The Way You End a War Can Be Unjust, Too

map2In 1991, St. John Paul II tried hard to warn America away from war in the Persian Gulf. America went anyway.

Once the fighting started, though, John Paul sent a letter to the first President Bush. He said he was still praying for peace, but now he put his hopes on American victory, with minimal casualties.

St. John Paul knew that there were two opportunities to make a war unjust: At its beginning and at its end.

Fast forward to 2003. The same Pope was trying to head off a new war in Iraq with a new President Bush.  He sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to the White House, where he reportedly delivered a new warning from the Pope.

He said three things would happen if the United States went to war. First, there would be many casualties on both sides. Second, the U.S. attacks would spark a civil war. Third, the United States would start the war well, but would have a very hard time ending it well.

The saint has turned out to be a prophet. Iraq is collapsing into violent chaos as Islamic extremists rise to power and it is the United States’ precipitous exit from Iraq that now looks unjust.

The Catechism’s conditions for just war (No. 2309) includes guidelines not only for when wars should and should not be started, but also for how wars should end.

For one: “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

For another: “there must be serious prospects of success.”

We learned the wisdom of both principles in Iraq — the hard way.

Our goals were to establish democracy and eliminate Iraq as a stronghold for Al Qaeda.

But the first goal suffered a major setback when, under our watch, Iraq adopted a constitution that made Islam an official religion and sharia a revered source for law.

The second goal was undercut when we agreed to a timetable that allowed domestic political considerations rather than operational success to dictate our departure from Iraq, and created an opportunity for the Al Qaeda-related ISIS group to rise.

And now the situation in Iraq is deteriorating fast.

Christians are fleeing for their lives from a Biblical country that we have helped reshape into a land of martyrs, voters who once proudly raised ink-stained fingers are hiding out from armed thugs, and the nation is descending into a system of law that rejects religious freedom and the equal dignity of women.

What can be done about Iraq is unclear, but we should certainly learn our lesson and apply it to Afghanistan. With the recent release of key Taliban leaders with a history of oppression, Obama seems to be winding down the war there in an unjust fashion as well.

Take it from St. John Paul II. World War II ended for Poland when the Soviets replaced the Nazis, and the Cold War ended when he replaced them with the Soviets with Solidarity.

He knows it’s not just how you start a war, it’s how you finish it that makes it just.

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Categories:Catholic Social Teaching President Obama

8 thoughts on “The Way You End a War Can Be Unjust, Too

  1. George says:

    Let us fact-check this stinking pile of political bias, shall we?

    Obama (potentially) saved the life of a US soldier with the prisoner trade. You all conveniently keep missing that key point. I find it patently amusing how much you all crow about your pro-life bona fides until it doesn’t fit your political narrative.

    The Taliban is not going away. Hamid Karzai, the hand-picked leader of Afghanistan by the Bush administration, has been negotiating a power-sharing deal with the Taliban for years. Is it any wonder why President Obama may want to get us out of a country where we are 1) fighting against the Taliban while 2) the country we are in is trying to foster a deal to let the Taliban continue to exist?

    And did you miss all those years of the Bush administration propping up the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, all while the ISI let the Taliban run rampant in Waziristan?

    Yes, blame Obama for the intractable problems caused by the Bush administration. Why, how unjust he is not knowing how to fix the absolute mess before him! Shame on him. He should do better.

    1. Joshua Mercer says:

      He was a deserter.

    2. breidenc says:

      George, I don’t know where you got it in your head that this post is “politically biased” when Obama’s name was only mentioned with the release of Taliban leaders. I think Mr. Hoopes has been sufficiently clear about his position regarding the Iraq War, in light of Catholic Just War Theory. In fact, I think he makes the point definitive by saying JPII is essentially telling us (when the Bush Admin. was in charge), “I told you this was coming.”
      At stake in your claims are how to manage difficult and intractable regimes and people. The Bush Administration tried it one way, and the Obama Administration another, but those aren’t being discussed here, only that principles and outcomes weren’t fully considered. Rather, the discussion revolves around the ineffective AMERICAN prosecution of the war as it effects its outcome (as well as the opinion that just war was not met prior to engagement).
      His ultimate point is that AMERICA has left Iraq in a worse state, and I say the blame is on both Administrations, not one alone.
      Your prejudicial bias against reasonable thinking reeks through your entire post. This is why people can’t talk reasonably with each other because the assumption is that the other must be insulted rather than reasoned with. How can people take you seriously if you insult rather than dialogue? You become the “prejudiced bigot” you claim to abhor.

  2. Vincent says:

    Traditional just war teaching has focused on jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) and jus in bello (the just conduct of war). In recent years ethicists have begun to write a great deal about the concept discusses here: jus post bellum (justice following war). Given that the U.S. conduct of the Iraq war failed to meet important jus ad bellum requirements (last resort and proportionality being the most obvious) and important jus in bello requirements (e.g. non-combatant immunity), it is unsurprising that we’ve messed up the jus post bellum as well. It’s not clear we had a lot of just options available though. Precisely because they were tired of civilian deaths and having Washington strong-arming, they wanted us out. It’s possible we could have engaged in more imperialistic strong-arming and forced their government into an agreement that they didn’t want, but would doing so have been just?

    I think the Catholic Church in America could do with some serious reflection on what the Church actually teaches about the requirements of peacemaking and the conditions necessary for a just war. It seems that the average church goer (and indeed the average bishop) does not recognize the extent to which American foreign policy is often in tension or outright contradiction of important Catholic doctrines on these matters. We are raised in this country to regard the military with a scared reverence, and I think that often prevents us from thinking objectively about what our Catholic faith demands.

  3. Bern M. says:

    You are saying that our forces were withdrawn too quickly from Iraq. That may be true, but at this point I don’t see us going back in there with large numbers of troops and equipment.

    Time for the Iraqis to determine their own future. We’ve wasted billions upon billions, and worse, over 4,000 American lives.

  4. Jean says:

    No offense, but who ever thought Obama would begin or end anything justly? The man has no concept of it whatsoever.

  5. Will says:

    There was/is no good way to get out of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These people have been fighting for centuries and will continue to do that if we stay for another hundred years. What is regrettable is the people who have been injured or killed. What is your suggestion on how to leave with any chance of peace?

  6. Vincent says:

    Traditional just war teaching has focused on jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) and jus in bello (the just conduct of war). In recent years ethicists have begun to write agreat deal about the concept disucsses here: jus post bellum (justice following war). Given that the U.S. conduct of the Iraq war failed to meet important jus ad bellum requirements (last resort and proportionality being the most obvious) and important jus in bello requirements (e.g. non-combatant immunity), it is unsurprsing that we’ve messed up the jus post bellum as well. It’s not clear we had a lot of just options available though. Precisely because they were tired of civilian deaths and having Washington strong-arming, they wanted us out. It’s possible we could have engaged in more imperialistic strong-arming and forced their government into an agreement taht they didn’t want, but would doing so have been just?

    I think the Catholic Church in America could do with some serious reflection on what the Church actually teaches about the requirements of peacemaking and the conditions necessary for a just war. It seems that the average church goer (and indeed the avergae bishop) does not recognize the extant to which American foreign policy is often in tension or outright contradiction of important Catholic doctrines on these matters. We are raised in this country to regard the military with a scared reverence, and I think that often prevents us from thinking objectively about what our Catholic faith demands.

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