The Iraq Debate: The War Was Unjust

This is the second of a four-part debate between Robert R. Reilly and Russell Shaw on the question, “Was the Iraq War just?”

Sometime in late 2002 I composed a sort of mantra that I then took to repeating to family and friends: “I watched the first Gulf War in 1991 on TV in a hotel room in Rome, and it looks like I’m going to watch the next one the same way.” Sure enough, on March 21, 2003, with shock and awe underway in Iraq, I boarded a plane at Dulles and flew off to Rome for a previously scheduled meeting, unrelated to Iraq, at the Vatican.

During the next week I spent many hours following the war via CNN, the BBC, and, now and then, via the starker, grimmer images available without sound from Al-Jazeera. Instead of a hotel, though, I was in the Domus Sanctae Marthae — St. Martha’s House — the Vatican guesthouse a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica. I can report that it’s disorienting to the point of being hallucinatory to watch the mayhem of warfare with the greatest shrine in Christendom looming as a backdrop in your window.
And, as the hours passed, I became aware of something even odder than that — something happening not on the TV screen but in me. A televised war can be pretty dull. Much television time was given over to briefings by military people and news conferences by civilian officials and politicians. Tedious stuff. Even the scenes of action — shooting, explosions — grew stale as the networks showed the same footage over and over again. I found myself thinking, “Come on — let’s have some action! A little excitement, please! Let’s see something blow up!
The war had become entertainment for me. When it didn’t entertain, I felt cheated. Does this suggest a new just war criterion? It would fit under the heading of jus in bello — moral norms governing the conduct of war — and it might go like this: Do not turn the killing of human beings into entertainment for jaded television viewers.
Days before the war began, I expressed my views in, among other places, an interview with the Catholic Internet news agency Zenit. It ran a week before the fighting started, but the war went ahead despite me just the same. To a question about why the White House and the Vatican disagreed, I said this:
Leaving aside rhetoric and name-calling — and there has been plenty of both in this debate — the main reason for the difference concerns differing prudential judgments. President Bush and his people believe the consequences of not going to war — especially the risk of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ending up in the hands of terrorists — would significantly outweigh the bad consequences. The Holy Father and his people clearly believe that whatever good might come from overthrowing Saddam Hussein would not be proportionate to the bad results, such as provoking more terrorism, adding fuel to the burgeoning Christian-Muslim conflict already being played out in other areas of the world, and causing long-term damage to the United Nations and the international common good. For the most part, I think the Vatican and the White House share the same moral principles, but they disagree about the likely outcomes of various courses of action.
On the whole, I believe the Vatican’s view is the correct one.
Four-and-a-half years later, I think that holds up pretty well. Except for that bit about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration consciously chose to make them the centerpiece of its public case for going to war. As we now know, there were no WMD.
I say this as someone who, contrary to the position of just war traditionalism, accepts the moral legitimacy of preventive war in some circumstances. Morality doesn’t require waiting until the mushroom clouds rise over New York and Los Angeles. But the legitimacy of preventive war demands the existence of a real, present threat requiring the use of force to defuse it. Here, as we now know, the American government failed egregiously. Thousands of unnecessary, unjustified deaths are the result.
Writing before the car bombings and assassinations had begun, and al-Qaeda in Iraq had emerged on the scene, and events in Iran showed that the American government was worrying about the wrong country all along, I said my position on the Iraq war could be reduced to three propositions:
First, UN weapons inspections in Iraq had been resumed and seemed to be getting some results; it was premature, to say the least, to cut that process short by going to war.
Need I say that again now? There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What Saddam Hussein might perhaps have done at some point in the future was merely conjectural and not a morally serious argument for war.
Second, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, regime change is not an appropriate purpose of war.
Saddam was a vicious tyrant, but there have always been vicious tyrants in this unhappy world. If the experience in Iraq teaches nothing else, it shows that taking out vicious tyrants can itself be wrong if its results are sufficiently destabilizing. It is easy to forget — and shouldn’t be forgotten — that the American liberation of Iraq quickly and disastrously became the American military occupation of Iraq. Up to this time, moreover, the chief beneficiaries of the Iraq war have been the ferociously anti-American fundamentalists in Tehran.
Third, creating a democratic Iraq by force is a will-o’-the-wisp that the United States has no business pursuing.
By now, President Bush and his associates have long since ceased talking about making Baghdad a Mideast City on the Hill. A more or less stable Iraq, with no more than a tolerable level of internal violence plus a functioning government that holds elections now and then, is the highest aspiration of U.S. policy today. By no means is it certain the Iraqis will manage that much.
The point of all this, needless to say, is that the Iraq war was an unjust war at the time it was fought. How to achieve responsible disengagement now, after all that has happened, is a different question not here addressed.
Around the time the war began, I was often asked — usually in an accusatory tone — whether it wasn’t part of just war thinking that the decision to go to war rests with the authorities. The implication was that it was up to the American government, not second-guessers like me, to make this call.
Quite so — the authorities do have the right to make the fateful decision to go to war. But in this case, who were the relevant authorities? It was glaring unilateralism to say or suggest that the only authorities with a right to decide for war in 2002-2003 were American ones. Many nations had a stake in Iraq and a right to be involved. And with all its faults and weaknesses — its corruption, its sometimes blatant anti-Americanism, its toothless incompetence, and so on — the United Nations was the forum where all those interests were represented. Not least among the faults of the American government was its high-handed dismissal of the concerns of other nations and, especially, of the UN.
Habitual critics of the United Nations may seize on what I’ve just said as evidence of how wildly out of touch I am. Believe me, folks, I’m as aware of the faults of the UN as you are. But I’m also aware that over the years the Holy See has been a strong supporter of the organization. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II made historic visits there. Pope Benedict XVI will go there in April. Why is that?
The answer is in Blessed John XXIII’s 1965 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Speaking of the need for an international “public authority” — not in place of but in addition to existing nation-states — committed to the international common good, he makes it clear that, although the UN as it was then (and, one might add, is now) is not that body, it’s a necessary step in the right direction.
Forty-two years later, in an era of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, that remains the Holy See’s view. It is entirely correct. If the United Nations didn’t exist, it would have to be created, although in that case I hope it would be a UN without the obnoxious faults of the UN that now exists.
Neither the United States nor any other country can surrender its right to act unilaterally to defend either itself or the international common good if unilateral action is necessary. But to act outside or in the defiance of the UN except in cases of unambiguous necessity is a morally dubious procedure at best. Here is another lesson of Iraq: As the world’s only superpower, the United States has a duty to work for the reform and strengthening of the UN, not its undermining.
 

Russell Shaw

By

Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Eric G.

    Unfortunately, this article completely ignores this salient paragraph from Reilly’s opening statement:

    “Despite the impression that has seized the popular imagination regarding the failure to find significant stockpiles of WMD, Saddam also maintained his WMD programs until the very end. Dr. David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported to Congress, ‘We have discovered dozens of WMD related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the UN during the inspections that began in late 2002.’ Kay concluded that Saddam had become “even more dangerous” than had been realized. The discovery of more than 500 sarin-filled warheads in 2006, WMD by anyone’s definition, was met with a yawn when it was announced by Congressman Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. This vital information simply did not fit with the urban legend that Saddam had no WMD.”

    Is any of this true?!

  • Brian Saint-Paul, InsideCatholic

    Eric G. wrote: Unfortunately, this article completely ignores this salient paragraph from Reilly’s opening statement:

    “Despite the impression that has seized the popular imagination regarding the failure to find significant stockpiles of WMD, Saddam also maintained his WMD programs until the very end. Dr. David Kay, the head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported to Congress, ‘We have discovered dozens of WMD related program activities and significant amounts of equipment that Iraq concealed from the UN during the inspections that began in late 2002.’ Kay concluded that Saddam had become “even more dangerous” than had been realized. The discovery of more than 500 sarin-filled warheads in 2006, WMD by anyone’s definition, was met with a yawn when it was announced by Congressman Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. This vital information simply did not fit with the urban legend that Saddam had no WMD.”

    Is any of this true?!

    Hi Eric,

    I just want to clarify: Bob Reilly and Russell Shaw wrote their opening statements simultaneously, so Russell wouldn’t have had the opportunity to respond to Bob at that point (since he hadn’t seen his essay). However, once the first-round statements were written, we exchanged them, and both men wrote reponses.

    We’ll run those tomorrow. I think you’ll enjoy the interchange.

  • Theodore Degruy

    That’s it, my opinion is changed, no need to continue.

    The Iraq War was unjust because it turned Russell Shaw into a sadistic, jaded television viewer. We have it from the horse’s mouth.

    But seriously, round one goes to the guy that made a logical case built on reasonably objective analysis of the evidence available.

    That’s not Shaw. Better luck next time.

  • Tim Shipe

    I will start by assuming that everyone here is coming at this “Just War or Not” question with good intentions. Personally, I hold self-described “conservative” Catholics to a higher standard of orthodox accountability than self-described “liberal” Catholics, due to the fact that conservatives make a lot more noise about being “faithful to the Magisterium”. Liberals tend to be overt ‘pick n’ choosers’. But I would argue that both dominant ideologies in American politics are laden with pick n’ choose Catholics.

    As for the Iraq War, I can’t believe that the reports of 500,000 Iraqi children dying prematurely because of the strict sanctions on Iraq before the latest invasion didn’t impact pro-lifers more. Depriving Iraq of chlorine or other chemicals to treat water and sewage was a barbaric decision endorsed by the major Republicans and Democrats alike. The numbers of deaths in Iraq since Gulf War I is simply unbelievable- I always think of the children physically or morally destroyed by our choice for war. My pro-life blood boils over at the fact that so many pro-lifers have been cheerleading our wars and sanctions.

    I like William Cavanaugh’s opinions as expressed in a couple of pieces I read over at godspy.com. Here is an interesting quote:

    “It is one thing to argue, on just-war grounds, against the overwhelming judgment of the pope and worldwide bishops, that the recent campaign in Iraq was morally justifiable. It is another thing to argue that the pope and bishops are not qualified to make such judgments. Neoconservative Catholic commentators and others have been trying to mitigate their embarrassment over being at odds with the pope on this issue by claiming that it is not really the church’s call to make. Decisions about if and when we CAtholics should kill should be left to the president. I believe this line of thinking is dangerously wrong.” (Godspy June, 2004).

    Dr. Cavanaugh also describes a perplexed student at a campus discussion echoing the disciples’ question to Jesus: “To whom should we go? If we can’t rely on the church’s judgment in these matters, where should we form our opinions?”

    This is key- from the social doctrine of the Church, to the “Faithful Citizenship” document of the U.S. Bishops’ it is clear that on important issues that relate to the common good- like war and peace- we are duty-bound as Catholics to form our consciences properly- we must take into our soul’s contemplation even the prudential judgments of our Church’s teaching authorities- that would include most importantly- the pope, the Magisterium, HOly See, collective Bishops’ bodies, and our local bishop. We must at minimum regard the views of our Church Hierarchies. And this is where I see a breakdown of major proportions in the dominant liberal and conservative American Catholic political communities.

  • Dennis Martin

    Shaw is right as far as I can see about the basis for the Vatican/White House difference in prudential judgments–proportionality, the question of whether things would be worse off in Iraq after the overthrow than before. But precisely because that was a future contingent, no one could say with certainty whether by just war criteria going to war was just, prudent or not. Exactly how much better or how much worse things end up in Iraq would depend and still depends on the interacting free moral choices of thousands of agents.

    It was foreseeable that UN leaders with their hands in the till, German and French and Russian and Chinese with a stake in preserving Saddam and Iraq’s neighbors would do everything they could to ensure that things ended up worse. It was foreseeable that the Democrats in the US would do everything they could to sabotage the war effort for poltiical gain. And they did exactly that.

    We still don’t know the answer to the proportionality question. It will take ten years of political life in Iraq to know the answer. But one thing is clear, one can’t begin to formulate an answer based on standard media reporting of what’s happening in Iraq. One also has to read the milblogs and the New Media, not to find the Gospel Truth, but to get another side of the matter and then try to come to even a “for now” conclusion.

    In light of this, people’s judgments ought to be couched in tentative terms. But instead we get, especially from the anti-war Catholic side (both the paleo-conservative, Chestertonian, Communio-nian and the NCReporter Leftist Chic varieties of anti-war Catholics), unnuanced declarations that the Hierarchy has declared this war unjust and anyone who disagrees is a gullible victim of Neo-Con propaganda.

    We are still dealing with future contingents here. Would it really be wrong, as Catholics, simply to pray that, the war having been undertaken, a good result might yet ensue? Or have people so invested themselves in defeat and disproportionate new horror for Iraq or in unimpeachable victory (in order to be vindicated in their side of the debate) that such a modest prayerful hope is impossible?

  • TMLutas

    We owe the Pope the highest deference in religious/moral matters. We owe him as much deference on military matters as his military competence dictates. Unfortunately, we do not know from what fact base the Pope rendered his prudential judgments. Perhaps we should, and that knowledge would enable us to understand better his analysis.

    This article shows, unfortunately, a profound misunderstanding of the facts. The UN was bought and paid for and the US knew it. A President who wanted to weaken the UN would reveal its evidence, withdraw, and probably take many other countries with it, irretrievably weakening the institution. Instead, this President kept his evidence secret (and still is), tried his best to give the UN a way out without admitting its pervasive corruption, and overrode the UN when the alternative was to endanger military lives in a summer campaign.

    We generally do not conclude that you have committed a murder when someone takes a very realistic gun, points it at you and says “I’m going to kill you” leading you to take your real gun and shoot him dead, not knowing that his weapon is a fake. Saddam was engaging in a very dangerous game to counter Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program. He produced a moral certainty in both Iran and the US (as well as most of the rest of the world) that he had a functioning nuclear weapons program. This is not the final word, but we deserve better than “As we now know, there were no WMD.” from the anti-war side.

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