from American Church leaders is the bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, issued in 1983.

This letter restates just war theory, especially in the context of the nuclear age. The complexity of the concept today is noted in the following passage: “For resort to war to be justified, all peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted. There are formidable problems in this requirement.”

In an effort to present a clearer understanding of how this early Christian doctrine might be better understood today, particularly as it applies to terrorism, the Register consulted several leading experts in the field. Most reiterated the value of just war, but a few raised questions that thoughtful Catholics might wish to consider.

Gerard Powers, executive director of the Office for International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Catholic Conference, said, “The just war tradition is still relevant to international affairs, and it provides a set of moral criteria to guide leaders and citizens in deciding when and how force can be morally justified.”

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has not issued a statement on the recent missile strikes, but Powers, who is an expert on the ethics of war, suggests that preemptive, self-defensive strikes against terrorism are not unreasonable.

“Government — the United States and the international community — has a moral responsibility to effectively reduce the threat of terrorism.” But, he asked, “What is the moral way to respond?”

Imminent threat, ongoing aggression, and the need for self defense — all of which appear to be present in the threat of terrorism — are among those criteria that would suggest a military response is appropriate, he added.

More troubling to Powers is that the Aug. 20 attacks are clearly not a “one-shot deal.” Should a likely long-term struggle against terrorism develop, he said, Catholic teaching would suggest that an international, rather than a purely U.S. response, would be more desirable.

Dr. Daniel Pipes, the editor of Middle East Quarterly, believes we are in a protracted struggle, one that began in the early 1980s.

“A war has been declared on us the last 15 years by a motley group. More Americans have died in terrorist attacks than in any other violence since the Vietnam War,” he said.

Such aggression, Pipes contended, requires the United States to respond forcefully to what he characterizes as “an Islamic flavor to totalitarianism.” He believes we are confronted with a violent ideology in the Marxist, Leninist, and Fascist tradition. He stresses that ideology, not religion, is the key to understanding the motivations of these terrorists.

This idea that war has been declared on the United States by terrorist groups also resonates with Dr. Ernest Lefever, a noted political philosopher and founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“In this case,” he said, “I regard — as President Reagan did — a deliberate attack on American facilities as an act of war. The tricky part is that the state did not perform this attack.”

Lefever, an advisor on terrorism to the State Department in the 1980s, said, “I believe it is legitimate for the United States to destroy terrorist camps. Putting a terrorist organization out of commission is a strike for peace and freedom.”

But, he added, in the context of just war tradition, “great care must be taken to spare citizens, where possible.” A holder of a divinity degree and doctorate in Christian ethics as well as a colleague of the late Reinhold Niebuhr, Lefever clearly sees the vital link between ethics, religion, and public policy. He told the Register, “Churches should teach the doctrine of just war.”

Charles Lichenstein, a former ambassador to the United Nations and now a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, added to the discussion by offering his views on deterrence and proportionality.

The expert on terrorism said, “Proportionality must not only be measured in actual acts of terrorism, but how much force is necessary to deter them. Pinpricks usually do not do the job. Deterrence is part of your judgment of proportionality, in my judgment.”

While supporting Clinton's action, he also raised issues to be considered in this and similar attacks. One of the “ifs,” as he calls it, is whether the right people were targeted. Intelligence and good advance police work are ways to minimize inappropriate strikes.

He expressed concern that even in precision strikes, there will be peripheral and coincidental loss of life. Innocent lives are likely to be taken, he said, and “that is always a problem for those who have a conscience.”

Another prominent thinker on just war theory is Father John Langan, a Jesuit at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. He reiterated that “Just war theory really is designed for conflicts between states. One of the basic assumptions is proper authority, and that is a state.”

Although the adversary often is unclear, “there's no question that the group that struck at the embassies showed their contempt for the norms of just war thinking. It is important to note that the folks on the other side are not playing by the rules,” he said.

Still, he continued, “The crucial question is whether it was, indeed, true that we were at risk for taking more attacks from this group. If so, it's a last resort issue,” which makes force justified under Aquinas's theory.

“This is a murky world,” the priest added. “Our government relies on its intelligence sources, and it's never as clean as moral analysts or journalists would like it to be.”

Another perspective was given by Diane Knippers, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, an organization that represents mainline Protestant churches.

“I consider just war criteria a tool — an essential tool — for government and military leaders,” she said. “The only people who can apply the theory are these officials.”

“Most government and military leaders are not adequately trained” to understand the concept, so “it's the role of the Church to teach and preach these ethical principles. But it's not the role of clerics to prejudge the application of them,” Knippers added.

Interestingly, noted Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, some of the ideas embodied in the just war theory are not restricted to the Christian tradition. Rabbi Eckstein, the president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, said, “There is a very clear line of thought that runs through Jewish law and tradition: ‘If someone is coming to murder you, you may kill him first.’”

“This is very ingrained in Jewish thought,” he said. This helps explain the military policy of Israel, the rabbi emphasized, particularly the idea of preemptive strikes. He suggested further that a disproportionate response might even be appropriate if it has a deterrent effect.

Yet, he added, “exercising power doesn't give license to abuse.” The Israeli army practices the idea of “purity of arms,” in which power, necessity, and morality are all balanced. One way to practice restraint is to first pursue diplomacy, then boycotts and other means, and only finally resort to military action.

It would be misleading to imply that support for the president's action was unanimous and even that the just war concept — or similar manifestations of it — is universally accepted. One alternative view is offered by Father John Dear, a Jesuit and executive director of the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation, headquartered in Nyack, N.Y.

Father Dear quoted the late Bishop Carroll Dozier of Memphis, Tenn. (1971-82), who said, “Just war theory belongs in the same drawer as the flat-earth theory.”

The priest said, “I believe the just war theory doesn't hold anymore because of the kinds of weapons we now have.” Proportionality is the key to him. “Warfare has changed. The criteria [for just war] can't be met anymore,” he argued.

“Terrorism cannot be stopped by further terrorism. We condemn these latest bombings, just as we condemn the terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies, and we call for creative non-violent means to solve international conflict. There are such means available. It is time to use them,” he said.

Despite the views of Father Dear and other proponents of nonviolence, support for the Aug. 20 retaliation has been strong. There is, however, a diversity of views as to whether such strikes can always be assumed to be moral and just, under the teachings of the Catholic Church and other religious groups.

The concept of just war, although ingrained in our cultural ethos, may or may not need refining in the nuclear age, but it continues to give many insights into what might constitute appropriate action.

It also provides an opportunity for vital introspection for those who are trained and willing to do so. As with so many rich traditions that the Church has preserved, it causes us to think about our impulses and their potential consequences.

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.

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