The Iraq Debate: The War Was Unjust

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

Sometime in late 2002 I composed a sort of mantra that I then took to repeating to family and friends: “I watched the first Gulf War in 1991 on TV in a hotel room in Rome, and it looks like I’m going to watch the next one the same way.” Sure enough, on March 21, 2003, with shock and awe underway in Iraq, I boarded a plane at Dulles and flew off to Rome for a previously scheduled meeting, unrelated to Iraq, at the Vatican.

During the next week I spent many hours following the war via CNN, the BBC, and, now and then, via the starker, grimmer images available without sound from Al-Jazeera. Instead of a hotel, though, I was in the Domus Sanctae Marthae — St. Martha’s House — the Vatican guesthouse a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Basilica. I can report that it’s disorienting to the point of being hallucinatory to watch the mayhem of warfare with the greatest shrine in Christendom looming as a backdrop in your window.

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And, as the hours passed, I became aware of something even odder than that — something happening not on the TV screen but in me. A televised war can be pretty dull. Much television time was given over to briefings by military people and news conferences by civilian officials and politicians. Tedious stuff. Even the scenes of action — shooting, explosions — grew stale as the networks showed the same footage over and over again. I found myself thinking, “Come on — let’s have some action! A little excitement, please! Let’s see something blow up!”

The war had become entertainment for me. When it didn’t entertain, I felt cheated. Does this suggest a new just war criterion? It would fit under the heading of jus in bello — moral norms governing the conduct of war — and it might go like this: Do not turn the killing of human beings into entertainment for jaded television viewers.

Days before the war began, I expressed my views in, among other places, an interview with the Catholic Internet news agency Zenit. It ran a week before the fighting started, but the war went ahead despite me just the same. To a question about why the White House and the Vatican disagreed, I said this:

Leaving aside rhetoric and name-calling — and there has been plenty of both in this debate — the main reason for the difference concerns differing prudential judgments. President Bush and his people believe the consequences of not going to war — especially the risk of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction ending up in the hands of terrorists — would significantly outweigh the bad consequences. The Holy Father and his people clearly believe that whatever good might come from overthrowing Saddam Hussein would not be proportionate to the bad results, such as provoking more terrorism, adding fuel to the burgeoning Christian-Muslim conflict already being played out in other areas of the world, and causing long-term damage to the United Nations and the international common good. For the most part, I think the Vatican and the White House share the same moral principles, but they disagree about the likely outcomes of various courses of action.

On the whole, I believe the Vatican’s view is the correct one.

Four-and-a-half years later, I think that holds up pretty well. Except for that bit about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration consciously chose to make them the centerpiece of its public case for going to war. As we now know, there were no WMD.

I say this as someone who, contrary to the position of just war traditionalism, accepts the moral legitimacy of preventive war in some circumstances. Morality doesn’t require waiting until the mushroom clouds rise over New York and Los Angeles. But the legitimacy of preventive war demands the existence of a real, present threat requiring the use of force to defuse it. Here, as we now know, the American government failed egregiously. Thousands of unnecessary, unjustified deaths are the result.

Writing before the car bombings and assassinations had begun, and al-Qaeda in Iraq had emerged on the scene, and events in Iran showed that the American government was worrying about the wrong country all along, I said my position on the Iraq war could be reduced to three propositions:

First, UN weapons inspections in Iraq had been resumed and seemed to be getting some results; it was premature, to say the least, to cut that process short by going to war.

Need I say that again now? There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What Saddam Hussein might perhaps have done at some point in the future was merely conjectural and not a morally serious argument for war.

Second, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, regime change is not an appropriate purpose of war.

Saddam was a vicious tyrant, but there have always been vicious tyrants in this unhappy world. If the experience in Iraq teaches nothing else, it shows that taking out vicious tyrants can itself be wrong if its results are sufficiently destabilizing. It is easy to forget — and shouldn’t be forgotten — that the American liberation of Iraq quickly and disastrously became the American military occupation of Iraq. Up to this time, moreover, the chief beneficiaries of the Iraq war have been the ferociously anti-American fundamentalists in Tehran.

Third, creating a democratic Iraq by force is a will-o’-the-wisp that the United States has no business pursuing.

By now, President Bush and his associates have long since ceased talking about making Baghdad a Mideast City on the Hill. A more or less stable Iraq, with no more than a tolerable level of internal violence plus a functioning government that holds elections now and then, is the highest aspiration of U.S. policy today. By no means is it certain the Iraqis will manage that much.

The point of all this, needless to say, is that the Iraq war was an unjust war at the time it was fought. How to achieve responsible disengagement now, after all that has happened, is a different question not here addressed.

Around the time the war began, I was often asked — usually in an accusatory tone — whether it wasn’t part of just war thinking that the decision to go to war rests with the authorities. The implication was that it was up to the American government, not second-guessers like me, to make this call.

Quite so — the authorities do have the right to make the fateful decision to go to war. But in this case, who were the relevant authorities? It was glaring unilateralism to say or suggest that the only authorities with a right to decide for war in 2002-2003 were American ones. Many nations had a stake in Iraq and a right to be involved. And with all its faults and weaknesses — its corruption, its sometimes blatant anti-Americanism, its toothless incompetence, and so on — the United Nations was the forum where all those interests were represented. Not least among the faults of the American government was its high-handed dismissal of the concerns of other nations and, especially, of the UN.

Habitual critics of the United Nations may seize on what I’ve just said as evidence of how wildly out of touch I am. Believe me, folks, I’m as aware of the faults of the UN as you are. But I’m also aware that over the years the Holy See has been a strong supporter of the organization. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II made historic visits there. Pope Benedict XVI will go there in April. Why is that?

The answer is in Blessed John XXIII’s 1965 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Speaking of the need for an international “public authority” — not in place of but in addition to existing nation-states — committed to the international common good, he makes it clear that, although the UN as it was then (and, one might add, is now) is not that body, it’s a necessary step in the right direction.

Forty-two years later, in an era of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, that remains the Holy See’s view. It is entirely correct. If the United Nations didn’t exist, it would have to be created, although in that case I hope it would be a UN without the obnoxious faults of the UN that now exists.

Neither the United States nor any other country can surrender its right to act unilaterally to defend either itself or the international common good if unilateral action is necessary. But to act outside or in the defiance of the UN except in cases of unambiguous necessity is a morally dubious procedure at best. Here is another lesson of Iraq: As the world’s only superpower, the United States has a duty to work for the reform and strengthening of the UN, not its undermining.


  • 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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