In his posting on First Things earlier today, Ross Douthat writes "justice is rarely served by folly"¯a phrase that gives nice shape to an appealing notion: Israel’s decision to attack Hezbollah, like the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, was morally justifiable, but these wars have been prosecuted in such a way that it no longer seems a justifiable situation. An increasing number of Americans seem to feel this way, and it may be the best line for Democratic politicians who wish both to denounce the current administration and to appear serious about foreign policy. Republicans, for that matter: "I never thought the neocons could manage to be so incompetent ," said one of my conservative friends who began as a supporter of the United States in Iraq.

It strikes me, though, that this is more of a feeling than a thought. In strict terms, the subsequent progress of a war cannot reflect back on the original justice of going to war. "Reasonable chance of success" is one of the criteria of justice ad bellum, of course, and the war might reveal to commentators and the general populace that, say, the Israeli government was either culpably ignorant or deliberately deceitful about the chance of success with means proportional to the ends.

But unless it becomes demonstrable that no reasonable person could have imagined obtaining victory with well-proportioned means, in bello errors cannot change ad bellum justice. War is one of those human activities in which other people are working with vast amounts of ingenuity to defeat you¯no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, as the old military wisdom goes¯and though we are required to keep this fact in mind when we undertake military action, the just-war criterion is for a "reasonable chance of success," not "certainty of success."

I am not yet convinced Israel has used disproportionate means so far; even while rockets continue to hit the nation’s cities, its military has tried, with limited success, to minimize civilian casualties against an opponent deliberately using civilian lives as shields and civilian deaths as media tools.

But even if Israel somehow loses this war, through incompetent Israeli tactics or superior Hezbollah strategy, that does not, in itself, prove the war was unjust by reason of lacking a "reasonable chance of success." The North came very close to losing the Civil War; if Early had taken Washington when he had the chance, or the bluecoats had broken at Gettysburg, the South might have won. Would those events have made Lincoln an unjust warrior? Would the loss of Midway have made Roosevelt unjust for warring against the Japanese?

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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