There was considerable debate among Catholics leading up to the war in Iraq in 2002-2003.
With respect to the election, however, I find myself continually puzzled by references to this or that candidate’s “support for an unjust war” or the existence of U.S. forces in Iraq in terms of an illegal occupation.
In terms of an “unjust war” — while Pope John Paul II and Benedict expressed disagreement on the justifiability of a war with the nation of Iraq, it would appear that this particular war is over. I am inclined here to agree with Weigel’s observation (Just War and Iraq Wars First Things April 2007):
Framing that debate correctly in just-war terms means recognizing that there have been, in fact, four Iraq Wars since a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003:
- The first was the war to depose Saddam Hussein’s regime and create the political and military conditions for the possibility of responsible and responsive government in Iraq. It was quickly concluded at a very low cost in coalition military and Iraqi civilian casualties.
- The second—the war against Baathist recalcitrants and other Saddamist die-hards—erupted shortly after a decisive military victory had been achieved in the first war. Both coalition and civilian casualties increased significantly.
- As Jihadists such as the late, unlamented Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of “al-Qaeda in Iraq” flooded into the country, they deliberately created a third Iraq war, whose aims included not only driving the infidels from Mesopotamia but also destabilizing the fragile Iraqi democracy they regarded as an offense against Islam.
- The fourth war, between Sunni “insurgents” (terrorists, in fact) and Shia death squads and militias, broke out in earnest after the bombing of a major Shia shrine, the Golden Mosque of Samarra, in February 2006—a decisive event in which al-Qaeda operatives seem to have played a part. The second, third, and fourth wars continue to overlap.
In fact, insofar as military engagements in Iraq at this time appear to take the form of joint actions between U.S. and Iraqi military forces in opposition to Al Qaeda, I find continued characterization of such engagements as “unjust” as questionable. Has the Vatican actually ruled that this is the case?
By way of illustration — in 2006, Al Qaeda was occupying Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi, with the intent of establishing a new Islamic caliphate and holding its 400,000 inhabitants hostage. Tribal sheiks rebelled in a movement known as the “Anber Awakening”, collaborating with U.S. forces under General David Petreus in expelling Al Qaeda from the province in what is recognized as a turning point in the war against Al Qaeda-in-Iraq:
Ramadi’s transformation is breathtaking. Shortly before I arrived last November masked al-Qaeda fighters had brazenly marched through the city centre, pronouncing it the capital of a new Islamic caliphate. The US military was still having to fight its way into the city through a gauntlet of snipers, rocket-propelled grenades, suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Fifty US soldiers had been killed in the previous five months alone. I spent 24 hours huddled inside Eagles Nest, a tiny COP overlooking the derelict football stadium, listening to gunfire, explosions and the thump of mortars. The city was a ruin, with no water, electricity or functioning government. Those of its 400,000 terrified inhabitants who had not fled cowered indoors as fighting raged around them.
Today Ramadi is scarcely recognisable. Scores of shattered buildings testify to the fury of past battles, but those who fled the violence are now returning. Pedestrians, cars and motorbike rickshaws throng the streets. More than 700 shops and businesses have reopened. Restaurants stay open late into the evening. People sit outside smoking hookahs, listening to music, wearing shorts – practices that al-Qaeda banned. Women walk around with uncovered faces. Children wave at US Humvees. Eagles’ Nest, a heavily fortified warren of commandeered houses, is abandoned and the stadium hosts football matches.
“Al-Qaeda is gone. Everybody is happy,” said Mohammed Ramadan, 38, a stallholder in the souk who witnessed four executions. “It was fear, pure fear. Nobody wanted to help them but you had to do what they told you.”
(How life returned to the streets in a showpiece city that drove out al-Qaeda Times Online August 31, 2007).
Hostilities in Iraq by no means have ended, but such success stories as this are becoming more and more frequent. In October, U.S. and Iraq fatalities fell to a record low in October, the sharp drop reflecting “the overall security improvements across the country following the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and the rout suffered by Shiite extremists in fighting last spring in Basra and Baghdad.”
The situation, however, is precarious:
“Iraqi government figures showed at least 364 Iraqis killed in October — including police, soldiers, civilians and militants … the Iraqi death toll serves as a reminder that this remains a dangerous, unstable country despite the security gains, which U.S. military commanders repeatedly warn are fragile and reversible.”
So I find myself asking: with the chief perpetrators of violence being Al Qaeda and the incursion of foreign fighters from Iran and Syria, what do we owe the people of Iraq?
And while the Vatican has indeed criticized the United States’ overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein, is this to say that our current presence in Iraq (chiefly engaged in humanitarian effforts, providing security, and training allied Iraqi forces in counter-insurgency) is rightly characterized as “unjust”?
“Our nation’s military forces should remain in Iraq only so long as their presence contributes to a responsible transition,” the statement reads. “Our nation should look for effective ways to end their deployment at the earliest opportunity consistent with this goal.”
As far as I understand, both candidates appear to be genuinely supportive of this objective.
Parting thoughts: there are recognizably serious reservations about fighting a “perpetual” conflict from the perspective of just war criteria. Unfortunately, this does not change the historical reality: that we are presently involved in what is sometimes referred to as “the long war” against the threat of a radical Islamism* — of which 9/11 was not the start but simply an awakening.
A war that is presently occuring on a global front, and in which the successful withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan — even the successful capture of Bin Laden — can hardly be considered as an indicator of ‘victory’.
In fact, we should recognize that this war is chiefly ideological and spiritual, and that if victory can be achieved at all, it will be accomplished not by military strength (though there is a legitimate role for such), but the persuasion of hears and minds.
Here I think it is important to heed the observation of Fr. Samir Khalil, SJ, that Islam is not the enemy per se (Islamism, a disease of the Muslim world):
Islam does not identify itself with radical islamism. But radical islamism is not foreign or separate to Islam: it is one of the possible readings of Islam (that is the Koran and the Sunnah); in short the worst possible reading.This is why it is not only essential that Islam and islamism are not confused, but that Muslims are encouraged to reject islamism as an unnatural alteration of authentic Islam, and to combat this invasive tendency.
For a perspective on what has gone before, I recommend Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.