Is the War Against ISIS Just?

Is the War Against ISIS Just?
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Is the war against the Islamic State just?

Over many centuries, the just war tradition developed a number of requirements for a war to be just. One is "competent authority." The U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1983 pastoral letter describes this criterion this way: "In the Catholic tradition the right to use force has always been joined to the common good; war must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals."

Two concerns have been raised about whether this war meets the competent authority test. One is inward-looking. It holds that the president lacks the authority under the Constitution to commit the United States to war. Competent authority, in this view, would allow only those wars undertaken with direct, explicit approval of the Congress.

The second concern is outward-looking and has been expressed by Pope Francis himself. Chatting with reporters on his flight back to Rome from South Korea, he said: "A single nation cannot judge how to stop this, how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there arose the idea of the United Nations. That is where we should discuss: 'Is there an unjust aggressor?'"

Neither concern warrants a conclusion that the intervention of the United States into the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are unjust because of a lack of competent authority.

Consider first the claim that the war would be unjust if there were a lack of Congressional authorization. This issue is essentially irrelevant to the rationale for the competent authority test. The point of the requirement was to restrict the exercise of warfare by denying recourse to it to the various levels of feudal lords. Only states are allowed to wage war. In the case of the war against Islamic State, it is unquestionably the case that the war is an undertaking of the American state. It is not President Obama's war fought by his private army.

Of course, legitimate questions can be raised about the legality and constitutionality of the war. Such questions, however, should not shape judgments about the morality of any war based on just war principles. If there has been a usurpation of the authority of the legislature, such usurpation raises moral questions, but not in just war contexts.

Is Pope Francis correct in supposing that the UN is the sole competent authority for the waging of just wars? No.

First of all, the members of the UN cede their right to wage war contingently, not absolutely. That is clear even in the Charter. Article 51 stipulates that "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security." Article 51 assumes that the problem will be referred to the Security Council, which will take appropriate action. But history has shown that assumption to be groundless.

But a more fundamental reason militates against equating the UN as the only competent authority for a just war. The UN was established to prevent World War III. Its Charter sets out the skeleton for institutions for preventing or stopping acts of aggression by one state against another. Achieving that end would only partially fulfill the original purpose for granting political authorities the right to wage war. The just cause for governments resorting to war once extended far beyond protecting the people under the government's jurisdiction and included, most significantly, ending injustices.

The crimes of Islamic State are not primarily acts of aggression against states. They are fundamentally matters of justice, or lack thereof. What is at stake is whether that group can, with impunity, inflict mass murders, religious oppression and sexual slavery on huge masses of people over whom they gain power by military victory. To treat the problem within the parameters of international law of aggression or national interest is to completely miss the point and to obfuscate the compelling moral issue at stake.

For competent authority to shift totally from the hands of states would require the establishment of a political authority with the writ and capability of promoting the common good of the human community by effectively addressing and correcting gross injustices that afflict the community.

What would have to exist would be a world government. And the United Nations, whatever it is, is not a world government and no amount of pontificating will make it one.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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