The debate over the war in Iraq intensifies in Washington and across the nation day by day. Just last week, I was asked by the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine to respond to a question about the war on their “On Faith” website. The question was: Is the Iraq war just?
It’s a question a lot of people continue to argue about. And it was a great question to ask in 2002. Now, in 2007, it’s not the right question.
At the time when American troops were first committed to Iraq, the issue was whether the war met the Augustinian “Just War” tradition with its various criteria: like just cause, proper authority, right intention, etc. I believed that just war standards were met by the threat presented.
There were precedents, as well, for a preemptive attack; as Sir Thomas More put it, “if any foreign prince takes up arms and prepares to invade their land, they immediately attack him in full force outside their own borders.” But it was a close call at the time, and particularly so now, in light of the failures of U.S. intelligence.
But however the war started, the just war criteria are not in question now. In fact, in all the debate about pulling out our troops, no one is really asking the right question. For better or for worse, the United States made promises and commitments to the Iraqi people. So the question now is this: Is it morally acceptable for U.S. forces to leave Iraq in the midst of the bloodshed?
I know what I’m about to say is not going to be a popular thing. But to pick up and leave would break the promises we have made to the Iraqi people, would leave hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians defenseless, would lead to massive chaos and bloodshed, and would be an act of moral dishonor. It would be akin to what the Allies did after World War II, when they abandoned Eastern Europe to the Soviets and returned millions of Russian refugees and POWs to lands occupied by the Red Army—even though the Allies knew that, for many, it meant death and, for the rest, tyranny. That was one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the West—an abandonment of our most fundamental moral principles.
American policymakers must also consider the serious consequences for American security and for the security of our closest ally in the region, Israel. A total withdrawal now would only embolden al-Qaeda (which is active in Iraq and Afghanistan), and it would embolden Iran, whose president, a Holocaust-denier, has declared publicly and often that Israel must be wiped off the map. I believe that abandoning Iraq now could leave Israel’s very existence in question.
As we weigh our moral responsibilities, we need to remember that Thomas Aquinas put the just war doctrine—the idea of government wielding the sword—under the heading of “Love” in his great Summa Theologiae. He did that because being willing to defend innocent civilians is an act of Christian charity.
The job of government biblically is to wield the sword to preserve order and protect life. A policeman in the middle of a gun battle that starts during a robbery cannot just walk away when the shooting gets too heavy. It is his duty as a magistrate to stay and restore peace. Isn’t that the same position we are in now in Iraq?
The politicians tell us we should bring our troops home, and everything will be just fine. Sadly, in a fallen world, it doesn’t work that way. The innocent will die.
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