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Medieval Philosophy

The Aquinas Inquiry

What would the medieval philosophers who developed the theory of a Just War have thought about the invasion of Iraq? Ian Dungate imagines their response.

In America and Australia, the voters have retrospectively endorsed their leaders’ decision to invade Iraq and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. In Britain, the arguments continue, and some opposition MPs recently tried to impeach the Prime Minister for his decision to participate in what his Attorney General apparently feared was an illegal war. Several government-appointed commissions have examined the decision to go to war, and the government’s line is that these commissions have vindicated Tony Blair’s decision to join Bush in this military expedition. Critics, on the other hand, have noted that the scope of these enquiries was limited to narrow aspects of pre-war intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction and have called persistently for an enquiry by a panel of independent experts with a wider remit and a greater distance from the governmental structures involved, to look at all aspects of whether the war was justified.

May I be the first (but surely not the last) to suggest that such a panel should include St Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, Hugo Grotius and Alexander of Hales? Tom, Chris, Hugo and Alex have already given deep consideration to the question of when it is right to go to war, and many of their ideas on the subject have been incorporated into the relevant international legislation, so they are ideally qualified to investigate the rightness of invading Iraq.

The members of the ‘Aquinas Inquiry’ have already developed a set of six criteria which should be met in order for any war to be considered just. The first three come from Aquinas himself, and the others were added later by his fellow panelists. Let’s consider each of these criteria in turn, to judge whether the panel is likely to be satisfied by the government’s answers on these points.

1) Did the war have Just Authority (Auctoritas)? The panel members have previously argued that only the legitimate rulers of the state may declare war, as people below the rank of sovereign can settle their disputes in the law-courts and thus have no justification for war. As the elected head of Government, acting on behalf of the Sovereign, it would seem clear that Tony Blair had the necessary authority to satisfy the panel on this point. However, perhaps we should examine the panel members’ reasons for their earlier statements before leaping to conclusions about their likely ruling on this point. When there was no higher authority than sovereigns to arbitrate on disputes, there was sometimes no alternative to war. However, the situation is changed by the existence of the United Nations and the recognition by its member states of its authority to arbitrate disputes between them. It is a higher authority, and in many ways acts as a court to arbitrate disputes between sovereigns. The US and UK recognized this by their earlier diplomatic activity. Therefore it could be argued that as the highest authority in this matter, only the United Nations could have had Just Authority to permit the invasion. Tony Blair, sitting nervously before the panel, might argue that as Iraq had flouted earlier instructions from the UN, it had placed itself beyond the UN’s jurisdiction and restored the situation to one in which the leaders of individual states had Just Authority to decide on military action for themselves. However, it is usually up to courts themselves to decide when a person brought before them is flouting their instructions, and also to decide what penalty if any to apply. This is not the job of anyone else unless specifically requested by the court. Similarly, it was up to the UN to decide whether Saddam Hussein was breaching earlier UN resolutions on the disclosure of weapons programmes. Its own inspectors were trying to determine this when the coalition forestalled the conclusion of their inspections by invading. As the UN had not concluded that Saddam was beyond its jurisdiction, it continued to be the sole possessor of Just Authority. Therefore, the coalition acted without Just Authority.

Likely outcome: Panel rules unanimously that Tony Blair did not have Just Authority.

2) Did the war have Just Cause (Causa)? In the past, the panel members have argued that nation X may wage war on nation Y only if Y has done some injury either to X or to X’s allies or friends. Iraq had not done this. If there was a clear link with Al-Qaeda, Tony Blair could argue that Iraq had attacked the USA by proxy on 11th September 2001, so that the invasion of Iraq was a justified response to aggression against an ally. However, as George Bush himself has now admitted that there was no evidence of such a link, the panel is highly unlikely to accept this justification. However, it isn’t clear from their earlier pronouncements whether the panel regard Y having harmed Y’s own people as also being a just cause for X to wage war on it. Realistically, some of the panel might decide that this could indeed be so, and conclude that Saddam Hussein’s sustained viciousness towards the Iraqi people was just such a case.

Likely outcome: The panel initially divides evenly. After a stormy two-hour meeting with Alistair Campbell in closed session, Christine de Pisan leaves in tears and the panel votes 3-0 that Tony Blair did have Just Cause.

3) Right Intentions (Intentio). The panel members are on record as believing that the aim of any war must be the achievement of peace and of the just cause – not revenge, the desire for plunder or the suffering or destruction of the people on the other side. The spin which is an all-pervasive part of modern politics and the different justifications for war offered at different times by the UK and US governments would obviously make it more difficult for the panel to determine the actual intentions involved in this case. Some people have speculated that the US government was motivated by a desire to control Iraq’s oil output. If the panel were convened in the US, they might want to read some of the Neo-Con essays and policy papers from some years ago calling for an invasion of Iraq, and consider whether the motivations expressed in those papers are right intentions. However, they are only examining the motives of the British government, which has gained no oil, influence or even reconstruction contracts so far, and which presumably could have predicted that this would be so.

Likely outcome: In the absence of any evidence of self-interested motives, the panel would probably vote that Tony Blair must have had Right Intentions.

4) Proportionality. Some of the Aquinas panelists have claimed that for any war to be just, the anticipated good must outweigh the evil likely to be caused. The word here is ‘anticipated’ – the actual consequences in Iraq whether good or bad are irrelevant. The panel will have to reckon up the foreseeable death and misery, the foreseeable damage to international relations and the effectiveness of the UN, and to the likely effectiveness of the allies in prosecuting the war against terror and ponder whether these drawbacks outweigh the considerable benefits of turning Iraq from a murderous dictatorship into a merely dysfunctional state and the removal of the danger that it might, in the future, have deployed weapons of mass destruction or collaborated with terrorists. If they decide it does not, or that there was an alternative way of gaining the same objectives, then they will find the war unjust on these grounds.

Likely outcome: Even intensive lobbying from Alistair Campbell would be lucky to achieve better than a split verdict on this one.

5) Good probability of success in achieving the war’s aims. That depends on what the aims of the war were. If one takes them to be simply the removal of Saddam Hussein at all costs, then in view of their vast military resources, the allies must indeed have been confident of success. If the aim was to remove Saddam’s WMD, then the war failed as Saddam seems not to have had any in the first place. Therefore in determining whether there was a good probability of success, the panel would have to consider what the government knew when. In other words it would have to re-examine the pre-war intelligence on WMD just as the Butler inquiry has already done.

Likely outcome: Panel finds for the government, blaming the intelligence services for providing faulty ‘product’. Senior MI6 figures are asked to resign, anonymous spooks write furious newspaper articles about what the Cabinet really knew, and the whole business is eventually referred to yet another inquiry (the Dante inquiry).

6) Peaceful alternatives must all have been exhausted first. Just before the invasion began, the UN Weapons Inspectors were begging for more time to complete their work, other UN members were working furiously to avert war, and the Iraqis were showing signs of wilting under the pressure – they had begun dismantling missiles. The allies moved when they did not because the alternatives had been exhausted, but because it would have been more difficult to attack in the heat of summer.

Likely outcome: The Aquinas inquiry seems unlikely to conclude that peaceful alternatives had been exhausted.

So the Aquinas inquiry seems likely to be satisfied by the government’s answers on three points, to find against the government on another two, and to be split on one more. Unfortunately for Blair, Aquinas and his colleagues have made it quite clear that for a war to be a Just War, the six criteria must all be met, not just a majority of them. By failing to gain UN authorisation or to exhaust peaceful alternatives before going to war, Blair made it inevitable that the Aquinas panel would declare that the invasion of Iraq was an Unjust War.


I haven’t said much about how Aquinas & Co. arrived at their criteria for when it is just to go to war (jus ad bellum), but only speculated about how those criteria might be applied to the Iraq situation. Medieval thinkers also had lots to say about the proper conduct of wars once they had started (jus in bello), but that would be another article altogether.

© Ian Dungate 2005

Ian Dungate is a writer who lives and works in London.

• For more, see the chapter on ‘The Just War’ in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy.

The Panel:

Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). Known as the Angelic Doctor. Very influenced by St Augustine and Aristotle.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) author of On The Law of War and Peace.

Christine de Pisan (1363-1430) Poet and philosopher. Reputed to have been the first woman in France to earn her living by writing.

Alexander of Hales (d.1245) Franciscan theologian and philosopher.

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