A Just War? Not In Iraq


Future generations may find it hard to understand why Australia joined the invasion of Iraq, which was supported by few outside the political and media establishment, and that we now see as a perilous and unnecessary war of choice by the United States and Britain. The extensive record of those who opposed the war, if it survives, may be the cause of their incredulity.

Enraged by the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States threatened war on the grounds that Iraq posed an imminent threat from its weapons of mass destruction. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell linked the country to terrorist attacks on the United States in addresses to the United Nations as late as February 2003. But the intelligence agencies of Britain, the US and Australia were sceptical.

The former head of Australia’s Joint Intelligence Organisation, retired Major-General Alan Stretton found Powell’s claims of a link with al Qaeda “ludicrous”.  Yet then-Prime Minister John Howard still claimed that “the fundamental reason” we joined the “Coalition of the Willing” was to prevent rogue states giving WMDs to terrorists.

Even before the war, many experts and intelligence agencies had rejected these allegations as certainly not justifying recourse to war, as I demonstrated in War on Iraq: is it just?, a booklet issued before the war by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council. The truth was not hard to determine if one took care to look.

At the heart of the debate over the Iraq war were the moral criteria developed in the Western “Just War” tradition. Both sides appealed to these criteria, with President George W. Bush and his acolytes invoking claims to a just cause — to pre-emptively strike against an imminent attack, and arguing that all other means to avert war had been exhausted. Alexander Downer, then the Foreign Minister, famously accused people who questioned the morality of the war of anti-Americanism, arguing that “only a fool could support appeasement.”

Opponents of the war also invoked Just War criteria, like distinguished US specialists John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, in Foreign Policy magazine in January 2003, who rebutted claims that the US needed to invade Iraq, and argued that deterrence and containment offered a safer course.

The proponents of war were strongly supported by a propagandistic right-wing media, but nevertheless, millions marched in protest against the rush to war. Prominent figures like Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and Bob Hawke, legal experts, top ex-military personnel and intelligence experts all opposed the war.

Much opposition also came from the churches, traditional custodians of the Just War tradition — especially the Catholic Church. This was extremely important in the context of a war with a Muslim country, since the Catholic Church has been one of the main interlocutors with Islam over its 1400 year existence. Catholic leaders were alarmed that if the Muslim world perceived the war as a Christian invasion, it would inflame religious conflict in the Muslim world. Bush did not help when he called the war a “crusade” against Saddam.

Despite failing health, Pope John Paul II led the Catholic Church in opposition to the war, which helped to fight the perception that it was a religious war. The Vatican became a centre of vigorous diplomatic activity to avert war, with Church representatives and bishops’ conferences around the world, including that of the USA, opposing the war on the Just War criteria.

In Australia, some bishops strongly opposed the war, including Pat Power in Canberra, Bill Morris of Toowoomba, and Chris Saunders in Broome, along with Archbishop Frank Carroll in Canberra. But curiously the Catholic bishops as a body were slow to follow the example of Pope John Paul and other bishops’ conferences.

On 4 February 2003 Archbishop Pell said that the decision to go to war belonged to the government, but that on the available evidence, war on Iraq did not meet the Just War criteria. He favoured working through the United Nations and considered that a unilateral pre-emptive strike was "a dangerous doctrine".

Not until 5 March 2003 did the Australian Catholic bishops issue a statement declaring that the conditions for war had not been met. Inexplicably, this came much too late, less than two weeks before the war.

Nevertheless, many groups had examined arguments for war forensically against the moral criteria of the Just War tradition, and found the hawks' case failed on all the main grounds. First, there was no “just cause” without proof that Saddam intended to attack anyone using weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he have the capability to do so, as the weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and Rolf Ekeus attested. Similarly, there was no proof of a link with al Qaeda.

Allegations that Saddam posed a significant threat through his weapons of mass destruction fudged the reality: weapons inspectors said up to 95 per cent of Iraq’s WMDs had been destroyed, including missiles and weapons factories. Commentators like Walter Laqueur explained that chemical and biological weapons were notoriously unreliable and difficult to handle, and had a short shelf-life. They posed no imminent threat.

What about a nuclear threat? The weapons inspectors and Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, insisted that there was no evidence that Iraq had any nuclear capability left. Moreover, any activity with nuclear materials could be quickly and easily discovered.

Along with various other groups, David Cortright and his associates at the Fourth Freedom Forum in Washington DC refuted Colin Powell’s case for war point by point, including allegations that Iraq had mobile biological laboratories and was attempting to enrich nuclear material for weapons.

The war also failed the criteria of legitimate authority and of right intention. Saddam was a vicious dictator responsible for many deaths, but no one claims a right to invade other countries to overthrow dictators.

Few doubted that the invasion would quickly crush Saddam’s regime, but the Just War criterion of success must be judged in light of the consequences. As the UN study, Likely Humanitarian Scenarios, and other experts accurately predicted, there would be millions of refugees and internally displaced people, massive destruction of infrastructure, possible disintegration of Iraq along sectarian lines, and destabilisation of the region.

Partly because of the utterly fanciful optimism of US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, the US failed to plan for a successful post-war occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The result inevitably blew out the costs of the war to a worst-case scenario. Joseph Stiglitz estimated the total cost for the war, including care for the thousands of US casualties for the rest of their lives, would approach $3 trillion. This financial burden has gravely weakened the US economy at a critical time.

What emerges from the Iraq war fiasco is the strength of the Just War tradition in providing a framework in which the many moral aspects involved can be identified clearly, disaggregated and carefully tested. What is equally clear is that key criteria of the Just War tradition were deliberately ignored, and the people responsible for war and murder have not been held accountable, or barely even whispered an apology.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.