Noam Chomsky: A just war? Hardly
9 May 2006
SPURRED by these times of invasions and evasions, discussion
of "just war" has had a renaissance among scholars and even among
Concepts aside, actions in the real world all too often reinforce
the maxim of Thucydides that "The strong do as they can, while the
weak suffer what they must" which is not only indisputably unjust,
but at the present stage of human civilisation, a literal threat to
the survival of the species.
In his highly praised reflections on just war, Michael Walzer
describes the invasion of Afghanistan as "a triumph of just war
theory," standing alongside Kosovo as a "just war." Unfortunately,
in these two cases, as throughout, his arguments rely crucially on
premises like "seems to me entirely justified," or "I believe"
or "no doubt."
Facts are ignored, even the most obvious ones. Consider Afghanistan.
As the bombing began in October 2001, President Bush warned Afghans
that it would continue until they handed over people that the US
suspected of terrorism.
The word "suspected" is important. Eight months later, FBI head
Robert S. Mueller III told editors at The Washington Post that after
what must have been the most intense manhunt in history, "We think
the masterminds of (the Sept. 11 attacks) were in Afghanistan, high
in the al-Qaida leadership. Plotters and others the principals
came together in Germany and perhaps elsewhere."
What was still unclear in June 2002 could not have been known
definitively the preceding October, though few doubted at once that
it was true. Nor did I, for what it's worth, but surmise and
evidence are two different things. At least it seems fair to say
that the circumstances raise a question about whether bombing
Afghans was a transparent example of "just war."
Walzer's arguments are directed to unnamed targets for example,
campus opponents who are "pacifists." He adds that their "pacifism"
is a "bad argument," because he thinks violence is sometimes
legitimate. We may well agree that violence is sometimes legitimate
(I do), but "I think" is hardly an overwhelming argument in the real-
world cases that he discusses.
By "just war," counterterrorism or some other rationale, the US
exempts itself from the fundamental principles of world order that
it played the primary role in formulating and enacting.
After World War II, a new regime of international law was
instituted. Its provisions on laws of war are codified in the UN
Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles,
adopted by the General Assembly. The Charter bars the threat or use
of force unless authorized by the Security Council or, under Article
51, in self-defense against armed attack until the Security Council
In 2004, a high level UN panel, including, among others, former
National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, concluded that "Article
51 needs neither extension nor restriction of its long-understood
scope ... In a world full of perceived potential threats, the risk
to the global order and the norm of nonintervention on which it
continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of
unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed
action, to be accepted. Allowing one to so act is to allow all."
The National Security Strategy of September 2002, just largely
reiterated in March, grants the US the right to carry out what it
calls "pre-emptive war," which means not pre-emptive,
but "preventive war." That's the right to commit aggression, plain
In the wording of the Nuremberg Tribunal, aggression is "the supreme
international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it
contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" all the
evil in the tortured land of Iraq that flowed from the US-UK
invasion, for example.
The concept of aggression was defined clearly enough by US Supreme
Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was chief prosecutor for the
United States at Nuremberg. The concept was restated in an
authoritative General Assembly resolution. An "aggressor," Jackson
proposed to the tribunal, is a state that is the first to commit
such actions as "invasion of its armed forces, with or without a
declaration of war, of the territory of another State."
That applies to the invasion of Iraq. Also relevant are Justice
Jackson's eloquent words at Nuremberg: "If certain acts of violation
of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States
does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to
lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would
not be willing to have invoked against us." And elsewhere: "We must
never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is
the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these
defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well."
For the political leadership, the threat of adherence to these
principles and to the rule of law in general is serious indeed.
Or it would be, if anyone dared to defy "the single ruthless
superpower whose leadership intends to shape the world according to
its own forceful world view," as Reuven Pedatzur wrote in Haaretz
Let me state a couple of simple truths. The first is that actions
are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences. A second
is the principle of universality; we apply to ourselves the same
standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones.
Apart from being the merest truisms, these principles are also the
foundation of just war theory, at least any version of it that
deserves to be taken seriously.
Noam Chomsky, the eminent intellectual and author, most recently, of
Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, is a
professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
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