Just War? How Famous Catholic Conservatives Avoid Applying ‘Their’ Theory

by Craig White by Craig White

Peter Dula, in his Commonweal article “The War in Iraq: How Catholic conservatives got it wrong” (carried some weeks ago by Lew Rockwell), accused the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel of "moral muteness" in time of war. Rev. Neuhaus is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of First Things, a small but influential magazine devoted to the intersection of religion and public life. George Weigel is the pope's biographer and a widely read Catholic writer and theologian. My complaint differs from Dula's: I believe that both Rev. Neuhaus and Weigel, despite many statements about Just War theory that allude to our war in Iraq, have ducked, or shrunk from, or avoided applying the theory to that conflict in any serious, systematic way. That's a shame. Just War theory, often alluded to and adopted by others, began as part of the Catholic and Christian patrimony. You might call First Things a self-appointed guardian of that patrimony as a whole, and overall I think it has done a superb job, stimulating a lively, often daring debate as well as keeping the treasure of the past current. One feature of that guardianship is a long line of "symposia" where two or more writers approach the same question from different viewpoints, many of them sharply different from those of Rev. Neuhaus.

In a time of war, with new possible wars in the offing, what intellectual task in the arena of foreign affairs is more important than actually applying Just War theory to our circumstances? Some months ago, hoping to see this task undertaken, I was deeply frustrated by an “exchange” in First Things between George Weigel and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Their debate (which began with a Weigel essay entitled "Moral Clarity in Time of War") was stimulating, but it was for the most part about how to begin thinking about Just War theory itself, with very little systematic application of the theory to Iraq or the war on terrorism. I wrote an essay (see below), challenging First Things to promote a systematic application of the theory to the conflict in Iraq. The essay was rejected by the editorial staff, one of whom informed me that they have "done a lot" on the subject recently. (I later sent it personally to Rev. Neuhaus, but a month later, I have yet to hear from him.) Shortly thereafter, Rev. Neuhaus inadvertently supplied me (in the February 2005 issue) an elegant quotation from George Santayana that sums up my frustration with the First Things approach to Just War theory in the last few years: "The constant whetting of the knife is tedious, if it is not proposed to cut anything with it."

Like Dula, or perhaps more so, I admire Neuhaus greatly. I feel the same about George Weigel. I agree with them on a host of issues. I appreciate the printing of a shortened version of my letter to the editor in the March issue, and the Rev. Neuhaus' taking the time to reply. But, while it is quite true that, as Rev. Neuhaus and his editors have both advised me, there has been a lot in the magazine on Just War theory, I think a careful reading (it's all on-line) will show that the vast majority has been either "knife-whetting" (debate about the theory, or how to start thinking about it), or extremely limited, partial, and unsystematic application. No writer in First Things has set out anything close to the full "Just War" case for or against our invasion of Iraq. It is good to whet knives; in fact, it is "an indispensable service," to quote the Rev. Neuhaus' reply to my letter. But in the end, after all the sharpening, knives are meant for cutting. The entire point of Just War theory is to help us know if a particular war is – just. Without that purpose, no one would ever have come up with it. (In repeating the challenge here, let me refine it by suggesting possible champions for the opposing points of view: perhaps George Weigel on the "pro" side and Andrew Bacevich against?)

Here, with two brief additions in brackets, is the challenge the First Things staff did not see fit to print:

Intellectual Clarity in a Time of War

A Challenge to Apply Just War Theory To Current Circumstances

I imagine that many First Things readers are like me, and see just war theory as one of God's providential gifts to the world, a light that should shine wherever wars are considered by nations in which Christians have influence. Given American military preeminence in the world, as well as our current situation, the putting of this great gift into service seems as urgent as any intellectual task I can think of.

In that light, I wonder how many of my fellow readers share my sense, despite the high quality of the recent debate between Rowan Williams and George Weigel, as well as the letters that followed, that the one thing needful is still missing: sustained, careful application of the theory to the situation at hand. To use a rather light metaphor, I felt like someone at a cook-off where I hoped to sample the dishes, but what I got instead was to see and smell the ingredients being prepared, and then to listen to a debate between the two master chefs as to whether the beef or the onions should be sautéed first. The actual cooking and tasting were never done. Weigel in fact noted early in his response that he had not intended in his previous essay actually to mount "a just war case for military action against the Saddam Hussein regime," although he believed it could be done. However, he did not want to "put the policy cart before the theological horse."

But with the theological horse now clear, surely the thing to do is to hitch it up to the policy cart and drive up the hill! I suggest that someone needs to analyze systematically the very real war we are in (I mean the war in Iraq, considered as a part of the global war on terrorism), on the basis of just war theory, or else I am convinced we are hiding our collective light under a bushel. I believe the analysis should take the form of a dialogue, for some who are committed to just war theory believe the current war is vindicated by it, while others believe that the theory shows the war to be unjust. Clearly a First Things symposium is called for in which both sides of the just war camp make their cases, rather than debate about how the cases should be made. I suggest the participants on both sides cut straight through the Gordian knot of the "presumption against violence/war" controversy [in the Williams/Weigel and more recent Griffiths/Weigel debates] by using as a framework the classic six ius ad bellum criteria Weigel outlined in his "Moral Clarity in a Time of War:" (1) just cause, (2) right intention, (3) competent authority, (4) reasonable chance of success, (5) proportionality of ends, and (6) last resort. In order to enable analysis in some depth, I suggest three writers on each side, with each one covering two of the criteria. This would allow a solid page, or perhaps more, for each criterion. To me this is the minimum length necessary for a serious discussion of such questions: with any less, discussion descends into slogans.

Let me address one objection that appears to me to be implied in recent writings on the subject by Weigel as well as Richard John Neuhaus, namely that those in authority are better equipped, as practitioners of statecraft (including warfare), to deal with the application of the theory of just war to the facts than religious leaders or "public intellectuals." The observation is fair enough. Yet as we ask who should in fact elucidate these vital issues for the public, several facts seem clear to me. First, the "professionals" in government are not going to put the issues in this framework unless and until just war theory becomes a common and accepted way of examining whether, why, and how we go to war. Second, the practitioners work for an administration, and even if they did use the theory, it is their job to do so while defending their administration's policy. Third, the politicians who direct the practitioners will pitch their discourse to the existing public debate, which is only somewhat influenced in the U.S. by just war theory. Fourth, the freedom of priests, writers, and others to speak openly about the actions and policies of the res publica is one that Weigel himself justly celebrates when discussing (as in his splendid Letters to a Young Catholic) the glorious revolution in eastern Europe. I conclude that religious leaders and public intellectuals have a significant, but not exclusive, role to play in any application of just war theory to our present circumstances.

I would also like to lay out some suggestions for the symposium participants, of specific points I believe should be addressed under each just war heading. These are suggestive, and not exhaustive.

1. Just Cause

Like each of the six criteria, this should be argued in some detail, and in context. If, for example, "disarming Iraq" is the just cause, it should be explained why it was just to disarm Iraq, and perhaps, whether it would be just to disarm any other countries. If preemptive war can be just, as Weigel seems to be on the verge of saying, what are the conditions that make it so, and what safeguards should be in place to prevent its abuse? One effort I believe is needed (for both sides) is to achieve a coherent stance vis-à-vis the UN. The fact that the U.S. is a signatory of the UN charter (and founding member of the organization) should be addressed. Did our war in Iraq contravene the UN charter? Was the war one of self-defense as envisaged by the charter? To what extent do U.S. official signatures on that charter oblige us to comply with its terms? Should we withdraw from the UN? Is the UN a locus of moral and legal authority at all? If enforcing UN resolutions makes a war just, then the context of any other unenforced resolutions should be considered. And, as we appear to have "enforced" a resolution without the UN asking us to do so, where does that leave other enforceable resolutions? Terms such as "rogue state," "aggressor country," "unstable state," or "weapons of mass destruction" should be defined in some detail.

2. Right Intention

This one may appear self-explanatory, but presumably intentions are difficult to ascertain with certainty. Did our stated intentions meet the right criteria? Did they change over time, and is that legitimate? May intentions be legitimately read from actions? Have our actions borne out our statements of intention? Is it possible that our real intentions were different from our stated ones, and might that be justifiable for reasons of statecraft?

3. Competent Authority

Within the U.S. context, clearly the war was waged by the duly constituted government. However, the question of the Constitution's statements on war might be usefully discussed. In addition, the question of the authority of the U.S. to pursue its goals on behalf of the "international community" needs to be addressed. The meaning of the Security Council resolution threatening "serious consequences" should presumably be considered. How strong is the case that we were enforcing a UN resolution, given the lack of an explicit request to do so?

4. Reasonable Chance of Success

There was little debate before the war concerning whether we could succeed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Perhaps Saddam's regime was so bad that any amount of bloodshed and expense were acceptable, simply to remove him and his cronies, and that removal itself constituted complete success. That argument might be developed.

Another viewpoint would be that if a regime is to be removed, something better should be put in its place, or the post-war situation might be even worse. How was success defined before the war, and how is it defined now? How should we define it? Was there a reasonable chance of succeeding according to our officially stated aims? It seems to me that statements like "any country can be guided and helped to follow the rules of democracy" (if that is one definition of success) are not enough – recent history should be invoked, with consideration of Iraq's particular culture and history. Success stories of liberated peoples choosing democracies should be invoked, along with special circumstances that may or may not apply in Iraq's case. Attempts to instill democracy that failed should also be described. The anti-war forces have made much of the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional population of Iraq, often concluding that removing the dictatorial regime that held Iraq together was likely to lead to a long and bloody civil war. (This consideration appears to have kept George H.W. Bush out of Iraq itself.) Again, presumably there are counter-examples available to those who believe success was or is achievable (if more than regime removal was the aim).

While there is no certainty about the end result of a war, if "reasonable chance of success" as a criterion has any meaning it is a call for analysis, rather than bare assertions of either patriotic optimism or despondent pessimism. Jesus' parable about a king with 10,000 soldiers whose country is being invaded by a king with 20,000 soldiers is precisely the kind of thinking needed. I am sure such a king would have to consider many other factors, equipment, morale, terrain, etc., as well as the numbers. If we demand and get this kind of detailed analysis on the military side (the Pentagon does it for every war), surely it is reasonable to expect it for other factors also if, as was clearly the case among some who urged the rightness of the war beforehand, more than a simple military success is envisaged. The adoption of just war theory criteria would cause war planners to do so.

5. Proportionality of Ends

Here, on the one hand, the danger to the U.S. or the world, or the ongoing damage from the continuation of Saddam's regime, needs to be stated in detail. On the other side of the equation would be likely civilian deaths in Iraq, our own likely military deaths and injuries and those of Iraqi soldiers (especially since on a prima facie basis they were "defending their country"), and other factors such as damage to infrastructure, the possibility of an increase of chaos, etc. Just as with the "reasonable chance of success" criterion, a simple "God knows" does not satisfy the requirement here, even if it is quite true that the future is beyond both our control and our predictions. Like the previous criterion, this one is reduced to absurdity if a careful, rational effort to predict likely outcomes cannot be made. Many of these factors can be quantified to some extent, and the effort to do so should be made.

6. Last Resort

Although Weigel and Williams discussed this criterion in their exchange, it has not yet been specifically applied to the current Iraq war. It is this specific application that I believe is called for, on both sides.

[George Weigel said, in his exchange with the Archbishop, that Just War theory is quite alive "in the American officer corps, and at West Point and Annapolis." From personal contacts with U.S. military officers, I agree. In line with that, I trust Weigel would approve of these questions, which General Colin Powell said, in 1992, that policymakers should ask and answer before committing our forces to war: "Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all other nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?” (Quoted in the New York Times, November 21, 2004) These questions seem very much in line with the kind of discussion I am calling for.]