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March 21, 2003

War with Iraq

This special report consists of a collection of statements on the ethical aspects of the war on Iraq. The statements were made by leading thinkers in the field of ethics and international affairs, several of whom have appeared recently at Carnegie Council events (where possible, links are provided to the full document in our online resource library). The quotes are clustered beneath the following areas:


  1. Norms for declaring war
  2. The rights and wrongs of unilateralism
  3. Norms for conduct during war
  4. Norms for reconstruction, nation-building after war
  5. The moral/religious/ethical dimension

1) Norms for declaring war

"The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed," said President Bush in his 3/18/03 war ultimatum speech. He went on:

We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over. With these capabilities, Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies could choose the moment of deadly conflict when they are strongest. We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities.

The cause of peace requires all free nations to recognize new and undeniable realities. In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.

Terrorists and terror states do not reveal these threats with fair notice, in formal declarations -- and responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now.

Is the above rationale sufficient to justify preemptive strikes and a policy of regime change in Iraq (as well as elsewhere)? Or is the need for legality and legitimacy even more important for a country like the United States, to serve as a kind of check on its overwhelming military might? Here are some comments and ideas:

MICHAEL BYERS, Duke University Law School: The Bush administration's Security Strategy, by stretching the criteria of imminence, would introduce greater ambiguity into the law and thus would confer greater power on the already powerful. Claiming special knowledge based on secret intelligence, the United States will be able to argue that the criteria of imminence are filled whenever it wishes to act militarily, and that they are not fulfilled when other states wish to do the same. Thus the most powerful of states would become free to act as they choose. From "The Ethics of the Preemptive Use of Force" in Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17.1 [Spring 2003] (go to journal roundtable).

NICHOLAS ROSTOW, U.S. Department of State: Certain states and groups regard terrorism as a cheap, effective weapon and use it with no notice and to devastating effect. The important questions today include what constitutes an immediate threat and what kinds of weapons are at issue. International law recognizes a right of anticipatory self-defense when it is reasonable under the circumstances. Those circumstances include policies of hostility to the United States and willingness to use terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. From his contribution to the Carnegie Council's 11/14/02 roundtable event on the morality of preemptive force. Notably, these views are Rostow's own and not necessarily those of the State Department.

CHARLES KUPCHAN, Georgetown University (author of The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century): Rather than practicing and striving for preeminence, [the United States] should practice strategic restraint. A country that is as powerful as this country, if it is unrestrained, scares the hell out of the rest of the world. I fear that we Americans are today compromising our most precious commodity, our international legitimacy -- the sense that we are a benign power who plays by the rules. I fear we will wake up in Baghdad about three weeks from now to find the world a very lonely place, and we will have done ourselves no favors if that is the case, nor will we have done the world any favors. I'm actually on the fence about whether I would personally go to war on the narrow issue of Iraq. As soon as I bring the second basket [of issues] into the picture -- that most of the world is against this war, and that the United States will launch a war that will be seen as perhaps legal but illegitimate -- I firmly come down on the side of let's not go to war. Let's put 14,000 weapons inspectors in there; let's occupy the country; but let's do it all without war. Sooner or later, somebody will kill Saddam. From his remarks at a 2/27/03 Carnegie Council program (go to transcript).

NETA CRAWFORD, Brown University: How much and what kind of evidence is necessary to justify preemption? As Michael Walzer has argued persuasively in Just and Unjust Wars, simple fear cannot be the only criteria. If fear justifies assault, then the occasions for attack will be potentially limitless since, according to the Bush administration's own arguments, we cannot always know with certainty what the other side has, where it might be located, or when it might be used. The temptation to step over the line between preemption and preventive war should be avoided. The stress of living in fear should be assuaged by true prevention -- arms control, disarmament, negotiations, confidence-building measures, and the development of international law. From "The Ethics of the Preemptive Use of Force" in Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17.1 [Spring 2003] (go to journal roundtable).

THOMAS NICHOLS, U.S. Naval War College: The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor led by a dictator willing to run imprudent risks, including an attack on the civilians of a noncombatant nation during the Persian Gulf War; a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians; a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the terms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty, to say nothing of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions before and since the Persian Gulf War; a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts. Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime (and wars have started over less), but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. From "The Ethics of the Preemptive Use of Force" in Ethics & International Affairs, Vol. 17.1 [Spring 2003] (go to journal roundtable).

MICHAEL WALZER, Princeton University (author of Just and Unjust Wars): The United States is marching to war as if there were no alternative. The way to avoid a big war is to intensify the little war that the United States is already fighting. It is using force against Iraq every day -- to protect the no-flight zones and to stop and search ships heading for Iraqi ports. The little war is almost entirely the work of American and British forces; the opponents of the big war have not been prepared to join or support or even acknowledge the work that the little war requires. But Mr. Bush could stop the American march toward the big war if he challenged the French (and the Germans and the Russians) to join the little war. From Michael Walzer, "What a Little War in Iraq Could Do," New York Times (7 March 2003), p. A27. Michael Walzer delivered the Council's 20th Morgenthau lecture and recently gave a Carnegie Council talk on the book he co-authored with journalist Peter Maass on the politics of humanitarian intervention (go to transcript).

JOSEPH S. NYE, Harvard University (author of The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone): We are going to want someone to pay for all this. And that is when you discover the cost of relying too much on efficiency, and not enough on establishing the legitimacy of your military actions. Quoted in "A New Doctrine for War," by David E. Sanger, New York Times (18 March 2003), p. A14. Joseph Nye recently gave a Carnegie Council talk on his new book, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Lone Superpower Can't Go It Alone (go to transcript).

2) The rights and wrongs of unilateralism

In his 3/18/03 war ultimatum speech, President Bush stated:

The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security. That duty falls to me, as Commander-in-Chief, by the oath I have sworn, by the oath I will keep.

The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.

Should national law take precedence over international law in determining the right to go to war? Was it morally -- if not legally -- necessary for the United States to get Security Council approval for the use of force on Iraq? Was the United States right to abandon the effort to win the approval of its long-time European allies like France and Germany? Here are some comments and ideas:

WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: If the United Nations worked great -- if the United Nations had saved hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda, and if the United Nations had been effective in Srebrenica, and if the United Nations were a body that really was effective at doing what it was supposed to do -- I think Americans would have a different attitude towards it. One has to judge by results, and so I'm a skeptic about the United Nations, and I suspect the Bush administration is as well, which isn't to say that the UN doesn't do lots of useful things and it’s not going to continue to function. My simple point again is that one can be committed to working with allies without necessarily deferring to the United Nations, or without assuming that every alliance and multilateral relationship is of equal importance or of equal status . . . From his remarks, with Lawrence Kaplan, at a 3/5/03 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

STANLEY HOFFMANN, Harvard University (an expert on war and the trans-Atlantic alliance): There is no room in the UN charter for [President Bush's] doctrine of pre-emption, for anticipatory self-defense. Quoted in "A New Doctrine for War," by David E. Sanger, New York Times, 18 March 2003, p. A1. Stanley Hoffmann delivered the Council's 7th Annual Morgenthau Lecture, The Political Ethics of International Relations.

MICHAEL WALZER, Princeton University (co-author of The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention): I can’t help thinking that had the UN been more successful in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, its authority in places like Iraq would be much greater than it is today and it would be much harder to threaten war without regard to UN decision procedures. If there is ever to be an effective rule of law in international society, what more plausible place to start, than with collective action against mass murder? If the UN isn’t effective there, then who is going to trust it to be effective anywhere else? So that’s another argument that connects humanitarian intervention to national interest, everyone’s national interest. The UN is used these days by people who want to avoid any use of force for any purpose. Turning to the UN has become a way of looking for inaction. From his remarks, with Peter Maass, at a 10/16/02 Carnegie Council book talk (go to transcript).

KISHORE MAHBUBANI, Singaporean ambassador the UN: The United Nations can serve some strategic interests of the United States. What the organization needs in return is leadership, not reform. Only the United States can provide it. With its enormous global interests, especially post-9/11, no country would benefit more from a norm-driven world than the United States. Imagine the United States promoting the principles of good government and the rule of law through the [UN General] Assembly. That would change the current negative chemistry of the world. Quoted in "If the U.N. Were Being Created Today: Some Ideas," New York Times (15 March 2003), p. B10. Kishore Mahbubani is a frequent attender at the Council's Merrill House Programs. He presented at a Carnegie Council breakfast a few months after 9/11 (go to transcript).

CHARLES KUPCHAN, Georgetown University (author of The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century): [The United States] ought to not just back away from international institutions but recommit to and revitalize them, because these institutions are the lifeblood of a world that doesn't operate by the savage rules of the balance of power. I fear that we are scuttling these institutions because we think we can get away with it as we have so much power; but we are likely to need those institutions a few years down the road -- NATO, the UN, the Kyoto Protocol, the ICC -- only to find them in shambles. We will then have no one but ourselves to blame because it was the U.S. that walked away. As a matter of urgency, we must try to redress the way this country is going, because I fear that we are doing grievous damage to our own interests as well as to the broader international community. From his remarks at a 2/27/03 Carnegie Council book talk (go to transcript).

JOSEPH S. NYE, Harvard University (author of The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone): [During the 1990s], in addition to this growth of what I call indifference to the rest of the world, there was a tendency toward what the columnist Charles Krauthammer has proclaimed as the "new unilateralism," that the United States, because it is so strong, because it is unipolar, ought to act unilaterally; we should not let ourselves be tied down by others. And you've got people like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan writing about American hegemony. There was a new attitude that went with this. I think the danger of all this is that it gave rise to this attitude that I would call "triumphalism." [Many of the international issues that matter] are inherently multilateral. So even if you say, as Krauthammer and other unilateralists have said, "When I want to bomb a country, I don't need anybody else," guess what? You are looking in one-dimensional thinking. And if you are looking at how the world is changing, you have to think three-dimensionally. If you are going to play three-dimensional chess by looking at one board only, guess what? You are going to lose. From his remarks at a 3/6/02 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

ROBERT KAGAN, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (author of Of Paradise and Power: America Vs. Europe in the New World Order): As the threat of the Cold War -- and its bifurcated view of the world -- ended, it was possible for the Europeans to sincerely imagine that you can throw away power politics and military force altogether in international affairs. In the general European view, the main obstacle today to achieving that [vision] is not Saddam Hussein, nor Kim Jong Il; it is the United States, because if the world's only superpower insists on operating according to time-honored Hobbesian principles of international order -- where force is a necessary adjunct to diplomacy and where war is an inescapable reality in dealing with many parts of the world -- the United States, therefore, stands as the greatest enemy and threat to what Europeans believe they are trying to accomplish. From his 2/4/03 remarks at a Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

ROBERT MCNAMARA, former U.S. defense secretary and co-author of Wilson's Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century: The United States is not omniscient. We need to persuade other nations with comparable interests of our need to use force. We would not have been in Vietnam if we had followed this rule. None of our allies supported this war. From his remarks at a 6/5/03 Carnegie Council breakfast.

PETER MAASS, journalist (co-author of The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention): For quite a long time, particularly in Bosnia, the main argument against U.S. intervention, promoted by Warren Christopher, was that the Europeans didn’t want to go along with us, that we should not do something of this nature without the Europeans doing it with us and approving, and that we probably couldn’t even do it on our own. Afghanistan has shown, and Iraq is likely to show, that there is so much that we can do on our own. We shouldn’t be reckless in trying to do it, but we shouldn’t, on the other hand, make an excuse of saying that there are lots of things we can’t do, that are militarily beyond us, because fighting genocide, using irregular warfare on our part, is something we can do that is effective and will not necessarily lead to another Vietnam. From his remarks, with Michael Walzer, at a 10/16/02 Carnegie Council book talk (go to transcript).

3) Norms for conduct during war

In his 3/20/03 address on the start of the war on Iraq, President Bush declared:

In this conflict America faces an enemy that has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality.

Saddam Hussein has placed Iraqi troops and equipment in civilian areas, attempting to use innocent men, women and children as shields for his own military. A final atrocity against his people.

I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm.

But as the war proceeds and pressure grows to end it quickly -- and the Iraqis try such tactics as placing noncombatants in close proximity to military targets -- might (and should) the coalition forces pay less regard to the risk of civilian casualties? How much can be justified by the "fog of war"? Here are some comments and ideas:

MICHAEL SCHMITT, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies: Many war fighters mistakenly believe that if the enemy uses human civilian shields, the shielding civilians do not count in the proportionality equation because the enemy is in violation of humanitarian law. That view is, quite simply, wrong; the use of human shields does not relieve an attacker of the responsibility to take civilian injury and death into consideration when assessing whether the target may be attacked. Humanitarian law is generally intended to protect non-participants, not ensure a fair fight. One caveat is merited. If the human shields, as in Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, shield a legitimate target of their own free will, it would not be unreasonable to argue that because the action is volitional, they are now taking a direct part in hostilities. This would result in a status similar to that of illegal combatant; they are taking a "direct part" in hostilities and thus, like the illegal combatant, their injury or loss does not constitute civilian suffering. From his remarks at a January 2002 Carnegie Council workshop at Cambridge University (go to transcript).

4) Norms for reconstruction, nation-building after war

In his 3/18/03 war ultimatum speech, President Bush stated:

As we enforce the just demands of the world, we will also honor the deepest commitments of our country. Unlike Saddam Hussein, we believe the Iraqi people are deserving and capable of human liberty. And when the dictator has departed, they can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.

The United States, with other countries, will work to advance liberty and peace in that region.

He reinforced this in his 3/20/03 address on the start of the war on Iraq that "helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment."

Once the United States affects "regime change" in Iraq, does it carry a moral responsibility to rebuild the country? And what criteria can be applied to determine whether the United States has fulfilled its commitment to "justice after war"? Here are some comments and ideas:

TONY LANG AND MARY-LEA COX, Carnegie Council: [D]ebates over the future of Iraq and other candidates for regime change must go beyond the vague language of "creating democracy." Drawing on lessons from World War II, some have proposed that the U.S. 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 belligerant 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. From "Justice after War," November/December 2002 InPrint (go to article).

AHMED RASHID, journalist (author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia): Afghanistan was going to be the test case for the Muslim world of "Yeah, the Americans bomb you, but they also build you, and they can rebuild you and support a government that is reasonable and moderate." But that hasn't happened yet. From his 9/25/02 remarks at a Carnegie Council breakfast.

WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: [The Bush administration] cannot let Iraq go the way of Afghanistan. There's just no way. . . . given the messiness of politics, they have come pretty far, and I think one can have some confidence that they're going to do a pretty good job. But I also think people should keep the pressure on them, and we will certainly do so in our magazines. But this is a case where liberals, frankly, do play an important role. If their position is going to be for the next two years to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire in terms of democratization and in terms of nation-building and in terms of helping the people of Iraq and elsewhere, that would be great. From his remarks, with Lawrence Kaplan, at a 3/5/03 Carnegie Council breakfast (go to transcript).

5) The moral/ethical/religious dimension

At a 3/21/03 American Enterprise Institute breakfast, defense advisor Richard Perle said:

I hope attention will turn now to what this means for the people of Iraq, which has always been fundamental, even when it was considered ill-advised to talk about regime change, because we were so focused on the international legal mandate which was closely associated with Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. And so we went through a rather long period in the runup to this war in which we stopped talking about or largely stopped talking about what this war is really about.

It's not just about ferreting out and destroying weapons of mass destruction, although that will happen in due course and we'll settle once and for all the debate about whether Saddam has these weapons or not.

This war is about liberating a country that is--whose population has been subjected to a measure of brutality that is almost unimaginable. And so I'm rather optimistic that all of these divisions and debates in the United Nations and elsewhere will be resolved in a general recognition that high moral purpose has been achieved here: millions of people have been liberated.

Perle's comments harked back to President Bush's assertion, in his 1/29/02 State of the Union Address, that Iraq constitues an "axis of evil" that must be defeated. Saddam, for his part, refers to the coalition forces as "evil ones" and invokes his people to fight in the spirit of jihad (holy war), labelling Iraqi war victims "martyrs" (see his 3/24/03 address).

How does the struggle to defeat Saddam Hussein fit within a broader context of moral and religious concerns? Does the war really carry the higher moral purpose of rescuing the Iraqi people, as Perle suggests, or is this merely political rhetoric? Is it also, as President Bush has suggested, about defeating the forces of evil, which Saddam Hussein personifies -- and vice versa for Saddam? To what extent does religion play a role within this conflict? Here are some comments and ideas:

LAWRENCE KAPLAN, The New Republic: [T]he second President Bush, our current President, brings to the problem of Iraq a third alternative [to those posed by his father and President Clinton], which was there all along. He brings a world view that, in a sense, borrows from the most successful elements of realism and liberalism, but also dispenses with much of the baggage that these two world views carry. Now, you can chalk this up to Bush's Christian moralism, or to his neo-conservative advisors, or, as some on the far right do, to his newfound evangelical Zionism, but I think all these arguments are rather specious, particularly the last one. [All of that said,] there is a very real sense in which, if only to mobilize the American public, the President has been saying that this is America's mission, it's America's destiny. Simply put, it's a moral case: no people should be governed without their consent. If you listen to the President, particularly in the last few weeks, he really has cast the war as a moral war. From his remarks, with William Kristol, at a 3/5/03 Merrill House breakfast (go to transcript).

JOEL H. ROSENTHAL, president, Carnegie Council: With the launching of the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has abandoned its rhetoric of arch-realism for one of robust moralism. President Bush explains the anti-terrorism offensive as good versus evil. There can be no neutrality or gray area. Confronting terrorism and its supporting "axis of evil" is now the central organizing principle of American foreign policy. What does it mean that Bush the realist has become Bush the moralist? History shows us that moral certainty leads to violence; there is no other place to go. In the next phase of the war [on terrorism], the challenge will be to avoid the shoals of crusading moral certainty on the one side and abject moral equivalence on the other. From "The Politics of Moral Absolutes," May/June 2002 InPrint cover story (go to article).