Father Richard Neuhaus on the Iraqi Crisis

Editor in Chief of First Things Points to Disarmament as a Just Cause

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NEW YORK, MARCH 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Would the just war principles of Catholic doctrine allow for military action against Iraq?

As part of its ongoing coverage of the arguments surrounding the Mideast crisis, ZENIT asked Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

ZENIT: On whether there is a just cause for an attack against Iraq, many observers question if there is enough evidence of a direct connection between Baghdad and the Sept. 11 attacks. Others doubt that there is clear evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature by Iraq against other countries. What do you think?

Father Neuhaus: First it must be said that — although it appears that military action against Iraq may be only a matter of days or weeks away — faithful Catholics are joined with the Holy Father in fervent prayer that war may yet be avoided.

As he has said, war represents a defeat of the right ordering of peace — what St. Augustine called «tranquillitas ordinis»; in history nothing is inevitable; and with God all things are possible.

As St. Thomas Aquinas and other teachers of the just war tradition make clear, war may sometimes be a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent. The just cause in this case is the disarmament of Iraq, a cause consistently affirmed by the Holy Father and reinforced by 17 resolutions of the Security Council.

Whether that cause can be vindicated without resort to military force, and whether it would be wiser to wait and see what Iraq might do over a period of months or years, are matters of prudential judgment beyond the competence of religious authority.

In just war doctrine, the Church sets forth the principles which it is the responsibility of government leaders to apply to specific cases — see Catechism No. 2309.

Saddam Hussein has for 11 years successfully defied international authority. He has used and, it appears, presently possesses and is set upon further developing weapons of mass destruction, and he has publicly stated his support for the Sept. 11 attack and other terrorist actions.

In the judgment of the U.S. and many other countries, he poses a grave and imminent threat to America, world peace and the lives of innumerable innocents. If that judgment is correct, the use of military force to remove that threat, in the absence of plausible alternatives, is both justified and necessary.

Heads of government who are convinced of the correctness of that judgment would be criminally negligent and in violation of their solemn oath to protect their people if they did not act to remove such a threat.

As a theologian and moralist, I have no special competence to assess the threat posed by Iraq. On the basis of available evidence and my considered confidence in those responsible for making the pertinent decisions, I am inclined to believe and I earnestly pray that they will do the right thing.

Q: Strong objections have been raised to the concept of preventive or pre-emptive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Is the use of pre-emptive force justified according to just war principles?

Father Neuhaus: Frequent reference to preventive or pre-emptive use of military force, and even to «wars of choice,» have only confused the present discussion.

War, if it is just, is not an option chosen but a duty imposed. In the present circumstance, military action against Iraq by a coalition of the willing is in response to Iraq’s aggression; first against Kuwait, then in defiance of the terms of surrender demanding its disarmament, then in support of, if not direct participation in, acts of terrorism.

This is joined to its brutal aggression against its own citizens, and its possession of weapons of mass destruction which it can use or permit others to use for further aggression.

To wait until the worst happens is to wait too long, and leaders guilty of such negligence would rightly be held morally accountable.

In the Catholic tradition there is, in fact, a considerable literature relevant to these questions. Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez, for example, all wrote on prudential action in the face of aggressive threats. The absence of reference to such recognized authorities in the current discussion among Catholics is striking.

Q: Many voices within and outside the Church ask that the United States not go ahead with an attack without specific U.N. authorization. Is U.N. approval just a prudential course of action, which could in the last resort be bypassed? Or is it obligatory, given the provisions of the U.N. charter and the growing importance of international institutions?

Father Neuhaus: Resolution 1441 of the Security Council, unanimously approved last November, demands that Iraq immediately disarm or face the consequences. Nobody claims that Iraq has complied, and proposals for «extended timelines» and the like appear to invite no more than a repeat of the defiance of the past 11 years.

No further U.N. «authorization» is required. The larger and more interesting question is posed by the frequently heard assertion that the U.N. is the locus of legitimate authority in international affairs. That is asserted but it has not been argued, certainly not in terms of Catholic doctrine regarding legitimate authority.

In view of the U.N.’s frequent hostility to the Church on family policy, population, the sacredness of human life, and related matters, some Catholic leaders may come to regret their exaggerated and, I believe, ill-considered statements about the moral authority of the U.N.

Moreover, if the U.N. is not prepared to support the enforcement of its own resolutions — resolutions which it cannot itself enforce — it is likely to go the way of the old League of Nations.

The coalition led by the U.S. intends to act in support of the U.N. If a minority on the Security Council rejects that support, the credibility and future usefulness of the U.N. will be gravely undermined.

There is a necessary connection between power and moral responsibility. Every nation acts and should act in its own interest, in the hope that interests can be coordinated to serve the common good. The U.N. has sometimes been useful toward that end. Many would understandably regret its self-inflicted diminishment or demise.

But in its absence I expect that new institutions more attuned to the nexus of power and responsibility would emerge in order to coordinate national interests in the service of peace, never forgetting that peace as «tranquillitas ordinis» will always be sadly deficient short of Our Lord’s return in glory.

Q: On the question of proportionality, many fear that an attack could destabilize the Middle East and cause even greater hostility among Muslims. Others point to the high cost that civilians might pay, due to the precarious nature of life in Iraq. Is the United States giving sufficient weight to these dangers?

Father Neuhaus: It is striking that the Bush administration has addressed the Iraq crisis with very specific reference to Catholic just war doctrine, including proportionality.

Widespread statements in parts of Europe about American inexperience and «cowboy» impetuosity would be insulting were they not so adolescent. They are especially unbecoming when made by distinguished prelates associated with the Holy See.

To take but the last 100 years, the record of the U.S. in combating tyranny, defending freedom, providing humanitarian aid, motoring economic development, and securing a modicum of world order compares very favorably with that of, for instance, Germany, France, Russia, or Italy.

You ask about possible consequences of military action, including Muslim reaction and civilian casualties. The simple answer
is that such consequences are unknowable and therefore unknown, except to God.

I know that possible consequences have been considered, day and night for many months, by competent parties. I know there is a determination to minimize damage to innocents, and a reasoned expectation that successful action will weaken Islamist enemies of civilization and strengthen the Muslim forces of decency and freedom. Nobody can know for sure what will happen.

Religious leaders should bring more to the public discussion than their fears. Nervous hand-wringing is not a moral argument.

At this point, we should, with the Holy Father, be on our knees in prayer that Iraq will disarm without military action. If war comes, we must pray that a just cause prevails — quickly, with minimal damage to innocents, and with a long-term determination to help the Iraqi people then freed from a brutal tyranny.

The Church cannot bless this military action as though it were a Christian crusade. After the war, if there is to be a war, the Church, and the Holy Father in particular, will be indispensable as a dialogue partner in moving Islam away from the most ominously destructive possibilities of a «clash of civilizations.»

In sum: Military action in order to disarm Iraq can be morally justified in terms of just war doctrine. Whether, in the retrospect of history, it will be viewed as a prudent course of action, nobody can know. If such action is undertaken, however, it seems to me that we have no moral alternative to praying that a just cause will prevail justly.

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