February 2, 2007


Let’s talk about Iraq

(Listen to this editorial being read)

Immediately following President George W. Bush’s Jan. 10 speech to the nation concerning the war in Iraq, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for “substantive, civil and nonpartisan discussion of ways to bring about a responsible transition in Iraq.”

We need to talk about what’s going on in Iraq for practical reasons—what we’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working. But, even more importantly, we have to talk about the substantive moral issues that are involved in our engagement there.

The Holy See and the American bishops were opposed to military intervention in Iraq from the beginning. History has taught us that, as a strategy, war is rarely worth the cost in human life and economic hardship.

The “just-war theory,” which was first articulated by St. Augustine in the fifth century, holds that war is sometimes a necessary evil, unavoidable in a sinful world.

“But beyond doubt,” St. Augustine wrote in his City of God, “it is greater felicity to have a good neighbor at peace than to conquer a bad one by making war.”

The Iraq of Saddam Hussein was certainly a bad neighbor, and the cause of liberating the Iraqi people was a just one, but it is a matter of debate whether the just-war theory’s requirement that “all peaceful means of resolving the conflict must be exhausted” were honored.

Was the pre-emptive strike against Saddam and his evil regime truly the last resort? Did we have a reasonable probability of long-term success? Have the “benefits” of our intervention been proportionate to the costs of this war?

These are questions that must be discussed in substantive, civil and nonpartisan ways. But more immediately, the bishops tell us, we must also discuss “the key moral question that ought to guide our nation’s actions in Iraq: How can the U.S. bring about a responsible transition in Iraq?”

The bishops believe that America’s military forces should remain in Iraq “only as long as their presence actually contributes to a responsible transition.”

People of good will can debate what the strategic requirements are for effecting a responsible transition, but there should be no question that peace with a good neighbor demands that we end our engagement in Iraq as quickly and responsibly as possible.

In the bishops’ statement, several benchmarks for progress toward a responsible transition in Iraq are cited. These include:

  • Minimally acceptable levels of security,
  • Economic reconstruction to create employment for Iraqis,
  • Political structures that help overcome divisions, reduce violence, broaden participation, and increase respect for religious freedom and basic human rights (especially for Christians and other religious minorities),
  • More sustained U.S. leadership to address other deadly conflicts in this region, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the crisis in Lebanon.

Making peace with good neighbors is much harder than waging war with bad ones. Still, this is the challenge—to be peacemakers—that we Americans are called to accept as a result of our position in the world community.

We would be very foolish to isolate ourselves from this responsibility. As the bishops remind us, lasting peace can only come with “broader regional and international engagement to increase security, stability and reconstruction in Iraq.”

To achieve peace with good neighbors in the Middle East, we must join with other good neighbors throughout the world “to examine where things genuinely stand in pursuing justice and peace in Iraq, to assess what is actually achievable there, and to evaluate the moral and human consequences of alternative courses of action.”

According to an old Quaker saying, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Let’s pray for wisdom, courage, humility and a profound commitment to peace as the only truly acceptable way to achieve a just and responsible and long-lasting transition in Iraq.

— Daniel Conway

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