Friday, January 09, 2004

The Little-Discussed Question of Humanitarian Intervention

I finished Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World this week. It's very well written, aimed at a popular audience and for that reason easily accessible, addressing the case for the U.S. "war on terrorism" in light of just war tradition. To gain an insight into where she's coming from, please see Michael Cromartie's excellent interview with her in Christianity Today, in which she wonders:

The notion that you must be directly attacked in order for a casus belli to pertain is wrong, for example. A strict interpretation of that requirement would mean we shouldn't have gone to war against Hitler's Germany, either: Germany had not directly attacked us. What was interesting to me is that people who otherwise lament sovereignty in favor of a far more internationalist or "cosmopolitan" outlook were suddenly using sovereignty and non-interference as if these were well-nigh inviolable concepts! 1

The limits of "national sovereignty" has been mentioned on this blog before, and Elshtain raises a valid concern about something I'd like to study further: the proper context for, and justifiability of, humanitarian intervention. While much of the debate over Iraq is centered upon the existence (or not) of WMD's, "imminent threat" and Saddam Hussein's collaboration with international terrorism, Elshtain joins those who would have put humanitarian reasons as the forefront of the case for U.S. intervention in Iraq:

I don't think the Bush Administration got the proportions right in making its case. . . . Saddam is the biggest killer of Muslims the world has ever seen. With some 50 mass gravesites now unearthed in Iraq, the full horror is coming into view. . . . I would have put the human rights issues front and center, the genocide against the Kurds, the destruction of the whole way of life of the Marsh Arabs, the attacks on Shiites in the South, on and on. Read Samantha Power's book on genocide for the details. Here the just war formulations of St. Thomas Aquinas would come to the fore very quickly, given his arguments about the "repression of wrongdoing," applied to the offensive as well as the defensive use of force. A passive toleration of massive injustice and wrongdoing in the name of "peace" is, for Aquinas, a serious offense.

I am currently reading James Turner Johnson's Morality and Contemporary Warfare, on the development of just war tradition (religious and secular) in the contemporary world. Johnson is one of the foremost scholars of this topic in the U.S. (perhaps the world), and his style of writing is very technical and academic -- it makes for exhaustive reading at times, but ultimately worth it.

As I've blogged about earlier, both Turner and George Weigel have criticized the Bishops' document Challenge of Peace for its innnovative notion of a "presumption against violence" -- which they say has no historical basis in the classic just war tradition of the Church, and betrays the influence of modern Catholic pacifists upon the clergy. Framed against the threat of 'nuclear holocaust,' the focus of the document was on the critical need for "arms control and disarmament, efforts to minimize the risk of 'any war,' civil defense, non-violent means of conflict resolution, and the strengthing of world order." Absent from this document, says Johnson, was a section on the possible use of armed force for the promotion of justice -- an issue which is prominent in the classical just war tradition.

Consequently, Johnson sees the U.S. Bishop's 1993 reflection on the 10th anniversary of the pastoral letter, Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, as a major improvement upon the former, because it recognized the integral link between justice and peace, and addressed the issue of humanitarian intervention by the military as a means of implementiing justice in the world. Letting the bishops speak for themselves, they summarized their position as follows:

In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.

But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.

Moreover, in the specific section on 'humanitarian intervention', the Bishops quoted from an address of John Paul II that same year:

Once the possibilities afforded by diplomatic negotiations and the procedures provided for by international agreements and organizations have been put into effect, and that [sic], nevertheless, populations are succumbing to the attacks of an unjust aggressor, states no longer have a "right to indifference." It seems clear that their duty is to disarm this aggressor, if all other means have proved ineffective. The principles of the sovereignty of states and of non-interference in their internal affairs -- which retain all their value -- cannot constitute a screen behind which torture and murder may be carried out. 2

In the past, the U.S. Bishops have been quite vocal about the necessity of humanitarian intervention by the military to correct gross abuses of human rights and restore order ("Harvest of Justice" mentions a variety of situations and countries where intervention might be applicable). In May 1993, Archbishop John Roach, head of the bishops' International Policy Committee, called for intervention in Bosnia in a letter to Secretary of State Christopher. In a lecture on the moral issues at stake in the Iraq debate, James Turner Johnson asks: "Where are these voices now? Are the rights of Iraqis less important than those of Bosnians, Kosovars, and Rwandans?" 3

Given its importance in a document published only a decade ago, one might expect that the issue of "humanitarian intervention" would play at least some role in Catholic discussion of the war over Iraq, or that Bishop Gregory might have made some mention of this in addressing the matter with the Bush administration (in Sept. '02 and March '03). However, much of the debate (online and off), by all sides, has been confined to the question of "imminent threat" and Iraq's potential to harm us -- not on the perpetual state of aggression ("lasting, grave and certain"?) which the Iraqi people had to endure at the hands of Saddam's regime. I believe that the U.S. had sufficient evidence before this war to realize the extent of Saddam's crimes to warrant serious debate on whether humanitarian intervention on behalf of the Iraqi people was necessary. It is my opinion that nothing short of this would have been a deterence. But the reluctance of many Catholics to seriously address this issue in relation to the debate over Iraq is truly unfortunate. 4

  1. Dirty Hands and Concrete Action: A conversation with Jean Bethke Elshtain Interview by Michael Cromartie. Christianity Today Books & Culture, Sept./Oct. 2003.
  2. John Paul II, "Address to the Diplomatic Corps," January 16, 1993, Origins 22:34 (February 4, 1993), 587.
  3. Using Military Force Against the Saddam Hussein Regime: the Moral Issues, by James Turner Johnson. Lecture delivered to members and guests of the Foreign Policy Research Institute on December 4, 2002. Johnson is one of the few religious ethicists who treats seriously the question of humanitarian intervention in Iraq as a reason worthy of discussion.
  4. It is not that WMD's and Saddam's alleged ties to Al Qaeda aren't important -- they should be discussed, and bloggers like Dan Darling do an excellent job of covering these issues.