Is Preemptive War Ever Justified? Iran, Calvin and Just War Theory

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 placed the question of the morality of preemptive war at the forefront of discussions about just war theory. The primary legal justification offered by the Bush administration for the war was that Saddam Hussein was developing a weapons program in violation of legal constraints put in place after the 1991 Iraq War, and in violation of UN resolutions. The moral argument rested on the claim of the United States and other nations that if Saddam developed weapons of mass destruction, he would most certainly use them against Israel, the United States, or other countries. He had used such weapons in the past. Why wait for a smoking gun – an entirely avoidable catastrophe – to justify intervention in the present?

Of course, U.S. intelligence turned out to be wrong about the state of Iraq’s WMD program. It didn’t take long for the administration’s justification to shift its emphasis to a theme that had always been offered as a subsidiary justification for war – Saddam’s oppressive treatment of his people. Looking back, it seems, few non-politically aligned just war theorists defend the U.S. invasion as having been morally  justified.

But the question of the morality of preemptive war has not gone away. Indeed, with Iran allegedly on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has warned – emphatically – that it will use force, if necessary, to prevent that event. Iranian leaders, such as current president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, have spoken menacingly of wiping Israel off the map. At the very least a nuclear Iran would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East – for the worse.


What should Christians think of preemptive war, sometimes referred to in recent years as the “Bush Doctrine”? Christian just war theorists have consistently maintained that war is only justified as a last resort, and when necessary for self-defense, national security, or basic justice. They have generally assumed – and often insisted – that the existence of a hostile power, including the capacity of such a power to do great damage – does not meet this requirement.

John Calvin is no exception. In his commentary on the Torah he uses the story of the Egyptian pharaoh’s ‘preemptive’ genocide of Jewish male children (Exodus 1:9) to observe that nations almost always defend their unjust wars on the basis of the claim that their opponent is a threat to their own security. Very rarely does an aggressor openly acknowledge itself to be such. To “be beforehand in crime,” Calvin observes,

is commonly considered the best mode of precaution, so that only those are accounted provident who consult for their own security by injuring others, if occasion requires it. From this source almost all wars proceed, because while every prince fears his neighbor, this fear so fills him with apprehension that he does not hesitate to cover the earth with human blood.

Calvin extends the observation to relations between individuals, then condemns the mode of reasoning in both cases:

But this is a wicked kind of cunning (however it may be varnished over with the specious name of foresight), unjustly to molest others for our own security. I fear this or that person because he both has the means of injuring me, and I am uncertain of his disposition towards me. Therefore, in order that I may be safe from harm, I will endeavor by every possible means to oppress him… If thus every one should indulge his own distrust, while each will be devising to do some injury to his possible enemies, there will be no end to iniquities… For when we have once determined to provide for our own advantage, or quiet, or safety, we ask not the question whether we are doing right or wrong.

To be sure, the world has changed quite a bit since Calvin wrote these words. War is both less common and more distant for us than it was for Calvin. At the same time, it is far more destructive and potentially catastrophic. Nuclear weapons and terrorism raise questions that 16th century imperial invasions, territorial rivalries, and religious persecution did not. I do not think classic just war theory can be invoked simplistically to condemn the possible use of military force against an internationally condemned rogue power like Iran.

That said, it is not irrelevant either. Calvin’s observation that doctrines of preemptive war are the basis for almost all wars remains soberingly true. Just think of the great conflicts of the 20th Century. From the absurdity and bungling that led Europe into World War I to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and later the Soviet Union, from Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor to the Soviet Union’s placement of nuclear weapons in Cuba, aggressive powers have always claimed that their military actions were necessary to preempt the far more catastrophic attack of an opponent.

The problem with the doctrine of preemptive war, as Calvin rightly notes, is that it is simply too open-ended. Virtually any rival or power can be deemed to be a threat needing to be preempted. Tension alone becomes justification for violent self-defense. A state of crisis becomes inseparable from a state of war.

On the other hand, we can all imagine scenarios in which a preemptive strike seems clearly to be justified. Israel’s attack on Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967 is one widely cited example.

What principles might be brought to bear to distinguish a legitimate preemptive strike from the vast majority of such strikes that underlie most unjust wars? How imminent must the threat be, before a preemptive strike is morally justified? And how do we be sure that we are not inventing these principles so as to justify the war we want to have, rather than to serve as a relatively objective form of self-criticism that might actually shape our actions? Is the potential development of nuclear weapons by a new power (an ever more pervasive phenomena) sufficient? I have a hard time with this, given that it is unclear morally why one group of nations should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, while preventing another group of nations from doing the same.

Does the agreement of the international community, represented by the United Nations, justify a preemptive strike? In the end the United States lacked such support for its invasion of Iraq. The UN is a problematic institution that is itself politicized and subject to uneven control by conflicting major world powers. Its legitimacy and efficacy is highly contested, and when national security is on the line, few powerful nations like the United States (or Israel) will cede to it veto power over the use of military force. Yet it may be the closest thing the world has to an objective international body that can arbitrate between legitimate and illegitimate justifications for preemptive war.

In the final analysis each nation, each government, makes these calls for itself, accountable to God. But as critics of just war theory point out, the theory has far too often been used simply as a form of moral self-justification than as a genuine means of testing policy options. The task of just war theorists, indeed, of all who deem themselves in a measure morally responsible for the actions of their government, is to face the moral question somewhat more honestly. For this reason, and in this time, we need to come to grips with the difficult problem of preemptive war. The question, as Calvin notes, is not whether or not we believe a war to be in our national interest. The question is whether our actions are just.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on April 2, 2013, in Just War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is Preemptive War Ever Justified? Iran, Calvin and Just War Theory.

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