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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Unjust? So What?

Michael Walzer

3 2004
Volume 10, Number 3


Unjust? So What?

Arguing About War

Michael Walzer

Yale University Press, 2004

xv + 208 pgs.   

Among American political theorists and philosophers, Michael Walzer has won recognition as the foremost authority on just war theory. His Just and Unjust Wars (1977) revived interest in the topic among those philosophers, unfortunately in the majority, unfamiliar with natural law theory. I thus looked forward to his new book, all the more so as it carries the endorsement of the eminent Jean Bethke Elshtain.

Much to my regret, the book contains little of theoretical significance, and I write about it here for another reason. In his remarks on the Iraq War, he reveals a dangerous but all-too-common mindset that it is important to identify and combat.

To understand what is at stake, one needs to understand Walzer’s highly qualified adherence to just war theory. He recognizes moral limits to declaring and waging war, but he is anxious that these limits not rule out war altogether, or make undertaking it genuinely difficult. That would be "pacifism"—and we mustn’t have that, must we? "[J]ust war theory," he tells us, "even when it demands a strong critique of particular acts of war, is the doctrine of people who expect to use power and exercise force" (p. 14).

Elsewhere, Walzer reiterates his opposition to "absolutism," the view that there are some acts it is never morally permissible to do. The normal rules of morality may be abrogated in a situation of "supreme emergency"—roughly, when the existence of one’s community is at stake. Such situations are unlikely to arise, but even in normal war, Walzer is not the strictest of judges. He offers a very lenient interpretation of the last resort principle, the requirement that a nation go to war only if less violent means to settle the issues in dispute have failed. "Taken literally . . . ‘last resort’ would make war morally impossible. For we can never reach lastness, or never know that we have reached it. There is always something else to do" (p. 88).

Nevertheless, Walzer does not totally eviscerate the limits imposed by just war theory; and he recognizes that, even by his lax standards, the invasion of Iraq is an unjust war. Writing before the invasion, he takes very seriously the danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s alleged drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction. (Walzer’s book is a collection of essays, and he has not revised them to reflect the fact that the "threat" was imaginary.) But the threat is not imminent; would it not be the better course of action to enforce stricter sanctions against Saddam than to resort to war?

In excellent fashion, he demolishes the argument that the war is justifiable as a means of ridding the world of a brutal tyrant. "[C]hange of regime is not commonly accepted as a justification for war . . . humanitarian interventions to stop massacre and ethnic cleansing can also legitimately result in the installation of a new regime [but] . . . there is no compelling case to be made for humanitarian intervention in Iraq. The Baghdad regime is brutally repressive and morally repugnant, certainly, but it is not engaged in mass murder or ethnic cleansing; there are governments as bad (well, almost as bad) all over the world" (pp. 148–49).

Now comes the good part. Even with his lax understanding of just war principles, Walzer has concluded that the Iraq war is unjust. What then follows? You might think that Walzer would demand that the invasion cease. If so, you have a surprise in store. Even though Walzer opposed the war, he favors its continuation, given that it is a fait accompli. "But now [March 2003] that we are fighting it [war with Iraq], I hope that we win it and that the Iraqi regime collapses quickly. I will not march to stop the war while Saddam is still standing, for that would strengthen his tyranny at home and make him, once again, a threat to all his neighbors" (p. 161).

What happened to his point that the overthrow of Saddam was not an adequate justification for war? Once war has begun, Walzer’s commitment to just war principles, so far as resort to war is concerned, exits the scene. Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. Walzer contrasted his own views, wise to the ways of the world, with these Utopians. But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either. If they start a war, they can be confident that, whatever Walzer’s professed principles, he will support them if it now strikes him as suitable to do so. Walzer’s ostensible support for just war principles thus dissolves into nothing. He might better have entitled his account of the principles that govern resort to war, "Ideas Have No Consequences." n MR


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