From the Publisher: “Peace in Our Time”

The January 15 deadline for Saddam Hussein’s retreat from Kuwait will soon arrive. Having murdered, raped, and plundered Kuwait’s cities, leaving nothing of value untouched, and having carted off to Iraq every precious thing down to faucets and silverware, will not Saddam Hussein simply depart and declare victory? Can he not now boast: “I came, I saw, I conquered — and I spat in the face of the United Nations”?

Should all this come about, the Catholic bishops of the United States, led by Archbishops Mahony and Pilarczyk, will not now be able to escape moral blame. And there is likely to be much moral blame. For at a critical moment in the massive effort by President Bush and the United Nations to convince him that he was threatened by war, the bishops inspired a perception for Saddam Hussein to savor with pleasure: CATHOLIC BISHOPS OPPOSE IRAQ WAR.

To be sure, the two letters do achieve good things. Most important, the bishops chose solid conservative ground, the ground of tradition, the “just war” argument. This is an important achievement, given the recent fevers of the extreme left. Indeed, the crisis in Iraq has unmasked the religious left, which used to claim that its motivation was not pro-Soviet, but only anti-anticommunist. But now that Communism is irrelevant, the left’s inmost passion stands revealed as plain anti-Americanism — it does not oppose all uses of force in the world, only American force. Pax Christi bent over backwards to excuse Iraq’s aggression, for example, while treating the U.S. defense of Saudi Arabia scathingly. The bishops should be praised for resisting such extremists.

It is in the bishops’ favor, too, that many other distinguished Americans also declared in favor of sanctions rather than military action. Neither these others nor the bishops could discern, of course, the full implications of their choice. No one had any way of knowing which choice would produce more evil or good. Facing this imminent choice, most thoughtful persons are even divided in their own minds, seeing merit (and danger) in both sets of arguments. For this precise reason, however, one wishes that the bishops had emphasized the need for prudential reasoning by all, rather than one particular conclusion, which was necessarily of ambiguous moral standing. This moral ambiguity is no accident; it inheres often in contingent choices. Consider four fateful possibilities.

Since he is no fool, the Iraqi dictator no doubt expected Jesse Jackson, Ramsey Clark, Todd Gitlin, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Ellsberg, and all the other veterans of the “peace movement” to rise up and divide the American public. No doubt, alas, he also expected the National Council of Churches and others to join the anti-military chorus. Karen Elliott House put it succinctly: Vietnam proved that America could not win a war, and Iraq will prove that America won’t even try.

Moral blame will fall heavily on those who tried to appease Saddam Hussein if sanctions do not work, secondly, because any escape from punishment for the rape of Kuwait will encourage his cruelty. He will be seen to have faced down the entire world alone. Esteem for him will rise mightily. Millions will switch sides to seek his favor, and other millions will praise his strategic brilliance and strength of will. His early calculations about American sentimentality will become legendary. His agents even now incite hatred against those Arab regimes that stood with the Americans, particularly the Saudis (who invited infidels to encamp on the sacred land of Mecca), the Egyptians, and the Jordanians.

Saddam Hussein’s itch to destroy Israel is, third, likely to become an active, all-consuming passion. His capacities for chemical warfare have been twice demonstrated, against the Kurds and the Iranians. The world has yet to see how he will use his rapidly growing capacities for nuclear and chemical warfare. Saddam Hussein has already begun to fancy himself the new Saladin, the new Nebuchadnezzar called to sack and subdue Jerusalem, and to carry Jews home in captivity. Will other Arab powers such as Iran and Syria try to “check and balance” him, or to join him, in this ambition?

Fourth, appeasing Saddam Hussein in 1990 may one day come to seem eerily similar to having coddled Adolf Hitler in 1936 when, young and weak and seemingly insecure, he invaded the Rhineland. By then Hitler had murdered far fewer people than Saddam Hussein already has. Yet the name of Neville Chamberlain, who claimed to speak for peace, has come to live in infamy, since had Hitler been stopped in 1936 when he was weak, then the horror that followed might have been prevented. Our bishops will not escape moral responsibility simply because they spoke in the name of peace. There is a form of peace that is unjust and immoral, and subject to universal moral condemnation.

Bishops, of course, are very busy men. They don’t have time to follow every bulletin about Iraq. They have neither the power of the purse nor the power of declaring war, conferred by democratic election, and they do not bear the dreadful responsibility for protecting the common good that weighed on Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later presidents. Indeed it is a fair assumption that neither Archbishop Mahony nor Archbishop Pilarczyk drafted the letters they sent; it would be normal practice to ask an expert to do that. It is too bad, however, that Archbishop Mahony, busy as he is, did not bluepencil the following two sentences:

I share these reflections with you, not to offer a definitive judgment but to suggest some essential values and raise some key questions which must be considered…. We specifically seek to draw attention to the ethical dimensions of these choices so that they are not ignored or neglected in a focus on simply military and geopolitical considerations. [Emphasis added.]

Ethical choices “ignored or neglected”? When Catholics get to heaven, they may be surprised to learn how many non-Catholics are already there — or so runs an old joke. Having witnessed the public debate since August 2, how can the bishops possibly accuse others of focusing simply on “military and geopolitical considerations,” and of ignoring or neglecting “ethical dimensions”? What else but ethics have opinion leaders been arguing over? Hardly anyone has laid out the military situation. Analyses of the military obstacles, weapons available, actual deployments, and tactical options are very difficult to come by, despite the fact that such considerations are crucial to just war reasoning. (War in the desert can be very short — and relatively unbloody — if the enemy’s water trucks are interdicted.) Besides, if the bishops have not the patience to make a “definitive judgment,” but just to toss off a few pointers, might it not have been better to do so privately?

Moreover, the bishops do not calculate the harmful consequences of their two public recommendations. First, they urge “dialogue.” Would they have urged Chamberlain to “dialogue” with the young Adolf Hitler? What is there to negotiate about with Saddam Hussein, after he has violated international law and committed a skein of criminal acts? Worse still, the bishops suggest that certain regional “deep-seated and long-standing problems … have contributed to the current situation.” Like what? What linkage — what possible excuses — are they suggesting?

Second, the bishops recommend sanctions lest a resort to war “undermine the international solidarity against Iraq.” But the same argument tells against sanctions; sanctions, too, might “undermine international solidarity.” For the bishops admit that the long course of sanctions will be “difficult, complex, and slow.” They insist that a major criticism of “just war” logic is a “sufficient prospect of success.” But what “prospect of success” do sanctions have? Which is likelier to unravel over long and tedious months, Saddam’s obdurate will to fight or the fragile international coalition? Or even the will of the people of the United States? Imagine our soldiers baking in the sand for 18 months. What about their morale? The bishops offer no evidence that sanctions will succeed.

We learn happily from these two letters that the bishops are not pacifists. But they do oppose even a limited war in Iraq to punish the aggressor, as justice demands. And why do they oppose a limited war? Archbishop Mahony’s answer is “the price to be paid given the hostile physical environment, the fragility of the anti-Iraq alliance and the volatility of regional and domestic political support.” Yet if ever there were a land denuded of population and manifestly suitable to limited war, it is the virtually empty and already devastated Kuwait. His other reasons undercut sanctions, too.

Archbishop Pilarczyk’s letter is more careful than Archbishop Mahony’s — more sympathetic to the burdens borne by President Bush, and more tentative. Archbishop Pilarczyk urges “careful consideration of the moral and human consequences of the use of force.” But he fails to give the same consideration to the consequences of not using force. And he, too, hands Saddam Hussein a propaganda bonanza by calling for “political solutions to the deep-seated problems in the Middle East which have contributed to this crisis.” The Archbishop should know how Saddam Hussein will interpret this: He will blame Israel. There were no “deep-seated” problems that led Sa dam Hussein to gas the Kurds in Iraq or to invade Iran or to rape Kuwait. Those he has so far attacked are his Arab brothers. Iraq’s problems are no more “deep-seated” than Saddam Hussein’s megalomania.

Do our bishops, in sum, really think that a Saddam Hussein victorious in Kuwait in 1991 is going to become a pussycat in 1992, 1993, and 1994? How can they possibly be so sure that sanctions will work, keeping civilian casual-ties, civil turmoil, and international anarchy at a minimum from now through 1999?

No one expects our bishops to be generals. But they are properly expected to consider all sides of a complicated issue, when they propose to speak for the long Catholic tradition of practical wisdom. In these two letters, however, they leapt to a conclusion with which it is easy to sympathize, but without calculating its potential costs. Even should their advice be followed, and by some miracle succeed, they will have set a bad precedent, by offering a one- sided argument (for sanctions) without addressing its possible disastrous results, and without fully considering its alternative (limited war) in concrete form. To be sure, I myself have neither made a case for military action nor laid out a menu of such actions nor listed the dangers which each such choice awakens. I wish rather to lay bare the moral ambiguity of sanctions, and to suggest the larger moral framework necessary for discussing military options.

In matters beyond their daily engagement, from war to economics, our bishops have been less stellar than in matters closer to their hearts. The reason they fall short is always the same. Their materials come from a small in- group, whose main reference point is the far left, which bravely they hold off. One will never find the center by holding off extremists. One will never “hit the mark” by neglecting half the factors in the argument.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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