President Barack Obama has bypassed the time-honored rules of just war for a second time.
President Barack Obama talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the current situation in Libya during a call from Air Force One on March 22. (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
The first time was when he announced in early December 2009 that he wanted more war in Afghanistan to end the war there.
In Obama's speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he talked about "capacity" and "transition."
"I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," said Obama. "These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."
His expanded war failed to pass one of the rules of a just war – the probability of success. A just war must have a reasonable chance to succeed.
Success in Afghanistan appears as unlikely now as when he argued for capacity building. Fifteen months later, the United States does not appear ready to leave Afghanistan.
The day after Obama's speech on increasing troops in Afghanistan, an EthicsDaily.com editorial applied the rules of just war to his case for more war, noting that "he never satisfactorily assured the nation of the probability of such success" there.
Nine days later, another EthicsDaily.com editorial again applied just war rules to Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he spoke more about the justification for war than the making of peace.
EthicsDaily.com editorials offered early and vigorous moral critiques of President Bush's arguments for war in Iraq, a war that the nation entered on the wings of a lie. See an October 2002 editorial – five months before war was launched. For other examples, see here, here, here and here.
The rules of just war are useful tools for moral discernment – too often neglected by presidents itching for military conflict.
In his Mar. 19 remarks in Brazil about the attack on Libya, the president again bypassed the rules of just war. He referenced Muammar Qaddafi's actions against the people of Libya. He said that the "writ of the international community must be enforced. That is the cause of this coalition."
The "writ of the international community" is not one of the rules of just war.
In addition to the probability of success, just war rules include just cause (such as stopping genocide), just authority (congressional approval in the U.S. case), last resort (try to resolve conflict without military force), just intent (restoring peace, not revenge and economic gain), proportionality of cost (war accomplishes more good than harm), clear announcement (warning statements about the likely use of military force) and just means (such as no targeting of civilians).
And while Qaddafi is a bad guy, being a bad guy with a long history of brutality and terrorism is not a moral justification for the United States to go to war.
The Bush administration made its case for war based on the bad-guy argument. Their actions have turned out badly and without a seeming end.
The rules of just war are intended to provide parameters that guard a nation against costly misadventures that result in killing noncombatant civilians, unending military conflict and creating more harm.
One wishes that the White House would have run its decision making about both Afghanistan and Libya through the filters of just war. Maybe then we would not be a warfare state.
In the case of Libya, media reports have raised the question about whether the Libyan conflict is really about a democratic uprising or a tribal civil war.
Other reports have said that the allied airstrikes have been ineffective at achieving the stated purpose of the war-making.
A Libyan doctor has said that what the Libyan people needed more than a "no-fly zone" is a "no-drive zone" in order to protect civilians.
If the doctor is right, then it appears that the allied forces will be putting troops on the ground – expanding the war – in a place where they don't really know the opposition leadership.
Bypassing the rules of just war has very negative consequences.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. A shorter version of this editorial appeared first on the Washington Post's "On Faith" page.