In the American Catholic world, George Weigel needs no introduction. Perhaps best known as the biographer of Pope John Paul II, Weigel has been a public Catholic commentator for decades. In fact, in 1982 Weigel was a contributor in the first-ever issue of Crisis Magazine (then known as Catholicism in Crisis), and since then Crisis has published almost 100 of his articles.
One subject matter of particular focus for Weigel is American foreign policy, especially in how it relates to issues of war and peace (in fact, that first Crisis article was about that topic). Over his decades of punditry, Weigel has advocated for robust American interventionism throughout the world. He has doggedly maintained that position, despite mounting evidence of its repeated failure, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now he has set his sights on Russia, where the price of failure could very well be nuclear war.
With the stakes so high, it’s important for conservative Catholics to engage in serious debate on this topic. While Weigel has done much to advance the cause of Catholicism in this country, his opinions on American foreign affairs are not above criticism and should be directly engaged. And the fact is that Weigel’s neoconservative foreign policy views are questionable at first glance, and we find they are downright dangerous when examined closely.
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Before we look at Weigel’s views on U.S. interventionism in the Russia/Ukraine conflict, let’s be clear about the role of Russia and Vladimir Putin. To argue against U.S. involvement in this crisis is not to justify or condone Putin. The Russian president, like most political leaders both today and in history, is willing to use immoral means to defend what he believes are his national interests. But evil is occurring every day around the world, often at the hands of corrupt politicians, and America’s non-response to those acts of evil are not an endorsement of them. In our fallen world we simply cannot stop evil from happening and must use prudence to decide when intervention is necessary (and when intervention won’t make matters worse).
Likewise, it cannot be denied that many innocents, particularly Ukrainian innocents, are suffering due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Because of this, some Catholics feel they must support American intervention in the region. Yet we’ve seen that increased chaos and suffering often follows American intervention, as happened after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and during the 20-year war in Afghanistan. American intervention does not automatically mean the end to suffering. It may even make the suffering worse.
And if we are always to intervene on behalf of innocents, what about Yemen? A horrific war has been going on in that Middle Eastern country since 2015, but very few Americans seem to care (and, to my knowledge, George Weigel has never once written about this crisis). Perhaps it’s because the main instigator of the conflict—Saudi Arabia—is a close American ally. Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to question someone’s concern for the innocents in Ukraine if he doesn’t seem to care about helping suffering Yemenis.
So even though one may recognize the unjust nature of Russia’ invasion of Ukraine as well as the plight of suffering Ukrainians, those two reasons alone are not enough to justify American intervention. And Weigel doesn’t stick to those two reasons alone. Instead he creates a framework on which American involvement becomes not just favorable, but required. Curiously, the framework he creates is a terribly familiar one for those who have followed his writings over the years.
When it comes to making his case for American intervention, Weigel has a pretty reliable (though aging) script. The Weigel Script includes: (1) a comparison to Nazi Germany; (2) turning foreign leaders into cartoon villians; (3) accepting at face value any and all U.S. intelligence that puts the proposed adversary in the worst light; (4) making non-falsifiable assertions about a dire future if the U.S. doesn’t intervene; and (5) ignoring any potential negative consequences of U.S. intervention.
We saw the Weigel Script play out back in 2003 when Weigel was one of the biggest backers of the United States invasion of Iraq, and we see it playing out again today as Weigel advocates for America to intervene in the Russia/Ukraine conflict.
At the end of March 2003, days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, Weigel wrote a piece titled, “The Just War Case for the War.” He likely convinced many fence-sitting Catholics back then to support the war effort, but in hindsight the article is embarrassing to read. He was wrong over and over. If it weren’t for the notoriously short memory of the news-following public, we’d be appalled that he dares to use the same arguments today.
Back in 2003, Weigel made the inevitable comparison of Iraq to Nazi Germany. He writes,
A historical analogy may help. Given the character of the Nazi regime and its extra-legal rearmament, would it not have been plausible to assert that aggression was underway when Germany militarily reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, in defiance of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations? The withdrawal of Unscom weapon inspectors from Iraq in 1998 was this generation’s 1936. Another 1938, a new Munich, is morally intolerable: the world cannot be faced with a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein and an Iraqi regime that had successfully defied all international legal and political attempts to disarm it.
It’s clear now that Iraq was not a threat to the world comparable to 1930’s Nazi Germany. Weigel used this imagery to heighten the threat and make it appear that U.S. intervention was necessary. After all, no one wanted George W. Bush to be the next Neville Chamberlain.
Weigel returns to the Nazi comparison in 2022. Right before the Russian invasion and tying into China’s potential designs on Taiwan, Weigel writes, “In the tyrants’ bid for global hegemony, Ukraine and Taiwan are in the role played by Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s: If they fall to the tyrant-regimes, others will follow.”
The language is clear: to refuse to intervene in the Russia/Ukraine conflict would be equivalent to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler. Yet this wasn’t true in 2003, so perhaps the comparison isn’t apt in 2022? And perhaps it’s rarely true? After all, Adolf Hitler’s Germany was a unique situation in world history. Few conflicts will ever fit that comparison, and definitely not as many as Weigel tries to shoehorn in.
In 2003, Weigel used emotionally-driven language to characterize Saddam Hussein as the epitome of evil, painting a picture in which the very existence of Hussein spelled certain doom for the entire world. He used phrases like “aggressive fascist ideology” and “grotesque forms of torture” and accused Hussein of working “feverishly to obtain nuclear weapons” and having “longstanding links to terrorist organizations.” To be sure, Hussein was no boy scout, but in hindsight we know he was never the global threat that Weigel and others made him out to be.
Today Weigel uses similar emotionally-driven language to present Vladimir Putin as the new epitome of evil with whom one cannot reason or negotiate. Weigel describes him as an “old KGB apparatchik,” a lying tyrant who rules a “kleptocratic regime.” As I noted before, it’s not that Putin isn’t using immoral means to advance his goals; the problem is that Weigel wants to create a cartoon villain so evil that any suggestion of trying to negotiate for peace comes across as Neville Chamberlain, Part II (or perhaps Part XXVII considering how often Weigel has used this analogy).
The third step in the Weigel Script is to support without question any intelligence the United States asserts as true. In 2003 that meant the claim that Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Weigel assumed the truth of this claim, and it was a centerpiece of his argument that America must invade in order to prevent Iraq’s use of them. Yet today we know that claim was false. Iraq did not have WMD’s.
In spite of this history Weigel is still content to pass along any U.S. intelligence that puts our proposed adversary—in this case, Russia—in the worst light. For example, Weigel immediately accepted the accusations of genocide at Bucha to further bolster his case for action against Russia. While it’s easy in hindsight to know that American intelligence claims about WMD’s were false, any claims made today about Russia cannot be verified or refuted at this point: the fog of war prevents coming to definitive conclusions. Yet the history of U.S. intelligence should at least give us pause before accepting its claims at face value. Accusations of genocide at Bucha and other war crimes must be thoroughly and impartially investigated before they are used to justify intervention.
The next step in the Weigel Script is to present a dire future if America doesn’t intervene internationally. In 2003, Weigel made non-falsifiable assertions about a future in which the U.S. didn’t intervene in Iraq. He argued,
The world cannot be faced with a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein and an Iraqi regime that had successfully defied all international legal and political attempts to disarm it…What should not [be] in dispute is that the gravest damage would be done to the cause of world order and international law if Saddam Hussein were permitted to defy demands for his regime’s disarmament…[T]he appeasement of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime was, in my judgement, both morally loathsome and a profound threat to peace.
In other words: we needed to be afraid, very afraid, that at any moment Iraq could rain down nukes on every major American city. We couldn’t wait for an attack, because our entire world might be obliterated by Saddam’s nukes in the blink of an eye. Such an argument is impossible to counter, because it can neither be proven nor disproven. Sure, something horrible could happen in the future, but we don’t go to war—at least a just war—based on the fears of fevered imaginations. A just war requires provable and imminent threats to national security.
Yet Weigel returns to this theme when writing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He paints a dire future if the United States doesn’t intervene decisively. When asked why Russia’s invasion poses a major threat to global order and stability, Weigel responds, “If the world acquiesces in Putin’s aggression, the world will become a free-fire zone in which aggressors have the initiative and the forces of peace and freedom are constantly on the defensive. That is not a world that any of us should wish to live in.”
One can condemn Russia’s invasion while still recognizing that such predictions are so over-the-top as to be ludicrous. But according to Weigel, we again must be afraid, very, very afraid.
While the Weigel Script paints a dire future indeed when the United States doesn’t intervene, it also brushes off any possible negative consequences if it does. In 2003, Weigel simply ignored the possibility that a U.S. invasion could have any significant repercussions. A world without Saddam Hussein in power was such an obvious good that nothing else mattered (after all, he was the next Hitler, right?). Weigel blandly asserted, “Scholars and analysts with entirely respectable track records have argued that these things [possible chaos in response to an invasion] will not happen.” He also wrote that U.S. intervention would lead to “the emergence of a new, free and stable Iraq.”
In hindsight, it’s hard not to be frustrated by the refusal to acknowledge possible blowback to a U.S. invasion, considering the history of such interventions. And just ask the displaced Iraqi Christians about the negative consequences of the 2003 invasion. They will not paint as rosy a picture as Weigel tried to create.
Today the potential for disastrous results of a U.S. intervention are even greater. While the U.S. invasion of Iraq further destabilized the Middle East and caused untold suffering to many Iraqis, that’s nothing compared to what could—and likely would—go wrong if the U.S. takes the belligerent stance against Russia that Weigel advocates.
Back in 2003 Weigel pushed the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but Russia actually does own the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world today. One misunderstanding, one mistake, in a U.S.-Russia hot war could literally mean the end of the world as we know it. Pushing for peace and not a chest-thumping escalation of conflict is the only reasonable option here.
Ultimately, in 2003 and now in 2022, the Weigel Script gives a cartoon version of reality in order to justify American intervention. The United States are the Avengers defending the world against a Thanos-like threat. With this logic, how can anyone not support the good guys against the bad guys?
But of course the real world is not so simplistic. Iraq did not have WMD’s; it was not involved in 9/11; and although Hussein was a terrible dictator, Iraq posed no national security threat to the United States. Further, our invasion and attempted nation-building in Iraq turned out to be a disaster and highly costly, in casualties, resources, and displaced lives.
Today’s world is likewise complex. It’s not that everything Weigel says about Russia is wrong; when a cartoon artist creates a caricature, there’s truth in it. Here though the caricature—presenting some features while ignoring others—is dangerous. Unproven assertions are presented as facts, and nations or individuals are demonized or lionized to push the narrative. This beats the war drums. It disallows rational discourse and a discussion of all issues, such as the role of U.S./NATO involvement leading to his crisis, problems internal to Ukraine, and the possible negative consequences of American involvement.
In the Russia/Ukraine conflict, the American role should be for peace, not for encouraging every Ukrainian to fight to the death while adding U.S. soldiers to the death toll. Yes, such a peace likely won’t mean the complete defeat of Vladimir Putin, but we don’t live in a world where bad guys are always humiliated.
Conservative Catholics need to learn from the mistakes of the past 30 years and come to reject the neoconservative foreign policy George Weigel advocates—a policy that unites American politicians from Lindsey Graham to Hillary Clinton, from Mitch McConnell to Chuck Schumer. Those policies have brought only increased pain and suffering to the world, not peace and freedom. We’ve seen this pain and suffering in Iraq and we’ve seen it in Afghanistan. If the U.S. doesn’t work for peace in Ukraine, even if it means negotiating with Vladimir Putin, then we could see pain and suffering on a much more massive scale throughout the world.
While Catholics can and should support the idea of a just war, it should not be misused to justify American interventionism in foreign conflicts. We should push for a negotiated peace that brings an end to those conflicts, not actions that only lead to their conflagration.
One curiosity in the Weigel Script is that it completely ignores the views of Pope John Paul II. In 2003 the Polish pontiff strongly opposed America’s invasion of Iraq, yet Weigel never mentioned that opposition. Weigel is best known for his hagiographical 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in which he presented the Polish pontiff as the world’s moral leader and one of the greatest popes in history. If Weigel really believed this, perhaps he should have at least mentioned that his views on the moral justness of the U.S. invasion—and the essential pieces of the Weigel Script itself—were diametrically opposed by John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II once said, “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity…War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations…war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”
I hope and pray that the late pontiff’s biographer will listen to those wise words, recognize his past mistakes, and rewrite the Weigel Script to silence the drumbeats of war today.
[Photo Credit: Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC)]