Blessed Are the Peacemakers

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Contra Novak

by Daniel McCarthy

Michael Novak is probably best known as the author of a work entitled The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Once a leftist, Novak is now a neoconservative; his life’s work has been giving two cheers for capitalism and trying to reconcile social democracy with Christianity. The title of his most famous work should by itself set off alarm bells: does capitalism need a modifier? It does not, and it turns out that "democratic" capitalism is not capitalism any more than "state" capitalism is.

That’s Novak in a nutshell. He writes passionately about religion and wields considerable influence among conservative Christians, especially his (and my) Catholic co-religionists. He is now using that influence to argue the case for an invasion of Iraq, in an essay on National Review Online called "u2018Asymmetric’ Warfare and Just War." His arguments are specious and deserve quick refutation.

Novak says that the original Gulf War in 1991 never ended, it was merely "summarily interrupted, in order to negotiate the terms of surrender." Hostilities may now resume, argues Novak, because Saddam Hussein has violated those terms by refusing to divest himself of weapons of mass destruction. What it means to end a war that was never legally declared in the first place is anyone’s guess, but Novak is correct that Saddam is in violation of the UN Security Council resolutions ordering him to disarm. This may provide a pretext for war, but hardly suffices as a reason. So Novak turns to his next line of argument:

Meanwhile, in a sudden and violent fashion, another war was launched against the United States — and, indeed, against international civilized order — on September 11, 2001. This unsought and sudden war emerged from a new strategic concept, “asymmetrical warfare,” and it threw the behavior of Saddam Hussein into an entirely new light, and enhanced the danger Saddam Hussein poses to the civilized world a hundredfold.

Here Novak has begun to assert rather than argue. The attack against the United States on 9/11 was not launched by Saddam Hussein, a basic point which Novak glosses over. He simply juxtaposes Saddam’s name with the 9/11 event and hopes that the association itself will stick the reader’s mind. This is a propaganda technique.

Citing the Catholic catechism, Novak says that "public authorities" properly have the final decision as to when the criteria for a just war have been met. In the case of Iraq, he suggests that "public authorities" — the United States federal government — may have "highly restricted intelligence" that would provide a casus belli. That may be so, but Catholicism does not teach blind obedience to civil authorities, particularly when those authorities have behaved in as unchristian a fashion as the US often has. No one can evaluate unseen evidence that may or may not exist, we can only base our opinions on what we know and what is logically probable. What does Novak have to say about that? He tell us that

…From the point of view of public authorities who must calculate the risks of action or inaction vis — vis the regime of Saddam Hussein, two points are salient. Saddam Hussein has the means to wreak devastating destruction upon Paris, London, or Chicago, or any cities of his choosing, if only he can find clandestine undetectable “foot soldiers” to deliver small amounts of the sarin gas, botulins, anthrax, and other lethal elements to predetermined targets. Secondly, independent terrorist assault cells have already been highly trained for precisely such tasks, and have trumpeted far and wide their intentions to carry out such destruction willingly, with joy. All that is lacking between these two incendiary elements is a spark of contact.

Given Saddam’s proven record in the use of such weapons, and given his recognized contempt for international law, only an imprudent or even foolhardy statesman could trust that these two forces will stay apart forever. At any time they could combine, in secret, to murder tens of thousands of innocent and unsuspecting citizens.

This is the heart of Novak’s argument. In more direct language, it is that whether or not Saddam Hussein actually has — or even ever would — work with al Qaeda or some other terrorist organization, is irrelevant. It’s the potential itself that justifies war in Novak’s eyes.

This is not consonant with Just War doctrine, which specifies that war must be undertaken for defensive purposes. While an imminent threat — one that has not yet commenced hostilities but is clearly about to do so — justifies a war, a potential threat does not. After all, there is no end to what might be a potential threat. Certainly the nuclear arms reserves of Russia and China are a potential threat, as are those of France, Pakistan, India and North Korea. By the standards of just war, Novak would have to show both that Saddam Hussein actually has allied with al Qaeda and that he has done so with the intention of attacking the United States. That would constitute an immediate threat.

Novak emphasizes that "Were such an attack to come, it would come without imminent threat, without having been signaled by movements of conventional arms, without advance warning of any kind." Even if true, this does not negate or modify just war doctrine. It certainly does not justify war. A surprise attack could come from Russia, too, or from terrorists using stolen "weapons of mass destruction" obtained from the United States itself. As terrible as the prospect is, it does not qualify as grounds for a pre-emptive attack under just war doctrine. To eliminate the criterion that the threat be imminent — or to re-define "imminent" in a loose-construction, as some would like — would undermine the entire purpose of Just War doctrine, which is to avoid and limit warfare wherever possible. It would give sanction to any sort of intervention or attack that "public authorities" could dream up, against any target. If Novak seriously wants to redefine the terms of Just War, he ought to propose some kind of alternative; he ought to state explicitly what he thinks the limits of war and cause for war should be.

In the case of Iraq, his definition would have to omit any need for evidence, because there is none to suggest that Saddam Hussein has given "weapons of mass destruction" to terrorists or is about to any time soon. What kind of paranoid dictator would ever give transnational terrorists a doomsday weapon that could be used against himself? It is true that Saddam has harbored terrorists in the past; he did so with Abu Nidal. Look at how that ended. Abu Nidal was the Osama bin Laden of the 1980′s, a terrorist everyone wanted and no one could catch. When he threw his lot in with Saddam Hussein, however, he finally met an appropriately grisly end. The idea that Saddam’s interests neatly coincide with those of terrorists, whether al Qaeda or Abu Nidal, is not credible. They have good reason to be wary of one another.

There are other holes in Novak’s argument as well. He praises US intelligence when it comes to making the decision whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, but he does not apply the same standard when it comes to evaluating US intelligence’s prospects of detecting an alliance between Saddam Hussein and terrorists bent on using weapons of mass destruction. Why should such a plot be any more undetectable than Saddam Hussein’s other activities revolving around WMDs? Such a risk, that the preparation for an attack would not be noticed until too late, is nothing new — just think of Pearl Harbor. The prospect of surprise attack has always been a feature of war and has never before annulled the propositions of Just War doctrine. Nor should it now.

"Somewhere between 0 and 10, in other words, there already is a probability of Saddam’s deadly weapons falling into al Qaeda’s willing hands," Novak writes, as if to quantify the danger. One wonders whether even Novak himself takes his arguments seriously: there is also a probability between 0 and 10 of Martians invading the earth, and a probability of between 0 and 10 of someone getting hit by an automobile today. Using terms as loosely as Novak does amounts to talking nonsense: there is no quantifiable probability of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction falling into anyone’s hands. What statistician could measure such a thing? Yet by dangling a few numbers in front of his readers’ eyes, Novak hopes to lend an aura of scientific credibility to his argument, presumably. (It may be unfair of me to judge his motives; perhaps my readers can think of a better interpretation.)

On at least one point, however, Novak is correct. He writes:

"Just-war doctrine has at its root the Catholic understanding of original sin, articulated in this context by St. Augustine in Book XIX of The City of God. In this world, Christians will always have to cope with the evil in the human breast that sows division, destruction, and devastation."

But quite how this relates to an attack on Iraq is hard to fathom. Original sin, after all, pertains not only to Saddam Hussein and Iraq but also to George W. Bush and the United States. The place to begin the fight against "the evil in the human breast that sows division, destruction and devastation" is within one’s own soul. This is an important point: neoconservatives and other warmongers reiterate Saddam Hussein’s evil ad nauseam. And he is evil, indubitably; but the Christian understanding of evil is not ManicheanManichean dualism is perhaps the greatest, most persistent heresy of Christianity — there are not simply "good guys" and "bad guys." We’re all born in sin, even those who come to Christ may fall away again, and even those who practice evil may repent and be saved. The prospects of Saddam Hussein doing that appear to be nil, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Christian must be humble and extremely circumspect about his own noble motives — particularly when those motives supposedly justify the slaughter involved in warfare. As it happens, this self-critical attitudes is also more mature, by any standard, than the sort of juvenile moral triumphalism that characterizes the War Party.

On more mundane points, Novak is simply wrong, and his advice would be more harmful than salutary. For one thing, he says that "No one today denies that international terrorism is a deliberate assault on the very possibility of international order. That public authorities have a duty to confront this terrorism, and to defeat it, is universally recognized." But does a war with Iraq actually stabilize the international order, or upset it? William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation, an expert on "Fourth Generation Warfare," provides an answer:

…the real threat we face is the Fourth Generation, non-state players such as al Quaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. They can only benefit from an American war against Iraq — regardless of how it turns out. If we win, the state is further discredited in the Islamic world, and more young men give their allegiance to non-state forces. If Saddam wins, their own governments look even less legitimate, because they failed to stand with him against the hated Crusaders. A recent cartoon showed Osama bin Laden, dressed as Uncle Sam, saying, “I want you to invade Iraq!” Undoubtedly, he does.

War with Iraq, no matter its outcome, will only accelerate the decay of the nation-state. In principle that might not be a bad thing, but in practice the worst possible outcome is one in which the United States is the last nation-state standing, in a world otherwise characterized by decentralized communities. In such a world, terrorists could (and, given the behavior of the United States government, would) strike at us from any direction, and there would be no nation-states left to retaliate against. A nuclear arsenal and conventional military as mighty as those of the U.S. are useless against foes so small and dispersed.

Novak simply doesn’t understand asymmetric warfare. He gets some of the facts right, but doesn’t understand their significance. Here’s an example:

The first reason, then, why public authorities in the United States have urged the United Nations to become serious about Iraq is the war preemptively declared upon the United States on 09/11/01. It was obvious from the beginning that 19 graduate students from middle-class families (mostly in Saudi Arabia) did not perform that deed unaided. They had the support of states (Afghanistan in the first place, but also Yemen, Iran, Sudan, and others) willing to act clandestinely but not openly, as international outlaws."

Again Novak merrily associates Iraq with 9/11, despite all evidence to the contrary. He’s right, of course: the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudis (and also quite a few Egyptians). But he subscribes to an altogether too simple-minded idea of what constitutes asymmetric warfare. Terrorists do not have to operate out of states that are "international outlaws." The 9/11 terrorists received their flight training in the United States. Prior to the attacks, they were based in South Florida. Money to support their operation was wired to them from Frankfurt, Germany. Michael Novak would be more justified in urging that the U.S. invade the Everglades or annex Berlin than launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, a country that had no involvement in 9/11 whatsoever.

Novak concludes his piece on a note with which we can all agree: it will be nice if Saddam Hussein disarms completely, submits to the most thorough possible inspections, and all sides agree that war is unnecessary. To his credit, Novak refrains from insisting that Saddam must go into exile, a condition which he surely cannot agree to meet (he knows what happened to Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic when they surrendered power). Still, one can hardly expect that Saddam will comply with the UN Security Council resolutions, when his weapons of mass destruction are the only thing that might deter the United States from attacking him at any time in the future. Even so, war is not the solution to the problem. And we should be grateful for at least one thing: Saddam Hussein, fearful of nuclear reprisal from the United States, does not subscribe to Michael Novak’s ideas of Just War. If he did, Saddam would launch a pre-emptive attack on the U.S. right now, given the imminent threat it poses to his country. That, however, would be suicidal and Saddam is not that crazy. Would that the same could be said for neoconservatives like Michael Novak! Their war on evil is only accelerating the pace of change that will lead to more terrorism against the United States. They love war, and they love to make enemies. Novak is just rather unusual in using the name of Christ to justify it.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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