Impatience, a Bad Reason to Wage War
The Age, February 5, 2003
The world should watch with suspicion George Bush's decision-making process, writes Peter Singer.
Now that the United States is again considering going to war, it is timely to reassess the last war fought by the Bush Administration. Was the war in Afghanistan a just war? If not, our scrutiny of present moves towards another US-initiated war will need to be that much more strict.
After September 11, 2001, few doubted that the US was justified in going to war in Afghanistan. On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza wrote to President George Bush that the use of force against Afghanistan was "regrettable but necessary". (In September 2002, his successor, Bishop Wilton Gregory, called on Bush to step back from the brink of war with Iraq.)
At Princeton University, as the bombing of Afghanistan began, I invited four distinguished speakers, covering the range of opinion from left to right, to discuss whether a war on Afghanistan was a just response to terrorism: Richard Falk, Michael Walzer, James Johnson and Gideon Rose. To my surprise, all four thought the war on Afghanistan was a just war.
Now, thanks to journalist Bob Woodward's record of the decision-making process in the White House, in his book Bush at War, we know more about the process by which the decision for war was taken. It is not reassuring.
Already on September 13 Secretary of State Colin Powell noticed that "Bush was tired of rhetoric. The President wanted to kill somebody." From then on, although there is occasional talk of the need for patience, Bush frequently pushes for quick action, saying things like, "Time is of the essence", "It's very important to move fast", and "We've got to start showing results".
Bush himself told Woodward that in the days leading up to the bombing, he was "ready to go", "growing a little impatient", "fiery". And he also said: "I rely on my instincts. I just knew that at some point in time the American people were going to say, 'Where is he? What are you doing? Where's your leadership? Where is the United States? You're all-powerful, do something."'
Is this the right mood in which to decide to go to war? The most authoritative recent statement of the theory of just war is a document adopted by the United States Bishops Conference in 1983, titled The Challenge of Peace. One of the conditions it sets out for a just war is the criterion of last resort, which requires that a nation go to war only when it has tried and exhausted all peaceful alternatives. Instead, in his speech to Congress on September 20, Bush issued the Taliban regime in Afghanistan an ultimatum. Thereafter, he refused to enter into negotiations with the Taliban for Osama bin Laden to be handed over for trial by an international court, and for the training camps to be closed down.
Remarkably, as far as we can tell from Woodward's account, after giving the Taliban the ultimatum, Bush never discussed, with Condoleezza Rice, with Powell, with the National Security Council, or with any other advisers, the response of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, who asked the US Government to provide evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the events of September 11, and indicated that if this was done, he would be willing to hand bin Laden over to an Islamic court in another Muslim country.
(This proposal was later softened to a requirement that the court have at least one Muslim judge.)
There was also a suggestion that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a group of more than 50 Muslim countries, should be consulted, and there was an offer to meet US officials.
The request for evidence of bin Laden's involvement - none of which had been made public at the time - was surely a reasonable one, in accord with normal requests for extradition. The US would itself insist on evidence before handing someone within its borders over to another nation wishing to put him on trial for a capital offence. Yet the request, and the proposal for a meeting, appear to have been totally ignored. The war on Afghanistan may have been a military success, but it fails to meet the traditional criteria for being a just war because it was not a war of last resort.
It was the most aggressive option among other options that had not been adequately explored. It was an option chosen by a leader who was in a hurry to act, to show the American public that he was a leader, and to make an example of Afghanistan, in order to send a signal to other nations.
But impatience is not an ethical justification for going to war, and the signal could have been sent in other ways, less costly in human life, including the lives of innocent civilians.