The Iraq Debate: Russell Shaw’s First Response


December 13, 2007

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.

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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.

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