- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

The Vatican and the U.S. Roman Catholic Church have distinguished themselves in recent months as two of the sharpest critics of possible U.S. military strikes against Iraq. In November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that its president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, had written a letter to President Bush questioning "the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq."

The U.S. bishops' statement, perhaps their most definitive to date on the possibility of war between the U.S. and Iraq, warned that "the use of force might provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent" and "could lead to wider conflict and instability in the region." If anything, the Vatican's tone has been even harsher. "It's unilateralism, pure and simple," the Vatican's observer at the United Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, said in October. Last month, Archbishop Martino declared that preventive war against Saddam Hussein "is a war of aggression and does not come under the definition of a just war."

Another prominent church official, Archbishop Stephen Hamao, president of the Pontificial Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, suggested that U.S. military action would "excite more violence and hate." Archbishop Hamao suggested that Saddam's use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians was not all that different from the United States dropping the atomic bomb on Japan to end World War II.

Recent history suggests that a note of caution is in order when it comes to listening to the Catholic Church's warnings regarding U.S. military action against Saddam. By most analyses, the 1991 Gulf War launched by President George H.W. Bush was a critical military and strategic success. The U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region, which began following Iraq's Aug. 2, 1990, invasion of Kuwait, almost certainly pre-empted any Iraqi designs on Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, home to most of the world's proven energy reserves. The following February, Saddam's forces were driven out of Kuwait by the U.S.-led coalition forces.

But, if U.S. officials had followed the advice of the Vatican and many Catholic bishops in this country in 1990-91 who were outspoken critics of military action against Saddam, none of that would have happened. For example, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to the first President Bush cautioning him against going to war, and U.S. bishops endorsed a letter to then-Secretary of State James Baker raising moral questions about the use of military force in the Persian Gulf. The pope issued numerous statements questioning the wisdom of going to war.

Unfortunately, some in the Vatican today seem to have learned the wrong lesson from the 1991 Gulf War. Archbishop Martino, for example, suggested last month that the 1991 experience shows that war is always futile. "Everyone knows the way it turned out. War doesn't resolve problems. Besides being bloody, it's useless," he said. But the tragic reality learned from centuries of experience is that sometimes dialogue and discussion with cutthroat dictators can be futile. Sometimes, the only way to achieve justice is to employ force.

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