Jean Bethke Elshtain Responds

Jean Bethke Elshtain Responds

Whether in agreement or demurral, one reads Michael Walzer with interest and respect. His work is a welcome contrast to the vicious rhetoric of accusation and denunciation that is so much a part of our public life.

The basics of Walzer’s argument are straightforward: is regime change a just cause for war? (Presumably this means can regime change as such ever be a just cause.) My answer to this question is, No, not in and of itself as an abstract proposition. However, in a given case and in light of other factors and additional information, regime change may well be one feature of the deployment of justifiable force. This is not equivocation but a recognition that the just war tradition does not present a series of boxes to check, and, should you get more than a given number, then war it is. Just war doesn’t function like that, as Walzer points out in his classic work, Just and Unjust Wars, a text that has played a central role in the revival of just war thinking in our time. The just war tradition is thick with the soot of history and cannot be wrenched free from particular cases, as Walzer insists.

It is true that regime change was not a stipulated goal at the onset of World War II. As the war went forward, regime change came into focus as a compelling and legitimate war aim. (Even as bringing an end to chattel slavery gained momentum as a war aim during the Civil War, although it wasn’t the casus belli at the outset.) It would be odd for someone to claim that “just cause” in the Second World War was besmirched because regime change wasn’t articulated from the get-go as a sine qua non for the use of force. The fact that regime change is not articulated as overriding at the outset does not invalidate an otherwise strong case. Whatever one thinks of regime change in Iraq, the argument that the use of force in such matters is always illegitimate unless it is undertaken collectively is false, as the UN charter demonstrates. Any argument against a nation’s use of force, including pushing for regime change, must proceed on other grounds if it is to be compelling. Walzer recognizes this in a way many of the loudest voices do not.

I dissent somewhat from Walzer’s claim that in the classical formulation of just war “aggression is regarded as the criminal policy of a government, not as the policy of a criminal government.” This gets tricky. It may not be a rule, but there is a very strong probability that a criminal regime—whether Fascist, communist, or Baathist—will engage in criminal policies externally and internally. Such regimes “bear watching.” This leads us to ask what criteria are deployed to determine whether the internal abuses of a regime are of an egregious and systematic sort that may—if other factors are present—trigger intervention.

Here we arrive at “humanitarian intervention.” But under whose auspices, given what criteria, and to w...