Iraq: Now What?


I generally don’t blog about politics, but I was struck by a blunt and difficult question Peter Nixon has asked on the Commonweal blog about Iraq: “Now what?” With his characteristic honesty, Peter admitted his own ambivalent feelings regarding an answer, “I opposed the initial war for reasons that will come as no surprise to any of Commonweal’s readers. But once we had destroyed any alternative form of civil order except our own armed forces, I felt we had an obligation to stay and clean up the mess we made. But every time someone at my parish tells me that a child or grandchild is heading off to Iraq, I get angry all over again.” I’m sure that many of us can relate.

I don’t have a clear answer, but we should recognize Peter’s “Now what?” as a moral question. This might not be easy to do. We might dismissively think of the conflict as “Bush’s war” and imagine that we have no moral obligations towards the people of Iraq. But, on the other hand our discernment might be affected by a desperate need to cling to certain narratives about America and America’s place in the world at any cost, especially as we still find ourselves in the aftermath of September 11 and continue to struggle with unfamiliar feelings of vulnerability. It was on the first anniversary of that horrific event, after all, when President Bush strangely pronounced, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” Our sense of moral obligation might actually become unreasonably inflated if we imagine ourselves to be missionaries.

We might have to struggle against our natural and instinctive isolationism. The freelance writer Christopher Hayes travelled to Dane County, Wisconsin, before the 2004 elections to work for a canvassing operation. He reported that many undecided voters were isolationist, sometimes even because of extraordinarily ugly and derogatory views towards the rest of the world, writing, “Voters I spoke to were concerned about the Iraq war and about securing American interests, but they seemed entirely unmoved by the argument–accepted, in some form or another, by just about everyone in Washington–that the security of the United States is dependent on the freedom and well-being of the rest of the world.” To them, the United States was somehow kept apart from the rest of a hopelessly damaged world, and this could justify even the most amoral and violent action whenever necessary for America, because, as they would say about Arabs, “that’s the only thing these people understand.” But American isolation could also justify simply walking away from the inevitable mess and confusion in a Middle East left to strongmen and fundamentalists, as long as American interests were not threatened, because, well, “that’s the only thing these people understand.” The only moral obligations that make sense as moral obligations, in such an unfortunate view, relate to American interests.

That said, what are our moral obligations to Iraq?

In response to Peter, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels very helpfully pointed readers to the lengthy transcript of a March conference at Fordham on “The Ethics of Exit: The Morality of Withdrawal From Iraq.” I want to provide an excerpt of some comments by the Franciscan theologian Kenneth Himes on the question of “jus post bellum” – a “third category of the just war tradition,” namely, “a set of moral norms to govern the way we end war” (I briefly posted about this earlier). Anyone arguing for withdrawal or a continued American presence (or some combination of the two) must explain how his or her position best fulfills a reasonable interpretation of these moral norms. Withdrawal must not be abandonment. But we should not keep our troops in Iraq if they are merely an irritant, just because we can then continue to believe that “this ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.” Here is Fr Himes:

St Augustine, one of the founding fathers of [the just war] tradition, argued that people fight wars for the sake of peace, and Augustine saw no contradiction entailed by this assertion. For peace is not simply the absence of conflict, rather it is the establishment of a measure of social harmony that reflects, in the words of Sir Michael Howard, “a political ordering of society that is generally accepted as just.”

This positive understanding of peace as more than simply the cessation of armed conflict is what Augustine meant by the expression of tranquillitas ordinis, or an order of tranquility. An order of tranquility is the result of a political community that is rightly and properly ordered, meaning that people live in truth, in freedom and justice directed toward the common good. It is a peace that is within the grasp of human possibility, not just a distant goal for the end time; nor is it the interior peace that is achieved by knowing one’s self to be in right relationship with one’s Creator. Rather, political peace is the construction of an exterior space through institutions and practices that permit men and women to live together; if not as a community of faith, then at least a properly human community.

Peace that is rightly ordered political community is a noble thing to achieve. This sort of political peace has its counterfeit and inadequate expressions as well. That peace can be counterfeit is testified by the Prophet Ezekiel where he reveals Yahweh’s judgment upon those false prophets who misled the people by saying, “Peace where there is no peace.” Recall, too, the ancient historian Tacitus’ description of how the Britons bitterly described their Roman conquerors. Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, they make a desert and call it peace.

There is, in short, a false peace that results from oppression, from fear in the absence of public life. Both history and our contemporary age provide illustrations of a peace unworthy of the name. The risks of creating a false peace; the need to know when to end a conflict; and what must be done in order to secure true peace: all suggest a third dimension of just war reasoning is useful. Recall war, even the most just war, can only remove obstacles to peace. War cannot create peace itself. That comes only after the conflict stops and the hard work of building peace begins.

Besides the meaning of peace, the internal logic of the just war tradition also implies the need for a jus post-bellum. For example, one of the criteria of the jus ad-bellum is reasonable hope of success … meaning that one ought not go to war if there is little chance of success in achieving the purpose of war.



The just post-bellum criteria: Besides the fundamental obligation to protect life and maintain public order, what else might be expected of an occupying victor in war? Most of those who are riding on the jus post-bellum propose some variation on what is called the “principle of restoration,” or a principle of post-conflict assistance. Minimalist renderings of this principle refer to the duty to return to the battlefield and remove the instruments of war: mines, toxic wastes, unused munitions. A stronger reading of the duty is to assist in the reconstruction of basic infrastructure … electrical grids, essential roads and bridges, water and sewage treatment, basic healthcare systems, food supplies, housing stock.

A maximal reading of the duty would expand basic infrastructure to include not only the material infrastructure of roads and utility plants, but also the human infrastructure for peaceful communal life. Securing domestic peace through protection of civil liberties and human rights will entail organization and training of the police and judiciary so that the necessary social space is created for womena dn men to begin the work of restoring public life. In effect, the maximal rendering of the duty encompasses assistance in the creation of civil society.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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