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‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense (Part 2)

Taking self-defense seriously means embracing the morality of victory, not sacrifice.

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Editors’ note: This essay was originally published on ARI’s website and then in Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.

Authors’ Note: This essay is partially based on a lecture, “The Morality of War,” delivered by Yaron Brook at numerous venues across the country including the 2004 Objectivist Summer Conference.

Part 3 of this article will be published on November 1, 2023.

Start with Part 1 here.

“Just War Theory”

Consider the following passages from the book Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer:

A soldier must take careful aim at his military target and away from nonmilitary targets. He can only shoot if he has a reasonably clear shot; he can only attack if a direct attack is possible . . . he cannot kill civilians simply because he finds them between himself and his enemies.1

Simply not to intend the deaths of civilians is too easy. . . . What we look for. . . is some sign of a positive commitment to save civilian lives. . . . if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives the risk must be accepted.2

Walzer’s prescriptions are not the idle musings of an ivory tower philosopher; they are exactly the sort of “rules of engagement” under which U.S. soldiers are fighting—and dying—overseas. When our marines in Baghdad do not shoot back when fired upon from a mosque, or when our helicopter pilots are shot down while flying too low in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties while in pursuit of their targets, they are following the dictum that we should show a “positive commitment to save civilian lives” even if this entails “risking soldiers’ lives.”

Just and Unjust Wars serves as the major textbook in the ethics classes taught at West Point and dozens of other colleges and military schools. More broadly, Just War Theory—for which Just and Unjust Wars is the most popular modern text—is the sole moral theory of war taught today.

Just War Theory is conventionally advocated in contrast to two other views of the morality of war: pacifism and “realism.” Pacifism holds that the use of military force is never moral. Just War theorists correctly criticize this view on the grounds that evil aggressors exist who seek to kill and dominate the innocent, and that force is often the only effective way to stop them. War, they hold, is therefore sometimes morally necessary.

“Realism” is the view that war has no moral limitations. Just War Theory rejects this theory as well, holding that war, when necessary, must be conducted in accordance with strict moral principles. Since “realism” renounces morality, Just War theorists observe, its advocates cannot in principle oppose wars or acts of war in which the guilty unjustly kill the innocent. More broadly, Just War theorists argue, “realism” is deficient because it denies the need to think carefully about the moral issues raised by war. Given that, in wartime, thousands or millions of lives hang in the balance—given that war is a major undertaking with the potential to do massive good or massive evil—we are obligated to consider the important, and non-obvious, moral questions that war raises. These questions include: Under what circumstances should a nation go to war? And: What should a nation’s policies be toward the soldiers and civilians of enemy nations?

These questions, Just War theorists argue, must be thought about systematically, in advance of any particular war, so that we can do the right thing when the circumstances arise. These are not questions to be answered by the seat of our president’s pants, in response to the international or domestic whim of the moment. To act in such a way, they say, would be an injustice to all those who are sent to war, and especially to those whose lives are ended because of it.

All of these arguments against pacifism and “realism”—and for systematic analysis of the morality of war—are valid. They lend credence to the claim that Just War Theory is a practical and moral theory of war. But an investigation of Just War Theory—and its consistent practice in our so-called “war on terror”—demonstrates that it is neither practical nor moral. To the extent that Just War Theory is followed, it is a prescription for suicide for innocent nations, and thus a profoundly unjust code.

All forms of Just War Theory provide guidelines that fall into two categories: justice in entering a war, and justice in waging a war. (These two categories are known as jus ad bellum, and jus in bello, respectively.) Broadly speaking, Just War Theory holds that a nation can go to war only in response to the impetus of a “just cause,” with force as a “last resort,” after all other non-military options have been considered and tried—with its decision to go to war motivated by “good intentions,” with the aim of bringing about a “good outcome.” And it holds that a nation must wage war only by means that are “proportional” to the ends it seeks, and while practicing “discrimination” between combatants and non-combatants. Finally, in a requirement that applies to both categories, Just War Theory holds that the decision-making power for when, why, and how to wage war—including the declaration of war—must rest with a “legitimate authority.”

By themselves, these guidelines—“good intentions,” “just cause,” “last resort,” “proportionality,” “discrimination,” and “legitimate authority”—are highly ambiguous. Their meaning and interpretation depend on the view of the “just,” the “good,” and the “legitimate” presupposed by Just War Theory—that is, the theory’s basic view of morality. Although advocates of Just War Theory differ on many specifics about the nature of morality, they all hold one fundamental idea in common. To zero in on this idea, let us turn to the origins of Just War Theory: the writings of the Christian theologian Saint Augustine on the proper use of violence by individuals.

In his work, Augustine asked whether a Christian can ever justify killing another, given the Biblical imperative to “turn the other cheek.” Augustine’s answer was this: One can use force, not to protect oneself, but to protect one’s neighbor. As the scholar Jean Elshtain, author of the highly regarded book Just War Against Terror, explains:

For early Christians like Augustine, killing to defend oneself alone was not enjoined: It is better to suffer harm than to inflict it. But the obligation of charity obliges one to move in another direction: To save the lives of others, it may be necessary to imperil and even take the lives of their tormenters.3

Thus, according to Augustine, if only you are attacked, you are obligated to turn the other cheek and die, because personal self-defense is immoral; only if someone attacks your neighbor’s cheek are you permitted to retaliate.

Augustine’s theory is not about justice in the sense of the innocent defending their lives against the guilty. In Augustine’s view, the guiding purpose and standard for the just use of force by individuals—trumping guilt or innocence—is that it must be an act of selfless service to others.

All of which boils down to this: One’s life is not an end in itself, to be defended righteously for its own sake—but a means to some “higher” end, to be sacrificed or preserved as is required by one’s moral duty to serve others. This is a perfectly consistent expression of the present-day morality of altruism.

“Altruism” literally means “other-ism”; it holds that one should live one’s life in selfless service to the needs of others, with sacrifice for their sake as the highest virtue. To act for one’s own sake, according to altruism, is immoral (or, at best, amoral). The morality of altruism is descended from Christianity but is accepted today in various forms by both the religious and the non-religious. While consistent adherence to altruism is widely recognized as impractical, altruism is nevertheless almost universally upheld as the moral ideal, and almost never challenged. Observe that while few seek to live a Mother Theresa-like life, no one questions that her life was a moral archetype.

Augustine did not write systematically about the application to war of his altruistic, Christian views on the use of violence, though he did apply these views to strongly endorse the practice of fighting wars to relieve suffering and spread Christianity to other nations. After Augustine, other Christian theologians greatly expanded Just War Theory (as it later came to be known). Eventually, it was developed by both religious and secular philosophers, and adopted in various forms by groups as disparate as Christians and atheists, by self-proclaimed “hawks” and borderline pacifists, by moral absolutists and moral relativists. The most significant development in Just War Theory since Augustine’s time is that the theory has come to include an endorsement of what it calls a “right to self-defense.” But because Just War Theory has maintained its Augustinian, altruistic roots, its alleged “right” to self-defense turns out to be no such thing.

Let us explore in detail the meaning and consequences of the guidelines of Just War Theory, focusing on their employment in America’s “war on terror.” Consider first the requirement that a nation go to war only in response to a “just cause.” What constitutes a “just cause” for war? The classic “just cause” that led Augustine to sanction war, and that Just War theorists have endorsed ever since, is a “humanitarian crisis”: a situation in which a foreign people is suffering from aggression or oppression or genocide. Walzer goes so far as to say that “the chief dilemma of international politics is whether people in danger should be rescued by military forces from outside.”4 Many Just War theorists hold that the sacrifice of American soldiers and American wealth for “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian” missions (where no threat to the U.S. is at stake)—such as in Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia—is morally mandatory.

Where in such “just causes” is the justice for the innocent, hardworking individuals who are forced to fund this “humanitarianism,” let alone for those who die in such missions? The “justice” is to be found in Just War Theory’s standard of justice: the altruistic notion that justice means selfless service to the needs of others. In practice this means that the world’s “haves” (the productive, the virtuous, the happy) are to sacrifice for the sake of the world’s “have-nots.” American soldiers, in this view, should not fight for themselves and their freedom; they should fight to serve anyone who needs them.

Given that Just War Theory regards individuals, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the ends of others, what is its view of the right to self-defense, that is, the right of a people to defend its own lives and freedom, not for the sake of a “humanitarian” cause, but for its own sake?

While in name Just War Theory claims to uphold a right to self-defense, in substance it denies this right. Self-defense, the theory holds, is a “just cause” for war. This means that if the people of a nation are suffering aggression, oppression, or genocide, and are themselves capable of stopping it, they are morally entitled to respond militarily. But—and this is the crucial part—only under strict conditions. Aggression from another nation is a “just cause,” according to Just War Theory, but only as a “last resort”—and only if the decision to go to war is motivated by “good intentions.” (These qualifications apply to “humanitarian” “just causes” as well, but we will focus on their application to alleged wars of self-defense).

Let us first examine the requirement that war must be a “last resort.” This restriction is often portrayed as a sensible policy that simply entails taking the act of going to war seriously, rather than going to war willy-nilly. But, in fact, war as a “last resort” goes far beyond forbidding wars of whim or aggression; it means that a nation cannot go to war immediately even when there is an objective threat—that is, when another nation has shown the willingness to initiate aggression against it. Because the use of military force involves the harming of others, Just War Theory holds, every other conceivable avenue short of using military force must be tried: appeasement, U.N. resolutions, being persuaded by the crocodile tears of enemy leaders, and anything else that pacifists (or U.N. ambassadors) can muster.

What is an innocent nation to do when it knows of a threat that, if left unaddressed, could result in a catastrophic attack on it at some point in the future—such as the knowledge possessed by the U.S. of Iran, a nation that sponsors terrorism, spreads Islamic totalitarianism, develops nuclear weapons, has attacked U.S. interests in the past, and promises the eventual destruction of America? Such projections are dismissed by Just War theorists as merely hypothetical (“How can we know what the future will hold?”). Projections of future attacks, they hold, are tainted by self-serving motives—that is, too much concern for one’s own life and liberty, too little concern with the consequences of war on others (such as the Iranians)—and thus morally out of the question as a cause for action. For example, in 2002, Walzer told the New York Times: “we don’t have to wait to be attacked; that’s true. But you do have to wait until you are about to be attacked.”5

The requirement that war be a “last resort” is inimical to the requirements of self-defense, which demand that serious threats be stopped as soon as possible. Observe that evil nations and movements do not commit major atrocities out of the blue; they need time to build their forces, gain converts, extract concessions, and win small victories; they need to convince themselves and their followers that they have a chance of success. The earlier their intended victims retaliate, the less damage the thugs can do, and the easier it is to dispose of them.

Consider Germany in the 1930s. Hitler, who had stated publicly his intentions for domination of Europe and the world, was an objective threat to his neighbors. He was a threat as soon as he came to power, and then increasingly so as he built up a military, explicitly rejecting existing treaties with England and France. Yet these nations took no military action against his regime. Then Germany annexed Austria, and was met with no military response. When Nazi troops occupied the Rhineland (a disputed area on the border with France), they were given a pass. When Hitler asked the European leaders to hand him the free state of Czechoslovakia, they did. It took the invasion of Poland to prompt the European nations to take military action against the Nazis. They practiced war as a “last resort”; and we know the result.

Or consider the rise of Islamic totalitarianism. In 1979, a new Iranian regime founded on Islamic totalitarian principles held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days, while America helplessly begged for their return and Iranian leaders had a world stage to proclaim their superiority to the nation they call the “Great Satan.” Not one American died during the hostage-taking—but, with America on her knees, the burgeoning anti-American movement achieved a crucial victory.

What would Just War Theory say about whether this situation warranted a military response? Did it rise to the level of a direct attack sufficient to place us at the point of “last resort” with Iran and other nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism? Not according to Jimmy Carter. What about after 241 Marines were killed in Lebanon in 1983? Not according to Ronald Reagan. Or after Khomeini’s fatwa offered terrorists a bounty to destroy writer Salman Rushdie and his American publisher for expressing an “un-Islamic” viewpoint in 1989? Not according to George H. W. Bush Or after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993? Not according to Bill Clinton. The pattern is telling.

Since there is no definable threshold at which to declare something a “last resort,” the threshold tends to default to some kind of a range-of-the-moment, perceptual-level event, such as a massive, direct attack by an enemy nation (e.g., 9/11). Until then, Just War theorists and their pacifist spiritual brothers can always concoct new schemes for appeasement, or new fantasies that the enemy has reformed, or new rationalizations that their aggression is our fault—and thus claim that to wage war would be immoral. By the time war becomes a “last resort,” an innocent nation has endured far more risk, fear, and destruction than was necessary—and will have to endure far more in order to defeat a long-appeased and thus more powerful enemy. “Self-defense” as a “last resort” is not self-defense.

Further undermining the self-defense of an innocent nation is the requirement of Just War Theory that the decision to go to war be motivated by “good intentions”—that is, seeking a “good outcome.” This requirement, by naming the motive and purpose of war, goes to the heart of what Just War Theory means and demands.

What does “good” mean here? It means “altruistic.”

According to Just War Theory, it is wrong for a nation to be exclusively concerned with its own well-being in deciding whether to go to war; it must demonstrate concern for the well-being of the world as a whole—including the well-being of the nation it is attacking. Only such a concern will yield a “good outcome”—that is, an altruistic outcome.

Insofar as it constitutes “good intentions” for any part of a mission to be devoted to a nation’s own defense, it is justified as altruistic: by the “sacrifices” that leaders and especially soldiers make to “serve their country”—a country that is defended as an altruistic one. For example, when President Bush discussed why America is a country worth defending, he emphasized our charity, our service to other nations, the religiosity of many Americans, and so on. He did not emphasize the fact that we devote our lives to making money and pursuing happiness.

In implementing Just War Theory, the less a nation is concerned with the well-being of its own citizens, and the more it is concerned with that of others, the more it proves its “good intentions.” The more it seems to be going to war for the sake of its own citizens, the more suspect its motives. Observe this at work in the two wars our government has entered since 9/11: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The impetus for both wars, especially in Afghanistan, was clearly the events of September 11 and the realization of the extent of the terrorist threat to America. But observe that while President Bush said that America has a right to defend itself, he did not consider the elimination of the threat posed by these countries to be a sufficient justification for war in either case. In both wars, he defended his actions, not just as a response to the threat of terrorists to America, but as a response to their threat to the “world.” Bush supplemented the alleged self-defense portions of each mission with massive campaigns to relieve Afghan and Iraqi suffering—suffering that constituted uncontroversially “just causes.” And in the case of the war in Iraq, he made a crucial component of his justification the goal of preserving the “integrity” of the U.N. (an organization whose myriad dictators are committed opponents of American interests), whose resolutions Saddam had violated.

In the buildup to the war in Iraq, President Bush was especially concerned with giving the mission an altruistic purpose. He sought to justify the self-defense aspect of the war on the grounds of preemption, an idea controversial among commentators, politicians, and Just War theorists. Thus, President Bush made sure to focus, above all, on the goal of freeing the Iraqi people of a tyrant and showering them with food, collectively owned oil, and “democracy.” The name of the war, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” perfectly reflects Bush’s moral priorities.

As an expert who is sympathetic to Just War Theory wrote in the Claremont Review of Books:

In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, to have listened to President Bush, or to his principal civilian and military advisors, was to learn how profoundly just-war thinking has influenced the leadership of the world’s most powerful nation. One may of course disagree with their conclusions, but one has to be impressed by the evident care they took to provide moral justification for their actions. Measured by any objective standard, Operation Iraqi Freedom plausibly met all the criteria for just war.6

Whenever President Bush wanted to defend the morality of the wars we have fought, he insisted that we fight for reasons “larger than our nation’s defense.” When Bush referred to our “good intentions” in Iraq, as he frequently did, he spoke not of our intention to defend ourselves, but of the intentions of American citizens to pay and of American soldiers to die so that Iraqis can hold a mob vote.

An injunction to go to war with altruistic intentions, seeking an altruistic outcome, is in direct contradiction to the requirements of self-defense; it forbids the very essence of self-defense in the context of war: identifying and defeating enemy nations.

To identify a nation as an enemy is to recognize it as a committed initiator of force that threatens one’s own life, that forfeits its right to exist, and that in justice deserves whatever is necessary to end the threat it poses. By Just War Theory’s moral standards, however, there is no such thing as an enemy nation. Even when a nation initiates aggression, it is not regarded as the proper object of retaliation, but as a haven of “others” to be served. (This notion is, unsurprisingly, rooted in Augustine’s religion, Christianity, which countenances us to love everyone—especially, as proof of extreme virtue, to “love thine enemy.”)

Observe that America has not gone to war with one nation since September 11. In each war, President Bush has made clear that we are in Afghanistan or Iraq to aid the “Afghan people” or the “Iraqi people,” and that we oppose only their current leaders. In the case of Iraq, he has made the wellbeing of the Iraqis, including the satisfaction of their religious and political desires, the overriding purpose of the war.

Given that the purpose of war, according to Just War Theory, is the wellbeing of others (including those who are, in fact, one’s enemies), it is logical that Just War Theory also precludes a nation from waging war in a manner that will destroy its enemies. It is imperative, according to Just War Theory, that war be fought by unselfish, sacrificial means, in which great value is accorded to the citizens of enemy nations. This is the meaning of the requirements of “proportionality” and “discrimination.” Proportionality is the idea that the value gained by the ends a war seeks must be “proportional” to the damage incurred during the war. To advocate that ends and damage be “proportional” presupposes a standard of value by which these are to be weighed. What is the relative weight, for example, that the U.S. government should accord an American civilian and an Iraqi civilian? Since Just War Theory holds that a government’s intentions are “good” to the extent that it places value on other peoples, including enemies, by its standard of value a government of an innocent nation should place equal value on the lives of its citizens and those of enemy nations. On this view, in America’s “war on terror,” we have to “balance” the lives of American soldiers and civilians with the lives of the enemy nation’s soldiers and civilians. According to Walzer, “In our judgments of the fighting, we abstract from all consideration of the justice of the cause. We do this because the moral status of individual soldiers on both sides is very much the same. . . . [T]hey face one another as moral equals.”7 'Given that the purpose of war, according to Just War Theory, is the wellbeing of others (including one’s enemies), it is logical that Just War Theory also precludes a nation from waging war in a manner that will destroy its enemies.' Share on X

This is what our present and future military leaders are learning at West Point. They are being taught that no matter the cause of war, they are risking their lives to fight and kill their moral equals—that they must regard protecting the life of a fellow soldier as morally equivalent with saving the life of the enemy.

The requirement of “proportionality” is one reason why we did not do any damage to the infrastructure of Iraq or Afghanistan, so as not to inflict “disproportionate” suffering on the people. And it is probably the reason that the promised “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq never materialized. Proportionality means that in fighting a war we cannot conduct ourselves in a way that hastens victory or that minimizes our casualties.

The requirement of “proportionality,” as bad as it is, is made even worse by the requirement of “discrimination,” which is a clarification on the value a government is to accord various types of people under “proportionality.” The requirement of “discrimination” holds that a nation defending itself must differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, valuing noncombatants more highly by providing them with “immunity.” Just War Theory regards all noncombatants as “innocents” with “rights” to be respected. We must, on this view, make every effort to avoid killing noncombatants—a category Elshtain defines as “women, children, the aged and infirm, all unarmed persons going about daily lives, and prisoners of war.”8 To those who would reject such imperatives in order to defend one’s own people, Elshtain replies: “The demands of proportionality and discrimination are strenuous and cannot be alternatively satisfied or ignored, depending on whether they serve one’s war aims.”9

Observe the inversion of justice here. Benevolent, individualistic, life-loving Americans, and death-worshipping, collectivist, nihilistic Arabs—such as the dancing Arabs who celebrated 9/11—are regarded as equally worthy of protection by the American military. The exception is if the American is a soldier and the Arab is a civilian, in which case the Arab’s life is of greater value.

The requirements of “proportionality” and “discrimination” are deadly to the nation that takes them seriously. A nation fully committed to defending itself must value the lives of its citizens more than the lives of its enemy’s citizens; it must be morally confident in its goodness, in its right to exist, and of the rightness of killing whomever in enemy nations it must to preserve the lives and liberty of its citizens. Self-defense may well require killing more of the enemy’s citizens than the enemy has killed of ours. It is commonly necessary in war to break the spirit of a foreign people whose nation has initiated aggression in which they are complicit. This often requires killing civilians, and in some cases even targeting them, as America did in World War II. These actions were regarded as just by leaders who viewed civilians of enemy nations as part of the national war machine and rarely truly innocent—and who viewed any deaths of actual innocents, including children, as wholly the moral responsibility of the nation that initiated war.

Just War Theory forbids such tactics. A nation with “good intentions,” practicing “proportionality” and “discrimination,” cannot possibly raze a city as Sherman did. This is why, although Sherman’s actions helped to end the Civil War, he is a reviled figure among Just War theorists: His goal was to preserve his side by inflicting unbearable misery on its enemy’s civilian population— the opposite of “good intentions.” Many Just War theorists hold—as by their standard they are obliged to hold—that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was immoral. America, they claim, should have valued Japanese civilians over the hundreds of thousands of GIs who would have died invading Japan.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, we see the consequences of not being led by a Sherman-like policy. Our policy of dropping food packages in Afghanistan gained us the scorn of our enemy, who was often the beneficiary of these gifts. Our declared purpose of helping the Afghan people provided security for Osama bin Laden, his deputies, and his Taliban supporters; they knew that we would be reluctant to bomb them out of their hideouts for fear of killing the Afghans we were there to serve.

In Iraq, since our declared purpose is the well-being and happiness of Iraqi citizens, the countless hostile Iraqis feel free to condemn our troops, to incite violence against them, and to provide refuge to insurgents. President Bush has stressed that we did not go to war against Iraq (only against Saddam), but for the Iraqi people. Thus, we did not make it a priority to defeat them. Almost daily in Iraq, our troops risk their lives because of rules of engagement that place the lives of Iraqi civilians above their own. This was evident in our withdrawal from Falluja in 2004 when we feared civilian casualties, and in the fact that when we returned to Falluja in 2005 we allowed tens of thousands of people, including thousands of insurgents, to leave the town before the battle began. Indeed, from the first bombing, the war has been conducted in a way so as to minimize Iraqi casualties, and at almost any cost. Is it any wonder that an insurgency arose? Is it any wonder that leaders and citizens of other terrorist nations feel no real pressure to stop threatening America?

In the “war on terror,” the U.S. is following the pronouncements of Just War Theory in regard to civilians with incredible dedication, and has received much acclaim among Just War theorists for doing so. In Elshtain’s evaluation of the war in Afghanistan, she writes:

The United States must do everything to minimize civilian deaths—and it is doing so. . . . The United States must investigate every incident in which civilians are killed—and it is doing so. The United States must make some sort of recompense for unintended civilian casualties, and it may be making plans to do so—an unusual, even unheard of, act in wartime.10

She adds:

It is fair to say that in Afghanistan the U.S. military is doing its best to respond proportionately. If it were not, the infrastructure of civilian life in that country would have been devastated completely, and it is not. Instead, schools are opening, women are returning to work, movie theaters are filled to capacity, and people can once again listen to music and dance at weddings.11

What she does not mention—but what must never be forgotten—is the price that has been paid for such supposedly “just” conduct. That price is the hundreds of heroic American men and women who have been killed so that Afghans and Iraqis may live and their mosques may stand (to say nothing of whatever unknown price the rest of us will pay when the undefeated enemy next attacks America).

The final Just War requirement that we will discuss is the mandate that the decision-maker who chooses both when and how to go to war must be a “legitimate authority.” Historically, this has been a minor restriction, meaning simply that a government (not a private militia or gang) should declare war. In recent decades, however, it has become a major restriction, because Just War theorists regard a “legitimate” authority as one who will ensure that force is used with “good intentions,” that is, unselfishly. For example, many Just War theorists have come to hold that a war is invalid unless authorized and supervised by the U.N. And even those who do not regard U.N. approval as strictly necessary, such as President Bush, value the approval of other nations as evidence of lack of selfishness. Observe Bush’s frantic desire to make an Iraq mission that was suitable to the U.N. and then, failing that, to assemble any and every insignificant nation into a “coalition of the willing.”

Self-defense requires that a nation assess, independently and objectively, by the standard of the lives of its own citizens, what to do. To subordinate that to a coalition or to Kofi Annan—for the reason that they are not concerned with our interests—is unjust and suicidal.

In the “war on terror,” America has taken self-destructive action after self-destructive action in the name of winning over the U.N. and “coalition partners.” America’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq were stymied by the vetoes of such so-called allies as the Saudis (who denied us use of aircraft landing strips) and of other nations (who urged us to limit the number of ground troops in Afghanistan), forcing us to rely on duplicitous warlords who connived in the escape of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As a result of Bush’s submission to “legitimate authorities,” we have sacrificed victory.

All of the requirements of Just War Theory help to explain why the Bush administration had felt justified in going to war only in Afghanistan and Iraq—and only then with major “humanitarian” purposes in each mission, which failed to eliminate the threats posed by the nations.

Just War Theory has also had a major influence in determining the wars our government does not think it is justified to fight. President Bush had taken no military action whatsoever against Iran, none against Saudi Arabia, none against Syria. President Bush was not ignorant of these threats—he was well aware of the fact that these countries sponsor terrorism; in the case of Iran and Syria, he had said so repeatedly. But he had done nothing militarily to stop the threats these countries posed, nor was there any indication he would do so. Instead, he continued to engage in “diplomatic” bribery, nudging the U.N., inviting terrorist nations into “anti-terrorism” coalitions, and other completely ineffective—indeed, self-destructive—moves.

As discussed earlier, our improper identification of the enemy, motivated by multiculturalism and religion, has played a major part in our misselection of targets. Additionally, the altruistic war in Iraq has so discredited the idea of military action, by fatally engaging our troops for no clear purpose and with no clear standard of victory, that few Americans want to go to war again. But another major reason why we are reluctant to target our major enemies today—and why we did not target them from the outset—is that they do not meet Just War Theory’s qualifications for military action.

Of course, from a self-defense standpoint, Iran was and is the most important regime to defeat—much more so than Iraq. But under Just War criteria, the case for war with Iran would be almost impossible to make, whereas the case for war with Iraq was relatively simple. Iran was not ruled by a universally accepted “monster”; Iraq was. The “will of the Iranian people” had not been obviously thwarted; the “will of the Iraqis” had been. Iran had not violated nearly two dozen U.N. resolutions; Iraq had. The Iranian people had not been subject to mass slaughter; the Iraqis had. These considerations, while nearly irrelevant in terms of self-defense, are decisive by the criteria of Just War Theory.

What about the fact that Iran is the spiritual fatherland of the ideology driving Islamic terrorists? Or the fact that the “will of the Iranian people” largely supports the deadly ideology that seeks the extermination of the West? Or the fact that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal? Or the fact that Iran has sponsored terrorist attacks on Americans abroad on numerous occasions in the past? According to Just War Theory, so long as Iran has not yet unleashed a devastating, direct attack against us, and so long as there is no altruistic emergency, these facts do not justify military action or the threat of military action; at most, they are justification for endless “diplomacy” or a request for a U.N. resolution. In an interview in 2004, Bush said: “We’ll continue pressing [Iran] diplomatically. . . . Diplomacy failed for 11 years in Iraq . . . and this new diplomatic effort [in Iran started] barely a year ago.”12 Could anything be more encouraging for the nations and groups seeking to wage a long-term battle against the West?

In the case of our refusal to take or threaten military action against the leading sponsors of Islamic terrorism, we see the true meaning of the restrictions of Just War Theory regarding when a nation can go to war, and how it must fight. A nation that will go to war only as a “last resort,” in response to a “just cause,” with “good intentions”—and once it goes, employ “proportionality” and “discrimination”—is a nation that will endure unnecessary risks and even mass death before going to war. And even if it goes to war, it will fight with both hands tied behind its back.

Just War Theory, to summarize, is the application of the morality of altruism to war. It holds that the citizens of an innocent nation are not ends in themselves, but means to some “higher” end. In today’s version, it claims that the citizens of an innocent nation can “defend” themselves—as a means to realizing the goal of sacrificing themselves to the needs of others (including those who are in fact their enemies). This is not a right to self-defense, but a “duty” to practice altruism.

To the extent that Just War Theory is practiced, it leads to unnecessary fear, suffering, and death visited on innocent nations—and to the rise of evil movements and regimes—all while it claims to be virtuous and practical.

Because it purports to support self-defense while actually forbidding its preconditions, Just War Theory is uniquely dangerous. Unlike pacifism, it is eminently plausible to today’s Americans. Americans will not accept en masse a theory that explicitly forbids them self-defense against their evil enemies. But they will accept a theory that claims to endorse both self-defense and the altruistic morality that they have grown up believing is the ideal. They do not realize that it is either-or.

'To the extent that Just War Theory is practiced, it leads to unnecessary fear, suffering, and death visited on innocent nations—and to the rise of evil movements and regimes—all while it claims to be virtuous and practical.' Share on X

What, in fact, happens to policies that could potentially lead to self-defense, such as giving every state sponsor of Islamic terrorism an ultimatum to cease and desist, or else? The altruism underlying Just War Theory makes our leaders morally rule out such policies without consideration. And then, whatever course of action they do consider and pursue, they portray as in America’s self-defense and self-interest.

The ultimate embodiment of Just War Theory and its embrace of self-destructive policies under the partial cloak of self-defense was the overall foreign policy of President Bush: the “Forward Strategy of Freedom.” This strategy was the Bush administration’s policy of spreading “democracy” throughout the Middle East and other backward areas. The first major step of this strategy is the establishment of a “free Iraq,” which allegedly will be an inspirational “beacon of freedom” for the rest of the Middle East and inspire them toward “democratic reform.

These are goals that Just War Theory would applaud; they embody “good intentions” (i.e., altruistic intentions) in our foreign policy and in our choice of wars. True to the popular advocacy of Just War Theory, however, President Bush did not frame the Forward Strategy of Freedom as good only on altruistic grounds; if he did, the American people would not tolerate it (nor would he). He argued that this strategy was the one that will best serve America, that by encouraging the “liberation” of oppressed nations we promote our own security. For example, in his State of the Union Address in 2005, Bush proclaimed: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Why is the Forward Strategy of Freedom our “best hope”? Because, as Bush and others pointed out, free nations do not initiate aggression (including terrorism), whereas unfree ones do. So a “free,” “democratic” Middle East promotes our self-defense.

In analyzing whether this policy is in fact in America’s self-defense, let us leave aside for a moment its massive evasions about what freedom is and requires—the fact that freedom (i.e., individual liberty) and democracy (i.e., unlimited majority rule over the individual) are entirely different and incompatible things, the second being an enemy of the first. Even assuming that our leaders had any idea what freedom is, and how to most efficiently establish it, would this be a policy in America’s self-defense?

Absolutely not. The one half-truth in the argument for the Forward Strategy of Freedom is that truly free nations do not initiate aggression against other nations. But so what? There are dozens of statist nations that do not threaten America, either, because they fear us or have no ideological interest in fighting us.

The question of what is in America’s self-defense comes down to: What is the best way to make other nations non-threatening as quickly as possible? To consider this question objectively, one must be willing to consider all our options, including: quickly deposing terrorist and especially Islamic totalitarian regimes, threatening the inhabitants with retribution if they threaten America again, and then moving on to ending support of terrorism by other regimes. Given the options available to us, it is inconceivable that the best strategy is to spend endless military resources to set up a “democracy” in Iraq, and then pray that every terrorist nation decides to adopt a free, constitutional government. To make the Middle East even semi-free would cost a tremendous amount of time, money, and American lives. Given the options available to us, the Forward Strategy of Freedom is entirely self-sacrificial. But because the Bush administration had morally ruled out a true strategy of self-defense, it could delude itself into believing that, as its members repeatedly told us, it was doing “everything possible” to protect us.

Because Just War Theory removes from the table the possibility of forthrightly defeating our enemies, its advocates must concoct bizarrely indirect means of stopping them (bizarre is the only adjective that does justice to a policy of hinging American security on the similarities between today’s Iraqis and Jefferson-era Americans). Observe that in Bush’s policy the “liberation” of Iraq was not seen as part of defeating that country, but as replacing the necessity of defeating it. And the magical inspiration it is supposed to provide to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and so on, will allegedly replace the necessity of militarily confronting those nations. Since Bush felt morally unwilling to defeat our enemies, he regarded it as necessary to delegate that task to their subservient and sympathetic populations. Instead of making us more secure, this policy has inspired the Iraqi insurgency, made Iran and Saudi Arabia feel more confident than ever, and may well allow the Iraqi people to eventually vote their country into an Islamic dictatorship akin to Iran. (Given the big victories by religious Shiite politicians in Iraqi elections so far, they are well on their way.) And because our failure to defeat our enemies only contributes to the success of Islamic totalitarianism, our support for elections in the Middle East foretells that Islamic totalitarians will “democratically” be given greater influence; we have already seen increases in the political influence of even more committed supporters of Islamic totalitarians in Saudi Arabia, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.

To call this a policy of American self-interest or American self-defense is to invert the meaning of these concepts. This is a policy of American self-destruction, and it is made possible by a theory that morally rules out self-defense while claiming to support it.

The president’s version of Just War Theory is not the only one; there are many different varieties of the theory, and their various advocates emphasize and interpret the rules differently. Some, such as the Pope, are borderline pacifists and emphasize the “last resort” rule. Others, under the influence of multiculturalism, believe that most “peacekeeping” missions are wrong, not because they are sacrificial, but because one should not “impose” one’s definition of a better life on a foreign people.

But such disagreements are ultimately insignificant as far as America’s self-defense is concerned, because none challenges the theory’s basic altruist premises. Observe that the media, Democrats, and intellectuals did not criticize the Bush administration for its failure to smash the insurgency in Iraq or for doing nothing to fight the threat posed by Iran. Most criticisms of Bush amounted to him not being altruistic enough. They accused him of “rushing” to war despite the desires of other nations; they tallied civilian casualties; they fixated on humiliated prisoners of war; they treated any deficiency in Afghan or Iraqi standards of living as a moral travesty on the part of America. Thus, the competing proponents of Just War Theory differ with the Bush administration not on whether America’s security should be sacrificed for the sake of others, but only on how.

Just War Theory, in the final analysis, is anti-self-defense and anti-justice. By preaching self-sacrifice to the needs of others, Just War Theory has led to the sacrifice of the civilized for the sake of the barbarous, the sacrifice of victims of aggression for the sake of its perpetrators, the sacrifice of noble Americans for the sake of ignoble Iraqis—the sacrifice of the greatest nation in history for the sake of the worst nations today.

Continue to Part 3 here.

Image credit: Picture Alliance via Getty Images.


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  1. Michael Walzer, Just And Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 174.
  2. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 155–56.
  3. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power In a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 57.
  4. Walzer, Just And Unjust Wars, xi.
  5. David E. Sanger, “Beating Them To the Prewar,” New York Times, 28 September 2002, www.nytimes.com/2002/09/28/arts/beating-them-to-the-prewar.html (accessed 29 Sept. 2002).
  6. Michael M. Uhlmann, “The Use and Abuse of Just War Theory,” Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2003.
  7. Walzer, Just And Unjust Wars, 127.
  8. Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, 65.
  9. Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, 66.
  10. Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, 69.
  11. Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, 70.
  12. David E. Sanger, “Pakistan Found to Aid Iran Nuclear Efforts,” New York Times, 2 September 2004, www.nytimes.com/2004/09/02/international/middleeast/ 02iran.html (accessed 2 Sept. 2004)
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Yaron Brook

Yaron Brook is chairman of the board of the Ayn Rand Institute and host of The Yaron Brook Show.

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein, president and CEO of the Center for Industrial Progress and a former ARI fellow, is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and, most recently, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less.

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