In the context of his Urbi et Orbi address on Easter Sunday, Pope Benedict observed that "nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees." An Italian-speaking friend tells me a better translation would be, "There is no good news from Iraq." I’m not sure that makes much difference.
From the few public comments he has made over the years, and from those who are presumably familiar with his thinking, it seems evident enough that Benedict has been very skeptical about the policy of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Much quoted is Cardinal Ratzinger’s response to a question back when the war was getting under way that the category of preemptive war is not to be found in The Catechism of the Catholic Church .
He was obviously right about that. Talk about preemptive war was part of the Bush administration’s less than careful (others would say arrogant) strategic language, most assertively expressed in the statement on national security of September 2002. Language about preemptive war was provocative and entirely unnecessary. As George Weigel has explained ( here and here ) in the pages of First Things , traditional just-war doctrine adequately provides for the use of military force in the face of a clear and present threat of aggression. Such a use of force is more accurately described as defensive rather than preemptive, and it is worth keeping in mind that in 2003 all the countries with developed intelligence services agreed that Saddam Hussein had or was quickly developing weapons of mass destruction that he intended to use in aggressive war.
That may seem like a long time ago, but it is a crucial factor in understanding subsequent American policy and where we now are in Iraq, which everybody recognizes is a very difficult, if not failed, situation. It is further recognized by almost everybody that the current strategy led by General David Petraeus is a last effort to turn that situation around. (See General Petraeus’ "Letter to the Iraqi People," issued last week.) While there will likely be a U.S. military presence in the region for years to come, the current policy will probably not survive the absence of indisputable signs of success by this fall or, at the latest, by the first anniversary of the announcement of the current "surge."
There are many opinions on the probability of such success. I am impressed by the reporters and informed observers who have in recent weeks offered tentative but hopeful judgments about the success of the Petraeus strategy. (See, for instance, the recent interview with John Burns of the New York Times .) To judge by a few words in his extensive Easter Sunday survey of the world’s many troubles, Pope Benedict is not so impressed. Catholics in particular pay close and respectful attention to the words of the pope, also when he is offering only his own prudential judgment with respect to this or that world problem. Admittedly, it is galling when Catholics and others who are usually blithely indifferent to church teaching seize upon a papal opinion with which they agree and, suddenly becoming hyper-infallibilists, elevate it to dogmatic status.
Pope Benedict said that "nothing positive comes from Iraq." The most plausible interpretation of those words is that he sees no improvement in the situation for the people of Iraq. He says the country is "torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees." He does not say who is responsible for the continual slaughter, the various factions in Iraq or the coalition forces trying to bring the slaughter to an end. His concern for the fleeing civil population is undoubtedly a reference to the rapidly declining Christian population there. The plight of Christians in the Middle East comes in for more extended treatment in his Easter Sunday address. I hope he is wrong about there being nothing positive in what is happening in Iraq. I am confident that he hopes he is wrong. It is inconceivable that he hopes there will be no positive developments in the months ahead.
While opponents of American policy are, quite understandably, capitalizing on the pope’s words, there is a dramatically different response from some other sources. The New York Sun , for instance, featured the pope on the front page and joined that with a long editorial deploring "Benedict’s negativism." The editorial concludes: "Wouldn’t it be something were he, in the wake of his remarks about Iraq, to make a trip to Baghdad and look for himself at the positive things that are happening in Iraq, at the civil population that has chosen to stay and build up the country, and give himself and his billion or more followers a chance to see the situation through eyes of hope."
Well yes, it would be something. Something like a very bad idea, I expect. There are many reasons why the pope should not, and almost certainly will not, insert his person and office into the religious and political rivalries in Iraq, or into the public debate about the merits and demerits of the strategy being pursued by coalition forces under General Petraeus. Among the many topics addressed on Easter Sunday, Benedict devoted a few words to his dour assessment of the situation in Iraq. Lost in this discussion are his extensive comments on conflicts in Africa, very notably on the situation in Zimbabwe, where the Catholic bishops have issued a powerful statement calling for an end to the tyrannical regime of Robert Mugabe.
As for what he said about Iraq, he may be right but I very respectfully hope he is wrong. As I have no doubt that he also hopes he is wrong. In the next several months, all of us will likely know more than we know now about whether there is anything positive about developments in Iraq.