Letter to President Bush Regarding Iraq, September 13, 2002

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory
September 13, 2002 

The Honorable George W. Bush
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500 

Dear Mr. President: 

At its meeting last week, the 60-member Administrative Committee the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asked me to write you about the situation in Iraq. We welcome your efforts to focus the world's attention on the need to address Iraq's repression and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the United Nations. The Committee met before your speech at the United Nations, but I thought it was important that I express our serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq.  

A year ago, my predecessor Bishop Joseph Fiorenza wrote you about the U.S. response to the horrific attacks we commemorated last week. He told you then that, in our judgment, the use of force against Afghanistan could be justified, if it were carried out in accord with just war norms and as one part of a much broader, mostly non-military effort to deal with terrorism. We believe Iraq is a different case. Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.  

The United States and the international community have two grave moral obligations: to protect the common good against any Iraqi threats to peace and to do so in a way that conforms with fundamental moral norms. We have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi leadership must cease its internal repression, end its threats to its neighbors, stop any support for terrorism, abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and comply with UN resolutions. Mobilizing the nations of the world to recognize and address Iraq's threat to peace and stability through new UN action and common commitment to ensure that Iraq abides by its commitments is a legitimate and necessary alternative to the unilateral use of military force. Your decision to seek UN action is welcome, but other questions of ends and means must also be answered.  

There are no easy answers. People of good will may apply ethical principles and come to different prudential judgments, depending upon their assessment of the facts at hand and other issues. We conclude, based on the facts that are known to us, that a preemptive, unilateral use of force is difficult to justify at this time. We fear that resort to force, under these circumstances, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force. Of particular concern are the traditional just war criteria of just cause, right authority, probability of success, proportionality and noncombatant immunity. 

Just cause. What is the casus belli for a military attack on Iraq? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting widely accepted moral and legal limits on why military force may be used, limits just cause to cases in which "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain." (#2309) Is there clear and adequate evidence of a direct connection between Iraq and the attacks of September 11th or clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature? Is it wise to dramatically expand traditional moral and legal limits on just cause to include preventive or preemptive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Should not a distinction be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government"s existence?  

Legitimate authority. The moral credibility of the use of military force also depends heavily on whether there is legitimate authority for using force to topple the Iraqi government. In our judgment, decisions of such gravity require compliance with U.S. constitutional imperatives, broad consensus within our nation, and some form of international sanction, preferably by the UN Security Council. That is why your decision to seek congressional and United Nations approval is so important. With the Holy See, we would be deeply skeptical about unilateral uses of military force, particularly given the troubling precedents involved.  

Probability of success and proportionality. The use of force must have "serious prospects for success" and "must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" (Catechism, #2309). War against Iraq could have unpredictable consequences not only for Iraq but for peace and stability elsewhere in the Middle East. Would preventive or preemptive force succeed in thwarting serious threats or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent? How would another war in Iraq impact the civilian population, in the short- and long-term? How many more innocent people would suffer and die, or be left without homes, without basic necessities, without work? Would the United States and the international community commit to the arduous, long-term task of ensuring a just peace or would a post-Saddam Iraq continue to be plagued by civil conflict and repression, and continue to serve as a destabilizing force in the region? Would the use of military force lead to wider conflict and instability? Would war against Iraq detract from our responsibility to help build a just and stable order in Afghanistan and undermine the broader coalition against terrorism?  

Norms governing the conduct of war. While we recognize improved capability and serious efforts to avoid directly targeting civilians in war, the use of massive military force to remove the current government of Iraq could have incalculable consequences for a civilian population that has suffered so much from war, repression, and a debilitating embargo. 

We raise these troubling questions to contribute to the vital national debate about ends and means, risks and choices reflecting our responsibilities as pastors and teachers. Our assessment of these questions leads us to urge you to pursue actively alternatives to war. We hope you will persist in the very frustrating and difficult challenges of building broad international support for a new, more constructive and effective approach to press the Iraqi government to live up to its international obligations. This approach could include continued diplomatic efforts aimed, in part, at resuming rigorous, meaningful inspections; effective enforcement of the military embargo; maintenance of political sanctions and much more carefully-focused economic sanctions which do not threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians; non-military support for those in Iraq who offer genuine democratic alternatives; and other legitimate ways to contain and deter aggressive Iraqi actions.

We respectfully urge you to step back from the brink of war and help lead the world to act together to fashion an effective global response to Iraq's threats that conforms with traditional moral limits on the use of military force.

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
Bishop of Belleville

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