Thomas Ricks writes in response to my post Thomas Ricks vs. Thomas Aquinas :

I’ve just read Keith Pavlischek’s article (http://www.firstthings.com/blog/), and am curious about one thing: How does he think that invading a country pre-emptively on false premises meets Aquinas’ second condition (“Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault . . . . “)?

Thanks,
Tom Ricks


The first thing to observe about Ricks’ question is that it is not exactly on point with regard to my post or what Peter Wehner wrote.

My comments were focused on Ricks’ assertion that continued deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq was “immoral.” U.S. military forces are currently in Iraq conducting counterinsurgency missions, counter-terrorism missions, training and equipping Iraq security forces, and generally conducting peace and security missions. So unlike Ricks, I do not believe those missions are immoral, nor are they being conducted immorally ( jus in bello ), nor do I believe President Obama’s administration is acting “immorally” in continuing to resource those missions in Iraq. Continuing to resource those missions can easily, in my view, meet the conditions of the jus ad bellum . (If First Things readers want to follow the debate between Ricks and Wehner on that question, you can find Ricks’ original comment here , Peter Wehner’s criticisms here , Mr. Ricks rejoinder here , and Wehner’s rejoinder to that here .)

That said, I take it that Ricks would really like to revisit the issue as to whether Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF-I)—the invasion of Iraq by Coalition Forces in 2003—could meet the jus ad bellum criteria of just cause, or more precisely the criteria of just cause as summarized by Aquinas:

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (Questions. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

My answer is yes. What reasons did public officials give for their conviction that the use of military force against the Saddam Hussein regime would meet the criterion of just cause? Here are few.

On the issue of “false premises,” I suspect that Ricks would like to know that if this or that premise turned out to be false whether that renders the original judgment about the justice of the cause to be unjust. That is a fair question; my answer is it does not. And it needs to be framed by taking into account such statements as these:

We begin with the common belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandate of the United Nations and is building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. — Senator Carl Levin, September 19, 2002

Note the several “premises” advanced by Senator Levin. Any one of them might have turned out upon subsequent discoveries to be false: that Saddam Hussein was not a tyrant; that he was not a threat to the peace and stability of the region; that he had not ignored the United Nations; and that he was not building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. Let’s concede the last of these turned out to be false.

But surely the most relevant question is whether Senator Levin knew that final “false premise” to be false at the time . In other words, was Senator Levin lying? If Senator Levin knew the final premise to be false (or any of the other premises) and yet he advanced it anyway in order to justify military force, then that would be an immoral thing to do. In fact, Senator Levin had very good reasons to believe all these premises were true; after all, that’s exactly what he and others were being told by the intelligence community. We know that because, among others, Senator Hillary Clinton—now current serving Secretary of State—was telling the American public that this is what the intelligence community was reporting:

“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members . . . It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.” — Senator Hillary Clinton, October 10, 2002

Again, the crucial question is whether a war that seemed to meet the jus ad bellum criterion of just cause, at the time, is subsequently, rendered unjust, if one of those premises turns out to be false. I’m inclined to answer, “it depends.” It depends on the other premises and their weight, which were not false but true premises. Here I would simply note that some influential liberal interventionists defended the use of military force on humanitarian grounds believing that the suffering of the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein was sufficient to render the cause just (e.g., George Packer). In my mind, that is simply one of several plausible true premise that would render the cause just and coupled with other true premises (e.g., defiance of UN resolutions, threatened stability to the region) collectively would render the jus ad bellum criterion of just cause met.

Of course, even if we were to conclude that the criterion of just cause was met, this is not a sufficient justification to resort to military force. “Just cause” is a necessary, not a sufficient requirement, for public authorities to resort to military force and for citizens to judge whether that determination was just and wise. Senators Levin and Clinton, for instance, might well have argued that the cause was just, the intentions noble, the authority right, and yet nevertheless make a prudential judgment that, to put it in an overly crude manner, the geo-political and domestic costs of military force in Iraq would exceed the benefits.

With regard to the “false premise” of Iraq’s possession, potential use, or potential proliferation of WMD’s, then, we can approach the question by way of the counterfactual: Had we known then what we know now about the state of Iraq’s WMD program, could the remaining other true premises about the nature of Saddam’s regime give us reason to believe the jus ad bellum criteria of just cause was still met? I tend to think it does, but this is not to say that had we known at the time what we know now about Iraq’s WMD program, that we still should have preceded with OIF. I’m quite inclined to say that we should not have proceeded with OIF, at least at that time. But if we didn’t we would still, in my view, be in a state of bellum with Iraq (no fly zones, stepped up sanctions, etc.) and that this state of bellum was just. (This, by the way, is why I am not inclined to believe that “preemption” is a particularly helpful concept to apply to OIF-I).

All this is simply to say that anyone, including Senators Levin and Clinton, could have argued in 2002-2003 that the cause was just, the intentions noble, the authority right, and yet nevertheless make a prudential judgment that, to put it in an overly crude manner, the geo-political and domestic costs of military force in Iraq would exceed the benefits. One can imagine them refusing to authorize the president to use military force, or to protest his threat to use force from the very beginning by perhaps arguing that we would be fighting a counterinsurgency campaign for years to come, that the U.S. Army in particular was neither trained nor equipped to fight such an extended campaign, that we should instead focus forces on the Afghanistan-Pakistani border, and maybe even question whether the administration and the U.S. Central Command were paying sufficient attention in their planning for Phase IV, peace and security operations.

Senator Levin and Clinton believed the just cause criteria was met, the President believed it was met, the leaders of the nations that joined the U.S. in the “coalition of the willing,” believed it met. And, may I add, honorable men and women who opposed the use of force in Iraq also believed the use of military force could be justified as a “just cause” but nevertheless opposed it on other grounds.

Again, this is fair game in our public discourse. What is clearly shameful is the argument that the war was and remains unjust because ” Levin lied, Kerry lied, Graham lied, Bill Clinton lied, Hillary Clinton lied, Bush lied and soldiers died.” That slogan, and any argument that either implicitly or explicitly resorts to it as a premise is infantile, failing as it does to recognize the simple distinction between believing something to be true based on bad evidence (e.g., intelligence reports) and knowing something to be false and lying about it.

Articles by Keith Pavlischek

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