Jimmy Carter and Just War Theory

The Sunday morning news programs were reporting that former President Jimmy Carter had written an op-ed piece in the New York Times. A devout Christian, Carter was arguing that the potential war in Iraq did not fulfill the requirements of the “Just War Theory.” After reading the rather short piece, I am left wondering why no one was able to persuade the former president to re-work his ideas rather than embarrass himself with a rather pedestrian set of arguments. Either Carter does not understand Just War Theory, or he is being deliberately deceptive.

Carter’s first argument is that a majority of religious leaders are opposed to the war. Of course this is not really a self-contained argument at all, it is rather an appeal to authority. Perhaps, Carter is thinking about Pope John Paul II’s stand against this war, given that Catholic history provides the theoretical basis for the Just War Theory. Given Pope John Paul II’s experience as religious leader in an oppressed Poland, the Pope’s words should be given serious consideration. However, the Pope was against the first Gulf War that freed the Kuwaiti people from foreign domination and the War in Kosovo that prevented further ethnic cleansing. The Pope was well-intentioned and wrong on both counts. Although there are questions about the precise role of Pope Pius XII in World War II, it is obvious in retrospect that the Pope should have done more to use his moral authority to oppose Hitler. In the 1980s, the national Catholic leadership in the United States opposed the deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe and even the idea of “deterrence.” This does not represent a distinguished record of judgment on geopolitical matters.

Carter notes that some “spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention” support the war, but then disparagingly suggests that they are “greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological, or final days, theology.” He does not explain why they were wrong, just implies that a commitment to Israel makes it difficult to be objective about the matter. Given Carter’s own relationship with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, would it be fair to dismiss Carter’s subsequent arguments? Surely, Carter could have developed this line of reasoning rather than firing a “drive-by” argument without hanging around to present a complete case.

Carter correctly points out that to be just, a war must represent the last resort. Carter claims, “it is obvious that clear alternatives to war exist.” In a metaphysical sense, this is always true. Acquiescence to a dictator is certainly always a way to prevent the immediate prospect of war. The question is more complex than flippantly presented by Carter. Waiting until the last resort simply means that all realistic efforts to resolve the issue should be exhausted. Is there any question, but that after 12 years Saddam Hussein will not voluntarily disarm, especially when he hasn’t when faced with over a quarter of a million allied troops? Delay would probably ease the pressure and make Hussein’s compliance even less likely.

Just War Theory requires the force must be proportionate and directed at combatants. Carter rewords the argument and stands it on its head: “the war’s weapons must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants,” subtly suggesting that unattainable military perfection is required. Here, Carter gives no guidance as to how to balance the good that will be achieved versus the likely “collateral damage.” Surely, no military in history has been as careful to avoid civilian casualties. Where is Carter’s argument? Why waste valuable space on the New York Times op-ed page if you decline to marshal any facts for your case?

Just War Theory requires, according to Carter, that “violence must be proportional to the injury we have suffered.” Carter’s entire argument here, word-for-word is, “Despite Saddam Hussein’s other serious crimes, American efforts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been unconvincing.” Is that it? Is that his entire argument? No one has argued that this war is to pay back Iraq for 9/11. Rather, it is that the world will be substantially safer if an unbalanced leader, who continues to cooperate with various terrorist groups, is deprived of weapons of mass destruction.

Just War Theory actually requires that the force used be proportional to the good achieved. The way Carter suggests that the “violence must be proportional to the injury” implies violence for the purpose of retribution or vengance, which is not allowed under Just War Theory. Just War Theory requires that the good outweighs the application of violence. Another, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel explains this best, “Saddam Hussein is a murderer. He should be indicted for crimes against humanity for what he has done… I am behind the president totally in his fight against terrorism. If Iraq is seen in that context, I think [Bush] can make a case for military intervention.”

Carter states that Just War Theory requires, “The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.” This is Carter’s way of saying that unless the United Nations approves, the war is not just. Actually, Carter’s phrasing is disingenuous. Just War Theory requires that to be just, a war must be conducted by a legitimate authority. It does not spell out the nature of this legitimacy. Congress has granted the president the necessary authority. Carter’s argument suggests that the US president with authority granted by Congress does not constitute a legitimate authority unless the United Nations backs the action. Under such a criteria, the War in Kosovo that stopped vicious ethnic cleansing by a modern Fascist, a war not approved by the United Nations, was not just. Did Carter make that argument then? Moreover, when the United Nations did not authorize intervention in Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands were killed, it lost much of its moral authority to sanction anything.

Carter rightly argues that for a war to be just, the peace that is established “must be a clear improvement over what exists.” May I respectfully suggest that for an ex-president safely living in Georgia, life will not be appreciable changed. However, for the people of Iraq, the situation will likely get substantially better. It could hardly get worse.

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