Perspectives on Politics


Just War Theory and the U.S. Counterterror War

Neta C. Crawford a1
a1 associate professor (research) at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University ( and associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics,Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention


This article addresses three sets of questions. First, the George W. Bush administration claims that its cause and conduct in counterterror war are just. Such a claim invites moral assessment. How do normative beliefs and ethical concerns affect U.S. conduct in the counterterror war? Is the war just in cause and conduct? Second, many observers argue that warfare is “transformed.” How so? And is it possible to fight a just counterterror war in this context? Third, the transformation of war raises new questions for just war theory itself. Is the framework still useful? I argue that it is extremely difficult to fight a just counterterror war given the nature of terrorism and the realities of contemporary warfare. Yet I show that the Bush administration has made an effort to engage in a just counterterror war by meeting the criterion of self-defense and seeking to avoid noncombatant harm. Even so, current U.S. policy and practice in the counterterror war are not just. But any government would have a problem fighting a just counterterror war in the current context; indeed, the utility of just war theory itself is challenged. I discuss 12 conceptual and practical problems that arise at the intersection of just war theory and counterterror war, including the limits of self-defense, preemption, last resort, and discrimination. Despite these problems, I argue that just war theory is a useful method of inquiry into the problems of contemporary war. Our nation's cause has always been larger than our nation's defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty …. Building this just peace is America's opportunity, and America's duty. —George W. Bush 1 The Americans who conduct those operations are a tough and proud bunch. Their cause is a just one. It's to stop terrorists from killing Americans and others.—Donald H. Rumsfeld 2 This is not a linear war; this is not a sequential war …. This is a different kind of conflict. This is asymmetric warfare. We have to use all the instruments of national power.—General Richard Myers 3


The author thanks Jill Breitbarth, Corey Brettschneider, Lisa Burrell, Carol Cohn, James Der Derian, David Estlund, Terry Hopmann, Linda Miller, Jock Reeder, John Tomasi, and Iris Young for their comments on an earlier version of the paper. She is also grateful to Jennifer Hochschild, John Ladd, Sally Ruddick, and anonymous reviewers, who gave detailed critical comments.

1 Bush 2002.

2 Rumsfeld 2001e.

3 Myers 2001b.