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Was the war in Iraq a just one? – What do you say, Professor?

March 10, 2011

Before you begin reading, try answering this poll:

I’m really excited about this post because I’m passionate about the topic and the case I’m making – not least because I spent part of my spring break exploring this topic. If you’re as keen on knowing whether political theorists might call the war in Iraq a just one, or not, read on.

Since this is a topic that I’ve attempted to grapple with on my own, I’d appreciate if I can get substantive comments/criticisms on it – criticisms always help to strengthen an argument. Yes?

First, some context on how I got interested in this topic:

Walzer’s article on the problem of dirty hands definitely set me thinking – what I found particularly interesting was how an issue that had once been seen as wrong can be justified as being right. According to Walzer, political leaders have to sometimes compromise certain moral convictions in order for them to achieve specific political objectives. It is in such situations that the distinction between what is wrong and right is blurred. Barring the ethical dilemma that has arisen (because accepting Walzer’s argument that it is justified that political leaders make moral compromises if they feel guilty, can eventually, over time, result in a polity weakened by compromises), I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the section in which Walzer posited that moral compromises can be made – he argued that St. Augustine would not think it wrong to kill in a ‘just war’.

Now, if you know who St. Augustine was, you’d know that his magnum opus included ‘Confessions‘ and ‘The City of God‘ both of which I was taken by. I was partly taken by ‘Confessions‘ because it chronicled St. Augustine’s repentance from his sinful life (that in more ways than one paralleled mine) and I was blown away by his persuasive argument on the inextricable relationship between a just secular kingdom and a divine city.

And, Walzer, by evoking St. Augustine (whom I was enamored with) naturally stirred my interest:

Can a war ever be just? If so, what constitutes a ‘just war’?

I’m sort of a military buff, and an obsessed one at that, so I decided to spend part of my summer holiday exploring the factors that would make a war ‘just’. As I drew more and more on what political theorists have written on the subject (Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars is also extremely influential), I also grew increasingly interested at attempting to test the generalizability of this ‘just war’ framework. As such, I decided to set aside a few days during the summer holiday (yes, I know I don’t have a life) and discuss the topic:

Was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 a just war?’

Before you read on, first, watch this video (and note the rhetoric he uses to justify the war):

Was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 a just war?’

The Just War theory had key contributions by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria and provides the framework for the analysis of the 2003 Iraq invasion. The theory postulates that since God does not ordinarily sanction a war and interpretations offered by priests might be biased, statesmen need to rely on their faculty of reason when deciding whether to wage war (Regan 1996, 9-10). This essay analyses the Iraq invasion under the key dimensions: jus ad bellum, jus in bello and jus pos bellum. All three aspects are significant in my assessment of the reasons and conduct of war initiation and termination. In presenting a legalist paradigm, I will draw on just war theorist, Michael Walzer, linking it to critical concepts of pre-emptive and preventive war. Since justice is not measured entirely by the legalist paradigm, I will also present another perspective in which the concepts of common morality and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) are salient.

The Iraq invasion was unjust according to the jus ad bellum criteria: Just Cause, Right Authority, Right Intention[1], Proportionate Cause, Reasonable Prospects of Success and Last Resort (Johnson 1991, 20-30). First, the Iraq war failed to uphold the just cause criterion when it was launched as a pre-emptive[2] war of self-defence due to the ‘nature and type of threat posed’ (Gupta 2008, 181). Justifying a pre-emptive war confirming America’s ‘inherent right to self-defence’ as per Article 51 of the UN Charter entails an indication of imminent threat[3] (Regan 1996, 52). However, recent revelations indicate that intelligence reports of Iraq’s pre-war capabilities were aggrandized and opposing evidence that prove Iraq was not actively expanding its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs ignored (Miller 2008, 46-47). Ex ante and post ante evaluations indicate there was no compelling evidence of WMD in Iraq. Walzer (1977, 62) states, within the umbrage of the theory of aggression, that only aggression justifies war. However, the absence of WMD and acts of aggressions indicate that the invasion had contravened the principle of non-intervention. Ergo, there can be no claim to self-defence in the Iraq invasion since aggression is lacking.

The jus ad bellum criteria for invasion which stands if there is an immediate threat to the Coalition was not satisfied due to the nature of the pre-emptive doctrine being a preventive one. Bush’s discourses provide insights into his preventive motives, an example highlighted is the assertion that ‘Iraq could provide WMD to terrorists’ in the future (Silverstone 2007, 174).  The claim is invalidated by the lack of evidence[4] of a cooperative between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda (Enemark 2005, 550). Moreover, the administration’s doctrine of preventive and pre-emptive war is also flawed since for the policy to succeed, the opponent cannot subscribe to it and act pre-emptively to America’s pre-emptive or preventive attack (Fiala 2008, 87). The manipulative framing of the Iraq invasion as being pre-emptive, lack of evidence that there is imminent danger, coupled with lessening the burden of proof, set a precedent for terrorists and rogue states to model after (Miller 2008 49-50).

The Bush administration’s support for pre-emption as the official strategic policy has important consequences for the international community. In seeking to unbind itself from international laws and principles, it represents the controversial notion of American’s Exceptionalism[5]. This forceful projection, evidenced by its pre-emptory behaviour, is construed as an attempt to create a hegemonic rule in an anarchic international system. As a manifestation of America’s hard power, pre-emptive war, which in this case is unjustified, also undermines America’s credibility due to the overwhelming failure in the asymmetric warfare.  The success of war, in this essay, is defined as being more than mere military success but should also have a high probability of achieving a just peace (Karoubi 2004, 86-7) since there should be a covenantal obligation to all of God’s children implicated by the use of force (Dowd 2006, 20). It has been argued that the Coalition was undeterred by Iraq utilizing WMD and in deposing Saddam; America proved its overwhelming success (Dowd 2006, 20). However, based upon this essay’s definition of success, to argue that the Reasonable Prospects for Success criteria has been fulfilled when a just peace is not yet established would prove challenging. A majority of respondents in 33 countries indicated[6] that the Iraq invasion had increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks around the world (Ramazani 2008, 211). This indicates America has not successfully addressed the issue of terrorism that was one of the reasons for its initiation of war. The war is undeniably one of several reasons[7], realists argue, that led to the waning of America’s hegemonic influence.

Second, the legitimate authority of America launching an invasion was called into question when it waged war without explicit Security Council approval. This has important implications on three accounts: the basis of self-defence, common morality and self-determination. Based on America’s justification of self-defence, though the approval of the UN Security Council is not needed in the case of self-defence (United Nations Charter 1945), the lack of evidence justifying there being an imminent or distant threat necessitates that America seek the Security Council’s approval before it invaded Iraq. Supporters counter-argue that UN had approved the war by asserting Resolution 1441[8] provided authority for the attack (O’Keefe & Coady 2005, 37). However, most commentators concur that the use of force was not expressly or implicitly authorized (Enemark 2005, 554). A more plausible argument by supporters is that the Security Council had sanctioned the use of military force authorized in Resolution 678 (1990) since Saddam’s noncompliance with Resolution 1441 ‘revived’ Resolution 678 (Enemark 2005, 554).

The counter-argument to this is that the use of military action in Resolution 678 was authorized only to enforce Iraqi troops’ withdrawal from Kuwait in 1990 and not to invade Iraq and depose Saddam, ergo, though military action such as periodic air strikes launched in the no-fly zone might be permitted, authority to launch a full-scale invasion was not given (O’Keefe & Coady 2005, 37). Moreover, Resolution 687 establishes a ceasefire between Iraq and UN and not America, Britain or Australia (Enemark 2005, 555). As such, the fundamentalist variant holds that the UN Charter’s demarcation of the boundaries for the use of force is morally binding, hence, its contravention morally wrong. Finally, the approval of the UN provides the litmus test as to whether the judgement and reason to use force are prudent (O’Keefe & Coady 2005, 38). It is argued that though the UN did not provide approval, there was a coalition of the willing yet this argument does not stand since the thirty states that form this coalition is unrepresentative[9] of the will of the international community (Enemark 2005, 558).

Common morality justifies human intervention in the contemporary international system and has been prescribed as a collective action under the UN. The principle of beneficence necessitates a response from the international community to protect those in danger (Nardin 2002, 62-63). However, gross violations[10] of fundamental human rights that would warrant military intervention did not take place in March 2003. Hence, classifying the situation in Iraq as a humanitarian crisis is a misnomer. (Miller 2008, 56-59).  Moreover, Bush pretended to seek the authorization of the UN since he secretly told Tony Blair that he did not need a second UN resolution and from as early as December 2002 had declared that the ‘war was inevitable’ (Ramazani 2008, 211). Ergo, analysis yield that the Coalition was not endowed with the Right Authority, thus common morality is repudiated.

The Millian view of self-determination elucidated by Walzer recognizes that it is the right of the people to fight for their own freedom and any intrusive help would ultimately deprive the state of its freedom (Walzer 1977, 87-88). Democracy imposed by force is self-contradictory and not democracy since it is not a system where power belongs to the people (Rockmore 2004, 25). Furthermore, the invasion did not set in motion self-determining policies[11], thus weakening the legitimacy of America’s actions.

Third, the Coalition mounted an unjust war against Iraq since it violated the criteria of Proportionality as there was a high probability of deaths in a conventional invasion of Iraq while evidence has it that there was a low possibility that Iraq would pass on weapons of WMD to terrorists who would launch a successful attack on US (Enemark 2005, 561). Also, if the Iraq weapons were a threat, the proportionate response would be to destroy them[12] and not an invasion, occupation and subsequent reengineering of the Iraqi constitution (Fiala 2008, 87). Moreover, no-fly zones and weapons inspections were premised as sufficient to protect America’s interests (Miller 2008, 46-47). It has been counter argued that the war was proportionate and the humanitarian reason has been cited (Visser 2007, 56). Yet, this does not make a case since in March 2003, the killing was not of a dire magnitude that justified humanitarian intervention (Roth 2006, 86). The destruction of the system of government to institute another is disproportionate since the threat to Iraqis was nowhere near that scale (O’Keefe & Coady 2005, 43).

Fourth, the criterion of Reasonable Prospects of Success was not met in the American humanitarian intervention. According to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report (2001), a war is justified if the ‘consequences of action are not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.’ It is arguable, however, that the consequences of action might be worse than inaction since Iraq is torn by religious hostility and ethnic struggles (Greeley 2007, 80) and should a civil conflict pan out, result in more deadly repercussions (Visser 2007, 56). Fukuyama also argues that previous[13] attempts at nation building have not been unambiguously successful and that America should have better reflected on past failures before launching a war (Fukuyama 2004, 61). Given the bloody internal turmoil, it clearly indicates the lack of planning and that the prospects of success in areas other than deposing Saddam were uncertain.

Fifth, war as a Last Resort posits that all diplomatic, economic and political means must be undertaken and proven ineffective before war is justified (Karoubi 2004, 88). It is arguable that the situation was not as dire and not enough had been done to warrant an invasion. Two weeks before the invasion, Hans Blix[14] pleaded for a few more months to complete inspections since there had been ‘an acceleration of initiatives’ by Iraq and an acceptance[15] of a disarmament policy, not to mention that Iraqi officials had made increasingly desperate peace offers to Washington (Fall 2003). The pleas were genuine yet the Iraqi proposal[16] was regarded as unworthy of pursuit and it was argued that it was dangerous to give Iraq more time (Enemark 2005, 562).  The invasion thus contradicts the criteria that war should only be launched as last resort since there were at least two alternatives[17] that had received inadequate considerations and also emphasizes the bounded rationality of leaders who make unwise decisions in a context of uncertainty and time constraints (Fiala 2008, 13).

Unjustifiable jus in bello conduct propelled by the Bush administration further countermines the justness of the invasion. Though normal citizens do not have access to information expedient for analysis of the Iraq war under the principles of jus in bello, the war crimes[18] that have been aired indicate grave violations of the conduct of war. It is hard to justify an invasion of that scale for humanitarian purposes since many American troops died and the Coalition’s reliance on sophisticated weaponry has disproportionately shifted damage to Iraqi civilians (Coady 2002, 27-8). The fact that terrorist groups are hardly distinguishable from noncombatants in an asymmetric warfare also adds to the surmounting Iraqi death count. With 4200 American soldiers dead and at least 80,000 Iraqi civilian deaths (Fiala 2008, 151), it can be argued that the Iraqi civilians were worse off than before the unjust invasion. The failure to meet the jus in bello criteria as evidenced indicates the invasion was unjust.

The neglect of the jus pos bellum criteria, a feature of the Iraq invasion, makes the war unjust. The concept of sovereignty as responsibility under the international doctrine of R2P (Keohane 2003, 275-276), instead of the Westphalian fixation on legal control provides an alternative critique of American’s intervention. External actors are justified in their military incursions only if they consider the prospects of establishing a legitimate authority before intervention. However, the invasion did not place much importance on post-intervention action as evidenced by the lack of commitment to successful institution building and the strengthening of Iraq’s sovereignty. The goal of effective war termination that includes ushering peace and full sovereignty to the Iraqis was not faithfully pursued nor fulfilled. Ergo, the jus pos bellum criteria are unmet, augmenting the argument that the invasion was unjust.

In conclusion, this essay has argued that the American invasion of Iraq was unjust since it failed to meet the three critical dimensions of the Just War Theory. Besides failing to meet the legalist’s exceptions to human intervention, i.e. aggression, it also fails to meet the R2P standards. The invasion remains a largely neoconservative[19] response to an anarchic world, in which America’s hard power threatens to make forceful claims on the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of disputing states. Not only was the war unjust, it proved America’s inclination towards unilateralism. These factors culminate in the conclusive analysis that the 2003 Iraq invasion is unjust.

Now, if you managed to make it true and are the lone survivor, congratulations. Try answering this poll:



Charter of the United Nations 1945, accessed 2011, from <;.

Chesterman, S. (2001) Just war or just peace: humanitarian intervention and international law, Oxford; New York, Oxford University Press.

Dowd, C. (2006) ‘Unjust and Indefensible’, Commonweal, 133(17), 16-21.

Enemark, C. and Michaelsen, C. (2005) ‘Just War Doctrine and the Invasion of Iraq’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 51(4), 545-63.

Fiala, A. G. (2008) The just war myth: the moral illusions of war, Lanham, Md., Rowman & Littlefield.

Greeley, A. M. (2007) A stupid, unjust, and criminal war: Iraq, 2001-2007, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books.

Gupta, S. (2008) ‘The Doctrine of Pre-emptive Strike: Application and Implications During the Administration of President George W. Bush’, International Political Science Review, 29(2), 181-96.

Johnson, J. T. (1984) Can modern war be just?, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Johnson, J. T. and Weigel, G. (1991) Just war and the Gulf war, Washington, D.C.; Lanham, MD, Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Karoubi, M. T. (2004) Just or unjust war: international law and unilateral use of armed force by states at the turn of the 20th century, Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT, Ashgate.

Keohane, Robert. (2003) Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Miller, R. B. (2008) ‘Justifications of the Iraq War Examined’, Ethics & International Affairs, 22(1), 43-67.

Nardin, Terry. (2002) ‘The Moral Basis for Humanitarian Intervention’, Ethics &International Affairs, 16(1), 11-27.

O’Keefe, M. P. and Coady, C. A. J. (2005) Righteous violence: the ethics and politics of military intervention, Carlton, Vic., Melbourne University Press.

Ramazani, R. K. (2008) ‘President Bush Deviates from Core American Principles in Middle East Policies ‘, Middle East Critique, 17(3), 209-21.

Regan, R. J. (1996) Just war: principles and cases, Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America Press.

Robert A. Pape, ‘Realities and Obama’s diplomacy,’ <,0,4785661.story&gt;, (accessed 2011), March 2009.

Rockmore, T. (2004) ‘Can War Transform Iraq into a Democracy?’, Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, (103), 15-27.

Roth, K. (2006) ‘Was the Iraq War a Humanitarian Intervention?’, Journal of Military Ethics, 5(2), 84-92.

Silverstone, S. A. (2007) Preventive war and American democracy, New York, Routledge.

Fall, F (Foreign minister of Guinea serving as president of the Security Council), United Nations Security Inspectors Report to Security Council on Progress in Disarmament of Iraq, press release SC/7682, UN Headquarters, New York, 7 March.

Visser, B. (2007) ‘Can the US-Led Invasion of Iraq be Justified as a Humanitarian Intervention?’, Social Alternatives, 26(1), 53-58.

Walzer, Michael. (1977) Just and Unjust Wars, New York, Basic Books.

[1] Right intention will not be discussed in this essay.

[2] It was really a war of prevention since there was no evidence of an impending attack on America and concerns were Iraq’s growing capabilities that would present future vulnerabilities and the decision to invade was based on assumptions since the worst-case scenario was not on the verge of actually occurring (Silverstone 2007, 174).

[3] In this case, the September 11 attacks were interpreted as a signal of aggression since it was insinuated that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda and that Iraq’s WMD were a threat to the security of America and its allies (Greeley 2007, 76-9).

[4] A 2008 Pentagon report corroborates that finding (Ramazani 2008, 211).

[5] This idea states that America is the moral leader on earth and its policy is to ‘end tyranny in our world’ (Fiala 2008, 73).

[6] It was indicated in a 2006 ‘World Public Opinion’ poll

[7] Other reasons include negative current account balances, growing government debt (Pape 2009) and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.

[8] Resolution 1441 determined that Iraq was in ‘material breach’ of resolution 687: Iraq was obliged to eliminate its WMD and allow inspections (Enemark 2005, 553).

[9] A majority, including the other four permanent members of the Security Council, opposed military intervention (Enemark 2005, 558).

[10] They include: irreparable harm, cases of genocide, pogroms, large-scale losses of life or acts of terror,

[11] This is the only exception which could justify an intrusion in the self-determining process as iterated by Walzer.

[12] Like the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor (Fiala 2008, 87).

[13] Nation building attempts in Philippines, Nicaragua, Haiti and Afghnistan.

[14] UN weapons inspector

[15] Iraq agreed that its AL-Samoud 2 missiles had to be destroyed.

[16] Iraqi officials proposed that there would be internationally monitored elections every two tears and that 2000 FBI agents could be deployed to search for banned weapons (Enemark 2005, 562).

[17] The first was to allow UN inspectors, backed by a small US force, to continue inspections till it was proven that Iraq had no WMD or till inspections were obstructed. The second was the imposition of no-fly and no-drive zones and a tougher program of ‘coercive inspections’ that would be backed by a 50,000 strong international force (Enemark 2005, 562).

[18] Abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, numerous cases of American soldiers killing civilians and wounded Iraqis, and accusations of rape that is mala in se and without doubt a war crime (Fiala 2008, 153).

[19] Overwhelming force projection to a threat or prospective threat, its endorsement of pre-emption as a strategic foreign policy and unilateralism are some of the characteristics of the neoconservatives that is relevant to the Iraq invasion.

  1. Rejoyce permalink
    February 14, 2012 8:23 AM

    I am a 3rd year Political Science student at the University of Johannesburg and have been given an assignment to argue for the justness of the 2003 U.S invasion of Iraq. In the beginning, I wanted to go the “unjust route” and take the easy way out but, after reading your compelling essay, I have decided to challenge myself and argue against your point.

    Note that I fully understand that this might be challenging and impossible even, but I have taken it upon myself to try and see if I am capable of arguing against a fully qualified individual who knows exactly what he is talking about.

    I have been given exactly 64 days, from today, to complete and submit this assignment on the 18th of April 2012. Please remember that I am a senior student and have other obligations regarding my studies, but I will dedicate my time and energy into this specific project, this because I really really really do not want to embarrass myself in front of a man of your calibre. Who knows!? Maybe I’m just fooling myself and might quit along the way lol, BUT I will try my best not to!

    If possible, I will email you my complete assignment when I’m done and get your response.

    Thanx for an insightful essay

    • Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
      February 14, 2012 8:51 AM

      Thank you for looking so highly upon me. I’m a Junior, and the draft for this piece was written in my Freshman-Sophomore year during my free time. I look forward to reading your essay.

      Best of luck,

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