A ‘Just War’ in Gulf ? Three Ethical Standards to Ponder

Tim Rutten's column will appear on Fridays. He will write about contemporary values and the way they affect our public and private lives. Rutten has been an editorial writer for The Times

In just four days, the United States may be at war.

According to the polls, about half of us would support President Bush if he quickly uses military force to compel Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait. Four out of every 10 of us oppose such a war. But it requires no special insight to sense on both sides of that statistical divide a terrible unease, a profound uncertainty about our purpose in the Persian Gulf, its potential cost--and about the justice of both.

It hardly could be otherwise: Decent people do not make decisions about life and death lightly. Sensible people do not court the sort of social tensions concealed in that 50-40 split. At the moment, opposition to the use of force is most heavily concentrated among Americans of color and the working class, those whose sons and daughters may have to redeem our national commitment to Kuwaiti sovereignty with their lives. Support for the President’s position is highest among members of the comfortable classes, those who believe an Iraqi victory would put the West’s prosperity and--not incidentally--their own standard of living at risk.

But if we reduce this division merely to a matter of class differences, we risk missing something essential about the American character. War always divides this nation, as it probably should. On the very eve of World War II--our last inarguably “just war"--most Americans preferred to remain at peace. It took Pearl Harbor to change minds. Without such a clarifying event, people are being forced to justify what they’ve decided according to what they believe. For most of us, that means choosing from among three different ethical standards.


The first of these argues that what is most important about the Gulf crisis is the threat it poses to international order. This issue preoccupies President Bush. He argues that Saddam Hussein’s savage occupation of Kuwait is an unacceptable violation of international law, an affront to the world’s collective security and its economic well-being. Unpunished aggression inevitably breeds further violence. If Iraq is allowed to set international oil prices--as it will if it remains in Kuwait--Baghdad will determine the industrialized world’s standard of living. The hardships created by high oil prices may strangle the new democracies of Eastern Europe and Latin America; for hundreds of thousands of people in the Third World, they literally could mean death. To Bush, these are issues worth fighting over.

But the President’s conversion to the primacy of international law is a recent thing. For eight years, he served as vice president in an Administration that studiously ignored the World Court’s condemnation of its own undeclared war against Nicaragua. He supported the invasion of Grenada and ordered the occupation of Panama--little countries, rather like Kuwait, but without oil. One wonders whether the “new international order” Bush now proposes to defend with the lives of his fellow citizens will restrain the United States as it does others?

The second standard involves the vitality of our own constitutional democracy. This is the question of whether the President has the power to order our armed forces into combat without a formal declaration of war by Congress, or at least its explicit approval through some sort of resolution. Clearly, the Constitution’s framers envisioned a division of responsibility in this area. Congress is assigned the power “to declare war” and to “raise and support armies.” The President is designated “commander in chief.” The practical rights inherent in those roles are undefined.

The memory of Vietnam continues to caution us against unchecked presidential power. But a greater congressional role does not guarantee a humane or enlightened policy. American wars now universally condemned as unjust--those waged against the Indians, against Mexico and Spain--were enthusiastically approved by Congress.


The third standard speaks to our hearts, as well as our minds. Its clearest expression is contained in a letter from Los Angeles’ Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony to Secretary of State James Baker III. In that letter, subsequently endorsed by a majority of the nation’s bishops, Mahony wrote:

“In our tradition, while the use of force is not ruled out absolutely, there is a clear presumption against war. The right to self-defense or to repel aggression is restricted and governed by a series of moral principles, often called the ‘just war’ theory.” Mahony asks whether U.S. policy can meet these tests:

* Can the danger only be confronted by war?

* Has a competent authority authorized use of force?

* Are the objectives publicly stated our real ones?

* Have all peaceful alternatives been exhausted?

* Is the prospect of military success strong enough to justify the human costs?

* Are the human and other costs proportionate to the good that may be achieved?


At this time, in the bishops’ views, the answer to most of these questions is no. Others--and not only the President--apply these criteria and reach a different conclusion. They should not, however, dismiss the bishops’ implicit demand that they hold those differing conclusions accountable to a system of moral reasoning at least as open and rigorous as the “just war” standard.

Without the clarity such accountability brings, the things we call values are mere assertions or, too often, moral absurdities. And, as Voltaire rightly observed, “Men who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.”