Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Comments on the Libya Intervention in Light of Just War Doctrine on 'Right Authority'

Jean Bethke Elshtain


April 8, 2011
by Jean Bethke Elshtain

What does just war teaching offer us as we consider American intervention in Libya? As most readers of these commentaries know, just war consists of two parts: jus ad bellum, the justification (or not) for embarking on military action and jus in bello, the norms to be followed when an army fights.

The most critical norms defining jus ad bellum are legitimate authority, response to an act of aggression or the imminent threat of such (and even this is highly controversial), probability of success, and right intention. Some also add that force should be a “last resort,” but this was not central to just war teaching historically.

As we consider Libya, the first question is right authority. Who can legitimately send young men and women into war? The answer for centuries has been the sovereign state. Post World War II, efforts have been made to locate right authority within international bodies, especially the United Nations, but these have largely failed. The UN has invoked its collective security clause five times (or thereabouts) in its 60 year history. The UN is stymied from action given the nigh certainty of a Security Council veto from some interested party.

In the aftermath of a failure to act, as in the Rwandan blood bath, the UN appoints a commission and expresses regret, but this is cold comfort to the 800,000 dead. One thing needs to be made absolutely clear: just war doctrine does not stipulate that only the UN can legitimately declare war. States have not ceded their right authority to the UN or any other body. The UN is built on a conundrum: a body consisting of sovereign states who, by definition, will act like sovereign states. This militates against any hope that one day all decisions will be made by the UN in such dire matters as war and peace.

For many this is not just a practical issue but a principled one. The great political theorist Hannah Arendt argued against any such notion as ‘universal citizenship’ because it removes the citizen even further from having any influence on decision making. How does one hold a non-elected body, like the Security Council, accountable if one is an American citizen? We can refuse to re-elect a President that we believe has acted badly. We cannot ‘un-elect’ the UN.

By not engaging the American people or the United States Congress before the Libyan intervention, President Obama may have clouded the issue of right authority.  Military action in Libya does not require an official declaration of war. We haven’t declared war since World War II. Under the Presidential war powers, the President is bidden to act when he believes American security is at stake or for some other exigent, legitimate cause. Congress bears the responsibility to fund the war.

In the case of Iraq, the Bush Administration won a strong vote to go to war against the vile regime of Saddam Hussein. As well, the Bush Administration tried its best to act under UN auspices, taking the issue to the UN repeatedly. When it became clear—and only then—that a Security Council veto would prevent UN sanction, the Bush Administration acted under its rightful sovereign authority. One might lament the decision to use force based on other just war principles, but the rightful authority was there.

In my opinion, President Obama should have brought the Libyan intervention, conducted under a vague and overlapping circle of authority (France, NATO, the UN, the EU?) to the American people and their representatives. If what was, and is, happening in Libya is so critical that it justifies U.S. blood and treasure, American citizens should have some say in it as we did with Iraq and Afghanistan post 9/ll, an operation that also had UN authorization added to our own.

This, then, is but one example of how a just war discussion of American intervention in Libya might go.

--Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, Divinity School, The University of Chicago, and holder of the Leavey Chair in the Foundations of American Freedom, Georgetown University. She is the author of numerous books, including Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy and War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.



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