Author - Gerard Powers

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The Pope, ISIS and U.S. Military Intervention
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Let’s Not Forget About Nuclear Disarmament

The Pope, ISIS and U.S. Military Intervention

Much is being made of the Vatican’s uncharacteristic statements lending support for limited use of force against ISIS. The most recent came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative to the UN agencies in Geneva and Vienna. In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Tomasi said, “We have to stop this kind of genocide. Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t do something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.”

Archbishop Tomasi’s recent statement is consistent with statements by Pope Francis, who said last August, in response to questions about the U.S. bombing campaign, that, “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.”

Is the Vatican position on ISIS a sharp departure from recent Church teaching and action on the use of military force? It certainly is, if one considers the Church’s opposition to the Iraq interventions in 1991 and 2003, an increasingly strong emphasis on nonviolence in Church statements, and numerous papal warnings that “war is not the answer.”

But, in fact, the statements on ISIS are not charting a new, more militant position for the Church. The Catechism retains the Church’s traditional embrace of a highly restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition. Moreover, the statements on ISIS are very similar to earlier statements on the use of force against Al Qaeda and the right and duty of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other cases of genocide. The Church has long said and continues to say that there is just cause for the limited use of military force in exceptional circumstances. Specifically, it supports the Responsibility to Protect: the duty of the international community to intervene to protect civilians against mass killings and other egregious human rights violations when the government is unable or unwilling to do so.

None of this suggests the Vatican is abandoning its healthy skepticism about the ability of military interventions to meet strict just war norms. Two issues are of special concern, especially for those concerned about the implications for U.S. policy.

First is legitimate authority. Consistent with its strong support for strengthening international law and international institutions, the Vatican has called for the UN Security Council to determine what means are necessary to deal with cases like ISIS. As the pope said last August, “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor.” Archbishop Tomasi reiterated this point: “It will be up the United Nations and its member states, especially the Security Council, to determine the exact form of intervention necessary, but some responsibility [to act] is clear.”

Why insist on UN Security Council authorization? After all, at least in Iraq, U.S. (and Iranian) intervention at the invitation of the Iraqi government may be justified as collective defense under article 51 of the UN Charter. The problem is that the Iraqi government’s moral and political legitimacy is in question. While the government has taken some positive steps to include Sunnis and Kurds in recent months, it remains largely sectarian and its efforts to combat ISIS risk exacerbating that sectarianism. Its reliance on Iranian and Shiite militias to retake Tikrit is the latest example.

In Syria, the need for UN Security Council authorization is even more clear, but less possible. It is more clear because there is a failed government and an anarchic situation with hundreds of rebel groups of various stripes. It is a classic case for invocation of the Responsibility to Protect. But it is less possible to get Security Council authorization due to differences among the Permanent 5. Unilateral intervention might be justified because the UN Security Council has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in response to the crisis in Syria. But unilateral intervention doesn’t solve the problem that there is no legitimate and credible government or opposition group to support.

Legitimate authority is closely connected to a second concern: finding morally appropriate and effective means. As Pope Francis clarified when he said there is just cause to stop ISIS: “I’m not saying bomb or make war, just stop.” Since the end of the Cold War, the Vatican has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene when whole populations are at risk. By intervention, it means a wide range of actions, only some of which involve military force. Efforts to cut off ISIS’ access to weapons, financing, oil markets, and new recruits are just one example of what needs to be done.

While limited military intervention also seems necessary, we must be brutally realistic about what that might achieve. For most of the past 12 years, the United States has bombed, fought, trained and armed the Iraqi government. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. Is it reasonable to expect military intervention to produce significantly different results today than it has over the past decade? Without a serious and sustained political strategy to build a more democratic, human-rights respecting, and effective government in Iraq, military force will be of only limited effectiveness against ISIS, whose strength is, in part, a function of the Iraqi government’s political weakness.

And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What would be the objectives of military action? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government, too? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation? If the latter, who would undertake the Iraq-style occupation and nation building that would be necessary, and what grounds do we have for thinking that would succeed any better than it did in Iraq?

There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria.

The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum. U.S. policy has suffered a double moral failure: it was immoral to intervene in Iraq in 2003, and in the years since, its self-serving, misguided, incompetent and sometimes grossly negligent policies have failed the Iraqi people. The first moral failure made the second more likely. These many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their “ancient hatreds.” But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become –voluntarily! – very much a part of those hatreds.

The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved – peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention. Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics – to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.

Let’s Not Forget About Nuclear Disarmament

On September 22, in a little-noted address to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Archbishop Antoine Camilleri, the Holy See’s foreign minister, reiterated the Holy See’s long-standing call for “a world free of weapons of mass destruction.”

This call for nuclear disarmament is motivated by concerns about the increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons due to nuclear proliferation, accidental launch, and terrorists obtaining nuclear capabilities.  It is also motivated by the “appalling” humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, as well as “a sobering assessment of the immense resources required to maintain and modernize nuclear arsenals.”  In language uncharacteristically blunt for a Vatican diplomat, he concludes that “the mere existence of these weapons is absurd and that arguments in support of their use are an affront against the dignity of all human life.”

It is easy to dismiss this and similar statements by Vatican diplomats and popes as little more than hortatory or utopian appeals by religious leaders who do not bear the burden of making the hard choices faced by political and military leaders.  And that was the fate of many such statements in decades past.

But today, religious leaders are, in some ways, behind their political and military counterparts.  The policy debate on nuclear disarmament has moved ahead of the ethical debate.

The U.S. nuclear debate is a case in point.  The Catholic Church in the United States played a significant role in the nuclear policy debate of the 1980s.  In their pastoral letter of 1983, The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops declared that nuclear deterrence is ethically permissible only as a step toward progressive disarmament. Some of those who dismissed that call for progressive disarmament as utterly utopian in 1983 have since taken it up as their own.  Three decades later, in a radically transformed world, the moral imperative for disarmament identified by the bishops is now endorsed as a policy goal by prominent military and political figures, as well as by the U.S., Russian and other governments.

Although U.S. bishops and the Vatican continue to question the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence and have called for greater progress toward a world without nuclear weapons, the role of the Catholic community in this debate has diminished in recent decades.  Many of the Catholic bishops who spoke on these issues have passed on or retired. More important, scholars have devoted little attention to the new ethical challenges that arise as the world moves toward global zero. Catholic scholars, even those deeply committed to Catholic social teaching, are generally uninformed about and unengaged in the nuclear debate at the very time when the Church’s long-standing calls for disarmament are gaining traction among policymakers.

There is a gap in the ethical analysis needed to sustain calls for nuclear disarmament by religious leaders and policy experts.  Questions that need fuller examination include:

  • What is the relationship between nuclear deterrence and disarmament as the world moves toward a nuclear ban?  Since global zero would likely make nuclear weapons even more valuable, more usable and more destabilizing given the risk of nuclear break out, what forms of deterrence would be morally acceptable then?
  • Would new forms of deterrence and defense have to be complemented by a new doctrine of disarmament intervention?
  • Does an ethics of disarmament require further development of a political ethic of peacebuilding?
  • What are the implications for an ethics of sovereignty and the role of international insitutions if a global ban on nuclear disarmament is to be effective?

With the support of former Senator Sam Nunn’s Nuclear Threat Initiative, the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies has teamed up with the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; and Boston College on a new Project on Revitalizing Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament.

This project was launched in April of this year with a colloquium for bishops, scholars and students at Stanford’s Hoover Institution that was hosted by former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry. A symposium on the ethics of nuclear disarmament is taking place this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  That will be followed by public events at Catholic universities around the country, as well as a concerted effort to publish scholarly articles.  At the same time, we will work with Global Zero groups on college campuses to catalyze greater engagement in this issue by young people.

Strengthening the Church’s capacity to support and engage in the policy debate on nuclear disarmament will require expanding the number of bishops and Catholic ethicists and teachers who are well-versed on the moral and policy issues at stake. It will require the development of a sophisticated body of scholarly reflection on the ethics of non-proliferation and disarmament that is comparable to what was produced during the Cold War. It will also mean encouraging greater public engagement on these issues, particularly among young people.  This multi-faceted approach will help empower a core group of Catholic bishops, ethicists, opinion makers, and youth leaders who will be well placed to make a distinctive contribution to the ethical and policy debate on nuclear disarmament.

For further information:

Archbishop Antoine Camilleri address to IAEA, September 22, 2014: http://www.aleteia.org/en/world/aggregated-content/holy-see-calls-for-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons-5775544201248768

Press release on Stanford colloquium, April 28, 2014: http://www.usccb.org/news/2014/14-070.cfm

Press release on statement by Rev. John Jenkins, CSC. President, University of Notre Dame, April 28, 2014

http://news.nd.edu/news/48001-bishops-notre-dame-and-other-universities-encouraged-by-schultz-perry-and-nunn-commit-to-revitalizing-catholic-engagement-on-nuclear-disarmament/

Essays on Catholics, Universities and the Nuclear Threat in Peace Policy, May 2014: http://t.e2ma.net/message/ssm0h/c480k

 

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.