The Vatican (re)discovers Humanitarian Intervention

In today’s news, the Vatican seems to be entertaining the notion of condoning military force in Iraq to stem the tide of Christian persecution at the hands of “The Islamic State” [“IS”], (formerly known as “ISIS”). John Allen Jr. explains:

For anyone familiar with the Vatican’s recent history of bitter opposition to any US use of military force in the Middle East, Rome’s increasingly vocal support for the recent American airstrikes in Iraq may seem, to say the least, a little disorienting.

On Monday, the Vatican’s previously tacit approval for the American intervention turned explicit, as two senior officials offered what amounts to a blessing through official communications channels.

Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”

In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.

Coming from the Vatican’s prior adoption of a functionally-pacifist and “abolitionist” stance on military action in modern times, this is huge. Compare the above with Cardinal Martino (of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace)’s declaration in the National Catholic Register, circa 2003:

Question: “Are you suggesting there is no such thing as a just war anymore?”

Archbishop Martino: “Absolutely. I think with modern weaponry, there is no proportionality between the offense and the reply. It makes much more damage. War is so destructive now. It is not just a fight between one person and another.”

But what’s the reason for this sudden “about face”? — John Allen Jr. explains:

The face-value way to read Monday’s comments from Lingua and Tomasi, however, is as a recognition that there are times when the situation is sufficiently urgent that anyone who steps in, with or without a formal U.N. resolution, can claim the moral high ground.

Even if full legitimacy under international law remains the ideal, in other words, there’s now an exception on the record in favor of “unilateral” action.

Second, the emerging Vatican line clearly establishes a limit to pacifism as an option within Catholic social teaching. In effect, the take-away is that there are times when the use of force is the only option left to serve the greater good.

Third, and most basically, what’s different about 2014 with respect to 2003 isn’t so much the theory but the facts on the ground.

One core reason the Vatican opposed the two Gulf Wars, as well as any expansion of the conflict in Syria, was fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy in which Christians and other minorities would find themselves in the firing line.

That’s no longer a theoretical anxiety. It’s the lived reality of the new caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State …

Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Where have I heard that before? — seems to me the rationale for military action being posited by Allen (or rather, Lingua and Tomasi):

“there are times when the situation is sufficiently urgent that anyone who steps in, with or without a formal U.N. resolution, can claim the moral high ground”;

“there’s now an exception on the record in favor of “unilateral” action”;

“there are times when the use of force is the only option left to serve the greater good”

… sounds awfully similar to that bandied about by the dreaded neocons of yore.

And yet, while I can understand the reasoning for the Vatican’s opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq in Gulf Wars I & II — “fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy [contributing to the persecution of Christians]” — I confess that I’ve also found this kind of reasoning a little too “tribal” (for lack of a better term) for my taste.

What I mean is this — considering all that Iraqis had to endure under life under Saddam Hussein, just to hit a few high points:

  • The gas attacks by Saddam on the Kurdish town of Halabja (4,000-5,000 casualties);
  • The Al-Anfal campaign of Saddam against the Kurds in Northern Iraq 1988 (reported deaths of 50,000-182,000 people, many women and children);
  • Saddam’s brutal crackdown on his own people in June 1994 following Bush Sr.’s pull-out of U.S. forces in Gulf War I with full scale massacres of Kurds (20,000-100,000) and (60,000-130,000) Shiites. (Perhaps it was his father’s (perceived) abandonment of the Iraqis to their fate under Saddam through a policy of “non-intervention” — a move that Bush Senior perpetually regretted — that in part compelled Bush Jr. by conscience to desire to “finish the job”; as well as the development of “The Bush Doctrine”).
  • Lastly, you have the persecution, rape and torture of his own people throughout the reign of Saddam and his two sons. See Michael Totten’s account tour of Iraq’s “genocide museum” in the old headquarters of the mukhabarat

    The hardest thing to see was the cell used to hold children before they were murdered. My translator read some of the messages carved into the wall.

    “I was ten years old. But they changed my age to 18 for execution.”

    “Dear Mom and Dad. I am going to be executed by the Baath. I will not see you again.”

There are testimonies of life under Saddam I could relay that are just as blood-curdling and noxious as any you would read today under ISIS. And yet, what comes to my mind with respect to the Church’s predominant stance vis-a-vis Saddam is not one of clear moral condemnation of Hussein’s regime at the time (did I miss it?), but rather the mental image of the smug, cigar-chomping Taraq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister — shaking the elderly Pope John Paul II’s hand after receiving “red carpet treatment”; the latter’s resounding declaration of “NO TO WAR”. No doubt the Holy Father was genuine in his intentions, but I couldn’t help but think Saddam got the better of that particular photo-op, or what those persecuted Iraqis under him might have felt.

To clarify: I do not wish to absolve or dispute the United States’ own complicity in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow, its incompetency and mismanagement of affairs in the course of helping to establish the new Iraqi state; the collapse of military discipline that resulted in the human rights abuses of Abu Ghraib and elsewhere (thus challenging Bush’s claim that “one thing is for certain … “there won’t be any more torture rooms or rape rooms”).

Nor am I opposed to the United States taking an armed response against IS[IS]. What is happening over there is horrible and forceful reaction on our part is merited. . . . in fact, I am very much in favor of a “you broke it, you fix it” policy with respect to Iraq, and am persuaded that the United States (perhaps at Obama’s wish to have another item to tack onto his post-presidential resume), pulled our troops out of there much too soon.

But to those in Rome who are so emphatic about acting NOW, I am moved to inquire:

Yes, humanitarian intervention NOW . . . but what about THEN?

What I find especially disconcerting about the Vatican’s sudden “about face” is the impression given that it’s only due to Rome’s identification of, and proclaimed solidarity with, the present victims of persecution (= Christians) that they are now urging military action for humanitarian reasons, when humanitarian reasons for intervening on behalf of persecuted minorities strike me to be just as pertinent when said minorities were other than Christian.

Related

  • Saddam Hussein massacres Shiite Muslims, and the Vatican looks away, by Sandro Magister. 11/27/02.
    “Deafening silence from the heads of the Catholic Church regarding religious persecution underway in Iraq. But it´s fully documented. Here are the complete links to the condemning evidence.”

  • “No religion can justify such barbarity” – Statement of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue:

    the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation; -the despicable practice of beheading, crucifying and hanging bodies in public places; -the choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of a tax (jizya) or forced exile; -the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick; -the abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as spoils of war (sabaya); -the imposition of the barbaric practice of infibulation; -the destruction of places of worship and Christian and Muslim burial places; -the forced occupation or desecration of churches and monasteries; -the removal of crucifixes and other Christian religious symbols as well as those of other religious communities; -the destruction of a priceless Christian religious and cultural heritage; -indiscriminate violence aimed at terrorizing people to force them to surrender or flee. No cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity.

  • DarwinCatholic on Vatican Middle Eastern Realpolitik? – Some questions for John Allen, Jr.:

    This certainly seems like a plausible ex post rationale, but is there any evidence that in 1991, 2003, and 2013 Vatican thinking was indeed driven by the idea that it was better to keep Middle Eastern police states in place in order to prevent radical Islamist regimes from coming to power? I remember vague discussion about violence never solving anything, but I don’t recall anything specifically making this argument and in some ways it seems out of character. …

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