Feature Articles from Inprint Newsletter (2001–2004): Justice after War

Dec 13, 2002

On October 11, 2002, President Bush back-pedaled from a suggested plan to install an American-led military government in Iraq, stating that the United States "would never seek to impose our culture or our form of government on another nation." Yet an administration that was elected on a platform of "no nation-building" now finds itself involved in rebuilding Afghanistan even as it contemplates "regime change" in Iraq.

At the heart of this matter lie some important moral questions. If the United States intends to bring about regime change as a matter of policy, what kind of commitment should it make in the aftermath? For instance, should the United States have some say in the composition of replacement governments? How should a former regime's leaders be punished?

The just war tradition is typically evoked when discussing the decision to launch a war (justice of war) and when evaluating the conduct of forces during war (justice in war). But the tradition does not explicitly specify principles for assessing justice after war, nor does it discuss state obligations upon achieving military victory.

Some argue that these concepts are inherent within the just war tradition, which states very clearly that the use of force must help pave the road to peace -- a road that does not end once victory is declared. Thomas L. Friedman summarizes this view when he says, "If you break it, you own it." Likewise, Brian Orend, in an article for Ethics & International Affairs, suggests that because war so radically alters the victim state's political system and society, a just war must seek to restore more than simply the status quo; it must also create conditions for a "more secure possession of rights."

Drawing on lessons from World War II, some have proposed that the United States commit to a Marshall Plan-sized dose of foreign aid to rebuild Iraq's economic infrastructure, should an invasion be total and complete. Another idea -- already broached by the Bush administration -- is for a U.S.-led occupation of Iraq modeled on its occupation of Japan after World War II. Both the Marshall Plan and occupied Japan represent successes in rebuilding formerly belligerent countries into peaceful democracies with strong economies. But are these models adaptable to Iraq -- or, for that matter, anywhere else?

Since the Cold War ended, force has been used as a means to resolve intrastate conflict in failed states such as Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti. Yet the international community still lacks clear principles for nation-building. Recent interventions -- in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Afghanistan -- may yield some lessons as to how to rebuild war-torn societies. At a minimum, they should prompt us to ask the right questions -- specifically in the justice-related areas of war crimes trials, truth commissions, and governmental restructuring.

Against this background, debates over the future of Iraq and other candidates for regime change must go beyond the vague language of "creating democracy." Coming up with practical ways to secure Iraqi Citizens' rights in a post-war government is well within the scope of U.S. responsibilities, despite the cultural, religious, and political challenges that "regime change" inevitably poses.

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