I ventured inside the beltway this morning to attend a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution on the topic of religion, morality, and foreign policy. Among the panelists were WaPo columnist Charles Krauthammer and Michael Walzer, who is simply the modern authority on just war theory.

The fascinating thing to me, which I broached with both men afterwards, is that Krauthammer is inevitably the whipping boy at these panels as the token right winger, yet there is really very little light between their positions. Both begin from the premise that defending the liberty and security of one’s own populace is the most important moral goal of foreign policy; both agree that multi-lateralism is pragmatically desirable but confers no especial moral authority in and of itself and that there are times when unilateral action on the part of a great power is not only morally justified but morally required; and both agree that Saddam is a tyrant who poses a threat to both the world and his own people.

From these points of agreement, they diverge.

Walzer says that the only legitimate options are to 1) maintain our no fly zones in northern and southern Iraq indefinitely, maintain the UN inspections regime and sanctions indefinitely, and increase our troop presence in the region to provide an additional deterrent or 2) go to war to end the need for all this and to liberate the people of Iraq from oppression and suffering. Shockingly, he prefers option #1 because we can not guarantee a short war–and, indeed, would prefer option #2 if we could.

Krauthammer thinks option #1 is “absurd” and therefore chooses option #2.


It strikes me that Walzer is copping out here because there is never any guarantee that a war will be short but that, if there were, this would be it. The last go-round with Iraq required six weeks of bombing and then a three day ground war. Since then, Saddam’s army has deteriorated and he has had radically diminished income because of restrictions on oil exports while the US military, while smaller and less able to fight multiple simultaneous wars or even one truly large scale war, is much more advanced technologically to fight a war such as will be required here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.