The war against terror is a just war when viewed through the prism of the just war tradition, as it certainly satisfies the requirements of jus as bellum, jus in bellum, and jus post bellum. In this essay I shall describe how the war against terror meets the just war theory standards for each of these criterion; in addition, I shall discuss the faulty arguments of those for whom no war, including this one, can ever be just.
Mark Evans, in Moral Theory and the Idea of a Just War, presents a just war theory with standards that can be applied in determining whether a war is, in fact, just (Evans, 12-13). The first of three criteria in the theory is Jus ad bellum (just cause). Evans further defines this as “the moral right to wage war”, and places upon it conditions, such as that the cause be “sufficiently great”, that “warfare is genuinely a last resort,” and that there not be some sort of ulterior motive to the warfare beyond the stated cause. (Evans, 12)
For the United States, the war against terror is generally agreed to have been inaugurated in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. Prior to this time, the United States had been content to react modestly to occasional isolated attacks upon its interests. Typically, these attacks were upon military targets in the Middle East and Europe, the American casualties were service members and the numbers were small. With the exception of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the territory of the United States itself had not been targeted, and American officials pursued suspects in the theatre of international criminal law.
On September 11, 2001, that era ended. The attacks left nearly three thousand dead and perhaps more importantly, forever removed the sense of geographic isolation that Americans had felt in regard to international terrorism. Just a week later, on September 18, 2001, Congress authorized the use of military force against terrorists, and the “war on terror” had begun. The authorization granted the President power to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those whom he determined "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11 attacks, or those who harbored such individuals or groups. This pronouncement also satisfied the just war requirement that a duly constituted authority publicly declare war and defend that declaration. (Evans, 13)
In satisfying the jus ad bellum criterion, the war on terror is certainly a just cause, and “sufficiently great as to warrant warfare.” The enemy in this war, terrorists, seeks to overturn legitimate governments, threaten to undermine the rule of law and the safety and security of the world’s inhabitants. They kill indiscriminately and without warning, and more often than not, innocent civilians are their victims. Their attacks destabilize societies and cause billions of dollars in damages. Terrorists seek to compel submission to their will by premeditated acts of extreme violence, which strikes at the heart of civilization itself. If ever there was an enemy worthy of opposition by the people of the world, it is this enemy.
Another basis for establishing a just cause is that war was a last resort. For terrorists, negotiation is not an option; they present demands, which, if satisfied, are then followed by more acts of terror, and greater demands. To negotiate with a terrorist is to give him encouragement, and so is counter productive. Legal avenues are often explored, but rarely do they yield satisfactory results. In the case of terrorists, only organized warfare promises to stem the flow of attacks.
The second aspect of Evans’ just war theory is jus in bello (to fight a war justly). In which there must be “discrimination in the selection of targets”, “proportionality in the use of force required to secure the just objectives”, “just treatment of all non-combatants” and the strict observation of international law governing the conduct of war. (Evans, 13) Each of these conditions have been met by the United States in its war on terror, with varying degrees of success. American military forces have sought to avoid civilian deaths whenever possible, have tried to guarantee humane treatment of prisoners and have prosecuted its members who have been in violation of directives in this area. When Americans have been found to be guilty of crimes against non-combatants, the United States has taken responsibility and publicly admitted its failures. Little more could be reasonably asked in time of war.
Important parts of jus in bello are the principles of necessity, proportionality and discrimination, and these principles are outlined in the book War Crimes and Just War by Larry May. In examining these issues, May focuses on the additional principle of humane treatment as one that allows the others to interact with each other. In his book, May asserts “the principle of humane treatment is the cornerstone of international humanitarian law as well as the bridge to human rights law.” (May, 198) For him, the central concept is that a military tactic must be the “‘least intrusive instrument’ of those tactics that could achieve the desired military objective” and further that the doctrine of “necessity is limited by proportionality.” (May, 203) Since the events of 2001, the United States has consistently acted out of necessity, tempered by proportionality and discrimination, which allows the war on terror to be correctly called a just war.
In addressing the value that a democratic society places on human rights, May relates the instance of an Israeli Supreme Court prohibiting any type of torture “because they simply are not consistent with a society that values human dignity…” (May, 217) The United States has found the area of individual human rights to be most problematic, as it involves persons who may or may not be combatants. In the war on terror, it can be difficult to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, and this confusion over status leads to confusion over the rights of the detained. The struggle of the United States to uncover this distinction and to react appropriately, however, does not make this an unjust war.
The third and final criterion is jus post bellum (securing the justice sought in the resort to war). Since the beginning of the war on terror, the United States has taken nearly total responsibility for rebuilding the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq, at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Rather than abandoning the people of these nations, the United States has, at the additional cost of thousands of American lives, stayed to work with local leaders who seek to create stable, free governments where tyranny once existed. The Bush administration, which basked in the glow of an easy military victory in Iraq, has suffered politically since the end of the war as it tries to maintain that commitment. It cannot be said that the America abdicated its responsibility “in constructing a just and stable peace.” (Evans, 13)
Norm Chomsky, in A Just War? Hardly, has argued that because the United Nations never sanctioned the United States’ war on terror, it lacked legal authority and can never be considered a just war. He cites Article 51 of the UN Charter, which “bars the…use of force unless authorized by the Security Council or …in self defense against armed attack.” (Chomsky, 2) In refuting this, it can be easily argued that the United States did suffer an armed attack on September 11, 2001 and therefore responded appropriately. At the very least, it must be admitted that nations do not surrender their sovereignty upon admission to the United Nations, and that the United States retained its right to eliminate threats to its people. The Al Qaeda terrorist network presents a real, present and continuing danger to the American people and the armed forces of the United States work daily to eliminate that threat, the United Nations not withstanding.
Other objections are largely theological in nature. La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit monthly magazine, in keeping with its Roman Catholic perspective, declares all war to be always evil. (La Civiltà Cattolica, 108) It pronounces the first Gulf War evil simply because there was death and destruction involved in the liberation of Kuwait and it assures us that “there are always peaceful mechanisms for settling conflicts.” (La Civiltà Cattolica, 117) The magazine seems to have conveniently forgotten that for five months before the start of the Gulf War “peaceful mechanisms” were employed, such as economic embargoes, to compel the Iraqis to leave Kuwait, but they refused. During this time, the people and resources of Kuwait were being brutalized daily.
To understand the position of La Civiltà Cattolica is to admit that war is incompatible with modern Catholic teaching, regardless of the real world implications of such doctrine. Thankfully, modern industrial states do not consult with religious leaders regarding matters of national security.
The war on terror, by satisfying the criteria presented, is a just war, if one is of the opinion that any war can be just. It began in response to an unprovoked attack by those who threaten the security of free societies, it continued with proportionality and discrimination, and it works toward a world of peace and stability, even at the cost of many lives and much treasure. Where there have been flaws in its execution, they have been honestly made and truly regretted. In the objective application of standards of just war, the world community cannot but admit that the war on terror is a truly noble struggle against a dishonorable foe.