The case of legally constituted sovereign authorities and declarations of war is logically indistinguishable from these. It does not follow just from being such an authority that a state may properly declare war; further conditions must be met. These conditions are specified by the ius ad bellum. And that there are such conditions is just what it means, logically speaking, for there to be a presumption against the action in question—and, further, for the burden of proof to rest upon those who would show that the conditions have been met. There is in this sense—the only interesting sense, conceptually speaking, so far as I can tell—a presumption against war enshrined in the just war tradition. And if this is right, Weigel, Johnson, et al., must be wrong, at least about this matter.

That the anti-presumption-against-war crowd is wrong is derived from the logic of the matter alone. It is simple confusion to think otherwise, and Johnson’s recent effort (see FT January) to construe presumption-against in terms of worries about the inherent morality of war, or about the nature of prima facie duties, amounts to nothing more than the blowing of thick clouds of smoke. The position I’ve advocated is compatible with thinking war often justified, sometimes justified, or (even) never justified. What it is not compatible with is thinking there is no presumption against war in the tradition. The presence of reasoning about ius ad bellum suffices to show this to be false. ~Paul Griffiths

Let’s clarify one thing that really shouldn’t need clarification, but which evidently does. If by “presumption against war” we mean that those thinking within the just war tradition ought to prefer that there not be wars, fine. Having spent nine years of my professional life working for the World Without War Council, I don’t have any problem with that; and I rather doubt that James Turner Johnson, a scholar and army veteran, would, either. But the very fact that that statement of the obvious has to be made suggests one of the problems with the way the so-called “presumption against war” operates today: it subtly suggests that those who do not accept the smuggled pacifist premise within the “presumption”—that the use of even proportionate and discriminate armed force is, at the outset of the moral analysis, presumptively deplorable—are somehow thought to be warmongers. How any of this constitutes an advance in moral reasoning or moral sensibility over the classic just war understanding—that the use of armed force can be noble or wicked, just or unjust, depending on who is using it, toward what ends, and how—is unclear to me.

There are several other problems with the “presumption” and its current functioning among religious leaders and religious intellectuals (not to mention political leaders throughout Western Europe). As I have argued in these pages and elsewhere, the “presumption,” by detaching the just war way of thinking from its proper political context—the right use of sovereign public authority toward the end of tranquillitas ordinis, or peace—tends to invert the structure of classic just war analysis and turn it into a thin casuistry, giving priority consideration to necessarily contingent in bello judgments (proportionality of means, discrimination or noncombatant immunity) over what were always understood to be the prior ad bellum questions (“prior” in that, inter alia, we can have a greater degree of moral clarity about them). A similar inside-out distortion of thinking happens when the “presumption” gets to work on the ius ad bellum. For here, the “presumption” tends to give higher priority to what were classically understood as important but secondary criteria, like “last resort” and “probable chance of success,” over the classic first-order criteria: competent authority, just cause, and right intention (about which, to repeat, we can have a greater degree of moral surety). ~George Weigel

There are perhaps pacifist theologians who deserve Mr. Weigel’s scorn, but his arguments have never been any more credible than theirs. Specifically related to the present Iraq war, Mr. Weigel has been fixated on justifying an unprovoked invasion of a country that had done nothing to the invading country. Here he rather comically invokes “competent authority, just cause, and right intention,” which are indeed the primary qualifications for just war, when there is no question that there is no just cause for launching an unprovoked invasion (which, properly speaking, applies to the first Gulf War as well) and the President does not possess competent authority to launch such an invasion according to his own wishes. No one can possess right intention if he chooses to wage a war of simple aggression. If Mr. Weigel wants to leave the decisions of war to the magistrate, then his magistrate must observe the secular laws that constrain the magistrate’s powers and he cannot wage war legitimately if he violates them.

On the more general question of whether there is a presumption against war, again the answer is as obvious as Prof. Griffiths has made it out to be. The theory would not have needed to be refined so precisely if wars were considered to be generally legitimate or at least neutral, proper endeavours of sovereign authorities, and the various conditions would not have been drawn up if there was already a presumption that war is not generally, as several Fathers claim that it is, the worst of all evils.

Griffiths’ analogical examples were perhaps not the most helpful, but Mr. Weigel’s analogy was even less helpful, since it seemed to underline what Griffiths had just said: certain conditions must be met before a certain response is appropriate. A slightly more appropriate comparison might be to the execution of duly condemned criminals. Granting a sliver of Mr. Weigel’s claim, the sovereign authority possesses the rightful prerogative to do this and it can claim that its execution of a criminal condemned according to all the proper legal procedures is both necessary and moral. In other words, the criminal has received a fair hearing and is deserving of the punishment, and the sovereign authority is right to deliver that punishment. What must be established, and indeed the matters on which the rightness of capital punishment seems to founder for many people, are that the person being executed has indeed done the crime for which he is being executed and that execution is the appropriate judicial response to that crime. It is not a question of the man’s “innocence,” though we might conventionally refer to it that way, but rather of whether he has been arraigned, tried and convicted rightfully and whether the sentence is excessive or not. The man may be a dreadful, despicable person, and he may have committed any number of other crimes, yet he has nonetheless not violated any law of the sovereign authority that merits his execution.

The question of just war is like and unlike this. It is like in that the sovereign authority can use military force with justice, but only against very specific targets and for extremely good reasons, and the gravity of having sound reasons is all the greater when it is recognised that wrongfully engaging in warfare is the worst evil on earth. Mr. Weigel, a proponent of preventive warfare, makes a mockery of this solid and reasonable tradition with his terrible, forced arguments justifying arbitrary invasions. The question of just war is unlike the execution analogy in that a sovereign authority can claim mandates from common sense, natural law and Scripture that it possesses the duty to punish the wicked and protect its own subjects, and the punishment of murderers falls naturally under its authority, but the power to wage war against other nations cannot be used in the same way because those nations are not under the authority of the sovereignty in question. Unless and until another nation attacks or causes some serious grievance against the sovereign authority, it can and should do nothing to the other nation. No one with right intention can cook up reasons to start a war or exaggerate minimal offenses into a cause supposedly worthy of war.

By definition, there can be no competent authority for militarily ‘disciplining’ a nation for its internal affairs–even the U.N. Charter, the only legal apparatus available today, does not technically allow this (not that this has ever stopped the U.N. or others, of course, but violators of laws do not get to define what the law is). One will find nothing in pre-existing international law that sanctions such actions, either. When such interventions have happened in the past, they have taken place through an agreement among major powers that another state’s sovereignty and international law was not going to bind them (see Kosovo). In other words, they have conspired together to break the law because they can and because they feel like it. This is simply Machtpolitik and brute force dressed up in some alluring guise. That anyone could claim that it has something to do with Christian just war tradition is really simply baffling.

Proportionality is not purely a secondary concern, as proportionality is bound up in the decision to go to war in the first place. Is or is war not an excessive response? In the first Gulf War, it was arguable that it would not have been an excessive response for certain other regional powers; what is far from clear is that it was an appropriate and proportionate response from nations on the other side of the world. In the present war, the claim that war is not an excessive response to fabricated charges and irrelevant (to the security of the United States) U.N. resolutions is simply laughable. What more need be said about it?

The normal state of affairs is that states are at peace with one another. Militarists and bad theologians may see the world as full of strife and conflict, but this is, in fact, not the case. Most places, for most of their history, have been at peace and punctuated only by brief upheavals of violence and horror. As such, whether or not to go to war is a decision about whether to enter into one of these highly abnormal states, and the natural presumption of all sane people is to seek some means to avoid entering that state if it can be done without sacrificing one’s own security and, in a more old-fashioned age, one’s honour.

War is essentially evil and exists as a result of the Fall, as Augustine’s understanding underlines, and it is justifiable only because it may sometimes be used to protect security and tranquility in the world from violent depradations and upheavals. The theory does not include electing to go to war for any reason, nor does it offer the prospect that the war will ever be “noble” or “good,” but simply that it will not make those who participate in it morally culpable and sinful because it is a necessity in the fallen world. Nonetheless, it is in no way approved of even in the way that some Christians can legitimately come to approve of the state as a means of establishing justice and providing genuine goods for the commonwealth.