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A Just War? The Left and the Moral Gulf

A Just War?

The Left and the Moral Gulf
Gregory Elliott
A striking incidental feature of the Gulf War was the philosophical conflict attending the military hostilities. Norberto Bobbio or
Jiirgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky or Ted Honderich, to name
only a few of the participants, felt compelled, in their contrasting
ways, to adopt and seek to justify some kind of position on it. In
the majority of cases they did so, not on the basis of a Realpolitik,
whether of the Left or the Right, but by reference to an avowed
set of political principles and moral values. And if moral discourse was an explicit feature of the intellectual debate, it was
also to the fore – predominant, indeed – in the idiom of the
popular controversy.

The central category throughout was justice – mobilised by
supporters and opponents of the UN operation alike – as recourse
was invariably had to some version of the doctrine of the Just
War. This was equally apparent, for example, in the contribution
of the Italian socialist Bobbio, who concluded in favour of the
justice ofthe ‘liberation of Kuwait’; and in that ofthe head ofthe
one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, who proclaimed
‘Desert Storm’, urbi et orbi, an unjust war (though declining to
invoke papal infallibility, presumably because of the embarrassment this might have occasioned some of the more prominent of
his flock, the Italian Cabinet included).

Intimations of incommensurability
Now, philosophically, few things are more discreditable today
than moral universalism (unless it is universal moralism). Disdain for it always marked the classical Marxist tradition, which
tended to regard ethics as class ideology inimical to revolutionary realism about the existing social order and the prerequisites
for its replacement. Witness Trotsky’ s derision, in Terrorism
and Communism, of ‘Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker
prattle about “sacredness of human life”‘. Yet historical materialism does secrete an implicit ‘revolutionary morality’ – a ‘longrange consequentialism’, in Steven Lukes’ swords – in which
actions are judged by their good or bad consequences for the
project of collective human self-emancipation. In a manner akin
to Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, it is possible to speak ethical
prose without knowing it.

A more pervasive contemporary opponent of universalism
would be philosophical postmodernism in its many guises. It
would detect mere ethnocentrism in the dispensation of
accidental norms to the Orient, and suggest that ‘we’ have no
‘right’ to judge – to project ‘our’ value-system onto others (let
alone precision shower them with the blessings of Western

The first thing to observe about this orientation is that, whilst
affecting to abstain from judgement, it effectively delivers a
judgement. It declines to criticise, therewith implicitly exonerat10

ing. More generally, its theoretical underpinning is provided by
the postulate of the incommensurability of discourses, moral
codes included. As has been argued, however, ‘incommensurability’ deters a politically progressive position by eliding three
distinct propositions. It can mean one, more or all of: incompatibility, incommensurability in the strict (mathematical) sense
(i.e. having no common standard or measure); or incomparability. The first and second propositions do not entail the third.

After all, no-one would think it worthwhile to announce the
incommensurability of relativity theory and sociobiology.

In this context, what is so instructive about the Gulf War
debate is the extent to which it represents a counter-example to
postmodernism. North and South there was a shared lexicon justice, self-determination, democracy, rights, etc. – offering
some common ground amid shifting lines in the sand. Even if
people differed over what these goals might concretely consist in
(as well as over whether they were served by the actions of the
UN, Iraq, or neither), they were largely consensual terms for the
weapon of criticism and the critique of arms.

The problem, I want to suggest, is not one of incommensurability, but rather of interminability at a general moral-discursive
level. If abstraction from what we might conveniently call history and politics reduces politics to ethics, it also converts the
latter into a mere moralism, stripping ethics of the kind of sociohistorical realism indispensable to morally aware or informed
political judgement. This is emphatically not to imply that to
understand everything is to pardon everything. It is to maintain
that due understanding is a precondition of appropriate judgement.

Lines in the sand
I want to explore some of these issues further with reference to
the case of the Gulf War, conscious that time constraints require
sacrifice of necessary nuance and qualification, even if they
militate against repetition, hesitation and deviation (Trotskyist
or otherwise).

Let me start, then, by outlining a rudimentary typology of
positions on the Gulf assumed by the Left. (Consistent pacifism
– i.e. pacifism – is excluded on the dogmatic ground that I simply
do not see how it can reasonably be defended.) There were,
basically, three types of left-wing response:

(1) The Iraqi invasion and annexation of Kuwait were legitimate
and hence any measures to reverse them were illegitimate;
(2) Although the invasion and annexation of Kuwait were illegitimate, no war against their perpetrator orchestrated by the
US could be legitimate, since it would commit other, more
grievous wrongs;
Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

(3) The invasion and annexation of Kuwait were illegitimate and
a war to expel the aggressor state, and to restore Kuwaiti
national sovereignty – even if conducted by the US – was
legitimate, because it would have beneficial consequences.

The first position is essentially pro-Iraq: it is that of the regime
itself, its supporters in the Arab world, and a tiny minority of the
international peace movement. The arguments adduced in its
favour adverted to Arab nationalism; the inequitable distribution
of oil wealth in the Middle East; the denial of national selfdetermination to the Palestinian people; and the regional depredations of Western imperialism.

The second position – that of the vast majority of the peace
movement – might be characterised as anti-Iraq and anti-US.

There is, however, a critical distinction to be made here. In one
camp were those who opposed any coercive measures against
Baghdad, on the grounds that their successful application would
constitute a victory for US imperialism, principal antagonist of
socialism, which alone could solve the problems of the Middle
East and every other region of the world. As Trotsky encapsulated the point in Their Morals and Ours, ‘That is permissible …

which really leads to the liberation of mankind.’ Accordingly,
revolutionary-socialist morality dictated a reaction of ‘plague on
both your houses’ to the inadmissible claims of both contestants:

neither Washington, nor Baghdad. In another camp were those
who likewise rejected a US-sponsored war, but who, following
through the logic of identification of Iraq’s primary culpability,
endorsed some combination of UN sanctions (targeted on oil
exports and military supplies) and negotiations to secure Iraqi
withdrawal, meanwhile supporting the internal Kuwait resistance to the Ba’athist occupation.

The third position is pro-war, but not uncritically pro-US.

The rationale offered by the small minority of socialists who
embraced it was that if, as many of those who subscribed to the
second position agreed, Iraq was internally a quasi-fascist state
and externally an expansionist regional power; if, contrary to the
optimistic scenario entertained by the peace movement, sanctions would not work, then – regardless of the past record of the
parties to the international coalition – the latter was the only
plausible vehicle to redress a manifest and intolerable wrong.

Consequently, should Iraq refuse the ample opportunity afforded
it to withdraw with (comparative) impunity, a war to evict and
subdue it would be legitimate.


Let me now briefly examine each position. The pro-Iraq
option was, on the most charitable reading, an ingenuous ‘Third
Worldism’, which blithely assumed that our enemy’s enemy is
our friend. In the shape of Saddam Hussein, he was no such
thing. Indeed, as in the past, our enemy’s enemy proved to be one
of his best, if inadvertent, friends, furnishing the excuse for
unprecedented American intervention. All the Iraqi self-justifi-

Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

cations advanced are revealed, after the most cursory inspection,
to be bogus. Iraq is not now – and never has been – an antiimperialist power. When not sheerly bombastic, its support for
the Palestinian cause has been racist in word and internecine in
deed. Its boundaries are themselves artificial. With the connivance of the US, it has squandered massive oil resources in an
atrocious war against Iran. Finally, it is itself the oppressor of
Kurdish national self-determination. Socialist principles simply
cannot license upholding the Iraqi regime.

What of the anti-Iraq/anti-US position? In rejecting any
measures against Iraq and focusing criticism on the US, the first
variant appeared to condone Iraqi aggression. At any rate, its
advocates were content for it to be left unchallenged – as if there
were no pertinent differences between the Iraqi and Kuwaiti
regimes cited, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as
equivalent despotisms). It proffered an abstract internationalism
whereby the cure of all remediable ills was postponed to an
indefinite future (rather in the spirit of the postcard from Normandy of the Bayeux Tapestry which signed off: ‘Neither
William nor Harold, but International Socialism ~). It condemned
persistent American hypocrisy, and yet, in view of its clamour
for sanctions against apartheid South Africa, displayed an inconsistency of its own.

The second variant was by no means free of dilemmas. For a
start, sanctions would harm the civilian population of Iraq, upon
whom Saddam’ s sins would thus be visited. Leaving aside the
desirability of sanctions, there was, in any event, a serious
question-mark over their efficacy: Would they work? And what
if they did not? Moreover, what of the meantime? What of those
– precisely not the rulers of Kuwait, luxuriating in exile abandoned to the tender mercies of the Mukhabarat? How were
their sufferings to be relieved?

To turn, finally, to the pro-war position, its main problem
was the credibility gap regarding the US, primus inter
predatores. In other words, even were we to grant that the
demonstrable hypocrisy of the UN Security Council (infinite
patience with Israel, implacable belligerence towards Iraq) was
irrelevant to the present case; even if, discounting motivation,
the relevant criteria were the consequences of a military ‘resolution’, was it nevertheless not the case that the motives and
intentions of the combatants offered a clue as to the likely
consequences of any war? These motives and intentions could
plausibly be deciphered by scrutiny of the historical record.

They held out little comfort. For were they not some combination of the economic (‘oil’), the regional-strategic (preservation
of the position of Israel and Saudi Arabia), and the imperial
(enforcement of the Pax Americana, however embellished in the
euphemisms of the ‘New World Order’)?

Questions, questions … What about some answers? Is there
an elaborated moral theory, attuned to this order of problem,


which will help us to pose the significant questions, make the
requisite discriminations, adjudicate between incomparable
claims, prioritise competing values, and thus unequivocally determine what position the Left should have taken on the Gulf

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Means, odds and ends
As I mentioned earlier, the obvious candidate is some version of
the doctrine of Just Wars, whose basic components are as follows: A war is just if (and only if) it is (a) waged by a legitimate
body (in international law, a state); (b) in pursuit of ajust cause;
(c) whose agency has right intentions; and (d) employs just
means (e.g. does not target non-combatants).

This doctrine disclaims the principle that the end justifies the
means. It therefore seeks to synthesise a teleological or
consequentialist ethics, according to which actions are right or
wrong inasmuch as they produce good or bad consequences
(where the relevant good has yet to be specified), and a
deontological, or duties- and rights-based ethics (where at least
some actions are right or wrong regardless of their consequences). In order, then, to transcend the conflict between teleology (for which no action is intrinsically right or wrong), and
deontology (for which some actions are), modem versions of
Just War theory involve a kind of consequentialism of rights.

They aspire to arbitrate the consequences of the violation of
different and competing rights.

In the matter at issue, where, if anywhere, will this get us?

The first component – the legitimate body (or agency of war)presents the first problem. For I assume that those committed, in
all or some cases, to the principle of national self-determination
must logically reject the identification of legitimate bodies with
existing nation-states which may be the very negation of the
principle (e.g. Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Iraq vis-a-vis the

As regards just cause – the end or goal of the war – the
immediate stumbling-block resides in its explication. Does returning Kuwait to the map from which it had been erased – a fate
without precedent for a member of the UN – in and of itself
amount to ajust cause? Does the Left necessarily subscribe to the
cause of national sovereignty? To pose the question is virtually
to supply the answer: surely not. For there are instances where
armed infringement of that sovereignty – condemned, as such,
by the UN General Assembly – has been legitimate. Vietnam’s
invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and the termination of a genocidal
regime is an arguable case in point. The key issue, presumably, is
not the eradication of the internationally recognized Kuwaiti
regime, but the Iraqi denial of self-determination to the people of
Kuwait. But if that is the case, then a relevant consideration is the
AI-Sabah dynasty’s prior denial, to a greater or lesser degree, of
civil, political and social rights to the inhabitants of Kuwait.

Thus the ‘liberation of Kuwait’, without further ado, is insufficient as a putative just cause for war – not automatically compelling if it entails reversion to the pre-war state of affairs.

Reversing the order, how do things stand withjust methodsthe consonance of means and ends? Three crucial indices figure
here: discrimination between combatants and non-combatants;
minimum force (or ‘proportionality’); and the manner of killing
(proscription of gratuitous cruelty, etc.). Official propaganda
effused over the avoidance of what, in Pentagon-speak, is known
as ‘collateral damage’, courtesy of ‘smart weapons’ and dumb
generals. By contrast, it was generally silent about the ‘proportionality’ and how the other half died – with good reason.

It is true that, compared with the saturation bombing of
Vietnam or North Korea, direct civilian casualties were minimised and were even, in some cases, unintentional. At the same

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time, however, deliberate destruction – ‘precision-bombing’,
indeed – of the civilian infrastructure of Iraqi cities could and did
have only one effect: to inflict agonizing death on countless noncombatants. As subsequent international commissions of inquiry
have reported, the killing may soon have ceased; the dying
continues. The citizenry of Baghdad and Basra are still reaping
the rewards of the peace dividend.

So much for the fate of Iraqi non-combatants. Turning to
‘proportionality’ and cruelty, we may simply record the decimation, by fuel-air explosives and immuration, of Iraqi troops – the
vast majority of them conscripts. The volunteer Republican
Guard was thereby preserved to exact sanguinary revenge on the
Shi’ites and Kurds who subsequently rebelled at the rhetorical
behest of Bush et al. Finally, there was the hideous slaughter, at
Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

the war’s close, of retreating, defenceless forces (the ‘turkey
shoot’ of which, so the Foreign Secretary later confided, Allied
pilots eventually sickened). Conduct ofthe Gulf War was neither
proportionate nor clement.

This brings us to the issue of ‘right intentions’. Truth being
the first casualty of war, no country is going to advertise wrong
intentions as casus belli. Hence the question can either be investigated retrospectively (after the fatal events); or by an empirically informed prior estimate as to the actual motivation of the
belligerents. Now, take the roll-call of: US direct armed interventions since the Second World War (in Korea, Santo
Domingo, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama); US interventions by
proxy in the same period (in Greece, Guatemala, Angola, El
Salvador, Nicaragua); US indulgence of invasion, occupation or
annexation by its allies (by Indonesia in East Timor Turkey in
Cyprus, South Africa in Angola and Namibia, China i~ Vietn-am,
Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, to cite some recent examples).

In view of this legacy of sins of commission and omission, it
was implausible to claim that the head of the international
coalition had undergone some conversion to respect for international law, let alone global social justice, however liberally
construed. Realism, one might think, would furnish sound presumption against the very idea.

After the deluge
It is manifest, I would argue, that such scepticism was vindicated
by the war’s consequences – the ultimate court of appeal of the
case advanced for it. In other words, even assuming that we are
prepared to bracket or relax the exacting deontological clauses
(concerning means) of Just War theory, the teleological causes
(concerning ends) weigh decisively in favour of the opposition
to the Gulf War.

A problem endemic to consequentialism is the relevant range
of consequences and the pertinent timespan for their calibration.

(As the Leader of the Free World himself pithily expressed it,
when justifying the retention of NATO, ‘One cannot predict
with totality’.) In this instance, however, even restricting ourselves to the declared aims and legitimising rhetoric of the
operation, the consequences were predictable and are unambiguous. They might be summarised as follows:

Firstly, at best the restoration of the pre-war status quo in
Kuwait (autocracy, etc.); at worst a regression compared to that
(persecution and expUlsion of Palestinians and Yemenis, etc.);
Secondly, the preservation of the Ba’athist order in Iraq
(whatever the hostility to the Supreme Leader), to the detriment
not only of the Shi’ites and the Kurds (literally trapped between
a rock and a hard place), but of the Iraqi people generally;
Thirdly, no progress in the direction of even an interim
solution to the myriad miseries afflicting the Middle East, but
instead consolidation of the post-imperial settlement there and
reinforcement of Israeli intransigence.

In short, the UN was effectively reduced to a cipher for an
imperial Presidency, with other parties to the unholy alliance
donating multinational clothes to an otherwise exposed American Emperor. Granted the ambition and the opportunity, in the
impending Pax Americana, ‘to kick the Vietnam syndrome once
and for all’ (that is, to demonstrate to the Third World its allotted
place within the post-Cold War comity of nations), for the
Americans there was a danger of underkill. Hence the refusal to
negotiate and the determination to pursue the military option.

General Schwarzkopf was not to be some latter-day Duke of
York; once the further massive deployments of November 1990
had been made, this was a desert storm set to rage. Alternatively
put, the ‘Mother of Battles’ threatened by Saddam was engaged
by Bush, in a veritable hecatomb to the New World Order.

Radical Philosophy 61, Summer 1992

Unwarranted conclusions
No more than any other was this evaluation of the Gulf War
reached by resort to a moral theory which could pretend to found
and prescribe political practice. This is not to deny that political
commitments and actions secrete moral values (are, as it were,
moral-theory-laden), or that those values can be isolated, explicated and rationally justified. On the other hand, it is to suggest
that no moral theory will do the political trick. Realism dictates
such a weight and range of (explicit or implicit) empirical
premises that the decisive political battle must of necessity be
fought elsewhere than the philosophical battle-ground. At the
level of moral theory, in any minimally contentious case, the
debate will be interminable and the issue undecidable.

It should not be inferred from this that moral theory is useless
– that a version of Just War doctrine, for example, is either a
sheer imposture or a mere distraction. For it can, as I hope to
have shown, help to formulate some of the pressing questions: a
minimal condition, after all, for the requisite answers. To that
extent, the Owl of Minerva can spread its wings before twilight

Moreover, if to philosophise morally is ‘to reason on the
basis of convictions’ (Althusser), this does not warrant the conclusion that there are no good or bad reasons that can be characterised as such. And yet, if one can be right (for good or bad
reasons) or wrong (for good or bad reasons), then the crucial
thing (for the non-academic philosopher – viz., everyone else) is
to be right. Even if sometimes for bad reasons, the majority of
the Left opposed the Gulf War; it was right to do so.

As the above sufficiently betrays, the position on ethical
values involved here is anti-subjectivist, even (or especially)
when subjectivism is decked out as anti-ethnocentrism. Possibly
the worst contribution to the Gulf controversy derived from the
facile ideologue of postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard, who proclaimed that war was a hyper-real non-event, paradigmatic of the
era of the simulacrum (an analysis in which iniquity and hypervacuity contend for precedence). One salutary effect of the real
Gulf War was to remind us of something fashionably reviled as
‘essentialism’ by those for whom life is not a recurrent emergency (i.e., cross-cultural), and upon whose satisfaction, whatever its precise modality, human beings are dependent for survival and hence any conceivable well-being. These are the
essentials. Such empirical facts about human nature impart an
unimpeachably objective cast to certain ethical values – and
especially the values with which socialists are concerned.

It may be, as Samuel Beckett’s Neary would have it, that ‘the
syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation’.

And yet it remains the case that the syndrome known as life is
sufficiently compact to permit of ready extinction – courtesy, on
this as on so many occasions, of the power intent upon dispelling
the syndrome known as Vietnam.


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