William A. Galston, a political theorist and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said a major question regarding an attack on Iraq is whether the "unusual" and "revolutionary" approach to foreign policy being taken by the administration of President George W. Bush can be used to support war under traditional "just war" theory.
"How can we announce a (new) doctrine of preemption as central to foreign policy by insisting that it applies to the United States alone, and insisting that it should not become and must not become the centerpiece of foreign policy practices elsewhere on earth?" asked Galston during a symposium held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The forum was co-sponsored by the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, the Institute for American Values and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The belief that war can be morally acceptable and is at times morally necessary is central to "just war" theory and underlies United Nations doctrine and international law regarding military conflict.
The complex tradition of "just war" philosophy is broadly based, with roots in both secular and religious moral tradition. There is a long history of Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholarship about when and whether war is morally justified.
According to Galston -- who supported the military action of the American-led coalition against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War -- the current Bush administration has failed to make a morally sound case for attacking Iraq this time.
He said the administration's declaration that the goal for war on Iraq is regime change goes against traditional moral justifications for military action.
"That formation lies outside the 'just war' tradition," he said.
Michael Walzer -- a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and a scholar on morality and the use of force -- said that the United States has a bad history when it comes to instituting regime change.
He cited U.S. efforts in Guatemala, Chile and elsewhere during the Cold War as representative of the "bad old days" when the United States spearheaded regime change with questionable moral results, supporting brutal regimes that served America's political and foreign policy needs.
Galston added that, as a foreign policy goal, regime change is the "moral equivalent" of the unconditional surrender demanded of the Axis powers by the Allies in World War II. Such terms, he said, give the victorious nation the responsibility to rebuild the nation it has destroyed, but the White House has yet to detail "a coherent plan" for rebuilding a post-Saddam Iraq.
Another issue, Walzer said, is that the Bush administration's arguments for humanitarian and national security reasons for an Iraq war are based upon dated events. He said the United States has passed up such opportunities in the past -- such as when Saddam gassed Iraqi Kurds or blocked U.N. weapons inspections -- when attacking Iraq was clearly justifiable.
"There was a just war to have been fought back in the 1990s, when Saddam was playing hide and seek (with U.N. weapons inspectors)," said Walzer.
Walzer said that instead of attacking Iraq now, the Bush administration should work to get countries that have reopened ties with Iraq since the Gulf War -- such as France and Russia -- to rally behind a strong and credible effort to enforce the disarmament terms of the Gulf War surrender treaty and U.N. resolutions regarding weapons of mass destruction.
He added that Iraq has shown in the past that it would back down when international ultimatums are supported by credible force. He also acknowledged that obtaining credible backing for the use of force from France, Russia and other countries would be difficult given their feelings about U.S. policy in the region.
Gerard V. Bradley, professor of law at Notre Dame Law School and a noted scholar of law and religion, said that he supports the administration's stand and believes that a preemptive strike on Iraq is justifiable, given the alternatives. He added, however, that it must be handled correctly.
"Such an attack should not be inconsistent with the traditional teachings on just war," said Bradley.
Bradley said that if the central purpose of such an attack would be to disarm Saddam, this would not violate Iraq's sovereign rights under the disarmament treaty.
He added that targeting Saddam for death is also justifiable, given that he is not a civilian but commander of the Iraqi armed forces, and noted that targeting the dictator might save lives by leading to a quicker resolution.
"It seems to me that it would be wrong, indeed unfair, not to go after Saddam as early and as vigorously as possible," he said.
Nevertheless, he said that an attack on Iraq must be defensive in nature, even if the attack is preemptive.
"War ought to be undertaken as a last resort, but in the present condition, how long is too long (to wait)?" he asked.
Walzer said that although Iraq is clearly dangerous, the Bush administration has not demonstrated that the country poses a clear and immediate threat to the United States. Its only known weapons threaten only its neighboring countries, he said.
John Kelsay, a professor of religion at Florida State University and a noted authority on Islam, said that attacking Iraq can be morally justified, but that the Bush administration has yet to make an effective case for the action.
"My view is that the United States has a right to use military might for regime change in Iraq, but I am less certain that the United States should use that right," said Kelsay.
As to the possibility of Saddam passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, Walzer said that the earlier round of weapons inspections in Iraq proved to be quite effective in destroying such items.
"The rapid reinstatement of an inspection system in Iraq is preferable to the preventive war that the Bush administration seems to be leading us to," said Walzer. "The war that is being discussed is preventive war, not preemptive, which means that it is means to prevent a distant event."