A Just Crusade?

Bush's elastic use of the Just War Theory.


Osama bin Laden, the principal villain the U.S. government has fingered for the September 11 bombings, has said plainly what he wants to provoke: a jihad to end all jihads. He wants a holy war to unite the Islamic world to overthrow the infidels and "free" captive Muslim nations from corrosive Western values and the presence of foreign troops.

The Bush Administration made one early verbal misstep—calling the War on Terrorism a "crusade"—but has since taken pains not to open a fissure between Islam and the West. Thus, President Bush calls Islam a religion of peace and lists it among his pantheon of the world's great religions, alongside Judaism and Christianity. In his understanding, the tradition that drove the suicide hijackers to destroy was a perversion of Islam whose relationship to its parent religion is analogous to the Ku Klux Klan's relationship to Christianity.

While the war in Afghanistan is not a religious war in the same sense that the Crusades were, it does have a religious character. This was best put by Bush's speechwriters in his September 20 address to a joint session of Congress: "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

Further, while most Americans were in such a state of mind that they wouldn't flinch if the Air Force lobbed a couple nukes at the Afghans, the president publicly delayed the air strikes at the pope's request while the pontiff was visiting nearby Armenia and Kazakhstan. Bush confessed to some world leaders that he was trying to avoid "bloodlust." On Thursday night, at the end of a press conference that delayed a baseball playoff game, Bush encouraged children in the U.S. to donate money to a special Red Cross fund to feed malnourished and orphaned Afghan children. This, I remind, is a country with which America is at war.

What in the world is going on?

President Bush has torn a familiar page from his father's playbook. But whereas George H.W. Bush invoked the Just War Theory mostly as a rhetorical trope to justify the Gulf War, his son appears to have internalized it as a code of honor to prosecute his War On Terrorism. Prof. Vincent Ferraro breaks down the requirements for a war to be labeled "just" under this theory:

  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort ( "Give us Osama or else").
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority (the U.S., the U.K., NATO).
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered (the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon).
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success ("We will not fail").
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace (by ending terrorism).
  • States may not use more force than is necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered (no nukes so far).
  • The weapons must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants (food drops, warnings, protecting the Northern Alliance).

Whatever one thinks of this theory—I think it at least one of the greatest hypocrisies ever invented—one must acknowledge its thoroughly Catholic pedigree. Though it now has many secular proponents, Just War Theory's initial expositors were such famous churchmen as Clement, Ambrose, Augustine, Eusebius, and, later and most famously, Thomas Aquinas. The principles grew out of an attempt to reconcile the pacifism of Christianity's founder with the harsh realities of war for the religion's adherents.

The theory is useful as it helps minimize innocent death and lets combatants and commanders find sleep with a clear conscience. But as Harry Truman discovered when philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe used Just War Theory to mount a serious challenge to his receiving an honorary degree from Oxford—on account of Hiroshima—it's far from a blank check.

George W. Bush has promised to vigorously prosecute the War on Terrorism beyond the destruction of the Taliban and the bringing of Osama bin Laden to justice (dead or alive). He has pledged not to stop fighting until all terrorist organizations "of global reach" have been exterminated. In doing so, however, Bush may pull himself far outside of the Just War Theory's moral umbrella. What justification, for instance, could it offer if and when he decides to send troops after Hamas or any other known terrorist organization that hasn't threatened the U.S. lately but could conceivably do so in the future?