Last 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. Essays 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.
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