In February 1991, then-President Bush took great pains to argue to the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory. The current President Bush has not made an appeal to Just War theory to support his proposed war in Iraq. He cannot. Pre-emptive strikes violate Just War theory. We are being asked to support America embarking on a war that contradicts the religious and military thinking on the justified use of force that has been dominant for centuries.
Taught in the United States War College as part of military strategy and forming part of the thinking of many major world religions, including Islam, Just War theory has been more than 1500 years in the making. St. Augustine was the first to develop an argument for the possible use of force by Christians. As the Roman Empire was under attack by invading barbarians, he asked if the Christian could justify taking a human life. Augustine gave a very qualified "yes" answer. Force could be justified "in defense of the vulnerable other." Augustine did not even include self-defense in the first list of Just War Principles.
It was another Saint, Thomas Aquinas, who added self-defense to the list of possible justifications of war by persons of religious conscience. His list of limitations and justifications of force are still the guiding tenets of Just War Theory. They are: Just Cause (usually taken to mean defense against an attack), Right Authority (established political authorities, not private citizens), Right Intention (not the love of cruelty or the lust for power), Good Outcome (there must be more good resulting than the evil done by violence), Proportionality (do not use more force than necessary), Reasonable Hope for Success (have a reasonable chance that peace will indeed result), and Last Resort (all non-violent means of diplomacy must have been exhausted).
No part of Just War theory supports a first-strike option. No part of Just War theory supports the "go it alone" strategic thinking of Vice-President Dick Cheney, first outlined in his 1992 white paper, "Defense Planning Guidance." This document proposes "anticipatory action to defend ourselves," that is, striking first against those who have not yet, and might never attack us. This clearly violates the "Just Cause" principle of Just War theory. Cheney also argues that the United States "act independently" in the use of force without global cooperation and even without coalitions of allies, if necessary. This violates the "Last Resort" tenet of Just War doctrine that all diplomatic means be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
Just War theory is a central part of the serious religious reflection, over many centuries, on the possible use of force. It forms part of the thinking on the use of force of almost every major religion in the world. It is widely studied by political and military strategists.
It is not surprising that the current Bush administration does not mention Just War theory. First Strike Strategy is not supported by any religious or moral doctrine of the justified use of force.
Augustine wanted to know if Christians could resist barbarians. If the United States adopts and acts on a First Strike Option, then it is Americans who have become the barbarians. We will have learned nothing from 1,500 years of moral reasoning.
The Rev. Susan B. Thistlethwaite is President and Professor of Theology of UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary. This colujmn appeared in the Oct. 15 Chicago Tribune.