The Iraq Debate: Russell Shaw’s First Response

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

I take no pleasure disagreeing with an admirable individual like Bob Reilly over the merits of a cause to which he’s as passionately committed as he is to the war in Iraq. Disagree I must, however, while noting that his argument is a typical exercise in rationalizing an irrational and immoral blunder. Two points are central to it: the need to save face, lest America be humiliated by a pipsqueak tyrant, Saddam Hussein; and the need to ensure that Saddam wouldn’t threaten U.S. vital interests at some undefined point in the future.
Saving face is too trivial an objective to justify a devastating attack by the United States on a third-rate power at the cost of many thousands of lives. Great powers don’t enhance their standing this way, and American standing in the eyes of friends or foes alike has suffered from this war.
As for preventing Saddam from doing bad things later that he wasn’t doing at the time, that smacks of the sort of imaginative scenario-writing that moves many people (unwisely, I’d say) to rule out preventive war entirely. Five hundred elderly sarin canisters were scarcely the mortal threat the administration spoke of before the war, when warnings centered on nuclear and biological weapons supposedly already in Saddam Hussein’s hands, or soon to be there.
Did Saddam’s violations of the agreement ending the first Gulf War in 1991 and of subsequent UN resolutions give America a right to attack Iraq in 2003? The mere suggestion is an extravagance of legalism. The notion that the United States acted unilaterally in defense of the international order and in vindication of the UN turns reality upside down. It would come as a surprise not only to the UN but to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who castigated America for flouting the international organization by unilaterally resorting to war.
That Saddam grievously abused the Iraqi people — some of them, anyway — there can be no doubt. The abuse predated the 2003 war by many years, with some of the worst coming immediately after the Gulf War of 2001. Yet the United States did nothing then to halt it, though it easily might have. That strongly suggests that rhetoric now about the need to rescue Iraqis from their oppressor is a humanitarian fig leaf intended to confer respectability on a war fought for other reasons.
It’s easy to understand why Reilly is impressed by support voiced for the American intervention by the Chaldean Patriarch and other church leaders. Significantly, though, this support came early in the postwar era, when things still looked fairly rosy. Today it should be weighed against the experience of someone like Rev. Basel Yaldo, a Chaldean priest kidnapped in September of last year, beaten ferociously, and then released with instructions to tell Patriarch Delly that Christians had better get out of Iraq. Thousands, including Father Yaldo, have done exactly that (the priest works in a parish in Michigan today), and Iraqi Christians are a dwindling presence in their homeland.
Before the war these people were protected and lived stable lives. And now? “They have a lot of bad memories, they are penniless, their houses have been taken over. . . . It is a real ethnic cleansing.” Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, who was in Rome last month to see Patriarch Delly become a cardinal, said this to the Catholic News Service. Is this what rescuing people from an oppressor is all about?

Russell Shaw


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.

  • Ender

    Wikipedia lists 39 countries other than the US who have or had troops in Iraq (Including two from Iceland). There is no question that the overwhelming number of combat troops were from the US but clearly “unilateral” doesn’t adequately describe the situation.

    If unilateral action (by a 40 country coalition) is unacceptable then one can only wonder what degree of international involvement is necessary before action can be taken without a specific UN mandate. It is hard to avoid concluding that the objection is not so much to unilateralism as it is to any action taken without the permission of the UN.

  • TMLutas

    There’s no need to speculate about future acts, Saddam was providing a roadmap on how to corrupt and render the UN useless by the strategic application of bribes. This was a threat to the entire international system and one that would have destroyed the UN had it been made public. The Bush administration is still covering for the UN, only revealing the bare minimum it has to. Instead, it’s opting for a campaign of internal reforms.

    Saddam’s mockery of the cease-fire terms, his post 1991 WMD programs, his later WMD con game, all these did grave evil to the international system and real damage to US interests. These and other legitimate causes of war have only been confirmed post war.

    It is wishful thinking that the US could have stopped internal repression in Iraq short of invasion and regime change. Its inability is enshrined in the very nature of the westphalian system that is the foundation of the modern international diplomatic system. Westphalianism is the principle that ended the wars of religion in Europe and have reduced the scourge of war far below past eras. We tinker with it at our peril and we should never do so lightly. It is almost a guarantee of increased future war and increased death tolls. A responsible tinkering would lay out, exactly, how one can sustainably modify westphalian non-interference without leading to increased military adventurism of all types. That’s not what I see here. Did space limitations prevent a more mature reflection on this difficult problem. It would be charitable to think so but the reference seems clumsily done if space is the problem.

  • Oliver McCarthy

    America her allies went to war against Saddam Hussein because he violated international law and invaded Kuwait. Saddam then violated the terms of the ceasefire in 1991 by refusing to disarm publicly, and so American and British forces bilaterally (not unilaterally!) deposed him in 2003, in support of UNSCR 1441.

    These are the facts. You may not like them. You may prefer Saddam to the corrupt and decadent West. (John Paul II certainly did.) But there’s no point in pretending that somehow Saddam was in the right and we were in the wrong. It just won’t wash.

  • David

    It is sad to see people defend this war with the same propaganda that got us into it! We actually found that Saddam had disarmed as was required by the UN! Our own inspectors were pretty sure of this in the mid-nineties. The USA was not interested in disarming Saddam, it wanted him removed. When the assasination attempts, coup d’etats, brutal sanctions, etc. didn’t work, war was the answer. The USA was not interested in Saddam cooperating with the UN! If international law and UN resolutions are so sacred why does the USA give such unqualified support to Israel? They hold the record for violating UN resolutions!The Secretary-General of the UN admitted publicly that invasion of Iraq by the USA was illegal! The defenders of this war are misinformed on the facts. I suggest they read some of the books by Scott Ritter (a US weapons inspector) on how the USA perverted the inspection process in order to remove Saddam from power.

  • Bear

    I fail understand the relevance of the argument that the Christians, who were ostensibly “protected” under Saddam, are now under attack.

    (1) Are we, as Christians, arguing that only the safety of our co-religionists matters, and we don’t mind if a tyranny that protects us persecutes others?

    (2) And surely it must be noted that the attacks on the Christians, and other innocent civilians, in Iraq are being committed by the jihadists, not by the Americans. The “chaos” in Iraq is not the result of the American invasion, it is the result of the terrorist invasion. If a shopowner calls for help because he is being robbed, and the police respond, and violence ensues because the bad guys naturally don’t want to be caught, are we to blame the police?