Opinions vary on wisdom of military action in Iraq
By Michael Swan
Debate over the usefulness and wisdom of a bombing campaign against the Islamic State has Christians re-examining the criteria for a just war — and coming up with different answers. An air campaign against terrorists in control of parts of Syria and Iraq won’t result in peace or justice in the region, said Catholic commentator for The Catholic Register and Sun TV Michael Coren. But conscience pricks us to action.
“Most of us know what Christian conscience is and when we look at what is going on there we viscerally realize, and intellectually, we have to do something about it, particularly as we helped to make this happen,” said Coren. “It (bombing) is a halfway measure. It won’t result in long-term peace. But I just don’t think there is any alternative. And I don’t think pacifism has any answers for this.”
A meeting of Middle Eastern nuncios in Rome with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin produced an Oct. 4 statement in support of international action to protect civilians in Iraq and Syria. “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor, always in accordance with international law,” said a Vatican release at the end of the meeting. “One cannot be silent, nor (can) the international community remain inactive, in the face of the massacre of persons.” While the Vatican statement endorsed internationally sanctioned military intervention to protect the Middle East’s Christian minorities, it also said “the problem cannot be entrusted solely to a military response.”
“The problem must be dealt with more radically by addressing the root causes which are exploited by fundamentalist ideology,” said the Vatican statement.
Pax Christi International, the global Catholic peace movement headquartered in Brussels, believes a bombing campaign will do more harm than good.
“The expansion of bombing is more likely to create a significant recruiting bonanza for some of the extremist groups, ISIS included,” Pax Christi co-president Marie Dennis told Catholic News Service. “The Islamic State, ISIS, is very well funded and steps must be taken to identify the sources of their funding and to stop them.” Another international coalition conducting another war in Iraq is just more of the same kind of action that caused the problem in Iraq to begin with, said South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, the other co- president of Pax Christi.
In the British House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury cast his vote in favour of British participation in a bombing campaign. “There is justification for the use of armed force on humanitarian grounds,” said Archbishop Justin Welby. “To enable oppressed victims to find safe space.”
But Welby warned that bombing won’t have much effect on the ideas that inspire young people around the world to go to Syria and Iraq and bear arms on the side of the Islamic State. Welby told his peers in the upper house to “face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of consumer society . . . if we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they might be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.”
For a traditional Catholic wondering about strict just war criteria and the proposal to bomb ISIS territory, there’s a clear answer, said Regis College professor of moral theology John Berkman. “The simple answer is no, that does not fit the criteria,” Berkman wrote in an email to The Catholic Register. The classic formula for just war lists a just cause, right intention, declaration by a legitimate authority, a reasonable hope of success and a test of proportionality — that the good to be achieved must outweigh the inevitable evils of war.
“Lots of well-intentioned and morally upright and serious people may assume that simply some group doing something terrible to another group is sufficient for us to go to a just war,” said Berkman. “That’s not the Catholic tradition. It is far more cognizant of the possibility of doing far more harm than good in some of these situations, and of how a variety of ideological, political goals easily and quickly supersede and pervert the truly and strictly humanitarian ends.”
Berkman wonders whether the Canadian government is in fact making a moral decision about a just war or making a strategic decision about supporting the United States.
“Do you expect the Canadian government to have an independent policy of response? So are we actually expecting our government to do anything beyond supporting a key ally?” he asks. “Does the Canadian government actually have the moral fortitude and wisdom to make substantive independent judgments about involvement in this conflict with regard to the moral criteria for just war and continue to make independent judgments if and when it does get involved?” Pope Francis’ statement urging an international response to Islamic State ethnic cleansing of Christians and others from its territory has been interpreted by some as a green light for military action and by others as a warning of the moral danger. “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” the pope told reporters on his plane trip back from Korea in August. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”
In a tradition that goes back to St. Pope John XXIII, Pope Francis called for the United Nations to do the evaluation. The Canadian bishops have not spoken about the Islamic State since August. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops told The Catholic Register it would not have any further statement while Parliament debated a confidence motion on sending 600 military personnel to support the bombing campaign with 11 other countries, including four Middle Eastern partners (that has since been approved).
The CCCB’s Aug. 25 appeal “for mercy, compassion and justice in the Middle East and throughout the world” makes no mention of a military response, instead appealing “to all people — of every faith and in the name of goodwill, here in Canada and around the world — to do even more to assist the suffering of those in need.” An August statement from Canadian Council of Churches members in solidarity with Iraqi Christians called for a political solution. The ecumenical Christian think-tank Project Ploughshares believes bombing the Islamic State will do more harm than good. “(Bombing) can take out significant military targets, but the nature of this threat does not appear to be one of significant military targets,” said Project Ploughshares executive director John Seibert. “You have to take a look at the history of the region and what the West has contributed, particularly the United States, to disrupting it.”
While the Islamic State is clearly anything but an ideal dialogue partner, bombing won’t address the grievances that have resulted in significant support for the group among Iraq’s Sunni minority, said Seibert. Past experience has shown how western bombing campaigns in Muslim countries have not led to peace or democracy. “I am greatly dismayed by people’s reference to Libya as a success. It was not,” Siebert said. “You can bomb targets, you can dislodge leadership, but unless you are engaged in winning the peace as well as winning the combat it is in vain and actually can be worse.” Though hearts are moved by the displaced, homeless and threatened Christians of Mosul, bombing won’t help them, Siebert said. “If you’re really serious about protecting vulnerable civilians, then you would put massive numbers of troops on the ground and deploy them for the express purpose of civilian protection.” Coren grants most of Seibert’s arguments, and is particularly aware that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq resulted in a less inclusive and less competent government than the Baathist regime headed by Saddam Hussein.
“I was always opposed to the Iraq war. I thought it was wrong and I think it created a lot of these problems,” Coren said. But whether or not the West “enabled” the radicalism which gave us the Islamic State, watching Iraq fall apart and Christians suffer is not an option, said the prolific author whose latest book is Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity.
“Do you have to intervene to save human life? Yes you do. Will it achieve your long-term goals and ends? Probably not. I don’t think there is any alternative.”
(With files from Catholic News Service.)