Is U.S Involvement In Libya 'A Just War'?

Earlier this week, President Obama explained his decision for U-S intervention in Libya. He said the main goal was to protect Libyan civilians. The move has been criticized by U.S lawmakers, most of whom question the military operation's cost and strategy. In his criticism, Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver argues that the campaign does not conform to the seven Christian principles of a Just War. To understand what those principles are, and the definition of a "just war", host Michel Martin speaks with Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll tell you about an international sporting contest that comes to a finale this weekend. It has a whole continent glued to the tube. No, it's not the NCAA basketball finals. We'll tell you about it later in the program.

But first, our weekly "Faith Matters" conversation, where we want to talk more about Libya. Earlier this week, President Obama addressed the nation to spell out why he believes the U.S. needed to get involved in the conflict there.

President BARACK OBAMA: In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence; an international mandate for action; a broad coalition prepared to join us; the support of Arab countries; and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.

MARTIN: The president's decision provoked a barrage of criticism, mainly from his political opponents. And most of these critiques had to do with cost, military tactics or exit strategy. But there was one critique that was theological. That was offered by U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri. He's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and an ordained minister.

Congressman Cleaver says that the NATO intervention does not conform to the seven Christian principles of a just war. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Shaun Casey. He's a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary, here in Washington, D.C. He teaches a course on the principles of a just war, and he's with us now. Professor Casey, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor SHAUN CASEY (Christian Ethics, Wesley Theological Seminary): You're welcome, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So just briefly - and I know that this is, obviously, a very - sort of deep and rich topic, which is why there are many books written about it. It's a tradition going back, you know, centuries. But if you could just briefly describe, what is the just war tradition?

Prof. CASEY: It's a set of arguments that tries to limit the evil in war. And the argument, basically, is when you're asked the question, should we go to war, the initial answer is no, unless you fulfill a certain set of conditions. So there are five or six questions that have to be answered in the affirmative before this tradition says yes, it would be moral or just to intervene, or go to war in this specific case.

MARTIN: What is the root of the tradition? Where does it come from?

Prof. CASEY: The main - sort of intellectual engine is actually a North African theologian from the fifth century, and so he was born and lived in what is now contemporary Tunisia and Libya - St. Augustine. And Augustine simply argued there might be cases where indeed, out of love or regard for neighbor, it might be moral to intervene to protect them from an unjust attack from a third party.

MARTIN: Congressman Cleaver, who is - as we said - an ordained minister, said in a statement after, you know, the president's speech - he said that: I am an advocate of the seven principles of a just war, which are not, in my opinion, theologically present in the military policy relating to Libya - unquote.

Now, you know, we reached out to Representative Cleaver, and asked him if he could join our conversation. He was unavailable. But he also said that that's a different conversation than he's having as a member of Congress. And I just wanted to ask you, what is the argument about why this does not meet the test?

Prof. CASEY: Well, with all due respect to congressman Cleaver - and he's a man I admire, someone I actually have learned from; I take my students to meet with him regularly - I wish he had spelled out the argument. In his press release, he simply said it doesn't fulfill the seven criteria. But he didn't tell you how, specifically, they did not. Most ethicists and philosophers and theologians would say that when you have a town of 700,000 that within 24 hours, could be leveled - in other words, that counts as an atrocity.

And international law and - I would say - ethics as well, argue that if you have the ability to intervene and prevent that, you should definitely consider that as a just cause. So that's sort of the first question: Is there a cause, or is there a reason?

MARTIN: And the protection of innocent life is considered a cause.

Prof. CASEY: Yes.

MARTIN: Particularly on a large scale.

Prof. CASEY: On a large scale.

MARTIN: On a large scale.

Prof. CASEY: Exactly. And so I would argue 700,000 civilians does constitute a potential large scale.

MARTIN: But what about intervening in what others consider a civil war? I mean, there's a question of whether this is

Prof. CASEY: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Is this a genocide, or is this a civil war?

Prof. CASEY: In essence it's both. We have a specific example of a potential atrocity, and that's separate from the question of intervening in a civil war on a large scale. I think the president has said we're not going to intervene militarily to settle that civil war militarily. He thinks that there are economic and diplomatic courses that we can pursue, short of actually putting boots on the ground. So there really are two moral issues at play here.

MARTIN: Is this a subject of debate right now among - well, I want to say particularly Christian theologians, who have a very articulated, sort of philosophy here but, you know, theologians of other belief systems. I mean, is this a topic of discussion right now?

Prof. CASEY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, my Facebook page is just littered with comments. And there are a number of us having this discussion. As we write, and as we do media events, people respond to that. So there's a very vigorous debate going on in discussion.

My sense is, interestingly enough, there actually is a large amount of support among - I would say - theologians, philosophers and ethicists, that this is a just intervention. But there's a lot of anxiety knowing that the longer narrative in Libya may yet go awry, go astray morally. So the discussion is going to be ongoing.

MARTIN: Is there a point at which you feel that the moral sanction, the theological sanction for this effort ends?

Prof. CASEY: Well, there are many ways it could go awry. I mean, there are ways that this could then tip over into an unjust scenario. For instance, if we started bombing civilians ourselves, I think that would be immoral. The just war ethic argues that you cannot directly target civilians. So if we go after Gadhafi, say, with air power and we start bombing Tripoli in a random, indiscriminant manner, that would be wrong. That, in fact, would be immoral. So there's certainly many more potential moral pitfalls as this narrative plays out.

MARTIN: And finally, what will you be looking at in the days ahead, to determine whether you feel that this involvement continues to meet moral and theological principles?

Prof. CASEY: Well, I think the best hope is that the defections at the top continue, that the Gadhafi regime collapses, and that there will be a peaceful transition. I think that's the best hope here. And that's still a possibility, even though we've intervened in a limited way. So that's sort of the best hope. I think the areas of concern would be if we decided to arm the rebels - because I think there's a sense that if you intervene fully militarily and tip a civil war, you then inherit the consequences in that country. And you can't just simply walk away. You are in for the long haul, if you do that.

Just as we've seen in Iraq, we had to stay, in a sense, after we went in with over 100,000 troops in that initial invasion. I think it would be a very questionable thing for us to go into Libya, and then try to rebuild that nation to our own military. I think that would be a moral and political mistake.

MARTIN: Shaun Casey is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. That is here in Washington, D.C. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Professor Casey, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. CASEY: You're welcome.

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