Military action in Iraq (again): Part 2

In the previous post concerning renewed military action in Iraq against Islamic State forces, we concerned ourselves primarily with jus ad bellum, or the moral considerations of justifying the use of force. In that article, we mentioned that considerations of jus in bello and jus post bellum cannot be completely divorced from any ethical treatment of military conflict; we will briefly mention such matters here.

(These opinions are completely personal and in no way are definitive expressions of Catholic teaching; I try, to the best of my ability, to remain completely bound to the doctrine of the Church, and as always, this is merely an attempt to apply that doctrine to the signs of the times. I welcome any criticism and correction in light of the Church’s teaching.)

The current situation in Iraq is directly related to the prosecution of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn. Especially in the latter years of the conflict, after the so-called “surge” had largely broken the back of insurgent networks, public fatigue of war created an increasing pressure on American politicians to end the seemingly open-ended military involvement. The current President of the United States, elected on a platform which included ending the war “responsibly” by 2012, pushed for further accelerations of troop withdrawals. The hasty transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn saw the final withdrawal of US Marines from Iraq, while remaining Army units were redesignated from “Brigade Combat Teams” to “Advise & Assist Brigades”. Heavier restrictions on American operations meant that Iraqi security forces were largely operating alone.

Prior to the planned “end” of the war in 2012, Iraq and the United States could not agree on a “postwar” security deal which involved the continued presence of military bases in Iraq (in the manner of American bases in Japan, Germany, Kuwait, etc.) and American trainers of Iraqi forces. Negotiations stalled over the issue of immunity from prosecution for American servicemen; since Iraq would not grant immunity, the United States withdrew all military personnel by 18 December 2011. Since that date, the Iraqi insurgency predictably increased attacks on Iraqi forces and on civilians. Furthermore, in the Shi’ite-dominated world of Iraqi politics, the government of Nouri al-Maliki began to repress the Sunni minority, leading to greater sympathies with the (largely Sunni) insurgency. In the first month after the American withdrawal, attacks by insurgents killed over 1,000 people across Iraq. Since then, violence has only increased, culminating in today’s status quo.

All this– the sudden and premature exit of US forces, coupled with sectarian tensions exacerbated by the al-Maliki government– has led to the inter-Iraqi power struggle so quickly exploited by the Islamic State. Both Iraq and the United States, by virtue of the the policies they executed up to 2012, bear some moral culpability for fostering the successes of ISIS. They neither set up concrete conditions for the establishment of lasting Iraqi peace, nor did they create a mechanism to respond quickly to a crisis like the present one. This is a jus post bellum issue; adequate measures to secure a stable peace were lacking.

As the two parties eminently responsible for the conditions which gave way to the ISIS offensive, the United States and Iraq are therefore eminently responsible for the ensuing humanitarian crisis. It pertains to them, and to a lesser extent to the other powers directly involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, to take concrete measures to stop ISIS.

On the Pope’s recent comments concerning Iraq

As Pope Francis flew back to Rome after his Apostolic Visit to Korea (19 August), he held the customary press conference with journalists accredited to the Holy See. A question on the Iraqi crisis was raised quite pointedly by an American, Alan Holdren of EWTN. The Pope’s response, however, is a bit ambiguous.

[Q]:  Come Lei sa, le forze militari degli Stati Uniti da poco hanno incominciato a bombardare dei terroristi in Iraq per prevenire un genocidio, per proteggere il futuro delle minoranze – penso anche ai cattolici sotto la Sua guida. Lei approva questo bombardamento americano?

[A]:  Grazie della domanda così chiara. In questi casi, dove c’è un’aggressione ingiusta, soltanto posso dire che è lecito ‘fermare’ l’aggressore ingiusto. Sottolineo il verbo “fermare”, non dico bombardare, fare la guerra, ma fermarlo. I mezzi con i quali si può fermare dovranno essere valutati. Fermare l’aggressore ingiusto è lecito. Ma dobbiamo avere memoria pure, quante volte sotto questa scusa di fermare l’aggressore ingiusto le potenze si sono impadronite dei popoli e hanno fatto una vera guerra di conquista. Una sola nazione non può giudicare come si ferma questo, un aggressore ingiusto. Dopo la Seconda Guerra mondiale c’è stata l’idea della Nazioni Unite, là si deve discutere e dire: c’è un aggressore ingiusto? Sembra di si, e allora come lo fermiamo? Soltanto questo, niente di più.

[Holdren]:  As you know, the United States military has recently begun to bomb some terrorists in Iraq in order to prevent a genocide, in order to protect the future of minorities– I also think of the Catholics under your care. Do you approve these American bombings?

[Francis:]  Thanks for such a clear question. In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I emphasize the verb: to stop. I don’t say “to bomb”, “to make war”, but to stop the aggressor [fermarlo]. The means with which one can stop the aggressor must be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit. But we must also have a memory! How many times, with this excuse of stopping the unjust aggressor, the powers have taken hold of the people [si sono impadronite dei popoli] and undertaken a true war of conquest! A single nation cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, it was the idea of the United Nations: here we must discuss and say, “Is there an unjust aggressor? It seems so. How do we stop him?” Only this, nothing more.

On one hand, it seems as if Francis is holding closely to the line of the Catechism (#2309) which, after listing the strict conditions for military action, states that the evaluation of moral conditions for entering into a war rests with governments. By refusing to approve explicitly any military measures, he appears to acknowledge that the final determination on these matters is not the province of the Church.

His digression concerning powers which undertake a war of conquest under the guise of stopping an aggressor, as Fr. Z. notes, seems to be a subtle jab at the United States rather than, say, at Russia. By mentioning the United Nations, he appeals to a desire for international consensus to greatly legitimize efforts to halt aggressors, which is certainly praiseworthy. However, in the face of Iraq’s current and ongoing tumult, such deliberations seem useless, quite frankly. An appeal to positive law, rather than to the unchanging moral law when confronted with humanitarian atrocity is very problematic, to say the least.

As one of the French journalists on board the Pope’s flight mentioned, the Superior General of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), Bruno Cadoré, as well as the Pope’s own personal envoy to the Christians of Iraq, Fernando Cardinal Filoni, have expressed their readiness to support a military ground intervention to stop the genocide of Iraqi minorities. Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, commented to Vatican Radio that the recent American airstrikes were “something that had to be done, otherwise [ISIS] could not be stopped.” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Holy See Permanent Observer to the United Nations in Geneva, remarked that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”

The desperate pleas of Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, and the now-exiled Archbishop of Mosul, Amel Nona, in favor of concrete Western intervention, only serve to further illustrate the gravity of the ISIS threat. The Catholic bishops of Iraq have no doubts about what is needed.

Let us be clear: a papal press conference is not, never has been, and never will be a definitive expression of Magisterium, and good Catholics can legitimately question comments made therein. To wait on recourse to the United Nations in this critical hour is simply not a decision in favor of Iraq’s minorities, especially when the Islamic State’s deeds are clear to all. If one is constrained to stop an aggressor– which, as the Pope notes, is always licit– one must be prepared to use necessary means as proportional to the threat. In the case of the Islamic State’s campaign of violent ethnic cleansing and genocide, the proportional response to stop the aggression cannot be but military action. As the Pope mentioned in response to another question in this same press conference, con il dolore umano non si può essere neutrali— in the face of human pain, we cannot be neutral.

Pope Francis thanked Alan Holdren for his “clear question” about Iraq. In fact, the question could not have been more clear– it was a simple Yes-or-No question– and a clear question should deserve a clear answer. Regrettably, there is not much clarity when one compares this press conference with the statements of the Iraqi bishops “on the ground”, of Cardinal Filoni (himself a former Nuncio to Iraq), and of other Nuncios schooled in international diplomacy. In the light of Christ’s own words which Francis cites so often, we hope that the Pope will more readily hear the words of his suffering brother bishops and respond ever more firmly against the tragedy in Iraq.

Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ mean ‘no’; all else comes from the Evil One. (Matthew 5:37)

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