Richard Haass, Iraq, and “justifiable” wars

Richard Haass, Iraq, and “justifiable” wars

By Peter Feaver

Richard Haass had an interesting discussion post over on recently. He argued that the "just war" framework was too subjective and that it should be replaced with a "justifiable war" framework which emphasizes not what the individual ethicist deems is right or wrong but what the political leadership is able to persuade others — domestic and international publics and would-be allies — is right or wrong. The post is really just a teaser for his forthcoming book, which defends the first Iraq War as a war of necessity and criticizes the second Iraq War as a war of choice.

I will be curious to see if Haass’ book does a more persuasive job of establishing the war of choice vs. war of necessity dichotomy. It seems to me that this dichotomy is a pretty subjective and slippery continuum, one that would benefit from precisely the political pragmatism Haass is calling for in dealing with the just war framework.

Was the first Iraq war really a "war of necessity"? Some of the brightest national security experts at the time did not think so, and this is why the Congressional debate and vote authorizing force in 1990-91 was so narrowly split on partisan lines (especially in comparison to the 2002 debate and vote authorizing force for what became the second Iraq war). Indeed, the critique presented most forcefully by Senator Nunn, the leader of the "war is not necessary" camp, almost exactly reflects Haass’ framework: Nunn essentially argued that the new sanctions were beginning to have an effect and that we should wait to see if they work rather than rush to war because the likely costs will be great and the likely accomplishments uncertain. There is even a vigorous debate (then and, to a certain extent, ongoing) about whether the first Iraq war was a just war (for a review of that debate that concludes that the war was, in fact, just, see James Turner Johnson’s Just War and the Gulf War.

What Haass sees as clear, then, others see as murky. This, of course, may be precisely his point about the subjectivity of these debates. I am not sure that changing the aperture to measure the justifiability rather than the justness of wars eliminates subjectivity. Rather, it seems to me simply to compound, aggregate, and perhaps to aggravate it.

On a related note, I will also be curious to see whether Haass persuasively explains how the "justifiable" framework gets us past the "just war" framework. As I read the first Iraq War, in seeking to justify the war, President Bush (41) went to extraordinary lengths to ground his argument in the just war tradition in part because that was rhetorically necessary. (I say, "in part," because I think Bush also believed in the just war requirement himself; leaders need to believe that the wars they are advocating meet both the realpolitik standard of national interest and the ethical standard of justness.) The American public uses an ethical shorthand that derives from just war theory, and so to make the political case — to meet Haass’ justifiability criteria — political leaders will perforce rely on just war theory. I am not sure that Haass’ shift is a distinction that makes much of a difference.

I am with Haass entirely, however, on the obligation that leaders have to justify why the force option should be chosen, and I agree that this obligation entails comparing the force tool to other possible tools. That same obligation applies to those who would argue against the force option.

In his blog post, Haass asserts "the United States could have done more to contain Saddam though strengthening sanctions." I hope his book justifies this assertion. I, for one, would like to hear how France and Russia could have been persuaded to reverse course and, instead of undermining the sanctions regime, actually toughen that regime without the Bush administration threatening war.

I am open to persuasion based on argument and evidence on this point. I agree with Haass that the second Iraq war was a war of choice, and a very difficult choice it turned out to be. As events unfolded, some of those who argued against war the second time made more accurate predictions than those who argued for war — just as in the first Iraq war, some of those who argued for war made more accurate predictions than those who argued against war. So I would be open to learning that the sanctions/inspections option (without the credible threat of force) was more viable than some in the Bush administration then thought it was.

Finally, as Haass reminds us, we score past debates with the benefit of hindsight, but we engage in current debates under conditions of uncertainty colored by the legacy of previous wars. Alas, uncertainty and legacy abound in the potential conflicts Haass lists: Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In these areas, I am confident about just one prediction: whatever President Obama decides, the wisdom and justness of that decision will be more clear in hindsight than it will be when he is seeking to justify it.