A Matter of National Security?

    Earlier this week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed what it called "grave reservations" about a possible preemptive attack on Iraq. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the conference's president, said that it would be difficult to justify such an attack under the just war tradition. With all due respect, I believe the bishops to be wrong. The issue of whether a preemptive strike could be justified under the just war doctrine came up during a meeting I attended at the Pentagon last fall. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked religious leaders to come and give him advice on whether the just war tradition was being applied to the war in Afghanistan. During the meeting, I asked the secretary, "How would you justify a preemptive strike against Iraq?" That led to a fascinating discussion about the administration's options in its prosecution of the war against terrorism. Rumsfeld argued that the 1981 Israeli bombing of an Iraqi nuclear power plant suspected of producing material for nuclear weapons set a precedent that the U.S. was prepared to follow. Less than a year later, the question about preemptive strikes against Iraq is no longer hypothetical. As the administration makes it case, it's imperative that Christians be heard on this issue. The just war tradition, most famously articulated by St. Augustine, requires that both the cause for which a war is fought and the means by which it is fought be just. Historically, this has meant that military force must be used only in response to an attack already underway. But in some cases, waiting for the other side to shoot first is tantamount to committing national suicide. This led to the idea known as "preemption." As theologian George Weigel has written, preemption recognizes that sometimes "preemptive military action is not only morally justifiable but morally imperative." During the Cold War, some argued that to keep the Soviets from having a "first-strike" capability, the U.S. should attack first. But Christians and our government realized that the U.S. could not do that. It meant targeting civilians, since under the mutually assured destruction policy, both sides were holding the other's cities hostage, and that kept a war from breaking out. But the situation in Iraq is different. An attack would not -- as in the Cold War -- mean an attack on civilians. And whether preemption can be justified in the case of Iraq is a prudential judgment depending on the facts. And it's a case that the administration is obligated to make. If they can show that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and that it is preparing to use them or put them in the hands of those who will, then a preemptive strike would be morally justified. Of course, that strike must honor just war principles like protection of noncombatants. One thing often forgotten in discussions of just war is why we fight these wars. As Augustine wrote, it's not out of a desire for revenge or even a desire to punish wrongdoers. Rather the Christian wields the sword in fulfillment of the command to love our neighbors because we are protecting the innocent from the aggressor. This love of neighbor is what impels us to take an active role in the debates over the possible use of military force -- because the Christian perspective needs to be heard as Congress debates the grave question of carrying this war to Baghdad. For further reading: William Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (Doubleday, 2002). BreakPoint commentary no. 020530, "'Love Our Enemies' or 'An Eye for an Eye'?". Read the text of President Bush's Iraq proposal from the New York Times (free registration required). Wolfgang Schauble, "Berlin's Isolation: How Germany became Saddam's favorite state," Wall Street Journal, 19 September 2002 (requires free registration). Pete du Pont, "Kill the Snake: What we know about Saddam more than justifies toppling him," Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2002. Learn more about just war theory by reading BreakPoint's fact sheet. St. Augustine, The City of God (Modern Library Classics, 2000).


Chuck Colson



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