Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a March 19 statement regarding U.S. plans to attack Iraq, “While we have warned of the potential moral dangers of embarking on this war, we have also been clear that there are no easy answers.” He added, “War has serious consequences, so could the failure to act. We understand and respect the difficult moral choices that must be made by our President and others who bear the responsibility of making these grave decisions involving our nation’s and the world’s security.”
President George W. Bush, with Congress’s blessing, made a moral decision to use force as a last resort to topple Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was a success. In only weeks, the United States, with the support of Great Britain, Australia, Spain, and a coalition of 65 nations, destroyed a vicious Iraqi regime. No longer are the Iraqi people oppressed and tortured by a brutal dictator. No longer does Saddam Hussein threaten the United States and its allies in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Yet the Church hierarchy raised doubts that the war met just-war standards. In my opinion, as a Catholic and a senator who joined the majority in Congress in approving the Iraq war resolution, President Bush adhered to the four principles of the Catholic just-war doctrine: the damage inflicted by the aggressor was lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it were shown to be impractical or ineffective; there were serious prospects of success; and the war did not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The just-war doctrine is a theory, and reasonable people can disagree in applying it, but political, not religious, leaders are responsible for deciding whether war is justified. The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the right President Bush exercised to defend the United States against the Iraqi dictator’s aggression: “As long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed?’
President Bush alone was able to fully analyze the threat and exercise what the doctrine calls “prudential judgment” based on top-secret daily intelligence briefings and advice from his national-security team. Had the president acted without a resolution of Congress authorizing use of force, his moral authority could be questioned. But he acted not only with the congressional resolution of support but also with backing from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441.
Was Saddam Hussein a lasting, grave threat to the world? It’s increasingly clear he was. He brutalized his own people and used weapons of mass destruction to commit atrocities both on Iraqis and on neighboring Iran. Now that the war is over, we’re finding the mass graves and disfigured survivors of hideous torture to prove it. Before the war, we knew he had used chemical weapons, and intelligence showed that he was feverishly working to reemploy weapons of mass destruction contrary to the post—Gulf War agreement he signed. No one can ignore Hussein’s atrocities or the mounting evidence of his cooperation with terrorists.
Under the just-war theory, a preemptive attack is problematic, but it is a legitimate argument that Hussein already had declared war on the international community. As Catholic theologian George Weigel noted, “When a vicious regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an ‘aggression under way.'”
There’s no doubt that the war was a last resort. U.S. troops destroyed Hussein’s evil and lawless regime following the failure of every peaceful means imaginable, including twelve years of international economic sanctions, 17 UN resolutions, and finally the amassing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the region. President Bush knew when he decided to use force that Hussein would never end his aggression unless we ended his regime.
To his credit, the president made every effort first to work through the UN, but in the end, the UN failed to provide the moral leadership to sanction a war that followed from its own resolution (demanding that Iraq cooperate or face the use of force). Once it was clear that the Security Council lacked the resolve to follow through on its ultimatum, the United States built an international coalition of its own and acted on behalf of the international community.
The moral way in which our troops fought the war provides further evidence that the war in Iraq was just. U.S. troops acted courageously and compassionately. The military fought the war discriminately, with a proportional, targeted use of force that limited casualties. The Iraqi people welcomed our soldiers on the streets of Baghdad as their liberators and cheered as the statue of Hussein came crashing down. Now that the war is over, the United States is providing humanitarian and technical assistance to help the Iraqis rebuild, recover economically, and create a democratic government.
Regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Hussein had twelve years to invent new and better ways to hide them from the UN weapons inspectors, and uncovering them will take some time. Already, the United States has found two Iraqi mobile labs that intelligence officials confirm could have no other plausible use than bioweapons production. This discovery confirms intelligence that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the UN before the war.
The mission in Iraq is far from over. The United States continues to search for weapons, key Iraqi officials, and their terrorist allies, while helping the Iraqi people rebuild their society. But President Bush can claim a just war in Iraq by virtue of the grave threat he removed and the way in which he removed it. As the president said on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln: “We have removed an ally of al Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because that regime is no more.”