Libya: No Clear Goal Equals Unjust War

John Mark Reynolds

Libya: No Clear Goal Equals Unjust War

Good intentions will not save our nation from bad actions. No sane person roots for the present tyrant of Libya. Good men long for his removal, but wise men know that wanting a good thing does not justify every means of getting it.

If you don’t know what you want, you are not likely to get anything good unless you are lucky. Nobody should go to war based merely on good intentions, horror at some evil, and hope that things will get better.

War is such a terrible thing in itself that only near certainty that good will come of it can justify battle. Bombs will fall on Libya and innocent people will certainly die. The arcane civil and tribal war breaking out there is confusing and will make moral action difficult.

Without perfect clarity of vision, appropriate means, and a reasonable chance at a good outcome, war is unjust. A necessary evil — and war is sometimes a necessary evil — is never a first choice.

This war is unjust.

It is unjust because we have no clear goal in our battle. Are we trying to overthrow the government? End the slaughter of the rebels? Do we hope these particular rebels, many of them terrible people themselves, win? Do we wish to remove the present tyrant from power?

The coalition attacking Libya cannot agree on goals and the men charged to implement policy have found themselves contradicted by their civilian bosses. When the UK prime minister and his commanders are not in agreement about what they are doing, killing Libyans in the meantime is not right.

War often clarifies issues, but no just leader would uses it for that purpose. Dictators sometimes do, petty tyrants try, but it is unworthy of a free people.

Every patriot wants to support our president, but Obama has failed to articulate our mission or outcomes. Will we stay in Libya until there is a functioning government better than the one we destroyed?

Whatever the merits of the war in Iraq (and I support that mission), we went in knowing our goal. President Bush wanted to overthrow a tyrant, end a threat from weapons of mass destruction, and establish a functioning democracy. If we fail, at least we will know if we failed.

This does not prove the war in Iraq is a just war, but at least it means it might be. The muddled mess of our Libyan policy, which often feels driven by newscasts and not national interests or justice, has no chance of being just. We cannot wage a just war when we do not know why we fight.

The president cannot, it seems, take the time to clarify why Libyan men and women are dying from American weaponry.

Libya is a mess, but no greater mess than the Sudan. Why are we sending forces to Libya and not to the Sudan? There is no more national interest in seeing a just government in Libya than in Arabia, but we support evil men in Arabia while attacking them in Libya.

Politics is not religion and requires some compromise, but war is an extreme measure. There is a difference between tolerating evil men and bombing them. Libya has been much in the news and one hopes that this is not the essential reason we have been dragged into conflict there.

None of this is the fault of the brave men of our armed forces. They will serve competently and may drag something good out of the foggy goals they have been given. The danger of a competent military paired to an incoherent civilian policy is dangerous in the long term to our republic. No free people will remain free long if we develop too much trust in the military and too much skepticism in our politicians.

It is easy to imagine an articulated case for a just war in Libya. A just war would include a strong enough commitment of American might to guarantee, at least, the end of the present tyranny. It would include a commitment to staying in Libya until we fix what we break.

Given our commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan, we would also need to know we can afford another such task. The Good Samaritan who tries to provide healing to every sick man on the road may find himself unable to finish what he starts. Abandoning the sick man in hospital before he is healed because the Samaritan has gone bankrupt is not just imprudent, but unjust.

The question about this war is not about money, as if justice can be given a price, but about making promises we can afford and not ones that are empty because they are beyond our means.

Like all military adventures, this one will be popular at the start, but unless we are lucky, and pray to God we are, this war will end badly. No clarity, no justice.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: April 4, 2011

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