Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just War and the Righting of Wrongs

Fr. Barron has an interesting, clear exposition of Just War theory in relation to Libya in a recent column at the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/libya-and-catholic-just-war-tradition/2011/03/25/AFivEmYB_blog.html). According to the Catholic social teaching tradition, he explains, going to war can be undertaken morally only when definite criteria are met.
These are 1) declaration by a competent authority, 2) the presence of a just cause, 3) some proportion between the good to be achieved and the negativity of the war, 4) right intention on the part of those engaged in the conflict, and 5) a reasonable hope of success.

He argues that not all these criteria are met in the case of the Libya intervention against Gaddafi and therefore the military action is unjust. Barron believes that the first and fourth criteria are clearly met but the third and fifth are not.

But what about the second? What is a just cause? Barron explains:
Traditionally, legitimating causes included the repulsing of an unjust aggression against one’s nation as well as the righting of wrongs in other nations or cities. Thus, in accord with that second specification, Thomas Aquinas said that a nation could go to war to punish a wicked king. Here we might see a ground for our pre-emptive moves against both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadaffi. Also, it would seem to provide a justification for sending troops into, say, Rwanda while the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents was proceeding there without any interference. On the other hand, the Popes of the twentieth century, taking into account the terribly destructive nature of modern warfare, have ruled out the righting of wrongs criterion and have accepted only the repulsing of unjust aggression as a legitimating cause.

There is something troubling about this ruling out of the righting of wrongs in other countries, especially when considering the responsibilities of the world's most powerful nation in an increasingly integrated, "globalized" world. Modern warfare is destructive, yes, but so is genocide, and nations like the U.S. have and use the technological capacity to minimize the unintended deaths of civilians. The current pope and his predecessor have also called for an international authority with teeth - see Benedict's Caritas in Veritate - presumably with the purpose precisely of righting wrongs like the Rwanda genocide or the explicitly threatened mass slaughter of civilians in Benghazi. In the absence of such a credible global authority - a very dubious proposition in the first place, many Catholics and others argue - can the United States justly observe such horrors as passively and impotently as if it were of no more weight in global affairs than Switzerland?

Christopher Hitchens, the militant atheist who has consistently defended U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, makes this point powerfully in his Slate columns - see for example his critique of Obama - "Is Obama Secretly Swiss?" (http://www.slate.com/id/2286522/) where he argues that "The administration's pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings has been both cynical and naive."

Hitchens, of course, does not argue from within the Catholic just war tradition, but indirectly he raises, in my mind, troubling questions about the justness of ruling out the righting of wrongs when there is the clear capacity to stop great evil (as in genocide or mass slaughter of civilians on a large scale), and to do so, in principle, in circumstances where the other criteria for waging a just war are met.

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