The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CCADD.



Some ethical reflections on Iraq

Senator McCain is committed to finishing the job in Iraq; Senator Obama to withdrawing all US combat troops:

In order to end this war responsibly, I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. We can responsibly remove 1 to 2 combat brigades each month. If we start with the number of brigades we have in Iraq today, we can remove all of them in 16 months.1 


So Senator Obama promised in March this year and repeated in July, albeit with the qualification that, “We will make tactical adjustments as we implement this strategy.”2

Which of these policies would just war teaching recommend?


In order to answer this question, we need first to address two closely related questions:

· Was the Second Gulf War an unjust war?

· If so, what should we do now?


  Was the Second Gulf War unjust?

The just war criteria prescribe that a war will only be just if undertaken: for the sake of a just cause, with right intention, with competent authority, as a last resort, and if the harm judged likely to result is not disproportionate to the good to be achieved, taking into account the probability of success; while in its conduct the principle of proportion and non-combatant immunity should be observed; and the war should end in the establishment of a just peace. For a war to be just all these conditions must be met.


First, was there a just cause? Different reasons were adduced at different times for the invasion of Iraq.   But the declared basis for the military operations common to both the British and US Governments was “to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and the associated programmes and means of delivery” and so to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolutions.3


We now know that there were no such weapons. But that does not necessarily invalidate the disarmament motive as just grounds for war if there were reasonable, soundly based grounds for believing Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD).   That belief rested, in part, on the fact that Saddam had had such weapons and had them in profusion at the time of the First Gulf War, a capability which intelligence analysts had under-estimated. Having under-estimated Iraq’s weapon stocks then, the analysts were determined not to make the same mistake again. In the succeeding years they tended to the opposite error of making worst case assessments of Saddam’s stock holdings. It was accepted that the UN weapon inspectors had ensured the destruction of substantial WMD stocks. But Saddam’s failure to cooperate fully with the inspectors led both the inspectors and intelligence analysts to suppose that he was still retaining significant concealed stocks. Such was the view of Hans Blix, the Executive Chairman of the UN Inspection Commission, UNMOVIC. After the war he confided that:

  My gut feeling, which I kept to myself, suggested to me that Iraq was still engaged in

  prohibited activities and retained prohibited items, and that it had the documents to prove it.4


Western analysts also thought that Saddam had the weapons because he behaved as if he did. This was not an unreasonable assumption. No sane Western democratic leader would behave as if he had the weapons, so incurring immensely damaging economic sanctions against his people and the threat of military action. The risks would be deemed to outweigh any benefits. But Saddam was not a Western democratic leader. He cared little for the penalties that sanctions brought upon his people and was not democratically accountable to the people whose suffering he caused. A western democratic leader could not survive, behaving as he did. But a ruthless Arab dictator could or, at least, he could for twelve years. The analysts’ mistake was thus to apply the canons of Western rationality and democracy in a non-Western, non-democratic context.


What the UN inspectors and intelligence analysts failed to reckon on was that Saddam was engaged in a gigantic – and to his mind cunning - game of bluff, destroying weapon stocks to satisfy the inspectors, while still pretending he had them to deter  internal and external threats to his regime, particularly from Iran.  This game of bluff was finally uncovered in 2004 by the Internal Survey Group who concluded that:

   In order to counter these threats, Saddam continued with his public posture of retaining the

   WMD capability. This led to a difficult balancing act between the need to disarm to achieve

   sanctions relief while at the same time retaining a strategic deterrence. The regime never

   resolved the contradictions inherent in this approach.5


The belief that Saddam had WMD was mistaken but it was not unreasonable, given the way Saddam behaved. So the objective of disarming Iraq of its WMD capability in enforcement of UN Resolutions could have constituted a just cause for military action. There are, however, two important qualifications. 


First, the just war criteria are designed to make it difficult to go to war. War causes certain harm so it is important to be confident that the benefits of military action will outweigh the disbenefits. If the justification for a military operation is based primarily on evidence furnished by intelligence, Governments need to be sure that the evidence is reliable: “the degree of certainty being what is accepted in moral matters”, as Grotius puts it.6  But the intelligence material on which the judgements of Saddam’s capability were based was “sporadic and patchy” in the words of the report into the intelligence failings commissioned by the British Government.7 The robust evidential proof required by the just war criteria could not be furnished from so meagre a store.


The second and related difficulty is that since the military action to disarm Iraq of its WMD capability was being undertaken to enforce UN Security Council Resolutions, the US and UK Governments needed to be sure that they had the required competent authority to act on behalf of the UN. This was, however, disputed.


The British Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, argued that the coalition had competent authority. Member states had been authorised to use force by the 1990 UN Resolution 678. That authorisation had been suspended but not terminated by Resolution 687 at the end of the First Gulf War and had been revived by UNSCR 1441 in 1992 that had found Iraq to be in material breach of its obligations to disarm.8


This was an elegant legal argument. But whatever its merits, the weakness of such an approach is that to justify such a momentous decision as embarking on war on behalf of the UN required more than an argument to show that force had been authorised by the UN in the past. It needed evidence that such military enforcement action was still the avowed wish of the international community. That was more difficult to establish.

Given the vagaries of the UN Security Council’s voting record, explicit UN authorisation for military action may not always be essential where there is a grave and urgent humanitarian crisis or where, as with NATO operations in Kosovo, there is other clear evidence of substantial international backing. But neither of these conditions was met with the Iraq invasion. Moreover, the fact that the justification for the action was to enforce UN resolutions underlined the particular importance in this case of explicit UN backing. This was why the British Government had been keen to secure a second resolution explicitly authorising the use of force. The failure to secure a majority in the UN Security Council to support that second resolution was itself evidence of the lack of international consensus for military action. This in turn cast doubt on the claim that the US and British Governments had the required competent authority.


One of the main reasons for the reluctance of the international community to lend such support for a second resolution was a belief that military action was not being undertaken as a last resort. It was argued that Resolution 1441, while declaring Iraq in material breach of its disarmament obligations, had given Saddam a final chance to prove otherwise. The UNMOVIC inspectors had only arrived in Iraq on 28th November 2002 and had not yet had time to complete their work.  The counter argument was that Saddam had had twelve years to demonstrate his compliance and failed to do so. He had had time enough. This was a telling point. But the UNMOVIC inspectors had begun to report a greater degree of Iraqi cooperation. On 7th March 2003 Hans Blix, presenting his third report, stated that the Iraqis were cooperating more fully than in the past, although still not to the point of full disclosure.9 In view of these more positive findings, the inspectors should have been given more time.


There were genuine concerns as to whether military action was being undertaken as a last resort and in view of these a reluctance to support a second resolution authorising force. This, in turn, cast doubt on whether the condition of competent authority was met and so reinforced the concern that there was not a just cause for action. Doubt over whether each of these conditions individually was met did not amount to a knock-down argument against war. But the doubts taken together mutually reinforced each other and so strengthened the overall concern that there was not a sufficient just cause.


There is, moreover, even more serious concern over whether the next requirement of the just war tradition was met. For this requires that before war is undertaken a careful assessment should be undertaken of the consequences of military action to ensure that the harm caused is not disproportionate to the good achieved taking into account the probability of success.

Judged against the initial military campaign - what John Keegan called the “brief and brilliant” 21-day campaign from 20th March to 9th April 200310 –  this condition was met. Casualties were considerably lower than in the First Gulf War. As against the limited casualties could be set the removal of the threat to regional peace and security achieved by the overthrow of Saddam’s regime and the opportunity this furnished to disarm Iraq of its WMD. There was evident relief amongst the Iraqi people that the years of Saddam’s oppression had been ended.


So it looked in April 2003.  Five years on the balance sheet looks, however, very different. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Meanwhile the casualties have continued to mount. On 20th March 2008 US military deaths had risen to 3,990, British to 175 and other coalition forces to 133. The Iraq Body Count conservatively estimated civilian deaths at 90,000. 2.4 million refugees and asylum seekers have fled the country, although some are now returning.11

Most of these casualties are not the result of coalition military action but stem from the devastating attacks that the Iraqis are inflicting on one another, as Sunnis and Shias struggle for power and al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups fuel the civil strife. Casualty levels have also been much reduced following the successful US “surge operations” from April 2007, combining higher US and Iraqi force levels with much more effective counter-insurgency tactics. Coalition leaders could not reasonably be expected to have precisely forecast the casualty levels. But the coalition leaders are rightly criticised for failing to have given sufficient consideration to what would be the effects of regime change and for not having formulated robust plans for re-establishing civil governance in its wake. Just as they had undertaken worst case assessments of Saddam’s WMD capability, so they had undertaken best case assessments of what would happen after the regime had been changed. Planning to ensure the prompt restoration of peaceful conditions after military operations and the establishment of a just peace was plainly inadequate. Both the just war requirements of proportion and jus post bellum were accordingly not met.


We turn now to the jus in bello criteria of proportion and non-combatant immunity. In the initial military campaign these conditions were met. But in the succeeding operations there were lapses against both principles, particularly during the first year when coalition forces struggled to cope with an increasingly violent insurgency campaign which they had not expected and for which they were neither prepared nor trained.


The principle of proportion was breached in the way US forces responded in the autumn of 2003 to the growing insurgency with a heavy-handed campaign of indiscriminate arrests of civilian suspects. Particular concerns were voiced over the amount of force used in the US operation to secure Fallujah in April 2004. There were also lapses against the principle of non-combatant immunity. The most notorious of these were the torture and sexual humiliation of detainees by US military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in the autumn of 2003. There were also abuses by British soldiers, including the unlawful death in custody of Baha Mousa in Basra in September 2003.


Such abuses were condemned in their own right because the ill treatment contravened both the just war requirement to minimise harm to civilians and the specific Geneva conventions prohibiting ill treatment of detainees. Such failings at the tactical level also had adverse strategic consequences because the behaviour conflicted with the humanitarian objectives of the coalition mission.


The Second Gulf War was, like most wars, fought from a mixture of motives. But, in the main, the reasons for undertaking the war were honourable. The concerns over WMD proliferation in general and Saddam’s contribution to this in particular were genuinely held. It is too easy to present the coalition leaders as wicked men. On the contrary, the tragedy of the Iraq conflict is that those responsible were trying to make the world a better and safer place and were supported by military forces that have exhibited, on the whole, remarkable restraint and enormous courage and dedication. But as the just war doctrine, forged from painful experience over the centuries, teaches, noble aspirations are not enough. War is so serious and deadly an occupation that the just war tradition sets the tests for a just war at a very high level. Against those very high standards, the Second Gulf War is judged to be an unjust war.


What should we do now?

The invasion of Iraq was unjust. But does it follow that current military operations should be terminated forthwith and all coalition forces withdrawn as quickly as possible? That is the view of many who opposed the war. For example, the British journalist Jonathan Steele concludes his critique of the Iraq War with the demand for early troop withdrawals:

   Even at this late stage, nearly five years after the invasion, the announcement of readiness

   to withdraw all US troops within a matter of months would give a vital boost to Iraq’s

   processes of national reconciliation.12 


But would it? That is not the view of the military commanders on the ground. General Petraeus,  in reporting to Congress in April 2008 the considerable progress made by the surge operations, warned that that progress was “fragile and reversible”; and that “withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardise the progress of the past year.”13 So how can the just war tradition assist in deciding this difficult issue?


Just war commentators sometimes write as if the just war criteria need only to be applied twice: once, before war is undertaken; and then in the course of its conduct. It is illegitimate retrospectively to amend the reasons one went to war if the war subsequently takes an unintended course. But it is equally an error not to keep the application of the criteria regularly under review as circumstances change.  A war begun justly, such as the First World War, may become unjust if in its prosecution the balance of harm exceeds the good to be achieved.  Conversely, a war begun unjustly can still end justly. Indeed, the very injustice of the war may impose a particular obligation on those responsible to help restore a just peace.


The just war conditions are not static but dynamic criteria. They need to be regularly applied and reapplied, before, during and after a war. This is particularly important before any major strategic decision such as the withdrawal of all combat troops and the ending of military operations. So how would such a decision in Iraq be rated against the just war criteria?


There is a just cause for current operations - to restore a just peace. There is also a particular obligation on those who fractured the peace to help restore it.  After the conclusion of the initial military campaign, the coalition forces were authorised to restore security and stability in Iraq under UNSCR 1483 unanimously passed on 22nd May 2003. Their mandate has been renewed annually since, most recently last December. The forces are now operating in support of the Iraqi Government democratically elected in December 2005, with whom a bilateral security agreement is planned to replace the UN mandate at the end of this year. The current operations thus have a legitimacy that the invasion lacked.  There is just cause for the operations, as well as competent authority.


The next criterion of last resort requires that there is no available alternative means to the use of military force to restore law and order to Iraq. The restoration of peace is a complex task requiring a comprehensive approach drawing from an array of tools – political, diplomatic, and economic as well as military. But so long as a violent insurgency campaign continues to be waged by al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups, military forces will continue to be an essential component of the counter-insurgency campaign. The aim is for this task to be taken over fully and as quickly as possible by Iraqi forces. Substantial progress towards this goal has been achieved, as demonstrated by the recent successful operations of Iraqi forces in Basra and Baghdad. But the judgement of the security experts is that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to take on this task on their own.


The final jus ad bellum condition is for a careful assessment to be made to ensure that more good than harm will be achieved, taking into account the probability of success. It was this test more than any other that the war planners failed to pass, basing their judgments of what would happen after invasion on ill-founded best case assessments. This test needs to be applied very carefully before a decision is taken to withdraw all combat troops.


Opponents of the war, such as Jonathan Steele, claim that withdrawal will give a vital boost to national reconciliation but provide no evidence to support this. Nor does he do so to support his claim that once withdrawal is announced, “Only then will the resistance make a deal to refrain from attacks on US troops as they pull out.”14 Such restraint seems unlikely from terrorists who began their insurgency campaign in Iraq on 7th August 2003 with the demolition of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Indeed, it seems rather more likely that the reverse will be the case. David Petraeus - a US general, finally and belatedly, well versed  in counter-insurgency operations - judges that premature withdrawal will not only put at risk the security gains hard won by the surge operations but risk provoking wider instability and civil strife, putting many thousands of lives at risk. As his April report to Congress soberly concludes: “a failed state in Iraq would pose serious consequences for the greater fight against Al Qaeda, for regional stability, for the already existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and for the effort to counter malign Iranian influence.”15 Just when the counter-insurgency campaign is achieving some success, it would seem perverse to terminate operations. Nor would ceding success to Al Qaeda in Iraq appear necessarily the best way to ensure their defeat in Afghanistan. Early withdrawal would be likely to cause greater harm than good and so fails the first application of the principle of proportion.


The final conditions that need to be satisfied are the application of the principle of proportion in the conduct of war, together with that of non-combatant immunity. Although there were breaches of these principles, particularly in the first year of the occupation, coalition forces are now finally operating an effective counter-insurgency campaign. A key contribution to the success of this is the need, now recognised both in principle and practice, for the forces to operate with restraint and discrimination.




My conclusion is that, although the invasion of Iraq was unjust, the current operations to restore peace and security to that troubled land are just. Those calling for the withdrawal of all troops against an arbitrary, fixed timetable unrelated to conditions on the ground are guilty of the same ill-founded optimism over the consequences of their actions, as were those who failed adequately to plan for the war in the first place. Such action would risk heaping on the injustice of the war, the injustice of a failure to restore peace. Just war teaching would counsel that we should rather seek to atone for an unjust war by doing all we can to restore a just peace.

                                                                                David Fisher

                                                                                August 2008




1.      “The World Beyond Iraq” a speech by Senator Barack Obama, March 19th 2008.

2.      Senator Barack Obama, speech on Iraq and Afghanistan, 15th July 2008.

3.      “Iraq: Military Campaign Objectives” para.1. The British Government’s text is set out  in full as Annex C to The Review of Intelligence – Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report of a Committee of Privy Councillors, chaired by The Rt. Hon The Lord Butler of Brockenwell, (London, The Stationery Office, HC 898, 14th July 2004), known as the  Butler Report.

4.      Dr. Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (London, Bloomsbury, 2004), p.112.

5.      Iraq Survey Group Final Report, 30th September, 2004, Vol. I, p.34.

6.      Hugo Grotius, De Iure Belli ac Pacis, Book II, Chapter XXII, section V.

7.      Butler Report, para.330.

8.      The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, set out his findings in a Written Answer in the House Lords, 17th March 2003, quoted in full in Annex D to the Butler Report.

9.      John Keegan, The Iraq War (London, Pimlico, 2005) p.118.  Mohamed ElBaradei, Chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, also reported at the same time that there was no evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear programme

10. Keegan, The Iraq War p.218.

11. “Iraq: Five Years On Mapping the Casualties” Guardian, March 20th 2008

12. Jonathan Steele, Defeat – Why They Lost Iraq (London, I.B. Tauris, 2008) p.257.

13. General David H. Petraeus, Commander, Multi-National Force-Iraq, Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq, 8-9 April, 2008, pps.1 and 6.

14. Steele, Defeat, p.257.

15. Petraeus, Report to Congress, p. 6