U.S. Scholar Weighs In on the Debate over Iraq
WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 22, 2002 (ZENIT). Amid the debate over possible
military action against Iraq … ZENIT turned to George Weigel, senior
fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and the
author, most recently, of "The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis,
Reform, and the Future of the Church" (Basic Books).
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ZENIT: Much of the opposition against U.S. military action centers on
worries about endorsing the concept of a pre-emptive strike. What does
Catholic moral teaching have to say on this matter?
Weigel: As the classic just-war tradition evolved over the centuries,
three situations satisfied the criteria of "just cause":
defense against an aggression under way, recovery of something
wrongfully taken, and/or punishment for evil.
Modern just-war thinking, which is reflected in articles 2 and 51 of the
U.N. Charter, has tended to limit "just cause" to
"defense against an aggression under way." But we should note
that the idea of a moral obligation to "humanitarian
intervention" in cases of genocide—of which Pope John Paul II
spoke at the Rome—based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1992—raises
interesting questions about reviving the classic category of
"punishment for evil."
In the case of Iraq, the crucial issue in the moral analysis is what we
mean by an "aggression under way." When a vicious regime that
has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against its own people and
against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule
of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works
feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, I
think a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an
"aggression under way."
The nature of the regime, which is the crucial factor in the analysis,
makes that plain. It surely makes no moral sense to say that the U.S. or
the international community can only respond with armed force when an
Iraqi missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction has been launched,
or is being readied for launch.
To be sure, there are serious questions of prudence to be addressed in
thinking through the question of military action against the Iraqi
regime. At the level of moral principle, however, it seems to me that
there are, in fact, instances where it is not only right to "go
first," but "going first" may even be morally obligatory.
And I think this may well be one of those instances.
Q: War is seen as increasingly unacceptable, in an age of weapons of
mass destruction. Yet those in favor of action against Iraq argue that
forceful action is necessary, precisely to eliminate this type of arms.
Can we reconcile these fears of not wanting to spark off destructive
conflict, while keeping undesirable regimes from using chemical,
biological or nuclear weapons?
Weigel: President Bush's address at West Point this past June clearly
linked the war against terrorism, and the possibility of military action
against aggressor states with weapons of mass destruction, to the
pursuit of world order: an order based on justice and freedom. This
speech has not been taken seriously enough by the president's critics,
in my view.
There is a great deal of concern, in Europe and elsewhere, about the
precedent that would be set by overriding the "presumption of
sovereign immunity" that all nation-states enjoy. I would respond
that this presumption assumes that the state in question displays at
least a minimum of agreement to minimal international norms of order.
A regime like Saddam Hussein's in Iraq cannot be granted that assumption—because
its behavior has demonstrated that it holds the principles of
international order in contempt. Some states, because of the regime's
clearly aggressive intent and because there are no effective internal
controls on the regime's behavior, simply cannot be permitted to acquire
weapons of mass destruction.
Just-war thinking begins with a basic moral judgment: that legitimate
public authorities have a moral obligation to defend and pursue the
peace of order, which is composed of justice and freedom. History has
shown that that kind of peace can be advanced, in certain precise
circumstances, by the proportionate, discriminate and strategically wise
use of armed force.
Q: Many are calling for no action to be taken without U.N. approval. Up
to what point is a nation obliged to submit to international authorities
before commencing war?
Weigel: The question of "legitimate authority"—a classic
just-war category—is a very urgent one today. The U.N. charter itself
recognizes a right to national self-defense, which implies that defense
against aggression does not require the authorization of the Security
Council; it is, rather, an inalienable right of nations.
If the use of military force in a given case is intended, among other
things, to advance the cause of world order, it certainly helps at the
prudential political level if the use of force is approved by the
Security Council. But I don't think a correct reading of the just-war
tradition leads to the conclusion that such prior approval is morally
It has been said recently that a failure to obtain prior Security
Council approval for a U.S. or coalition assault to disarm Iraq of
weapons of mass destruction would mean that the "law of the
strongest" was replacing international law. I respectfully
What it would mean is that the United States and allied countries,
having made clear that they intend their action to advance the cause of
world order to which the U.N. is dedicated, have decided that they have
a moral obligation to take measures that the U.N., in its present form
and cast of mind, finds it impossible to take—even though those
measures are aimed at advancing the Charter's goals. And that, it seems
to me, advances the cause of world order over the long haul.
Q: Can we still speak of a "just war," or do we need to
reformulate traditional principles? What would be some guidelines in any
rethinking on this subject?
Weigel: The just-war tradition will always remain normative for the
Church because it is rooted in the principles of natural law. What is
needed today is a development of the tradition.
I've already mentioned the need to refine what we mean by "defense
against aggression"—in a world of international terrorist
organizations and rogue states—and "legitimate authority"—in
a world in which nascent but often ineffective instruments of world
The just-war criterion of "last resort" also needs refinement:
What, for example, does it mean to say that all non-military actions
have been tried and failed when we are confronted with a new and lethal
type of international actor, a terrorist organization that recognizes no
form of power other than violence and that is largely immune to the
diplomatic and economic pressures that can be put on states?