IIFor an organization like the National Council of Churches, whose pitiful decline had been described less than two years earlier by its own former general secretary as a passage from the mainline to the oldline to the sideline, the Gulf crisis may have seemed a Godsend. Here, at last, was the opportunity to recoup the losses of the 1980s, and to regain the leadership position that had been severely eroded by years of demographic decline, financial mismanagement, and the dramatic falsification of the NCC worldview by the Revolution of 1989, the ouster of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the democratic/capitalist revolution that seemed to be sweeping the world. Attention, it must have seemed, would be paid, as indeed it was, by journalists who were either too ignorant or too committed to the NCC’s politics to challenge its spurious claim that the Council represented some 42 million Americans (fully 65 percent of whom, it can safely be assumed, rejected the NCC’s Gulf politics). But in fact what the NCC demonstrated, in a veritable blizzard of “messages,” “resolutions,” and faxes to the President, and in a highly publicized “Church Leaders’ Peace Pilgrimage to the Middle East” (staged just before Christmas on December 1421, 1990), was how utterly beholden it remained to the politics of blaming America first, and how little it had to offer to serious moral debate about the ends and means of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. As early as September 14, 1990, the NCC’s Executive Coordinating Committee was critical of the deployment of U.S. forces to the Gulf which, according to the NCC, raised the spectre of “Vietnam.” The Executive Coordinating Committee did condemn the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, and applauded the way in which the Bush administration had used the United Nations. But the gravamen of the NCC’s concerns, at this early date, clearly had to do with the possible use of American military power in the Gulf”a point that was driven home in no uncertain terms two months later when the General Board of the NCC adopted a “Message on the Gulf and Middle East Crisis” that fairly bristled with resentment over the continued build-up of US. forces in the Gulf. The Bush administration, according to the Message, was guilty of “reckless rhetoric” and “imprudent behavior” that had led to “widespread speculation in our country, in the Middle East, and elsewhere that the United States will initiate war.” In the face of such provocations, the NCC felt compelled to “unequivocally . . . oppose actions that could have such dire consequences.” But the NCC was not content with warnings against the “militarization” of the conflict. The itch to play geopolitician proving irresistible, the Council went on to urge effective linkage between the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and Israel’s position in the Occupied Territories (which, it will be remembered, was precisely Saddam Hussein’s proposal at the time). Indeed, if one extrapolated Saddam Hussein’s intentions from the NCC’s descriptions of the realities of the Middle East, the Iraqi dictator invaded and occupied Kuwait in order to help the Palestinians”a proposition that would be risible if it weren’t so desperately and tragically wrong-headed. The November 15 Message concluded by making a dichotomy between “a new era of international cooperation under the rule of law” and “rule based upon superior power” (as if the rule of law in international affairs could be enforced by good will alone). But, its political foolishness aside, what was so striking about the NCC Message was its sheer poverty as a moral reflection. The document contained two brief biblical citations, and its opening section was headlined “theological and moral imperatives.” But there was no theology here, in any recognizable sense of the term. Just war criteria”as principles of statecraft, and as bases for assessing the morality of the possible use of armed force in the Gulf”were singularly and glaringly absent from the NCC’s analysis. But neither was the Message rooted in principled pacifism. It simply lacked any serious moral content at all, substituting for moral analysis a tendentious and myopic reading of Middle Eastern politics, coupled with the hoary charge that it was American power that was most to be feared in the region. (Even this failed to satisfy United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco, chairman of the NCC committee that drafted the resolution accompanying the Message, who urged his fellow bishops in California and Nevada to speak out against “U.S. aggression in the region.” President Bush, according to Talbert, was the “real aggressor” in the Gulf, and represented an America that hadn’t “learned anything from Vietnam and Korea.”) A month later, in the week before Christmas, the NCC’s staff coordinated its Pilgrimage to the Middle East. The statement “to the American people” released by the eighteen oldline and Orthodox leaders who participated in this classic political pilgrimage ratcheted up the rhetoric of the Message more than a few notches. The resort to armed force by the U.S. in the Gulf “would be politically and morally indefensible.” (Note the sequence of concerns.) “It is entirely possible that war in the Middle East will destroy everything.” (Everything?) The “war option” would yield “certain catastrophe.” (The “peace pilgrims” couldn’t even get the basic facts straight: according to their message, Jordan was led by a “compassionate” and “democratic” government.) And the alternative to the “war option”? It lay, according to the pilgrims, in “citizen action and the strength of public opinion,” which could “literally make possible a solution to this crisis without war.” How was not specified. One cannot know with certainty the motivations of the denominational leaders and others who participated in this alleged peace pilgrimage. But what can be said with assurance is that its effect, given the content of the post-pilgrimage message and what can be inferred from that message about the politics of those involved, was to reinforce Saddam Hussein’s view that the force of public opinion could be used to compel the United States and its allies to stand down from their commitments to Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. The “Church Leaders’ Peace Pilgrimage” was, in short, nothing of the sort. It was, rather, a grotesquely irresponsible action that arguably made a military confrontation more likely in the Gulf. Finally, on January 15, 1991, the day that the UN resolutions had specified as the absolute deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the NCC coordinated a fax letter to President Bush from thirty-two heads of denominations and ecumenical organizations that urged the President, “Do not lead our nation into this abyss,” for once begun, “it is unlikely that this battle can be contained in either scope, intensity, or time.” Moreover, the “sacrifice” which Bush seemed prepared to make “is out of proportion to any conceivable gain which might be achieved through military action.” No parallel request was made to Saddam Hussein, urging him to comply with the relevant UN resolutions. Indeed, throughout the five and a half months of the Gulf debate, between the invasion of Kuwait and the launching of Operation Desert Storm, the NCC was immeasurably more concerned about the possibility of the use of U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf than it was about resisting the aggression of Saddam Hussein. “War” would begin, and “peace” would end, when U.S. forces were engaged; it did not seem to occur to the officials of the NCC, or to the oldline denominational heads who aligned themselves with the NCC, that war had begun on August 2, 1990 with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. There was no “peace” in the Persian Gulf after August 2; but one would never have learned that from the NCC. Moreover, for an organization that has not been loath to condemn human rights violations committed by regimes it regards with disfavor, the NCC was strikingly silent about the post-invasion rape of Kuwait, which included (according to Amnesty International) such refinements of social control as the bayoneting of pregnant women, the summary execution of children in front of their parents, and the abandonment to their deaths of infants torn from their hospital incubators. Nary a rubber bullet can be fired on the West Bank or in Gaza without the wrath of the NCC being engaged. But about the rape of Kuwait, a gruesome and odious business even by the debased standards of the neighborhood, the NCC; was virtually silent. Such moral obtuseness was of a piece with the NCC’s puerile analysis of the politics of the Middle East. Time and again between August 1990 and January 1991, the NCC warned that any U.S. military action would inevitably inflame the Arab masses, would revive ancient cultural phobias about Western crusaders, and would yield an unbridgeable chasm between the United States and the Arab countries. Indeed, so deeply had the NCC drunk from this particular well of disinformation that it seemingly could not grasp the most elementary facts: that Saddam had in fact invaded another Arab country; that leading Arab powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia were allies of the United States, and moreover allies who could hardly wait for Saddam and his regime to be disposed of; that Saddam’s Arab support, such as it was, came from such poor fish as Yemen, the PLO, and Libya. No, in the NCC’s view of the world, it was “the Arabs against the United States””which was, of course, precisely the view of the matter that Saddam Hussein was busily promoting. For decades now, the NCC has urged that the United Nations be more regularly and effectively used as an instrument for dealing with international conflict. And yet it could not bring itself to accept the Security Council’s judgment that January 15, 1991”a date some five and a half months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait”constituted a reasonable deadline for the unconditional withdrawal of Saddam Hussein’s army of occupation, even after Saddam Hussein had crudely rebuffed UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar in his final attempt to get the Iraqis to abide by the resolutions of the Security Council. Since the NCC is not formally a pacifist organization, one can only conclude that its rejection of the UN position on the Gulf crisis had more than a little to do with the fact of American leadership on the Security Council and in the multilateral military force that would enforce the Security Council’s resolutions. The NCC’s pusillanimity in the face of Saddam Hussein and its quick reach for “moral equivalence” between the United States and Iraq were not, of course, unexpected. Indeed, one of the great sadnesses in American religion today is the widespread expectation that the NCC will, on any given issue involving the United States and the world, further mortgage its already tattered claim to be any sort of moral mentor to the American body politic”not simply by what it says, but by the singular failure of its leadership to learn anything from the Council’s errors of moral and political judgment over the past generation. That case was put, interestingly enough, by a group of Czechoslovakian Christian activists who asked American Protestants to disregard the NCC’s Gulf pronouncements. Said the Czechs to the Americans, “Your church representatives have underestimated the criminal nature of the Marxist regimes. Now they underestimate the criminal nature of the regime of Saddam Hussein . . . . We do not trust your church representatives who in the name of peace hamper the Gulf-area initiative of your president.” It was a damning indictment, but like so many other such indictments in recent years, one fears that it will have no discernible effect on the leadership of the NCC. There was one new player in the NCC’s cast of political characters on the Gulf crisis, though: Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine, and a twenty-year veteran of radical politics who now couches his judgments in terms of “prophetic” Christianity. Just prior to the NCC-coordinated Church Leaders’ Peace Pilgrimage to the Middle East (in which he participated), Wallis circulated a memorandum (dated December 13) with his analysis of the Gulf crisis. Parts of that memorandum appeared, verbatim, eight days later in the “message to the American people” issued by the “church leaders” after they had putatively consulted with religious and political leaders in the region. This not only casts further doubt on the open-mindedness with which the church leaders undertook their “peace pilgrimage,” but it also illustrates the important role that Wallis”who long ago transcended moral equivalence and is firmly lodged in the camp of those who blame America first and early”now plays at the higher altitudes of the NCC.
IIIThe formal response of the U.S. Catholic bishops to the Gulf crisis was of a higher caliber of moral reflection than could be found in the pronouncements of the NCC. Gulf politics had dominated debate at the bishops’ annual meeting in November 1990, and out of that meeting had come two letters: one by Archbishop Roger Mahony (addressed to Secretary of State James Baker in Mahony’s capacity as chairman of the bishops’ committee on international policy), and a second from National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ chairman Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk (addressed to President Bush). Between the sending of these letters there occurred two vigorous debates, one in a closed executive session, in which the left wing of the bishops’ conference, led by veteran Pax Christi activists such as Detroit auxiliary bishop Thomas Gumbleton, had pressed for an outright proscription on the use of U.S. military force in the Gulf. The body of bishops was not prepared to go as far as Gumbleton wished, and indeed the Mahony and Pilarczyk letters were explicitly couched in the just war language and style of moral reasoning that Pax Christi effectively rejects. But the net result was to yield an NCCH position that was widely, and not altogether inaccurately, reported by the prestige press as a Catholic rejection of Bush administration Gulf policy. The bishops’ position, as articulated in the Mahony and Pilarczyk letters and in subsequent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Archbishop John Roach (Mahony’s successor as chairman of the committee on international policy), laid great stress on the efficacy of economic sanctions as a means to bring about Saddam Hussein’s unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait”a position shared, of course, by a number of prominent political and military analysts, including former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral William Crowe. But there were two other dimensions to the sanctions issue, neither of which received sufficient attention in the bishops’ letters and testimony. On the empirical side of the affair, there was the devastating report issued by House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin, which argued at great length and with considerable force that sanctions would never work”if by “work” one meant the unconditional withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and the disarmament of Iraq’s vast arsenal of offensive weaponry. More to the point, the bishops’ letters and testimony never engaged the moral dilemma of a sanctions policy, which lay in the fact that economic sanctions would be felt first and hardest by those whom the just war tradition requires us to treat as noncombatants (i.e., the ordinary people of Iraq, whom President Bush had insisted from August on were not our enemy) and last by those whom we were most concerned to sway”the military-political leadership of the Saddam Hussein regime. There was, in other words, a just war “problem” with the sanctions policy. and it went unacknowledged in the bishops’ letters and testimony. The Mahony and Pilarczyk letters and the Roach testimony also put great stress on the just war criterion of “last resort,” as indeed they should have. But the bishops seemed to treat “last resort” as virtually an arithmetic concept, which is not the way the world, or the just war tradition, works. One could always imagine “just one more” non-military initiative that could be tried in a sequence that by definition is infinite in duration. No, what the tradition means by “last resort” is that all reasonable efforts at a non-military solution have been tried and have failed. In the face of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz’s behavior in Geneva on January 9, and Saddam Hussein’s rebuff of the Perez de Cuellar and French initiatives in the last hours before the UN deadline of January 15, it is difficult to argue with President Bush’s judgment that all reasonable non-military remedies had been exhausted. Both the Mahony and Pilarczyk letters and the Roach testimony put great stress on an alleged shift in U.S. policy in early November 1990, when American forces were enhanced so as to provide what the bishops persistently described as an “offensive” military capability in the Gulf. This, the bishops seemed to suggest, changed the moral calculus in some important way. And yet it is difficult to see how”unless one falls into the moral and political trap of assuming that “peace” prevailed in the Gulf between August 2, 1990 and January 16, 1991, the difference between “peace” and “war” being U.S. military engagement with Saddam’s forces. But this was palpably not the case, as President Bush said, simply and with great effect, in his address to the nation on the night of January 16. Military action to repel aggression, deter future aggression, and enforce international norms of conduct according to the authority of both the Security Council and the United States Congress does not constitute “offensive military action” in the sense that the U.S. was somehow initiating combat for aggressive ends. Saddam Hussein started the Gulf War on August 2, 1990. The remaining question (between August 2 and January 15) was whether the war could be ended on terms that met the criteria of the just war tradition as a moral calculus of statecraft and that satisfied Catholic understandings of a just peace through other-than-military means. It would have been helpful had the bishops acknowledged this. The Catholic debate over Gulf policy beyond the confines of the NCCH and the United States Catholic Conference was depressingly reminiscent of the vacuities that marked the NCC’s engagement with the issue. Pax Christi indulged in a classic bit of moral equivalence in a lengthy ad that it took out in the National Catholic Reporter, arguing that Bush administration Gulf policy “polarizes the region by demanding loyalty to one side or the other, rather than requiring that the world listen to both.” (One wonders what Pax Christi thought it would hear from Saddam Hussein.) Nor did Pax Christi resist the temptation to use the Gulf crisis to plug other items on its ideological agenda: “This crisis is a painful reminder of our complicity in patterns of consumption to support a lifestyle that is fundamentally unjust and excessively wasteful. By our actions, we have shown that we are ready to kill and we are ready to die, but we are unwilling to curb our ecologically disastrous consumption habits.” The inadequate, albeit serious, statements of Archbishops Mahony, Pilarczyk, and Roach were subsequently vulgarized by individual bishops in the days immediately preceding the engagement of U.S. forces with Saddam Hussein’s military machine, as may be seen in comments made by auxiliary bishop William Curlin of Washington, D.C, and Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond (the incoming president of Pax Christi). Bishop Curlin, in a homily delivered at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on January 13, made the remarkable historical judgment that “there are no winners when wars are ended”there are only losers,” and, noting America’s continuing problems with homelessness, abortion, alcoholism, drug addiction, and racial injustice, asked, “Who are we to say we have the answers for justice in our world?” (According to the Curlin Rules, the United States should not have acted to resist fascist aggression in the 1940s, because there would only be losers in such a fray, because Jim Crow laws were on the books in dozens of states, and because the armed forces were officially segregated.) Bishop Sullivan, as is his periodic wont, took matters considerably further, suggesting that Catholics in the military consider disobeying orders to participate in this war “which the Catholic Church considers unjustified and immoral.” That judgment had not, of course, been made in those precise terms”unless, of course, one is to consider as the teaching of “the Catholic Church” the construal of NCCH documents by the Bishop of Richmond. Of far more concern for the future of the Catholic debate was the position taken by the Jesuit periodical Civilta Cattolica, whose editorials are frequently vetted by the Vatican Secretariat of State and are thus often assumed to have quasi-official status. In its November 17 issue, the journal made a number of highly contingent judgments about modern warfare”that its “nature” has changed fundamentally; that noncombatant immunity is a thing of the past; that any war inevitably involves “not only two or more nations but directly or indirectly the planet””and concluded that “war today, except in the case of defending oneself from a grave aggression underway, is morally unacceptable, whatever the reasons given for its justification.” Reports as to whether this editorial reflects official Vatican policy have varied, with some denying that it in fact carried the imprimatur of the Secretariat of State. Be that as it may, the editorial clearly identifies two critical points of friction between certain currents in contemporary Catholic thought and the evolving just war teaching of the Holy See. The first of these friction points has to do with the Catholic understanding of “just cause.” Papal teaching since World War II has drawn the boundaries of “just cause” ever more narrowly, doubtless in part because of the threat of nuclear war in a world dominated by the Cold War. Yet in the post-Cold War world, inhabited as it is by such as Saddam Hussein, cannot one make the case without opening the floodgates to Hobbes’ war of all against all”for a revivification of the notion of “punishment for evil” as one of the legitimate components of a “just cause”? Surely the question is worth pursuing rather than dismissing out of hand. Then there is the question of modern weapons technology and the just war tradition. The Civilta Cattolica editorial, reflecting a widespread opinion in Catholic moral-theological circles, assumes that modern weaponry is inherently disproportionate and indiscriminate. And yet the extraordinary advances in precision targeting graphically illustrated by the performance of the Tomahawk cruise missile and U.S. “smart bombs” during the air campaign against Iraq (and particularly against Baghdad) suggest that the opposite may be closer to the truth: modern weapons technology makes “proportionate” and “discriminate” use of armed force far more likely than it was when Father John Ford, S.J., wrote his seminal 1944 essay, “On the Morality of Obliteration Bombing.” At the very least, some reconsideration of the assumptions about modern weaponry that informed the Civilta Cattolica editorial seems in order.
IVThe conclusion that almost certainly has to be drawn from the Protestant oldline and Catholic statements on the Gulf crisis is that the leadership of these two critical sectors of American Christianity is now functionally pacifist in its politics. This is not, it must be emphasized, a pacifism of moral principle. Rather it is a functional pacifism rooted, for many oldline leaders in particular, in a profound alienation from the American experiment and in a deep conviction that American power cannot serve good ends in the world. Indeed, I believe that the actions taken by the National Council of Churches and by the more radical wing of the Catholic leadership were grounded, not in a concern that American military action would fail, but in a deep fear that it would succeed. And were it to succeed, these men and women instinctively understood, that would be the end of “Vietnam””the prism through which their politics had been focused for a generation, and the paradigm by which they had persistently read (which is to say, misread) the international politics of the 1970s and 1980s. For here, after all, was a possible use of American military force that ought to have drawn the support of oldline and Catholic leaders, and precisely in terms of their own professed principles and regional concerns. A brutal dictator, armed to the teeth with offensive military capabilities and busily developing weapons of mass destruction (including those nuclear weapons that had so exercised religious leaders in the early 1980s) invades, occupies, and dismantles a neighboring country. The invaded country is an Arab country with a substantial number of Palestinian workers. The leading Arab financial power (Saudi Arabia) and the leading Arab military power (Egypt) support the United States in its resistance to Iraqi aggression. The President locates U.S. policy in terms of supporting a “new world order” in which the rule of law replaces the law of the jungle. The United Nations, in an unprecedented collective security action, moves against the aggressor. The Soviet Union joins with the United States in garnering the votes on the Security Council. A program of economic sanctions is undertaken. Israel stays on the sidelines. The world decides, through the Security Council, that enough time has expired: Saddam has been in Kuwait for five and a half months, on any day of which he could have brought the Gulf crisis to a non-military resolution by the simple expedient of withdrawing his army of occupation. The Security Council and the Congress authorize the use of U.S. armed forces. Our Arab allies join us in the campaign. If, under these circumstances, the leaders of oldline Protestantism and American Catholicism cannot bring themselves to say that here is a situation in which the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force is morally justifiable, then it is hard to imagine what use of U.S. military power these religious leaders would ever sanction. They have, to repeat, become functional pacifists. And in doing so, they have abandoned one of their most precious slogans, that of “peace and justice.” There has been virtually no attempt to maintain this form of “linkage” in the church debate on the Gulf. “Justice” has been abandoned, as the NCC long ago (in days of the Cold War) abandoned “freedom” as a political component of peace. What has been left is a debased concept of “peace” that has long been regarded as morally suspect by both the just war and pacifist traditions: “peace” as the mere absence of conflict. Yet one can only conclude that, for much of the country’s religious leadership, the debasement has gone even further: “peace” is the absence of armed American engagement in international conflict. How else can one understand the bizarre claims that “peace” reigned in the Gulf until January 16, 1991, and that the United States initiated the “war” that ensued, then and only then? Those who thought that anti-anti-Communism was the driving force behind the politics of the religious left (which has long included much of the oldline leadership and which has made more of an impact on the foreign policy views of the Catholic episcopate than one might think) were mistaken. The deepest taproot of the politics of the religious left is its profound skepticism about the American experiment. A racist, imperialist, militarist, and, laterally, sexist America cannot act for good ends in the world. That is the orthodoxy in the NCC and in a depressingly large part of the Catholic episcopate. And the orthopraxis follows with inexorable logic: resistance to American power”not resistance to Saddam Hussein’s aggression”is the index by which one measures one’s commitment to “peace.” An American Christian leadership that had concluded, in conscience, that the Gospel demanded a pacifist position would be an American Christian leadership worthy of respect. It would be a religious leadership with which one could engage in honest conversation about the relationship between religiously derived moral norms and the exigencies of public life. But a religious leadership whose views of international politics derive from forms of Christian sentimentality that effectively deny classic Christian understandings of the brokenness of creation, a religious leadership that is palpably alienated from even a critical affection for the American experiment and what it means for the world”that is a religious leadership that will become, as in many respects it has already become, utterly irrelevant to the public moral argument about the right ordering of our society and the definition of its role in the world.
George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of, among other works, the forthcoming Freedom and Its Discontents.