Trump, Iran, and the Ethics of War

Recent events through the lens of just war theory

Posted Jan 31, 2020

Wikimedia Commons, Diego Delso
Immortal Soldiers, Iran
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Diego Delso

The attention of the nation in recent days has focused on the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. The news cycle runs quickly, but we believe that we must not simply move on from recent events in Iran. The responsibilities that come with the power to command the U.S. military must not be taken lightly. Thousands of lives hang in the balance, and millions could be affected by future military decisions made by President Trump, our commander-in-chief.

Prior to his election, President Trump made it clear that he was unconcerned with the ethics of war. He argued that to defeat terrorists, we must target their families. His lack of concern about crucial moral issues surrounding war is no longer hypothetical. The targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Iraq and the possible escalation of this conflict raise many important moral issues.

Fortunately, things have not escalated beyond Iran's missile strikes on bases in Iraq where U.S. soldiers are stationed. We hope and pray that peace prevails. But we also believe there is still serious cause for concern.

In the aftermath of the killing of Suleimani, President Trump tweeted that the U.S. is targeting 52 cultural sites in Iran. Additionally, he's tweeted that Iran itself "will be hit very fast and very hard" and that "should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back, and perhaps in a disproportionate manner."

This reveals either ignorance or disdain for both morality and international law. Of special significance to us—a Christian philosopher and a Christian theologian—is the fact that Trump's stated intentions towards Iran contradict just war theory. This theory, prominent in both Christian and secular ethics, sets important limitations on warfare. It focuses on the moral requirements for going to war justly, and for how a just war should be carried out. We are concerned that Trump's approach fails on both counts. All people of faith, and all people of basic goodwill, should oppose his approach.

When we look at what is going on in light of the criteria for a just war, many questions begin to emerge. Is the war being fought for a just cause? It is clear that Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. service members. But the fact that he was one of the top government officials in the sovereign state of Iraq complicates matters. If there was truly an imminent threat, then this act might be justified. But the evidence has not been released, so it's hard to answer this question.

Another standard of just war is that it be carried out by a legitimate authority. With the expansion of presidential powers, there are complicated issues. But surely notifying Congress by a tweet about potential future military actions does not meet the standard.

Is there a reasonable chance of success? It is difficult to imagine a successful outcome if things continue to escalate. Another element of just war theory focuses on having the right intentions for going to war. Some worry that the tail is wagging the dog. We hope that this is not the case.

These are serious questions, and the American people and our elected leaders should be demanding answers. But what really bothers us are not the unanswered questions—what really worries us are the answers that are all too clear. A key consideration in just war theory is proportionality. The basic point is obvious: If someone insults you, you don't beat them up; if someone threatens you, you don't nuke them out of existence.

A bit more broadly, the principle means that every reasonable effort should be taken to avoid escalating the tensions and the fighting. But President Trump threatens to do just that—he swears that "the United States will quickly and fully strike back, and perhaps in a disproportionate manner." There may be some small measure of comfort to be found in the "perhaps," but Mr. Trump goes on to say that "we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before." This is a cause for serious concern.

Or take discrimination, another important element of just war theory. The point: Noncombatants are not to be targeted and that a military force must make every reasonable effort to defend and protect the innocent. Contrast this principle with President Trump's boast that among the 52 targeted sites in Iran are those that are "important to Iranian culture." This could hardly be more clear: He is saying that the United States will attack and destroy non-military targets.

But it gets worse, for he has promised to "take out the families" of terrorists. At one level, this is just counterproductive—if you want to unite a divided people against you, destroy what is sacred to them and attack their children. As a strategy, it is almost sure to backfire. But at another level, what Mr. Trump threatens is just profoundly wrong. Targeting innocent people is immoral.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to apply ethical theories to real-time geopolitical situations, and in some cases, matters are not as clear-cut as we would like. But this is not one of those cases. This is clear-cut: Targeting the families of people you don't like is what terrorists do. It is wrong, and we have to be better than this.

We say these things as Christians. We are well aware that many of our fellow Christians voted for President Trump, and we know that some continue to support him and his policies. Among the (understandable) reasons for this support are "pro-life" convictions that human persons are precious and noble, and that we should do all that we can to protect and defend those who are most vulnerable.

We share these convictions. We also demand that they be applied broadly to all human life. We call upon all Americans of goodwill—and especially our fellow Christians—to insist that President Trump be held accountable for his ethics of war.

Co-Author: Thomas H. McCall, Ph.D. Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Director, Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.