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Preemption, aggression and Catholic teaching


The moral justification for military action against Iraq requires the reconciliation of a 21st-century military doctrine -- “preemption” or “anticipatory action” -- with teachings first developed by a fourth-century African bishop.

The Bush administration has engaged this discussion head-on through its recently released national security strategy, a 35-page document that unapologetically states that the United States will strike first against threats to its people and interests when it deems it necessary.

Critics view the document as a declaration of a “might makes right” military policy by the world’s lone superpower. Supporters say the policy is a necessary step to deal with new world realities, particularly the possession of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists and “rogue regimes.”

Just war theorists, meanwhile, have just begun to consider the implications of the “Bush Doctrine.”

St. Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, in North Africa, set a high standard to justify war: The cause must be just and designed to overcome a grave evil, such as the suffering of innocents. It can be waged only by a “legitimate authority.” It must have a strong prospect of success (where the good resulting from the conflict outweighs the harm inflicted), and it must be employed only as a “last resort.”

Significantly, traditional just war theory assumes that a “real and certain danger” -- an imminent threat -- be present.

When St. Augustine articulated his theories, warfare was a simpler matter. The buildup to conflict was transparent, the enemy obvious and the prospects for success or failure more easily determinable.

Times have changed, the Bush administration contends, and our military doctrines must be altered to cope with new threats.

“We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries,” said the September 2002 National Security Strategy. “Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly and used without warning.”

So what does “imminent” mean today? That’s where the disagreement begins.

Writing in The Boston Globe, University of Chicago theology professor Jean Bethke Eshtain said, “An imminent threat does not necessarily mean one that is just around the corner.” Rather, “it may, refer … to murderous capabilities an outlaw regime is in the process of developing. If one can make a strong case that the use of such capabilities is highly likely, then the just war caution against ‘intervening’ may be overridden.”

Eshtain, author of the forthcoming Just War and American Power in a Violent World, told NCR that an “imminent threat” no longer necessarily includes “a rapid mobilization of manpower where your intentions get signaled in a very clear way.”

Writes Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow George Weigel: “When a vicious regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an ‘aggression under way.’ ”

Holy Cross Fr. Michael Baker, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, thinks the justification or rejection of preemption on just war grounds “depends a lot on how you narrate these events.”

Said Baker: “The Bush administration is arguing that we know ‘he’s going to do it sometime soon,’ and the longer we wait, the worse it’s going to be, so we’re going to attack now. It’s hard to distinguish that from the mere assertion that ‘here’s the way we’re reading events and, because we have more power, our reading is right.’ That’s what this new doctrine of preemption makes possible: A doctrine of a new Pax Americana, a new era of empire.”

To Paul J. Griffiths, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois, the definition of “imminent” has not changed. “It means the gun is at your head.” And when it comes to Iraq, he said, “we just don’t have that.”

Griffiths said that those who define “imminent threat” broadly seek to eliminate “one of the constraints of just war theory.” This results, he suggested, from “well-intentioned support of U.S. foreign policy, but it’s not defensible in terms of traditional just war theory.”

Griffiths sets three standards for a just preemptive attack. First, “you’d need to know that the threat is in place. In this case we’d have to know that nuclear, biological or chemical weapons are armed and ready to go.” Next, “you’d need to know that the weapons in question are aimed at us -- in this case the United States of America. And that’s very far from clear. In fact, there’s no even remotely convincing evidence of that.”

Point Three: “There is a lot of counterevidence in this case. We know a lot about Saddam Hussein’s interests -- and as far as I can tell those interests do not include, for example, the destruction of the U.S. In that, he differs a lot from a group like al Qaeda.”

Concluded Griffiths: “Without at least these three things in place, the [just war] case looks extraordinarily bad.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops appear sympathetic to Griffiths’ view. “Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature,” wrote Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a Sept. 13 letter to President Bush.

“Imminent threat” might be the just war theory’s highest hurdle to preemptive attack, but it’s not the only area of disagreement among the experts. Gregory, for example, questioned whether it is “wise to dramatically expand traditional moral and legal limits on just cause to include preventive or preemptive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Asked Gregory, “Should not a distinction be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government’s existence?”

Further, under the just war rubric of “proportionality” and “prospect of success,” Gregory asked whether a preemptive attack would “succeed in thwarting serious threats or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent?” A Central Intelligence Agency “white paper” released earlier this month might have answered Gregory’s question. Saddam, the paper concluded, is unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction unless attacked.

Saddam’s potential use of weapons of mass destruction against Israel as retaliation for a U.S.-led attack does call into question the just war criteria regarding success, observers agree. “Our obligation is to take into account all the possible scenarios,” said Eshtain. “The problem is that if you make your worst-case scenario so dramatic and so horrifying, then you’re not going to do anything. It means that you never move. Those are the kinds of arguments that Chamberlain and Lord George used” to avoid challenging Hitler, Eshtain said.

Another key just war criterion, right intent, is difficult to discern. “Since [ordinary citizens] need to know stuff in order to justify a particular war, and since we can’t know the stuff we need to know, then we ought not to justify it,” argued Griffiths.

Given the doctrine of preemption and the threat posed by terrorists and rogue nations, is the 16-centuries-old just war theory still a useful tool to examine the morality of state-sponsored force?

Just war theory, said Eshtain, can still force policymakers to confront difficult questions. “One of the things that just war theory cautions against is ‘overreach’-- don’t be utopian,” said Eshtain. If President Bush and those who see a preemptive war in moralistic terms can be faulted, he said, it could be for failure to take “adequate account of the perils that they might bump up against in dealing with really terrible people.” The message: “Don’t act unless you have a pretty darn good shot at being successful.”

Under current conditions, said Griffiths, “it’s hard to see how” just war theory provides a useful framework for thinking about the morality of war. But there are deeper problems among Catholic thinkers in this area, he said. One group, said Griffiths, thinks “that the prime duty of an American Catholic is to support U.S. foreign policy.” The other group, he continued, “thinks that one should always start with one’s Catholic commitments, and loyalty to the U.S. comes a long way second to that.”

Ultimately, it seems, the acceptance of preemption as a legitimate national military tool may rest less with its morality than with its success or failure on the battlefield.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002