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How Jesus Endorsed Bush's Invasion of Iraq

In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, Bush needed the approval of religious leaders to shore up his religious base and a group of Catholic theoconservatives were happy to help him do just that.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Damon Linker's new book The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday, 2006).

For much of the past 25 years, a small group of Catholic intellectuals has worked to inject its radical religious ideas into the nation's politics. The leader of this theoconservative movement is Father Richard John Neuhaus. In the pages of his monthly magazine First Things , Neuhaus and his ideological allies set the theocon agenda on a range of policies. Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute argues that the American founders were orthodox religious believers who thought of the United States as a Christian nation -- and that American-style capitalism perfectly conforms to Catholic social teaching. Robert P. George of Princeton University insists that abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage (and perhaps even contraception and masturbation) should be outlawed. And George Weigel of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center uses Catholic just-war reasoning to justify neoconservative foreign policy. As the U.S. began to prepare for war in Iraq in 2002, the theocons set out to provide theological justification for the coming conflagration.

Around the time of the January 2002 State of the Union speech -- when President Bush broadened the scope of the "war on terror" to include an "axis of evil" consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- the mood on the American right began to grow fierce. What had been a uniform chorus of patriotic support for the president and the Afghanistan campaign quickly evolved into a frenzy of bellicosity. Some columnists denounced deterrence and stability in favor of unilateral preemptive war to overthrow hostile regimes. Others openly advocated American imperialism. Still others proposed that the United States act to topple the governments of a series of sovereign nations in the Muslim Middle East, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. And these were the intellectually respectable suggestions, published in mainstream newspapers and long-established journals of opinion. Farther down the media hierarchy, on cable news, Internet websites, and Web blogs, conservatives of all stripes closed ranks, unleashing a verbal barrage on any and all who dissented from a united front in favor of unapologetic American military muscle. The participants in this endless pep rally were insistent on open-ended war, overtly hostile to dissent, and thoroughly unforgiving of the slightest criticism of the United States abroad. They were dismissive of complication and analysis, defensive by default, worshipful of "manliness," admiring of swaggering bluntness, contemptuous of doubt and indecision, addicted to hyperbole, eager to expose "appeasement," and prone to paranoia. Self-congratulation and self-righteousness ruled the day.

The theocons contributed to this atmosphere of pro-war hysteria in several ways. Neuhaus established himself as the rare priest who would grant interviews to National Public Radio in order to defend the justice of invading Iraq. Weigel spoke on college campuses about the administration's firm grasp of the just war tradition. And Novak traveled to Rome to lecture Vatican bureaucrats on the importance of deposing Saddam Hussein and transforming Iraq into a democratic oasis in Middle East. But by far the most significant theocon statement on the invasion of Iraq was Weigel's "Moral Clarity in a Time of War," which he delivered as a lecture in the fall of 2002 at the Catholic University of America Law School before publishing it as a lengthy essay in the January 2003 issue of First Things . The essay was clearly written to provide moral and theological justification for the Bush administration's Iraq policy in every one of its details.

Weigel's case for war ran as follows. In the post-September 11 world, the "peace of order" among nations is fundamentally threatened by international terrorist organizations and rogue states that traffic in weapons of mass destruction. In an ideal world, the UN would possess the means and the will to deal with these threats through the use of coercive military force. But, alas, the UN is deficient in both means and will. Luckily, the United States possesses both in abundance, just as it recognizes the unique responsibility for maintaining global order that flows from its status as the world's preeminent military power. America thus has the solemn duty to act as the worldwide enforcer of international justice -- including the punishment of those who flout the peace of order -- regardless of whether the other nations of the world recognize the legitimacy of such action. In serving as providentially appointed prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner of international justice around the world, the United States furthers its own good (at home and abroad) as well as the good of all decent human beings on the planet. The unilateral overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein is one example of such righteous American action, but it is hardly the only likely or defensible one to take place in the near future.

When Weigel provided the Bush administration with this moral and theological go-ahead for unilateral war with Iraq (as well as with any number of other rogue states around the world), he was well aware that most religious leaders and a great many public intellectuals both in the United States and abroad did not share his assessment of the situation. Based on any number of considerations -- suspicion about administration evidence of the Iraqi threat, a desire to allow UN inspectors to complete their work, fear that an invasion would spark a regional conflagration, doubts about America's ability to manage an occupation and transition to a decent and stable post-Hussein political order -- these writers had concluded that the coming invasion would fall far short of meeting the standards for a just war.

In response to such critics, Weigel insisted that the question of whether the war was just had to be bracketed off from the question of whether it was wise -- and that the second question could only be answered by the political powers-that-be, who had access to privileged information and intelligence not possessed by private citizens. Going further, Weigel suggested that statesmen reached their final decision for war through the exercise of a "charism of political discernment" enjoyed by all "duly constituted public authorities." This charism -- or gift of the holy spirit -- is "not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies" -- all of whom should exercise "a measure of political modesty" in addressing questions of war and peace. (Nowhere did Weigel indicate that modesty was a quality required of politicians and their foreign policy advisors.) It was difficult to read these words without concluding that the theocon message to critics of the administration's foreign policy was to keep their mouths shut and put their faith in the divinely inspired wisdom of the President of the United States.

Without expanding on Weigel's speculations about special political charisms, Neuhaus amplified his friend's point four months later, in an essay written just as the American invasion of Iraq began. On the one hand, Neuhaus had considerable "confidence in those responsible for making the relevant decisions" in the Bush administration. On the other hand, he viewed the many antiwar statements of church leaders, and especially those emanating from the Vatican, with "disappointment, and more than a little embarrassment." As far as Neuhaus was concerned, the lesson to be drawn from the whole sorry episode was obvious:

Ranking ecclesiastics took the time of U.S. decision-makers, badgering them about whether they had thought of this possible consequences or that. ... The simple truth is that such consequences are unknowable and therefore unknown, except to God. I know that possible consequences have been considered, day and night for many months, by competent parties. ... Religious leaders should bring more to the discussion than their fears. Nervous hand-wringing is not a moral argument.

As American troops began their march to Baghdad, the theocons made it clear that the moral duty of religious leaders was to stop "badgering" the administration so that it could get on with waging its unquestionably just war to disarm Saddam Hussein.

As the Iraq war got underway on March 20, 2003, Neuhaus grew noticeably tense. On the Monday following the start of the invasion -- after a weekend during which millions of Americans entertained themselves by watching U.S. missiles flatten the Baghdad skyline while "embedded" television reporters swooned over their up-close-and-personal views of the country's military machine in action -- Neuhaus appeared preoccupied but pleased. Quietly discussing the progress of the war on the phone with Weigel, who conveyed inside information from their friends and allies in the administration, Neuhaus felt reassured about his decision to support the war so emphatically. Yet his underlying uncertainty and stress rushed to the surface as he skimmed through a powerful antiwar essay by historian Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books . In Judt's view, the United States under George W. Bush was driven by "an eschatological urge to tear down a frustrating international order," all the while exaggerating the threats to its power and underestimating the risks of acting recklessly in the world. Reading these words, Neuhaus exploded in anger, lashing out in acidic sarcasm at the suggestion that the president had acted out of any motive besides his duty to protect the innocent against Iraqi aggression. As far as Neuhaus was concerned, Judt was just another smug liberal, failing to acknowledge and appreciate America's obligation as the world's preeminent power to punish injustice and maintain order around the globe, regardless of worldwide public opinion.

Over the next few weeks, as the American invasion continued its press toward Baghdad, Neuhaus's temper would flare again and again, sparked by what he viewed as the defeatist coverage of the war in the New York Times . The Times had been a constant source of annoyance, and an inspiration for several snide remarks in nearly every one of his monthly magazine columns, for many years. Not only was its influence unmatched by any other media outlet, but its reporting and editorial outlook perfectly expressed the elitist, secularist ideology that his own movement had been conjured to oppose. But now, perhaps egged on by several right-wing websites that had made a habit of accusing the paper of treason on a daily basis, he insisted that the bias in the Times's coverage of the war was unprecedented. Each day Neuhaus entered the First Things office in a foul mood, threatening to cancel his subscription to the paper and fuming about the latest front-page story to imply that the war was already on the verge of becoming a quagmire. "Two weeks in and they're already calling it Vietnam!" Neuhaus considered it indefensible to draw even the most casual comparison between the invasion of Iraq and America's ill-fated war in Southeast Asia.

These outbursts would stop very soon, replaced by pride and satisfaction as American troops entered Baghdad in early April nearly without a fight. Within days, Neuhaus's mood swung from defensive to euphoric, eventually leading him to give in to the temptation to gloat. At the May meeting of the First Things editorial board, just days after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier, Neuhaus and Weigel invariably spoke of the war in the past tense and expressed open admiration for the manifest skill of the Bush administration in waging such an overwhelmingly successful military campaign. When questioned by a skeptical participant in the meeting about whether it was sensible for the nation's leaders to continue to craft policy under the assumption that all goods -- the good of the United States at home and abroad, the good of the Iraqi people, the good of Israel, the good of Europe, and the good of the entire world -- were compatible with one another, Neuhaus tersely replied that "it may very well be God's will that all good things do go together at this moment in history."

Adopting a similarly triumphant tone in his column for the August/September issue of First Things , Neuhaus confidently asserted that critics of the war had been "abysmally wrong on almost every point" -- a fact that needed to be "clearly established on the public record" so that their concerns could be easily dismissed in the run-up to whatever military campaign might follow the liberation of Iraq. That American troops had thus far failed to find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction was, he admitted, "troubling." Yet this (temporary) failure did not for a moment raise "questions about the liberation of Iraq." On the contrary, the invasion had been so successful -- above all in combining military potency with precision targeting of weapons, thus keeping civilian casualties to a minimum -- that the time had come to rethink a crucial aspect of the just war tradition. In future conflicts, Neuhaus suggested, it might become possible to conceive of "military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort."

Neuhaus would not mention Iraq again in the pages of the magazine for over a year, as the hunt for chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons dragged on and conditions under the American occupation at first failed to improve and then began to deteriorate. It took many months for Neuhaus and the other theocons to acknowledge the truth of the situation, even in private. By this point, they were relying almost entirely on conservative opinion journals, editorial pages, and White House memoranda for their information, and these sources naturally went out of their way to highlight the little good news emerging from Iraq while attributing the seemingly endless stream of bad news in the mainstream media to liberal bias.

As the months passed and the number of insurgent attacks on American forces and Iraqi civilians multiplied, theocon confidence began to waver. Yet there was little they thought they could do about the situation. Bush was heading into an election year, and they still considered the administration's domestic agenda to be far more crucial to their plans than the progress of the war; criticism of the president or members of his cabinet, which would only weaken him politically and antagonize theocon contacts in the White House, was therefore unthinkable. Although Neuhaus's spirits were buoyed after a May 2004 meeting at the White House during which the president appeared calm and confident about the situation in Iraq, the effect was temporary.

Over the next six months, as conditions in Iraq continued to worsen and the president ran a tight race for re-election against Democrat John Kerry, Neuhaus expressed public exasperation with the Bush administration only once -- in response to stories of torture and abuse of detainees at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. Yes, he admitted to his fellow conservatives, much of the worldwide criticism of the United States in the wake of the torture scandal had been "motivated by opposition to American policy or generalized America-bashing." But the fact was that the U.S. had provided these critics with everything they needed to make the country look bad. Taking a strong stand against the abuse, Neuhaus declared flatly that torture was "never morally permissible" and that "we dare not trust ourselves to torture," which should be forbidden "absolutely." Strangely, though, Neuhaus made a point of stepping back from this position five months later, several weeks after Bush had been safely re-elected to a second term in office. Assuring his readers that he still believed that "we dare not trust ourselves to torture," he now "acknowledged" that such a stance was not "sufficient." Whether his change of heart had come about through independent reflection or the influence of powerful friends who had taken offense at his criticism of the Bush administration was something about which readers were left to speculate. (On the First Things Web blog, On the Square on November 28, 2005, Neuhaus seemed to revert to his original statement of absolute condemnation of torture, endorsing Senator John McCain's proposed ban on torture against the pro-torture arguments of neocon Charles Krauthammer.)

Other than his harsh words about Abu Ghraib in the October issue of First Things , Neuhaus and the other theocons kept silent about conditions in Iraq through the summer and fall of 2004. By late summer this silence had inspired a First Things reader named Peter Dula to pen a lengthy missive attacking the journal for its refusal to revise its pre-war position in light of subsequent events. Writing from Jordan after having spent several months in post-invasion Baghdad, Dula understood it was unlikely that the magazine would publish his criticisms, yet he submitted his essay nonetheless, perhaps in the hopes that it might have some influence on Neuhaus's and Weigel's thinking. In the version of the essay eventually published as a cover story in the December 3, 2004 issue of Commonweal magazine, Dula accused the theocons of having gone out of their way to provide theological and moral justification for the administration's plans for Iraq -- and then of succumbing to "moral muteness in a time of war." It was as if the theocons had given the president a green light and then neglected to acknowledge that doing so had led directly to a fatal multi-car collision. As for the question of whether or not theocon claims for the justice of the war had been vindicated in light of events since the fall of Baghdad, Dula left no doubt where he stood: "the absence of weapons of mass destruction and the absence of compelling evidence of a link with Al Qaeda mean there was no just cause for this war." Moreover, "the incompetence and duplicity of the current administration mean that there was no competent authority for this war." And no such war -- one lacking in a just cause and one waged by an incompetent authority -- could be considered just.

Neuhaus never seriously entertained the possibility of publishing this attack on Weigel and himself (and the Bush administration). Yet behind the scenes, Dula's accusations struck a nerve, eventually inspiring Neuhaus to write an essay of his own in which he attempted to defend himself against the indictment. Published in the December issue of First Things , safely after the presidential election, the essay inadvertently illustrated the dangers of making moral judgments in a condition of self-imposed ignorance of the facts. Writing days after the release of the final report on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs by Charles Duelfer and the Iraq Study Group, Neuhaus chose to base his analysis not on the report itself but instead on a heavily redacted and deceptively interpreted version that had been provided to him by Karl Rove's White House deputy, Peter Wehner. Whereas the published report definitively showed that at the time of the invasion Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction (having destroyed them, as required by UN Security Council resolutions, many years earlier) and no active programs to develop such weapons, Neuhaus nevertheless claimed to be convinced that "Saddam had the intention and, if America had dallied or left it to the UN, would have had the weaponry to dominate the Middle East and, in collusion with terrorist networks, inflict massive damage on America and the West."

From this and several other statements in the essay it appeared that Neuhaus had decided to reaffirm his pre-war position -- namely, that the "just cause" of the invasion was the attempt to disarm the profoundly dangerous regime of Saddam Hussein. That no weapons were ever found did nothing to undermine the justice of this cause, he claimed, since "leaders do not have the convenience of making decisions retrospectively," and the belief that Iraq possessed such weapons was thoroughly justified "on the basis of what was known" before the war. With this assertion, Neuhaus chose to ignore the numerous post-invasion press reports that had uncovered the alarming extent to which Bush administration officials, along with a compliant media, had deliberately distorted intelligence in the run-up to the war, claiming that the administration knew far more than it did and greatly exaggerating the threat posed by Iraq, at every opportunity. Far from seeking to undermine the invasion, as Neuhaus and other conservatives believed at the time, the New York Times and other mainstream news organizations had published several prominent stories that hyped administration claims (many of which later turned out to be false) without seeking independent confirmation of any kind.

And these media outlets were far from being the only ones to create and perpetuate the illusion that the administration possessed greater knowledge of Saddam's weapons capabilities than it did. The theocons themselves had contributed to fostering the illusion, too -- in their insistence on deferring to the "charism of political discernment" supposedly possessed by the president. As Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams put it in an essay critical of theocon arguments in favor of the war, Weigel's extreme deference to governmental competence and authority encouraged a "weakening of ... the self-critical habit in [the] nation and its political classes." Williams went on to point out that a country benefits when "lawyers, NGOs, linguists, anthropologists, religious communities, journalists, strategists, [and] military and diplomatic historians" are encouraged to share what they know with political leaders and their advisors -- and when those leaders and advisors remain open-minded enough to listen and learn from the advice. Yet the Bush administration took the diametrically opposite approach, trumpeting its contempt for the "reality-based community" and deliberately closing itself off from dissenting opinions. And the theocons had treated such empty self-assurance as the better part of wisdom.

As if tacitly acknowledging how unconvincing his argument would appear to informed readers, Neuhaus did not simply reiterate his pre-war case for the invasion but actually added to it. Following the lead of President Bush, whose defense of the war had similarly evolved in the eighteen months since he prematurely announced the end of major combat operations, Neuhaus now claimed that "success in Iraq" followed not merely from disarmament but also from "having removed the regime of Saddam Hussein, thus ending the monstrous rule of a systematic perpetrator of crimes against humanity." Contrary to Dula's allegations, then, there was still a just cause for the war, even though Hussein's weapons of mass destruction had proven to be an imaginary threat. In shifting from one justification to another, however, Neuhaus unintentionally highlighted the disturbing flexibility of the just war tradition, which now appeared to be quite capable of sanctifying a remarkably wide range of conflicts.

Neuhaus's essay contained other noteworthy claims -- among them the denial that America's post-war policies in Iraq had been an "unmitigated disaster," which Dula and other critics had used to demonstrate that President Bush was an "incompetent authority." Abstracting completely from his own role in advocating for the war, as well as refusing to render even the slightest judgment of the Bush administration's handling of the aftermath of the invasion, Neuhaus now insisted that "those who condemn the war because soldiers and innocent civilians are killed and maimed are not being serious. This is what happens in war, and is a very good reason for avoiding war."

But perhaps the most extraordinary passage in the essay concerned President Bush's plan to use the American invasion and occupation to transform Iraq into a democracy that could then be exported to the rest of the Middle East -- an aim that promised to serve as yet another retroactive justification for the war. Neuhaus expressed some skepticism about Bush's democratization project, wondering if it made sense to set the standard for success in Iraq quite so high. It would be far more prudent, he suggested, to judge success in Iraq by whether or not, "three or thirty years from now," Iraqis lived under a "reasonably decent and stable government." Given the importance in the just war tradition of precisely defining the anticipated end point to military actions and intentions, this 27-year-long window for determining success was more than a little peculiar.

All told, Neuhaus's self-defense proved less than convincing. But by the time the essay appeared in print, it hardly mattered. By this point -- with Bush about to begin his second term in office -- the theocons had long ago traded in any intellectual respectability they once possessed on matters of war and peace for the opportunity to serve at the pleasure of the president. It was thus hardly surprising that, despite his published reservations about Bush's plans to democratize the Middle East, Neuhaus responded rapturously to the president's astonishingly ambitious second inaugural address, which committed the United States to the goal of "ending tyranny in our world." Just minutes after the conclusion of the speech, Neuhaus received a call from Weigel, who was thrilled that some of the lines he had proposed to the president's speechwriting team had made it into the address. As for Neuhaus, savoring the moment and dreaming of the next four years with his friend and ally on the phone from Washington, he gave every appearance of being a man supremely satisfied.

Excerpted with permission from THE THEOCONS: SECULAR AMERICA UNDER SIEGE, by Damon Linker, published by Doubleday 2006.

Damon Linker is the former editor of First Things and the author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday, 2006).

 
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