the imaginative conservative logo

61-just-war001Last week, the US Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement saying that military intervention in Libya “appears to meet” the just-cause criterion of Catholic teaching on just war, cautioning, however, that it has “refrained from making definitive judgments” in light of “many prudential decisions beyond our expertise.” Additionally, this past Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI urged the international community to end hostilities in Libya. Because there’s been considerable discussion on this site about our involvement in Libya and many of us, including myself (a Roman Catholic), disagree with our intervention, I wanted to make several points about the U.S. bishops’ and Pope Benedict’s statements about our involvement in Libya, especially in light of what we now know (or don’t know) based on Obama’s attempts last night to explain the reasons for our engagement.  

First, note that the bishops did not specifically say by whom military intervention in Libya is appropriate. Posts and comments here have focused primarily on U.S. involvement. Bishop Hubbard, who penned the statement, speaks, however, in terms of the “internationally-sanctioned military mission.” His statement, actually a letter addressed to National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon, implicitly acknowledges U.S. involvement, but it neither distinguishes between the appropriateness of military intervention by the U.S. alone and its involvement as part of an international collaborative effort, nor concerns itself with the constitutionality of Obama’s unilateral decision (i.e. without the approval of Congress) to intervene.

The legality of U.S. involvement is relevant to the just war theory, however, because one of its criteria is that the person engaging in military action possess the right of war, a right that lies solely with the sovereign authority of the state. Our Constitution prescribes limits to a President’s use of our nation’s right of war.  A such, the President can only exercise this right if he acts within constitutional limits. The constitutionality of Obama’s decision to engage us militarily is, therefore, relevant to whether our involvement complies with the just war theory. Of course, being outside their area of expertise, the bishops can hardly be faulted for ignoring the constitutional issues in connection with the just war doctrine. Being a former constitutional law professor, these issues should not be outside Obama’s expertise, however.

Second, despite the USCCB’s opinion that it meets at least one of the criteria for a just war, this past Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI called for a “suspension of the use of arms,” later indicating that he was appealing to “international bodies,” including “those who hold military and political responsibility.” Pope Benedict XVI did not explain his statement, but without more from either Pope Benedict or the USCCB, there is no reason to assume that: (1) that the U.S. Bishops believe military intervention justified; or (2) as a result, the Pope and the U.S. bishops disagree.

The reason we should not assume the bishops and the Pope disagree brings me to the third point: it is important to realize that the U.S. bishops address only one of the multiple standards for determining whether a war is just and even refuse to draw a definitive conclusion regarding compliance with this standard. Specifically, the bishops focus on whether the military action serves a “just cause,” i.e., a case where the damage inflicted by the aggressor…[is] lasting, grave and certain” (CCC 2309), and state that military intervention seems to meet this criterion because UN Security Council Resolution 1973 demands “a ceasefire and a a complete end to all hostilities and attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.”

The letter mentions some of the other criteria for a just war, but only asks the questions that would need to be answered to determine whether military action meets those standards, and in no way concludes that it does. In fact, given the mere reference to Resolution 1973 without any further analysis, one might also conclude that the military effort in Libya fails to satisfy the “just cause” criteria. True, killing innocent civilians would constitute a lasting, grave danger, but as Obama made plain last night, our intervention was to prevent a massacre, not stop one that had already begun. Although the just war doctrine requires that military action be defensive and not aggressive, experts on the just war doctrine typically allow for instances where a preemptive, yet defensive, use of military force is justified. But such instances involve a fact-specific determination and are a matter of prudential judgment that is open to various morally legitimate, even if contradictory, conclusions. For this reason, the U.S. bishops conclude only that our intervention appears to satisfy the “just cause” criterion of the just war doctrine, and admit that this is a prudential judgement that would require greater expertise regarding the specific facts of the situation. In such circumstances, and without a better understanding of the situation, one could also legitimately conclude that our intervention fails the “just cause” test.

Unfortunately, Obama’s speech did not even attempt to provide the facts that would be necessary to persuade either the bishops or the American people that a massacre of Benghazi was immanent. He simply asserted that it was, and apparently expects us simply to trust him because he said so. Consequently, for all of Obama’s assurances that our duty as a moral people required us to intervene, we are in no better position after his speech to judge whether we actually achieved the moral high ground by means of our intervention.

Further, as far as the apparent discrepancy between the U.S. bishops and Pope Benedict is concerned, it is entirely consistent to make a tentative statement, as did the bishops, that intervention appears to comply with the just cause criteria of the just war doctrine and to join with the Pope in his call for an end to hostilities. In fact, as mentioned, thanks to Obama we still do not have a firm basis for making a well-reasoned prudential judgment regarding whether our intervention was morally justified. Thus, the bishops stop short of making such a judgment.  Further, as peace is always to be preferred over war absent clear justification, Pope Benedict is also correct in calling an end to hostilities (“infallibly” so insofar as he is addressing everyone involved—rebels, Gaddafi, the U.S., the UN, etc.—and this is true even if we were justified in intervening to prevent a massacre).

Again, the U.S. bishops did not address the other just war standards except to raise the questions that the U.S. and, indeed, the entire international coalition would need to answer in assessing conformity to the just war doctrine. Here again, Obama’s speech offered no answers. For instance, the just use of military force also requires: (1) a serious prospect of success (CCC 2309); and (2) that it not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated (CCC 2309). Obama did address the success of preventing the allegedly immanent massacre of Benghazi and asked again that we trust him on another matter—the alleged eruption of disorder throughout the Middle East had we failed to show Gaddafi we mean business. He did little, however, either to provide the crucial facts necessary to persuade us that his prudential decision on the matter is the correct one, or that intervention will not produced greater evils. As questioned a number of times in posts on this site, how can we possibly be sure that greater evils will be avoided when (1) we haven’t a clue who the rebels are whom we’ve indirectly aided in crippling Gaddafi and (2) we can’t be sure what the cost in American lives and gold will be should the prevention of greater evils require regime change on the scale of Iraq?  To these question, Obama’s speech simply gave no answer.

Finally, apart from the just war doctrine, he did little to provide a coherent policy about when we are bound by moral obligation to intervene and when we aren’t. On the one hand, while he denied any significant U.S. interest in Libya itself, we do have interests in the Middle East as a whole. On the other hand, “who we are as a nation” are people whose high moral principles require we intervene to prevent or put a stop to the large-scale taking of innocent life. But he also indicated that we do not have an obligation to intervene everywhere and at anytime. Does that mean that our moral principles are tied to at least a tangential national interest, so that we intervene for humanitarian reasons only when there is also a national interest at stake? If so, such muddled moral thinking shows that Obama can be clear at least about one thing: that moral questions of all sorts, not just abortion, are above his pay-grade, not to mention his level of expertise.

Despite the high-toned moral rhetoric about “who we are as a nation,” Obama’s speech failed miserably, even insultingly so, to persuade us of the true justice of the cause. Whether this is because he’s unfamiliar with moral analysis, or lacks the facts and principles necessary to carry it out, I suppose, like many of the issues surrounding or involvement in Libya, we’ll never know.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
10 replies to this post
  1. This is a very clear analysis of the letter the bishops sent to Donilon. I looked at multiple newspapers (liberal/pro-Obama) and all their comments on the letter were to the effect that USCCB had given full approval of the military action Obama had authorized in Libya. This, however, is a very wrong analysis of the carefully worded letter from the bishops. The newspapers also said that the Pope was in conflict with the bishops; this is also false.

    The most the bishops said in the letter, this is the basis for the newspapers' analysis, is that the military action may fulfill ONLY the first requirement for just war, which is “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain” (CCC 2309). How is this requirement met, and what is the lasting damage we are seeking to right? Although Obama and his gang are declaring that we are going to Libya because of a humanitarian effort to save the civilians who are being potential slaughtered over there, I find this declaration very hypocritical and thus hard to believe. The reason being, if we are worried about the citizens being slaughtered, we would also send troops to other nations where citizens are actually being killed. If we use this reason, we would be more justified in invading South American countries. Therefore, I think this reason is just a figurehead to conceal the true reason: we are going into Libya to secure our oil interest.

    Now one must ask: is loss of PART of our oil import a grave or lasting damage? Obviously it is not; yes, it may temporarily raise oil prices. However, we just need to import from a different country or start drilling here. The loss of Libyan oil does not fulfill the first requirement of just war, and it is still necessary to examine the last three.

    1) All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    2) there must be serious prospects of success;
    3) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
    From my research into different newspapers, I have not found one instance of Obama trying to negotiate a peace with either of the parties. Unless he has done this, he cannot go into Libya with the military. There may be a slight chance of success, but definitely not a serious one. We could easily overthrow Gaddafi if we put all our resources into, but doing that would not bring success. It would be necessary to not only overthrow Gaddafi, but to also establish a new government over there to prevent an unjust regime rising to fill the power vacuum. However, after our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I do not believe we have the ability to setup a good functional government in Libya. Therefore, we do not have serious prospects of success. Finally, the evil we produced has the potential of being much worse than Gaddafi's regime. Once we create a power vacuum by overthrowing the current regime, those most likely to fill it right now are the rebels. We do not know very much about the rebels, but we do know that the are connected to Muslims. From history, both recent and medieval, we know that the regimes established by Muslims are notorious for being oppressive of those who do not support them, especially Christians.

  2. Granted, Joe. But part of what I'm saying is that Obama did not make a persuasive case for its moral legitimacy because he did not offer sufficient evidence for us to see the reasonableness of his decision. What makes matters worse is the fact that moral considerations require that we protect innocent lives abroad, but then suggests that only applies in cases where there's some national interest, which undercuts his appeal to moral principles. In turn, this erodes trust in his ability to assess the moral legitimacy of the conditions for military engagement, if not other matters.

    Further, the sentence you quote from the Catechism raises a lot of unanswered questions: (1) whose common good – the Libyan people's, US's, UN's; (2) whose responsible for considering it – Gaddafi, the Libyan people, US, UN; and (3) who's responsible for taking action to advance this good – again, Gaddafi, the Libyan people, the US, the UN?

    These questions aside, this passage does not imply that we have to accept Obama's evaluation when no evidence has been presented or, at the very least, an explanation as to why more evidence cannot be provided to the public. But in the latter case, it is even more imperative that the President comply with the Constitution and receive Congressional approval. At least in that case, we have a greater hope that the people's interest are represented and that there's sufficient evidence of the need for military force.

  3. Thank you for your response. I think you make several good points.

    I agree that Obama has performed horribly on message and strategy. I suppose his ample ability to make broad appeals just isn't compatible with the situation and we're finding out the hard way that he doesn't have a 4th gear.

    That said, it reminds me somewhat of the message blunders that George W made while justifying going into Iraq. Whether or not the president can or will effectively make their case is important. But, their failure to do so doesn't mean that there isn't a case to be made.

    As you say, nothing the president says means that anyone has to accept their evaluation. Especially with a politician like Obama whose position changes with the polls, it seems likely that whatever his evaluation really was, we're only going to get the filtered, politically strategic version of it. So, it's difficult to know if the case we're being given is even the one really being acted upon.

    In the context of Church doctrine, it's possible that he has information we don't and that he would genuinely determine this meets just war standards. This could put him within rights with Church doctrine despite failing to meet other responsibilities to US citizens.

  4. John,

    Here is what I tried to say earlier. The problem with holding Mr. Obama to a Just War argument is that he is not a Christian, much less a Catholic. The vague humanitarian principles he tries to make sound like they have substance are guides only to the growth of government, not to sound policies, either domestic or foreign. And the two always reflect each other.

    You are so right about the failure of his speech–but then, has he ever given one that had a moral center? You are also right that we on this site must keep our attention centered, so that our (slightly) growing numbers remember that the moral imagination trumps all things political.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Willson, for braving the frustrations of technology again to repost your comments. You raise an interesting question that I didn't think of about whether it's fair to hold Obama to the just war standard, given, as you say, he's not really a Christian and certainly not a Catholic (at best, maybe he's an adherent to that perversion of Christianity – liberation theology).

    My initial thoughts about this are that he can be held to the standard. To the extent that the just war doctrine is a natural law doctrine, relying on principles consistent with Christianity, but not necessarily dependent on it, the just war doctrine would apply equally to the Christian as it does the virtuous pagan. As such, even if Obama doesn't accept the just war doctrine (because he fails even to be a virtuous pagan), we might say that he should accept it, and his not being an orthodox Christian would not be an excuse.

  6. It does not matter whether Obama is A Christian, a Muslim, or a Taoist. The just war theory is based in objective and universal truth; that means, it applies for all time and for all peoples. To say the just war theory does not apply to Obama is similar to claiming that natural law does not apply to him either. Even if he believes he does not have to follow the natural law, or the just war theory, he is still bound to it because it is true.

  7. Yes, John, you and Nemorian (interesting mask) are probably right. The problem is, Mr. Obama would not recognize Natural Law if he tripped over it, which he has already done many times. It's interesting that Ivy League law schools have given us, in the space of just under twenty years, two Presidents who have no understanding of Natural Law?

  8. Mr. Wilson,

    I think I misunderstood you earlier, but it sounded as if you were saying that since Obama is not Christian the just war theory does not apply to him (also the natural law). This is wrong, and I agree that Obama is unable to recognize the natural law. I often wonder if he has even studied the concept. It would be interesting what political theorists and philosophers he studied to attain his law degree.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: