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A US-led war in Iraq would be just - but I pray it will not eventuate

By Tom Frame - posted Wednesday, 12 February 2003

For the past 13 years, Australia has been engaged in a military campaign against Iraq. In August 1990, two Australian warships were deployed to the Persian Gulf after Iraq's brutal invasion of Kuwait. In January 1991, Australia participated in "Operation Desert Storm" - a multinational operation that ended the Iraqi army's destructive occupation. Since then, Australian warships have enforced trade sanctions as a consequence of Iraq's refusal to disarm in compliance with UN resolutions. But does Saddam Hussein's continuing possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and his demonstrable readiness to use violence justify a military strike against Iraq in 2003? Indeed, how might such a judgement be made? Those with or without religious sympathies can turn to the 'just war' tradition for guidance.

The Christian Church embraced the concept of a just war - first developed by St Augustine and further refined by St Thomas Aquinas - after it rejected both pacifism and crusading as being inconsistent with its core commitments and responsibilities. The concept of a just war produced seven criteria that continue to be a means by which the justness of any resort to force might be determined.

First, war must be declared by a 'legitimate authority'. This prohibits private individuals or political factions from waging war. Democratically elected governments in sovereign nations constitute a legitimate authority. While we might regard multinational bodies like the UN as legitimate authorities, their authority derives from the legitimacy of the member states. Organisations such as al Qa'ida or Jemaah Islamiah are not legitimate authorities. Their actions can never be deemed just and ought always to be resisted.


Second, the cause must itself be just. Self-defence is considered a just cause. For its part, the US government has a duty to protect American citizens and property. It is entitled to take reasonable steps in discharging this primary responsibility including resorts to force. The US believes that its interests have been the subject of attack by the Iraqi government and by organisations aided and abetted by Iraq. It is entitled to defend itself against what it perceives to be Iraqi aggression in the light of international opinion. Independent states should not abrogate their sovereign responsibilities by installing the UN as sole arbiter of what is just or even necessary in a given situation.

Third, the intention must be just rather than expedient. The concern here is with motive. The assertion that America wants to seize control of Iraqi oil is neither strong nor compelling. All Western nations want long-term access to oil at reasonable prices. But not one of the US, Britain nor Australia are proposing that war should be waged to plunder Iraqi oil. Iraq's neighbours are displaying solidarity but not friendship and none have expressed concern over oil. The motive for a campaign against Iraq in 2003 is to end its possession of WMD. Given that Iraq has shown a propensity to use force and a willingness to use weapons the international community condemns as barbaric, it is right that action should be taken to prevent their future use.

Fourth, force can only be used after all other reasonable methods of resolution have failed. This is difficult to judge because diplomatic and strategic considerations are involved. There are regimes, such as Iraq, that lack good faith and extend negotiation endlessly for ulterior motives. When the Gulf War ended, the international community resolved that Iraq should be disarmed. In the view of the Chief UN Weapons Inspector, Dr Hans Blix, Iraq remains unwilling to cooperate in disarmament. Having given Iraq every opportunity to comply with its resolutions, the UN has warned Iraq of the "serious consequences" flowing from continued intransigence. Given that every other reasonable alternative has been tried and failed, it would appear that force is the only remaining option. This appears to be the conclusion of a growing number of governments.

Fifth, there must be a reasonable hope of achieving a just outcome. This concerns the outcome. The disarming of Iraq will terminate Saddam's regime. His WMD arsenal will be destroyed and UN sanctions will cease. Terrorist organisations will have one less safe haven. The Iraqi people will be freed from a cruel dictator and relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbours will invariably improve. These are just outcomes. But they should not include American occupation of Baghdad, the political dismemberment of Iraq or increased Western hegemony in the Middle East.

Sixth, the amount of force employed must be proportional to the threat being faced. Sledgehammers should not be used to crack nuts. Notwithstanding Iraq's veiled threats to use weapons it apparently does not possess, there is no justification for any nation to deploy nuclear, biological or chemical weapons against Iraq. A multinational force involving Australia would never, of course, resort to such weapons. And despite Saddam's deliberate placement of military facilities adjacent to population centres, every effort must be made to avoid inflicting suffering on non-combatants and damage to civil infrastructure. Given the resounding defeat of the Iraqi army in just over three days during 1991 and the sophistication of the opposing forces in 2003, it is unlikely that a campaign against Iraq would last much longer than three weeks.

Seventh, the outcome should bear a very close relationship to the cost. The final criterion asks whether the whole exercise is worthwhile given the pain and suffering associated with using force. In considering the consequences of a campaign against Iraq, we can only speculate on the number of people that will be killed or the value of property destroyed. It is in no one's interests, other than Saddam's, for death and destruction to be large. But we must also assess the cost of allowing Iraq to retain WMDs, recognise the price paid by the Iraqi people for the continuation of this evil regime, and the damage to the standing of the UN if its authority is challenged and its resolutions are again ignored.


While all of these criteria must be satisfied before a war can be deemed just, it is clear that not every just cause is a reason for declaring war. This is why we need a continuing national debate before hostilities commence. Should the Government commit Australian personnel to war, some will want to express their opposition by protesting against any further deployments of Australian personnel. If any lesson was learned from Australian participation in the Vietnam War it is how easily opposition to a military campaign can translate into hostility towards service personnel. From my own experience as a naval officer, being in a ship surrounded by angry protestors is incredibly distressing. Australian Defence Force personnel and their families are entitled to charity as they carry out the will of the elected Government, however we might feel about its wisdom. The right to protest must be accompanied with sensitivity.

Although I am now inclined to believe a campaign against Iraq during the next few months involving Australian Defence Force personnel would be just, I continue to hope and pray that hostilities might be averted and that a resolution to this conflict can be achieved without force. That the responsibility to act justly obliges the use of force is a reminder that this world is fallen - that it remains in continuing need of redemption. This is another matter to which the Christian Church has much to contribute as we seek after peace and justice.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Frame, a former naval officer, is Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force.

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