Even now, as the United States prepares to attack Iraq, war opponents insist that peaceful means to disarm Saddam Hussein have not run their course. Religious critics claim the crucial test for a "just war" -- that it be used as a last resort -- hasn't been met. But it's the distortion of just-war doctrine that has helped delay action against Baghdad and create the current crisis.
The mischief began at least 20 years ago, when the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued "The Challenge of Peace," a pastoral letter redefining the litmus test for war. Not only must military action be a last resort, they said, but "all peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted."
That slippery phrase has reappeared -- and muddied the entire debate over Iraq. The Vatican today issued a one-line rebuttal to war plans: "Those who decide that all peaceful means that international law makes available are exhausted assume a grave responsibility before God, their conscience, and history." The American bishops have repeatedly invoked the new standard to denounce a U.S.-led attack. So has the National Council of Churches, which has demanded that all peaceful alternatives be "explored and exhausted."
Yet there is nothing like this standard in traditional just-war theory, not as formulated by Augustine, or expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas. When the maxim is actually applied -- such as during the outbreak of hostilities in Kosovo or Rwanda -- it becomes a cover for paralysis. Crises that require serious moral judgments, backed up by swift and lethal force, receive neither. In Rwanda, the United Nations stood by as mindless bloodletting claimed upwards of 800,000 lives. But at least religious leaders were satisfied that their doctrine had been upheld.
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