The air strikes over Libya undoubtedly meet St Thomas’s conditions for a just war

Women in Benghazi rally in support of coalition strikes (CNS photo/Finbarr O'Reilly)

Mary Kenny asks in this week’s Catholic Herald whether St Thomas Aquinas would have backed the Nato operation to install a no-fly zone over Libya and to take “all necessary measures” to defend civilians from their own government’s bloodthirsty behaviour. It is true that we don’t actually know what the final outcome of all this will be. But that can’t surely affect the question of the morality of this military operation, even if, as some claim, it actually, in effect, tacitly includes the ambition of “regime change” – the ousting of the Gaddafi family from power – since it is difficult to imagine how else the Libyan population is ultimately to be defended. As for unpredictable outcomes – the question “what happens then”, which Mary says makes the Nato operation, from the point of view of “the Aquinas conditions”, borderline – they surely can’t come under the just war criteria.

There were originally only three conditions laid down by St Thomas himself:

1) The war must be started and controlled by the due authority of state or ruler – in other words, it can’t be a civil war or a rebellion. This rules out the war being waged by the Libyan rebels, but not the military intervention of the Nato forces, since that was indeed started by the due authority, not of one nation, but of the United Nations itself.

2) There must be a just cause. This wouldn’t include, say, a war for territory, but it would include the protection of a civil population, self-defence and the prevention of a worse evil. The UN resolution emphatically fulfils that condition.

3) The war must be for good, or against evil. Think what Gaddafi said when he thought his tanks were about to roll virtually unopposed into Benghazi: that he would go “from alley to alley, from house to house, from room to room” and that he would show “no mercy”. Thousands would have died. Without any doubt, the airstrikes have been against a very great evil indeed.

The Church later added two more rules, though St Thomas usually gets the credit for them (and why not?). The first is that the conflict must be a last resort. In other words, every other option must be tried first. In this case they had been. Sanctions, diplomacy, phone calls from Tony Blair to his pal Muammar, freezing of assets, the lot. None of it had any effect. The UN military measures were not only a last resort, they were employed only at the last possible moment, just in the nick of time.

Lastly, the war must be fought proportionally. This means that more force than necessary must not be used, nor must the action kill more civilians than necessary. Enormous pains are being taken to fulfil this condition, too. The supposed “smart bombs” they talked about in the first Gulf war (which constantly missed their targets and killed large numbers of civilians) appear to have been in the last 20 years perfected in the most remarkable way, so that tanks can be taken out surgically even inside urban areas without damage to their surroundings (special missiles are used, with a considerably reduced explosive charge).

I know that some Catholics with whom I am usually prone to agree are strongly against the whole thing. “Bang, crash, wallop,” writes Stuart Reid this week in his Charterhouse column, “Here we go again. Which of the western allies will be the first to bomb an aspirin factory or an orphanage?… We have been in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and in Iraq for eight and all we have to show for all that innocent blood and treasure – and for all those innocent victims – is two failed states and a world that is more dangerous than ever.” But the whole point is that we are extremely unlikely this time to bomb any orphanages. (My readers will undoubtedly hold that against me if I’m proved wrong). And this is emphatically not Afghanistan, and it is not Iraq. Here we do not go again. There will be “no boots on the ground”, this time. That’s the most unshakeable condition of all. And as for innocent victims: this action will save them – has already saved them – in their thousands from a merciless tyrant bent on a bloody revenge.

So, here we all are, whether we like it or not. Maybe I will come to regret sticking my neck out so publicly: but I think that Parliament was right, this time, to give such overwhelming support to a military venture. Of course, we cannot watch what is going on without great anxiety. It was risky: but there was an even greater risk in doing nothing. There is much more to be said, of course. But for the moment, perhaps, it would be better leave it at that: this is not a subject, I fear, that is going to go away soon.