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Posted January 30, 2003

Bush's 'first strike' threat: Can it be justified?

Our Sunday Visitor, June 23, 2002
By William Bole

President George W. Bush has taken the war on terrorism up a notch by declaring that the United States must strike first against its enemies. But while making clear his feeling that "moral truth" is on his side, the president is unlikely to get a fast blessing from Catholic authorities on the ethics of war and peace.

Speaking to West Point graduates earlier this month, Bush began floating a doctrine of preemptive military action against nations viewed as terrorist threats, especially Iraq.

"If we wait for threats to full materialize, we will have waited too long," the president said. His defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, followed by saying the United States should not wait for "absolute proof" of an impending terrorist attack before acting militarily.

Since September 11, those in the mainstream of Catholic thinking on a "just war" have affirmed that the use of deadly force against terrorist havens in Afghanistan and elsewhere is a moral option. However, in Church doctrine a just war is a defensive war, and the tradition has offered little ground for justifying offensive military action.

On top of that, in recent years the Church has voiced growing doubt about whether war can solve deep-seated social and political conflicts, and therefore about the likelihood of a "just cause" of armed conflict. Pope John Paul II has seemed to put greater hope in the prospects of non-violent resistance to evil, and in healing wounds between fractious parties and addressing injustices through non-military means.

"The Church has been narrowing the just-cause categories," said Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, an international ethicist who reflects the thinking of the U.S. bishops and Holy See, referring to one of the just-war conditions. "The Holy Father has been increasingly skeptical about the use of force being able to accomplish the aims" of restoring peace and order.

Father Christiansen noted that even in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military waged a successful campaign, the use of force went only so far toward creating the conditions of peace and stability in that terrorist haven.

["The Iraqi regime has a terrible record of repressing its own people and threatening its neighbors, but it's a question of which means are appropriate in addressing the problem," said Gerard Powers, who directs the international affairs office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to Powers, a preemptive strike would pass moral muster with the bishops only if there is clear evidence of an imminent attack or Iraqi connection to September 11.]

Fr. Christiansen said the bishops see merit in the current policy of "containment," which includes stopping the flow of weapons between Iraq and neighboring countries.

The persistently mixed results of modern warfare have led the American bishops and other Catholic authorities to articulate a "presumption" against the use of deadly force. This means the burden of moral proof is on those arguing for war.

Recent calls for preemptive strikes on Iraq and other rogue nations add another level of burden to judgments about the morality of the military operation. In sounding that call, President Bush stated, "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

Putting a universal ethical frame around his argument, the president added that American must act decisively and call evil by its name because "moral truth is the same in every culture."

Unlike many strands of pacifism, Catholic teaching stresses the obligation to actively resist evil in the realm of international affairs. But since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s the Church has made a growing case for non-violent alternatives to armed conflict (whenever possible), as Pope John Paul did in resisting Communism in Eastern Europe.

Most Catholic authorities would be wary of plans for a first military strike. "Only when an attack is grave and imminent can you engage in a preemptive strike. Even then, you have to move cautiously," said Father Christiansen, who is acting director of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and a counselor on international affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

When Bush administration officials speak of preemptive strikes against terrorist-sponsoring regimes, they point first to Iraq, which President Bush has denounced as belonging to an "axis of evil," together with Iran and North Korea. Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's willingness to act brutally has been demonstrated often enough, though the administration has struggled without success to link him to either the September 11 attacks or other recent hostilities.

One question in the debate over preemptive warfare is how certain the United States needs to be that Iraq is preparing to use weapons of mass destruction. Secretary Rumsfeld recently told NATO defense chiefs that absolute proof should not be a "precondition for action," according to news reports.

Father Christiansen told Our Sunday Visitor that absolute certainty of an Iraqi attack may not be necessary, but he added: "I think there has to be a preponderance of evidence that an attack is being prepared. And there hasn't been anything to that effect. If anything Saddam has been cautious. And we haven't found his fingerprints on anything regarding 9/11."

Father Christiansen is among the Church experts who have adopted a more restrictive view of what constitutes a just war, in synch with statements by Pope John Paul. They stand between pacifists who believe the use of deadly force is never justifiable and just-warriors who take what he calls a more "permissive" view. Those in the latter school are generally dubious of the "presumption against war" articulated by the bishops.

Taking the less restrictive view, Diane L. Knippers of the Institute on Religion and Democracy believes a preemptive attack on Iraq might well be a moral imperative, in view of Saddam's track record and his capacity to use weapons of mass destruction.

She argues that ethicists should not insist on airtight evidence of an impending attack, before backing the war option. "Some people want to raise the bar so high that it's impossible to act. And that's de facto pacifism. And I think pacifism in the face of the terrorist threat is wrong," said Knippers, whose ecumenical Christian advocacy group is based in Washington.

Father Christiansen explains that the evolving Catholic view is not pacifist. Even in the traditional just-war approach, Church authorities must contemplate whether a first strike against Iraq would cause more harm than good -- for example, whether it would trigger Islamic uprisings in other Middle Eastern countries. He also notes that many analysts believe Saddam is more likely to use cataclysmic weapons if backed into a corner.

"Preemption seems to offer a prescription for catastrophic mischief in the international field," he said.

William Bole is a journalist in Lowell, Massachusetts, and an associate fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington