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Contradictions in just-war theory

06 July 2011

If we sell weapons, we can’t expect them to stay in the packaging, says Alan Storkey

FOR a time, as a conscien­tious, just-war Anglican, I have felt confused. The war in Afghanistan at first seemed unjust. The United States had equipped and trained the mu­jahideen to engage in terrorist fighting and to be pro­fessional soldiers, and it was unfair to criticise the Afghans for doing what we had trained them to do.

But then, after 9/11, to go into Afghanistan to capture bin Laden seemed a just thing to do. Although he has now been killed in another country, it does not mean that the war was morally wrong, merely that we were fighting a just war in the wrong place.

In the second Iraq War, the issue hinged on weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which we were all agreed it was wrong for Saddam Hussein to have. Clearly, WMDs are capable of immense damage; that is why we have developed them in the West, and why we exported them to Saddam.

The question was whether we could legitim­ately attack Saddam for possessing WMDs, even if they were our WMDs. Clearly, wanting regime change was not an adequate reason for war, because that was placing our preference over the internal democratic rights of Iraqis.

We did not object to WMDs being used against the Kurds at Halabja, or the Iranians, but two wrongs do not make a right — or rather, in this case, they may make a right.

It is also not clear whether Iran was part of the axis of evil, and what this might do to just-war theory. If Saddam possessed WMDs that we had sold to him, it seemed right to infer that he might use them; although, of course, it was not a necessary conclusion when they were sold. Per­haps they would stay in their packaging.

We could conclude that he would use the weapons that we said he had, because he had used them before. The fact that he and other witnesses said that he did not have them, and that the country was crawling with inspectors did not mean that we thought he would not attack with the weapons he actually had not got. Indeed, the WMDs he did not have legitimised the WMDs that we used, which we did have.

In Libya, we clearly intervened to protect the Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi’s using the weapons which we had supplied, and, again, thought that he would not use. It turns out that we in the UK have exported millions of items of military equipment such as crowd-control gas, and machine guns which he is prepared to use against his own people.

Our government must have thought that the weapons, in themselves, were not dangerous, and so it granted the licences. At least the licences were temporary, which means we could ask for the weapons back. But now it turns out that Colonel Gaddafi is dangerous, and therefore it is just to go to war with him. He might, of course, be near the location of one of our shells when it arrives.

Thus, we are not going to war, but merely attacking the weapons we have supplied in order to make the country safe for democracy. That seems to me to be a sound argument. We are also arming the democrats in the streets, so that they can impose democracy in the way they want. Except, as the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has argued, democracy is not a good idea — they might vote the wrong way.

Nevertheless, it is good to have a decisive body of moral theory to correct the impracticability of Jesus’s teaching. It is a pity that his teaching could not take into account the complexity of modern weapon systems.

Perhaps the conclusion is that weapons are safe in our hands, but not in the hands of Arabs, except at the point of sale.

Dr Alan Storkey is the author of Jesus and Politics (Baker Book House, 2005).

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