Saint John Paul II was no pacifist. He was a man of peace who recognized that the use of force to protect and promote human rights is sometimes necessary and morally right. Although he didn’t say much about it publicly, he approved of the military action by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan in late 2001 as a justified act of self-defense following the 9/11terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The war in Iraq was a different story. John Paul strongly and publicly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003 and the brief March-April war that followed.
Although the Iraq war has diehard defenders, it is commonly agreed now that both strategically and morally it was a grievous mistake whose disastrous consequences are still being played out. As the U.S. weighs its options in the Middle East with the apparent winding down of the fighting in Syria, it’s worth recalling those events of a decade and a half ago–including what the Pope said–for the light they may shed the present situation.
Saint John Paul’s opposition to the war in Iraq began well before the war started. He and other leading figures in the Vatican spoke out repeatedly against the use of force in the “preventive” or “preemptive” strike that its supporters argued was required by the supposed stockpiling of nuclear, chemical, and/or biological “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
At one point, John Paul went so far as to dispatch Cardinal Pio Laghi to Washington to try to talk President George W. Bush out of going to war. The two men met at the White House, and Cardinal Laghi, a former papal nuncio to the United States and an old friend of the Bush family, made his case; but the president remained unmoved.
Apparently, though, Mr. Bush was not totally indifferent to the Pope’s views. He recruited Catholic scholar Michael Novak to fly to Rome, accompanied by journalist Andrew Sullivan and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, on a mission aimed at changing the Vatican’s mind. Novak did his best, including holding a two-hour symposium for 150 invited guests during which he argued that it was only a question of time before Saddam shared his WMDs with al-Qaeda, but the Pope didn’t budge.
It makes no difference now–and made very little then–but I was one of the comparatively small number of people in the United States who opposed the Iraq war before it began and said so publicly. Like just about everybody else, I believed the WMDs were real. But I reasoned that they were Saddam’s deterrent; and, unpleasant customer though he was, Saddam undoubtedly knew as well as I and everyone else did that it would be sheer madness to use those weapons against the U.S. or Israel. But since Saddam wasn’t doing that and almost certainly wouldn’t do it, the United States had no “just war” grounds for attacking him.
Saint John Paul’s clearest exposition of his case against war came on Monday, January 13, 2003 in his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. There he said:
“Faced with the constant degeneration of the crisis in the Middle East…the solution will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if military victories could be the solution. And what are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo?
“War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”
On March 19, the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq. On April 7 U.S. forces entered Baghdad, and on May 1 President Bush declared the end of major combat. Searchers scoured the country, but no WMDs were found. Saddam Hussein was captured in December and tried and executed three years later.
Insurgent suicide attacks in the country began soon after the fighting ended. By 2006 an average of 2,600 Iraqis were dying each month, and in 2007 the U.S. troop level in the country rose to 171,000. By the end of 2011, when most of the American forces had been withdrawn, U.S. troop deaths totaled nearly 4,500, with 32,000 wounded; over 115,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 10,000 Iraqi troops and security personnel had died. Between 2003 and 2012 the cost of the war in Iraq to the U.S. was over $820 billion.
And now? In time al-Qaeda morphed into the Islamic State, which took over a large part of Syria and declared the establishment of an Islamic “caliphate” before U.S.-backed forces succeeded in defeating ISIS and driving it out of the country. But according to a Washington Post report in March, 2019, the organization by then had already reconstituted itself as a “rural insurgency” in Iraq, where it began, and was carrying out “regular assassinations and bombings” in the countryside north and east of Baghdad.
Events that began in Iraq in 2003 have had a highly destabilizing ripple effect throughout the region, with the big gainers being Russia and Iran. Bad decisions at the highest level of government often1 have bad results far into the future. By no means has America seen the last of the bad results flowing from the bad decision–so strenuously opposed at the time by Saint John Paul II–to go to war in Iraq.