War As Last Resort Depends On Perspective

Meeting a Moral Standard for War
I agree there must be a set of moral criteria for determining when a war is just, but hanging everything on the “war as a last resort” presumption is dangerous. As Francis Porretto has pointed out elsewhere on this site, current just war theory assumes the participation of state actors fighting over land, wearing uniforms and a whole host of assumptions that may or may not be true in war today.

Saddam Hussein isn’t a threat to the United States because he could attack our country with his military and defeat us; that’s laughable. What he can do is produce biological or chemical weapons and distribute them to terrorist groups for use against us. Saddam’s shown that he’s willing to use these weapons and he is a confirmed state-sponsor of terrorism. He’s been on the State Department’s list for over a decade now. This is a combination that can’t be allowed to exist in today’s world.

Last resort can take on a whole new meaning in the current context.

War is justified only as a last resort; all peaceful alternatives must be exhausted.

That is one of the pillars of the venerable tradition of moral reasoning known as just-war theory, now being cited on every side of the debate about invading Iraq; and however straightforward and sensible the notion of going to war only as a last resort may sound in principle, the world is demonstrating how difficult it is to apply in practice.

To begin with, the problem is both rhetorical — in the sense of persuasive use of language — and logical. The criterion of “last resort” has been invoked by opponents of virtually every American military action in recent times, from the Persian Gulf to Bosnia, Kosovo and, most recently, Afghanistan; and one has to grant that the opponents can appeal to a kind of logic that makes their opposition unassailable.

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, that logic is explained and challenged by Michael Walzer, the political scientist whose book “Just and Unjust Wars” has become a classic in the field.

“Lastness,” he writes, “is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last.” One more diplomatic initiative, one more peace conference, one more appeal to world opinion, one more nonmilitary form of pressure — the last resort is always just over the horizon.

This kind of argument is reminiscent of the ancient philosophical conundrum in which Achilles can never overtake a tortoise that has a head start because every time Achilles reaches a point where the tortoise has been, the tortoise will have moved on.

In the real world, of course, Achilles overtakes the tortoise. In the real world, endless diplomatic initiatives can reach a point of diminishing returns, indeed of negative returns. Why would anyone strain the moral criterion of last resort, as a significant number of religious people do, in a way that makes it clear that virtually no military action, short of repelling perhaps a full-scale enemy attack already launched on the nation’s territory, would ever meet it?

The reason is not mysterious. A good number of those invoking the just-war criterion of last resort are in reality absolute pacifists opposed to all use of armed force. Or they are what their critics call functional pacifists, not exactly avowing principled pacifism but just never encountering an American use of force they could not denounce. Or they are what might be called isolationist pacifists, for whom nothing except being subjected to that full-scale attack would be irrefutable evidence that the moment of last resort had arrived.

Of course, when pacifists of these various kinds demand the continuation of weapons inspections and surveillance in Iraq as peaceful alternatives to war that are not yet exhausted, they put themselves in a funny position. They know that those inspections are occurring only because of the mobilization of American (and British) military forces. Yet not long ago the same people were opposing that very military mobilization on the basis that all peaceful alternatives had not yet been exhausted.

“Functional pacifists”. That’s a word that applies to many who claim to not be pacifists but can’t find a military action they’ve supported since WW2. In many cases they simply can’t support any military action by the United States. Functional pacifist is a term we’ll be hearing more and more

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