This opinion piece ran in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, March 25, 2003.
Some in the peace movement claim that this will be a costly and painful war: that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will die; that U.S. military losses will be substantial; that war will be protracted, lasting many, many months, including a long siege on Baghdad; that victory, when and if it comes, will be unstable because of civil unrest that may last for years; that there will be terrorist reprisals against the U.S., and so on. But let us suppose that none of these terrible scenarios come to pass--that loss of life on both sides is minimal and that peace and stability in Iraq are achieved within weeks. Would there then be anything wrong with this war?
This is a very important question. Because we often talk about decisions to go to war as a business of calculation, balancing risks against benefits. But the very fact of putting matters in such terms misses something absolutely crucial: the rule of law.
During the controversy over the last presidential election, we heard a great deal about the rule of law. Bush and his supporters reminded us that, despite the fact that Bush had lost the popular vote, and despite the doubt over the counting of Florida, the rule of law had to be respected. The procedures established by the U.S. Constitution for electing presidents, and for resolving disputes, needed to be respected, regardless of the outcome of such procedures. At stake, we were told, was nothing less than the basic institutions of our democracy itself. And so, in the end, Al Gore conceded defeat, and Americans were expected to accept the outcome of these procedures, no matter what the outcome was, out of respect for the rules.
Since World War II, Europe and the U.S. have taken the lead in establishing a rule of law for nations. The first and most important of these laws is articulated in the UN charter: the principle that disputes between nations must never be resolved by force, except in cases of self-defense.
What the Bush administration has done by violating this principle threatens the very foundations of international peace and cooperation. The principle forbidding war as a tool of foreign policy stands as the centerpiece of virtually every international agreement. The future not just of the UN as a body but of real international cooperation of any kind depends on not allowing ourselves to think of war in cost/benefit terms. In coming to think of war as just another strategy for resolving conflicts, we undermine the rule of law and we lose track of the moral principles on which that rule depends. And such a loss is not a mere cost to be factored into one's calculations--it is beyond price.
James Harold is an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College.