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Autumn 2007 | Volume 30, Number 2 | Features

More Conversation With George Weigel

George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
George Weigel
The continued discussion between SPU's Professor Kathleen Braden and George Weigel, including his views on just war, the conflict in Iraq, and the relationship between Catholic and evangelical social engagement.

Q: As a Catholic myself, I tried to listen as you spoke on campus through the ears of my SPU students, whom I’ve known for the last 24 years. For students who haven’t come from a Catholic tradition, how would you explain what you mean by “Catholic social teaching”?

A: I would say it’s a body of thought about the moral goods to be sought in society, and how these are appropriately advanced. You don’t have to believe in the primacy of the Pope, or the seven sacraments, to engage this body of thought about the right ordering of society. From the beginning, with Leo XIII in 1891, the social teaching of the Catholic church has been addressed implicitly — and now explicitly — to all people of good will. It doesn’t require a Catholic admission ticket to play on this intellectual field of inquiry about the right ordering of society. One of the most interesting developments of the past 10, 15 years has been politically engaged evangelicals looking for a grammar and vocabulary that allow them to advance what they know to be true in public life and turning to the social teaching of the Catholic church to find it. A premier example of this is Mike Gerson, a graduate of Wheaton College and speechwriter to President Bush in his first term, who frankly admits that he found out how to turn his convictions into publicly available language through an encounter with the social doctrine of the Catholic church.

Q: I wonder whether Catholics and evangelicals have come to some common language about our responsibility for engagement in the world. I sense a real intersection that I did not sense 25 years ago, or is it just in the political arena?

A: It’s much deeper than that now. If you look at the statements of evangelicals and Catholics together in First Things — on the nature of the Bible, the nature of salvation, the community of saints, etc. — this has all begun to move to a much more foundational level of systematic or dogmatic theology. And that’s very good. The dialogue has gone far beyond, “How do we elect certain people to certain political offices?”

Professor of Geography Kathleen Braden
Kathleen Braden
Q: You are known for your support of the “just war” tradition. In First Things, you revisited some of the original arguments you made about the coalition action in Iraq, and what I have really appreciated about your book Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Though on War and Peace (Oxford University Press, 1987) is the part about the just war tradition. I know your argument is that Catholics have lost track of what this tradition was exactly. You argue that the just war tradition is an Augustinian view that it’s what results from an action that’s important: the tranquillitas ordinis that’s established. How do you see that unfolding in Iraq? And, given what you’ve mentioned about Muslims in Europe, do you see the ability of a democratic tradition coming out of a Muslim Iraq now?

A: As Bernard Lewis says, there are many forms of democracy. There’s a British form; there’s a French form; there’s a German form; there’s an American form; there’s a Canadian form; there’s an Australian form. And there will undoubtedly be — if this great experiment in accelerating political change in the Arab-Islamic world works — distinctive Iraqi, Jordanian, Egyptian, whatever, forms of democracy. The idea is not to turn all these places into Nebraska; that isn’t going to happen. The first and crucial step is what I would call responsible and responsive government. That may be a little short on civil liberties as we understand the term. It may be a little rough and ready in terms of legislative process as we understand that. But it’s different from autocracy or authoritarianism or, in the case of Saddam Hussein, totalitarianism. It’s responsible in that it’s responsible to a constitution, to a written legal text. And it’s responsive in that it takes the will of the people and the normal procedures of democracy — which include not only voting, but also means of participation in governance — seriously.

Q: Do you see that kind of democracy in the cards for Iraq?

A: It has to be in the cards in the sense of an emerging commitment to a non-sectarian-driven, non-authoritarian-structured government, or we are saying that — at least in this instance — these people are condemned, unlike anyone else in human history, in the world, to live under these terrible political circumstances. Now that’s tough for those of us who believe in the universality of human rights, the universality of human nature, the universality of moral law to say that these people alone — out of six and a half to seven billion human beings — can’t do this.
They’re surely going to take a long time to figure out how to do it. But they never would have had the opportunity to figure out how to do it as long as the dictatorship was running the country for its own benefit.
In the April 2007 First Things piece, I discuss all of the ways in which we didn’t anticipate these problems — which is, you know, a grave responsibility — but I also suggest that simply washing our hands of this is no answer — morally, politically, strategically, or any other way. We have to continue to make the attempt to give these people the conditions under which the better instincts, which showed themselves in those three elections; the better instincts, which showed themselves in the fact that 17 of the 19 provinces of Iraq are in pretty good shape right now; the better instincts, which keep people in the country starting businesses and running schools, have a chance for political expression.

Q: But more than two million people have left the country, and it sounds like some of those are the elite, the best minds.

A: Investment is going on. And new businesses are being formed. It’s a very complicated picture. But the picture is not all a bad picture. That’s the media picture. But the idea that Iraq is nothing but suicide bombing is just a false picture. There are other dynamics at work. And if we can create the security situation in which those other dynamics have a chance to take root so that Shia and Sunnis can reach the conviction that they are better off with a stable state attempting to find a way towards genuine pluralism rather than being at the mercy of jihadists, then there may be some chance of making this work.

Q: It sounds a little bit like a gamble.

A: It’s a huge gamble.

Q: I know you have made the argument that under just war conditions this was a moral choice made by leaders. But it seems like there was a very high price paid by Iraqis and Americans for, in essence, an experiment or a gamble.

A: There’s no question that that’s true. It is also true, I believe, that we were out of reasonable alternatives. If we had done what [Institute for Advanced Study Professor of Social Science] Michael Walzer wanted to do and ramped up the sanctions, created a national no-fly zone, etc., with 3,000 children of Mosul already dying from the sanctions regime, that number would have increased. Ramping up the sanctions was not morally superior to deposing the regime. Let’s say we had just said, “All right. These guys are badly weakened. We can sanctuate more of this.” This is Madeleine Albright: “He was in the box.” Well, he wasn’t in the box. The sanctions regime, bad enough as it was, was already crumpling. The French, the Germans, the Chinese, and the Russians were not going to go along with this indefinitely. The sanctions would likely have been lifted, not strengthened, as Walzer wanted. And then what do you have? You have a Saddam Hussein who has successfully thumbed his nose at the great Satan: Britain and the U.S. As the Darfur Report makes absolutely clear, he was in a position to ramp back up the WMD programs, which everybody knows he had. Then where would we have been? I mean, that’s just not a happy scenario.

Q: During the Clinton administration, I know that you were part of the project, the New American Century that argued that we needed to do something more overt about Saddam Hussein. Do you feel that we’re in better shape, in terms of security, than we were back then?

A: Well, let’s get clear on one piece of political history or diplomatic history. Regime change in Iraq was a stated public policy in the United States from 1996 on. The Clinton administration said, “We want regime change. That’s the only answer to this.” The Bush administration came in, and said, “We want regime change.” Then the question was, How do you effect regime change? I mean, the idea that this is some crazy idea cobbled up by people in Washington just doesn’t meet the facts of the case. The failure was not in taking Saddam out; the failure was in not anticipating what the worst-case scenarios would be when that happened, and to have in place policies, personnel, and an idea of how to deal with those scenarios.

The assumption was that it would rapidly come back together. We miscalculated the amount of damage that had been done by 20 years of Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War and the U.N. sanctions. We failed to enforce order when rioting broke out fairly soon after the regime was deposed. Why? Because we didn’t want to look like occupiers; we wanted to be perceived as liberators. Well, you don’t liberate anybody if they’re suddenly living in a situation of no internal security. So it’s very clear that there was seriously inadequate planning for the worst that could happen after regime change had been effected. So the question is: Now what do you do about that?

I argue that the least worthy thing to do, morally and strategically, is to just say, “We’re out of here.” That is irresponsible. I think the kind of counterinsurgency strategy that General David Petraeus has advocated is the best chance we have, if he is given the force levels needed to do that. And by “best chance” I mean a situation in which in the first quarter of 2008 there has been a marked diminishment in terrorist activity in Baghdad and in Anbar; in which the Iraqi government is not living in an enclave in the Green Zone; in which economic life in Baghdad has resumed in a normal way. There are still going to be terrorist incidents, but the corner will have been turned towards a stable — a more stable — political situation. Then we can build out from there. But no one should be under any illusions that it is going to take anything less than nine months to a year to turn this around. I mean, it just can’t be done in any amount of time shorter than that.

Q: That’s a good commentary on the strategic lesson. What lessons have we learned applying the just war tradition the next time?

A: I think what we’ve all learned is that we have to inquire of our political leadership – not using these kind of safe-media terms like “What’s the exit strategy?” – “What’s the plan to secure the peace?”
In any form of conventional warfare, the United States is going to win. It might take longer in some cases than others, but we’ll win. The question is, then what? And because we are not an imperial power — historically or instinctively — we don’t instinctively ask that question. And that should have been asked much more aggressively in 2002 and 2003. Suppose I had thought in March 2003, we really don’t know what we’re going to do the day after we knock this regime off. What I then would have said is not that we don’t do it, it’s that we don’t do it now. It’s that we get that kind of planning done based on worst-case analysis, so that we know what the brackets are within which we have to deal with this. But I would say that has to do with the timing of this action, not with the justification of it.

Q: I have to admit, looking back at that period and reading what you wrote, reading the statements from Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger at the time, and the debate among the American Catholic Bishops, to me we were all talking about issues like pre-emptive warfare and proportionality. Whereas to me it was the very last bit, the securing of the peace, which you highlight in Tranquillitas Ordinis, that was the missing component in our thinking. And now, four years later, it seems to be what has eluded us and haunted us the most, and so it leaves me wondering, what do we do next time as Christians looking at the just war conventions?

A: I think everyone has learned from this experience the necessity to have, after Plan A succeeds, Plan B, C, D, E, and F in place. I hope one of the things the Vatican has learned about this is that the appeal to the United Nations simply doesn’t make sense. The U.N., as presently constituted, is not capable of dealing with grave international security issues. And it is the height of moral folly to suggest that it does. The situation in Iran is but the latest example of this. So the Holy See needs to think through its default positions on this, just as we have to rethink our approach to, just as we have to re-imagine the necessities of, putting in place the peace of order in the aftermath of military victory. So I hope everybody learns what they need to learn.

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