Panel discusses just war theory and the US role in the Middle East

Fort Collins, Colo. — Catholic speakers and scholars at a Colorado university discussed whether historical promises made by the U.S. to other nations have been held and if America is looking carefully at each criteria of the just war theory in determining actions in the Middle East rather than taking an all-in stance.

Craig White, a former U.S. diplomat to the Middle East, and Christian Brugger, a moral theology professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, discussed just war Oct. 14 at Colorado State University.

The panelists said the just war theory, which says the criteria for going to war are just cause, sovereign authority, and right intention, has spread throughout the West among scholars and theologians as well as people not connected to Christianity. White, who converted to Catholicism right around the start of the Iraq War in 2003, said just war theory began with the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

"Aquinas quotes Augustine and says you have to have a right intention, which really is to aim for peace, so the idea of simply punishing or getting revenge is simply not there," White said. "The idea is that by responding to this injustice, this unjust situation or action, you will restore peace. And if you believe that it is just to go to war against another country, you are aiming for peace in that country, for peace and stability of that country. I think of right intention as the inner core of the case."

White said Aquinas has three more criteria to add to the three basic criteria:

  • Proportionality of ends, which "implies that you have to look at the damage war is likely to cause. You have to be looking forward and make a calculation. You're not restricted to any one category: You look at loss of life, money spent, political devastation, chaos and the result, things like rape, people wounded ... and weigh that against the justice you're trying to achieve."
  • Last resort, which White said doesn't mean a nation has tried everything it can for five years to restore justice and will continue to try something else for another five years. "It means you made reasonable attempts to work through all the possibilities to achieve justice, and the only thing that's going to do it would be war."
  • Reasonable chance of success, which White said is more mysterious. He referred to Aquinas' measurement of success as not just military, but as a stable and just order to restore peace in a place.

"In Iraq in 2003, what struck me is [that] right intention involves [the] last three criteria, which is sometimes called prudential. Prudence is a very important concept for Aquinas and for Aristotle. It's practical common sense. It's the ability to see what you actually can achieve and how your actions are likely to change situations and what's going to happen afterward."

It was the Americans and the British who drew the line around the three peoples of the Middle East who don't like each other in the first place, Brugger said.

"Sometimes, even when we have done something wrong, we incur duties that oblige us in retrospect," Brugger said. He said it was not a failure to go into Iraq in 2003, and it's important to examine history in retrospect. "Now that it's been done, you have an obligation."

The decision "has to be applied in an unbiased way. It's very interesting, the question of goodness versus evil, of light versus darkness, and the amount of critical response on both sides," Brugger said.

"Has there ever been a just war? We can debate that. But they certainly have been debated by public authorities as justifiable to go in," he said, adding that if there were Islamic scholars on the panel, they could point out things that happened that warrant apology.

White said the United States has a duty to Iraq, "but it's a limited duty, and we can't have a duty to do what's impossible. I think our involvement gives us obligations to do what we can in a prudent way. We need a vision for success that's realistic ... if our aim is in some way to help the people in Iraq."

He said he too believed the 2003 war on Iraq was unjust and failed five out of Aquinas' six criteria.

White said while the U.S. government shows respect for Middle Eastern holidays and extends pleasantries, "I think we pat ourselves on the back a little bit in the Middle East and say, 'Those guys just hate each other' and 'We're doing the best we can,' which I think is a superficial response. I feel we could do a lot better. We could show a more consistent respect for Muslims and Islam."

Students attending the panel said the lack of knowledge about history is scary.

"Some of the criterion are really interesting that they presented," said Julia Cucarola, 21, who is majoring in biomedical sciences.

"It was a point of view I hadn't really thought of before. I think it benefits us because a lot of us are very uneducated about what's going on over there, but very soon, we'll be making the decisions about public office. A lot of our politicians don't know everything about [the background], either."

Trey Ahern, 20, a civil engineering major, also said the historical references showed the prominence of judging actions.

"We can't look at just the present to judge a war," he said. "We have to get all the details as well as look back into the past and how we got to this point."

Carron Silva, 47, who attended the talk, is a convert to Catholicism who was born during apartheid in Africa.

"I think in the Middle Eastern perspective, we need to go back to the [British], because they started it all. The whole Palestinian-Israeli question, if you go to the roots of it, it's how the land was divided. Not by the people themselves, but by occupying forces. When we go into a country like Iraq we need to learn from the Brits and the mistakes they made."

[Anna Maria Basquez is a freelance writer based in Denver.]

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