Letter to Secretary of State Albright Urging Means Other Than War to Contain Iraq, February 10, 1998

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

February 10, 1998 

The Honorable Madeleine K. Albright
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20520 

Dear Madame Secretary: 

I write to express serious concern over the moral dimensions of the worsening crisis in Iraq. We support international efforts to address Iraq's continuing noncompliance with U.N. cease- fire resolutions; we urge new efforts to address the continuing, unmerited suffering of innocent Iraqi civilians; and we earnestly hope that a diplomatic solution will be found so that renewed military action will be avoided. 

First, I wish to re-emphasize that, since the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have supported international efforts to ensure that Iraq complies promptly and fully with the U.N. cease fire resolutions on chemical and biological weapons. 

The government of Iraq must cooperate fully and promptly with the United Nations in the elimination of its capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons. The use of these weapons is morally unacceptable under all circumstances, as is their possession by a state which has in fact employed such weapons, both against its neighbors and its own citizens. 

Because the Iraqi government has repeatedly attacked its neighbors and repressed segments of its own population, especially its Kurdish and marsh Arab populations, its possession of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to manufacture them properly are of grave concern to the world community. The world should unite in non-violent opposition to the intransigence of the Iraqi government. 

Secondly, I would like to reiterate our call to reshape the existing embargo against Iraq so as to end the suffering of the Iraqi civilian population. Some targeted sanctions are justified to contain Iraq's threat to its neighbors but sanctions must not destroy the lives of Iraq's civilian population. The immunity of innocents that applies in armed conflict is also valid when pursuing measures short of war. 

In July, 1991, my predecessor, Archbishop John Roach, summarized our concerns in a letter to your predecessor, Secretary of State James Baker: 

The inadequacy of existing humanitarian relief efforts, the conviction that coercive measures should be strictly limited in their ends and means, and the mounting evidence of disproportionate harm to the civilian population lead us, Mr. Secretary, to the judgment that the embargo, as now applied, unduly risks violating fundamental moral norms and prolonging human suffering.

Unfortunately, the experience of the past seven years has confirmed the judgment that Iraqi civilians are suffering disproportionate and unacceptable harm, not only as a result of the actions of their own government, but also as a result of U.N. sanctions. 

The U.N. sanctions regime has achieved some of its objectives for disarming Iraq. We believe, however, that it is time to acknowledge that the death and suffering of the Iraqi people brought about because of sanctions seems to us morally intolerable and unacceptable. 

We acknowledge that the primary responsibility for remedying this situation lies with the Iraqi government. Unfortunately, it is evident that the government of Iraq has done little to alleviate the suffering of its own people and has even exacerbated it. It is wrong to punish the Iraqi people for the actions of a government they cannot control. 

From 1991 to late 1995, the government of Iraq refused to accept legitimate U.N. conditions for the food-for-oil program, thereby foregoing a critical opportunity to limit the humanitarian consequences of sanctions. Since the Iraqi government agreed to the food-for-oil program last year, it still has not taken advantage of this program to the full extent possible. At the same time it continues to divert scarce resources from providing for the basic needs of its people to rebuilding its military arsenal, and it has attempted to manipulate the food program in ways which were calculated to receive negative responses from the UN Sanctions Committee. 

Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that the U.N. embargo has been a contributing factor in the widespread death, malnutrition and disease among Iraq's civilian population. According to the reports of our brother bishops and other reliable sources, adequate food, clean water and health care are lacking for hundreds of thousands of people. To contribute significantly, though indirectly, to their hunger and disease is unconscionable, no matter how egregious the actions of their leaders. We cannot fail to heed their cries for help. 

As the Holy Father said in his January Address to the Diplomatic Corps, "I must call on the consciences of those who, in Iraq and elsewhere, put political, economic or strategic considerations before the fundamental good of the people and ask them to show compassion." 

For that reason, we welcome recent proposals to expand the oil-for-food program and streamline its implementation. Even without full Iraqi collaboration, this program has helped to mitigate the impact of sanctions on the Iraqi people. Under current conditions, however, this program does not seem adequate to alleviate human suffering. 

Accordingly, we urge, in addition, that steps be taken to reshape the embargo, establishing clear criteria for lifting the restrictions on trade in civilian goods, while retaining a strict embargo on military equipment and technology, as well as appropriate political sanctions. We believe that containment of Iraq's ability to threaten peace and security in the region should be pursued through a military embargo, deterrence, and carefully tailored economic sanctions supported by the world community. 

We appreciate efforts by the Administration and Congress to review the use of economic sanctions in diplomacy, and we are prepared to assist in these reviews. We strongly urge that moral considerations as well as economic and trade factors be part of this review. 

Third, Iraq's failure to cooperate with legitimate U.N. efforts to enforce the cease fire resolutions is a serious matter and its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, are a clear danger. Nevertheless, every effort must be made to resolve the present crisis through diplomatic means at your disposal. 

In our judgment, the resort to major military action that is now being considered demands careful scrutiny in light of the canons for justifiable use of force. We wish to raise three issues in particular: discrimination and non-combatant immunity, proportionality in the application of force, and the probability of success.    

  • Would the contemplated forms of military action risk indiscriminate harm to innocent civilians whether directly or indirectly through destruction of civilian infrastructure?
  • Given Iraqi compliance with other arms control provisions of the cease fire resolutions, would massive military action be a proportionate response to Iraqi obstruction of U.N. weapons inspectors?
  • Would military action be likely to achieve the stated objective of eliminating stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's capacity to produce them? Would military strikes lead to further Iraqi compliance with the cease-fire resolutions or, instead, have the unintended effect of strengthening the regime's power and increasing its intransigence?

In our judgment, in the present circumstances, a massive bombing campaign unduly risks violating some of the relevant moral criteria governing such action. We fear that the use of military force in this case could pose an undue risk to an already suffering civilian population, could well be disproportionate to the ends sought, and could fail to resolve legitimate concerns about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. 

There are no easy answers to the Iraqi crisis, but our two-fold moral message is clear. On the one hand, the Iraqi government must use the resources at its disposal to feed and care for its own people while it ends its threats of aggression and eliminates its capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, the international community -- with the United States in the lead but not acting unilaterally -- must avoid measures which lead to the death and suffering of innocent people as it seeks to accomplish the legitimate objectives of containing aggression and preventing the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. 

Attaining these twin goals may require establishing clearer criteria for Iraqi compliance with the cease-fire resolutions, lifting controls on food, medicine and essential humanitarian goods, and reshaping but not eliminating the remaining sanctions so that they are more narrowly targeted against those who bear actual responsibility for Iraq's actions. At the same time, given the moral complexity of this situation, the international community should give new diplomatic and political efforts priority over resort to military force. Pursuing a political solution may be a difficult and demanding task, but it is called for given the moral necessity of protecting innocent Iraqis and serious doubts about the ability to eliminate Iraq's capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction through military strikes. Means short of war must be found to contain and overcome the Iraqi regime's threat to its own people and to the world. 

I deeply appreciate your consideration of these concerns. 

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick
Archbishop of Newark
Chairman, International Policy Committee 

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