Preemption, prevention, and the Pope

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.

7 thoughts on “Preemption, prevention, and the Pope

  1. I don’t necessarily think from what I read that Neuhaus is still insisting that Iraq was a clear and present danger in 2003. What is important to judge would be how imminent the supposed danger was. It’s kind of, “What did the president think and when did he think it?” It has a bearing on whether you consider the adminstration’s actions to be a)duplicitous and mendacious, or b)merely clueless.

    From my reading, N. is saying that since a)every intelligence service thought that SH had WMD’s, apparently including his own (even though he didn’t) and b)just-war theory provides for war in the face of clear and present danger, which an SH with WMD’s would have been, then c)you may consider the Bush/Blair action clueless at worst. You may think the more responsible course was to wait for sanctions/inspections to work. What you may not think is that the action was mendacious or duplicitous, because they didn’t know they were not telling the truth about the clear and present danger that wasn’t there. They believed every word of what they said.

    True, or not true?

  2. I think even if you conceded that SH had WMD circa 2002-3 (and, it’s worth pointing out that there were people who doubted this, like, well, the weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq!), the case for war had to rest on assertions about SH’s ability/willingness/intention to use terrorist proxies to attack the US with the alleged WMD (“…that Saddam Hussein had or was quickly developing weapons of mass destruction that he intended to use in aggressive war” in Neuhaus’s words). I don’t think that case was ever adequately made, even granting that Bush/Blair et al. were justified in their belief that the WMDs were there.

    My personal view is that Bush/Blair were probably sincere in their belief that there were WMD but also that they didn’t have the evidence to show it, hence the “massaging” of intelligence, the pressure on intelligence agencies to come to preordained conclusions, etc. That is, I think the evidence was manipulated, but that they probably thought they’d ultimately be vindicated by events.

  3. Yes, the “imminent” threat simply was never there. Even this illusory notion of “willingness” to use weapons doesn’t push things over into pre-emptive (rather than preventive) war as far as I understand the just war tradition. The best analogy I can think of is that Saddam possessing WMDs is like Kim Jong Il *having* a substantial military. It’s not justification under just war theory for South Korea (or the US, or whatever) to attack under the rubric of preemption. However, if specific plans had been uncovered or we had detected WMDs actually physically being moved from the country (analogous to troops massing on the border), that would trigger preemption.

    It’s clear that stovepipes were constructed in the Executive to funnel all this faulty evidence to the top, and if the President wasn’t aware of this, certainly key players such as the Secretary of Defense and possibly the Vice President were. To my mind, that topples all of this nonsense about “the whole world” believing Saddam was an imminent threat — we had good intelligence that he wasn’t, and willfully blinding oneself to that evidence strips one of any plausible deniability. They were grossly negligent in ignoring all that intelligence.

  4. So, Lee, in other words, the only real question we have is how much the administration lied to convince us to go to war for what they considered to be good reason, and how much they ignored evidence to the contrary because they believed so strongly in the premise. Lying for a good reason is never right or safe. But I don’t think it’s the same level of culpability as the far left wing wants us to believe, that Bush was just a warmonger who was willing to make up anything in order to spill blood. I stand by my NASA analogy of groupthink that I articulated a couple of months ago. It doomed Challenger and Columbia, but it’s not as if even the most culpable at NASA wanted the orbiters to go down.

    Chris, I think that there is a valid argument that the rules about preemptive action have changed, given that attacks can be almost instantaneous given the technology involved, and also given the willingness of the attackers to die in the attempt. However, what I do think we should have learned from the Iraq situation is that regime change is far too dicey and not the solution. I’m wondering (stress wondering) whether or not surgical strikes against PROVEN threats and/or continual pressure is not more realistic. Thoughts?

  5. Chip —

    “The bad guys can kill us faster” doesn’t sound like a very theological argument to me, I’m afraid. And the attackers have always been willing to die in the attempt — terrorism is not a new phenomenon.

    I’m definitely not a Hauerwasian non-resistance pacifist, but there’s an arrogance about pre-emptive strike as it has been presented in the last five-six years that really bothers me. Do we really want to be the kind of people who are willing to destroy the entire infrastructure of another country, drive its people back into repressive theocratic rule, and destabilize an entire region because we’re afraid a few thousand of us might fall victim to a terrorist attack? Wouldn’t we as Christians rather become a people that dies daily in Christ and is ready each day to die physically being confident of God’s grace?

    In terms of Iraq specifically, there’s plenty of evidence that the administration was interested in going to war before they even entered office, which means before they had access to any intelligence that would explain what kind of a threat Saddam really was. Christians do not fight *any* wars “on principle” — we fight them to save lives, and then we go back to agressively waging peace. We’ve already lost about as many American lives in Iraq as we lost on 9/11, and there’s still no evidence any similar attack was in the works that involved Iraq. And the Iraqis have lost tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of lives. I don’t see any realism there.

  6. Chip, I basically agree with your analysis in the first para. of #4 above with the added caveat that we know that a group of influential Bush advisors have a longstanding agenda (predating this Administration) for pursing an American “benevolent hegemony” and that I think this agenda had a a lot to do with the push for war in Iraq. In other words, it wasn’t being driven just by the perception of whatever discrete threat SH’s Iraq was believed to pose, but also by the broader agenda of US hegemony in the Middle East. I don’t deny that these folks may be sincere in their belief that US hegemony would be a Good Thing, but I think they piggybacked to a large extent on the crisis situation created by 9/11 as a way of furthering this agenda, one that I’m not sure most Americans would sign on to if it had been offered in full candor.

  7. I should clarify — I actually was talking about the arrogance of preventive strike, not pre-emptive strike. I have concerns about pre-emptive war as well, but they’re not anywhere near as grave as my concerns about the doctrine of preventive war, which is what we’re talking about in the case of Iraq.

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