Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus have both offered some critical comments on Pope Benedict’s Easter address where Benedict reiterated (by implication, at least) some of his criticisms of the Iraq war. Novak has consistently remained a steadfast supporter of President Bush, so his comments aren’t particularly novel or surprising; he offers the now-cliched rebuttal that the Pope, much like the “American Left” is ignoring all the “good news” coming out of Iraq.
Neuhaus, by contrast, has expressed at least some misgivings about the war over the last several months, but here tries to get the Bush Administration off the hook for its embrace of “preventive war,” which, as numerous theologians, including the Pope himself, have pointed out, is incompatible with Catholic teaching on Just War:
Talk about preemptive war was part of the Bush administration’s less than careful (others would say arrogant) strategic language, most assertively expressed in the statement on national security of September 2002. Language about preemptive war was provocative and entirely unnecessary. As George Weigel has explained (here and here) in the pages of First Things, traditional just-war doctrine adequately provides for the use of military force in the face of a clear and present threat of aggression. Such a use of force is more accurately described as defensive rather than preemptive, and it is worth keeping in mind that in 2003 all the countries with developed intelligence services agreed that Saddam Hussein had or was quickly developing weapons of mass destruction that he intended to use in aggressive war.
There needs to be a distinction made between “preemptive” war and “preventive” war. Fr. Neuhaus is correct that preemption is allowed for in Just War thinking. If a country is facing an imminent threat it needn’t wait for the other side to attack before engaging in defensive action. The textbook (literally) example of this is Israel’s preemptive attack which began the Six Day War.
But “preventive” war refers to initiating hostilities when the threat is only hypothetical. Daniel Larison dissects some of the problems with this concept here, but it is to say the least far harder to justify according to traditional Just War criteria.
Fr. Neuhaus, unfortunately, seems to be engaging in a bit of sleight-of-hand here when he talks about the supposed threat from Iraq as “clear and present threat of aggression” and says that “all the countries with developed intelligence services agreed that Saddam Hussein had or was quickly developing weapons of mass destruction that he intended to use in aggressive war.” The “threat” posed by Hussein’s regime was always a very hypothetical one, relying on a chain of inferences involving its possession of WMDs, its alleged ties to al-Qaeda (always the weakest of the Administration’s arguments), and the claim that it couldn’t be deterred from launching what would appear to be a suicidal attack on the U.S. via these terrorist proxies. Even Administration spokesmen shied away from describing this “threat” as “imminent.” In fact, President Bush himself in his 2003 State of the Union address said:
Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.
In fact, after it became clear that the threat from Saddam’s Iraq was largely illusory, there was a concerted effort by Administration spokesmen to deny that they ever claimed that the threat was “imminent.”
Now, it’s open to the defender of preventive war to argue that a threat needn’t be imminent for war to be justified, but that would represent a serious departure from the Just War tradition; to mention only one problem it’s very difficult to see how preventive war could be reconciled with the criterion of “last resort.” But, if so, it should at least be admitted that it is a departure. Either the Administration was claiming that that the threat from Saddam was imminent, in which case it was either wrong or dissembling, or it was not claiming the threat was imminent, in which case it went to war in contravention of accepted Just War principles.