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Michael Novak Argues Iraq Attack is "Just War" By: Michael Novak
The London Times | Thursday, February 13, 2003


This is an edited extract from his speech "Just War theory and U.S. policy in Iraq," delivered in Rome on February 10, 2003.

AUTHENTIC Catholic doctrine on the just war, as formulated by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, lays out a clear path of reasoning for public authorities. Moreover, the new Catholic Catechism assigns primary responsibility not to distant commentators, but to public authorities themselves. This is for two reasons. First, they bear the primary vocational role and constitutional duty to protect the lives and rights of their people. Second, they are closest to the facts of the case and - given the nature of war by clandestine terror networks today - privy to highly restricted intelligence. Others have a right and duty to voice their own judgments of conscience, but the final judgment belongs to public authorities: "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." (Catechism, #2309)

What is new in the world of Just War theory in the 21st century is the concept of "asymmetrical warfare." This concept has been developed by international terrorist groups that are not responsible to any public authority. In order to demonstrate the inability of elected governments to defend the lives of their own people, these terrorist cells execute dramatic attacks upon innocent civilians. There is widespread moral condemnation of such international terrorist groups, as the enemies of civilized order. The Vatican itself voiced this condemnation after the massacres of September 11, 2001.

How does Iraq fit into that picture? The answer is that Saddam Hussein has the means to wreak devastating destruction if he can find clandestine, undetectable "foot soldiers" to deliver small amounts of lethal chemicals.

Of course, those who choose the path of war will bear responsibility for all its bitter fruits. The moral question here, as in so many areas in which prudence must be invoked, requires the responsible weighing of risks. To settle this moral question also requires knowledge of information from intelligence services, which monitor terrorist networks and their activities.

Some people argue (as I do) that, under the original Catholic doctrine of jus ad bellum, a limited and carefully conducted war to bring about a change of regime in Iraq is, as a last resort, morally obligatory. For public authorities to fail to conduct such a war would be to put their trust imprudently in the sanity and goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Should Saddam violate their trust by a biological attack on a Western city, public authorities who made themselves hostage to his moral reliability would have inexcusably ignored his record.

Just War doctrine has at its root the Catholic understanding of original sin, articulated in this context by St. Augustine in Book XIX of The City of God. In this world, Christians will always have to cope with the evil in the human breast that sows division, destruction, and devastation. St. Augustine had seen many such evils in his lifetime, including the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D. Nonetheless, he held that Christians acting as public authorities are bound by laws of charity and justice even in waging war.

St. Augustine defined peace as the "tranquility of order," represented by a dynamic, changing international order, created by just political communities, and mediated through law. When public authorities move to defend this order against unjust aggressors, theirs is a just political end. Just War doctrine in its ad bellum considerations sets forth the rules under which public authorities are obliged to move to defend their own people and to restore the minimum conditions of international order by means of warfare. Warfare under this teaching is a morally appropriate political end and may be morally obligatory upon public authorities when circumstances dictate that evil must be stopped.

The aim of a just war is the blocking of great evil, the restoration of peace and the defence of minimum conditions of justice and world order. For both Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, just war does not "begin with a presumption against violence," but rather with a presumption that addresses first the duties of public authorities to charity and justice and, second, takes seriously a sinful world in which injustice and violence against the innocent will continue for all time.

No one today denies that international terrorism is a deliberate assault on the very possibility of international order, or that public authorities have a duty to confront this terrorism, and to defeat it. Either the world community now upholds international order or it backs down from its own solemn agreements. In the latter case, individual sovereign nations will refuse to be complicit in the policy of appeasement. To do otherwise would be to join Saddam's conspiracy against international order, and to accrue responsibility for anything he might do.

Let us hope that Saddam Hussein as a last resort decides to obey his solemn obligations under the negotiated peace of 1991, and thus at last meets the minimum requirement of international order. In that case, there will be no war. In that case, the policy of the United States will have succeeded without the need for war.


Michael Novak is a conservative Catholic theologian and author of numerous books.


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