War may always represent a failure of mankind, but it is not always wrong to fight in a war. In the fourth century, St. Augustine set forth the case that use of force was sometimes necessary (though always regrettable) in order to restrain evil. Developing the just-war doctrine some nine centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that: “Among true worshipers of God those wars are looked on as peacemaking which are waged neither from aggrandizement nor cruelty but with the object of securing peace, of repressing evil and supporting the good.”
World War II, with its atomic capabilities and associated threats to civilian populations, led to further developments in just-war theory, and some observers even wondered whether it remained a viable doctrine. In 1949, however, Pope Pius XII spoke of the damage brought about by indifference to wars of aggression and how this encouraged “authors and promoters of aggression.”
The reality is that unless all nations are to surrender to aggressive tyrants, military action will sometimes be necessary. After all, just war theory presupposes that wars will be fought.
Muammar Gaddafi is a tyrant who oppressed his people and tortured and imprisoned his opponents for decades. He has also supported terrorism against many nations, including the United States. He was responsible for the tragedy of PanAm 103, and he has funded, armed, and trained radicals in many African and Middle Eastern countries. Most recently, when his own people threatened to topple him, he threatened severe reprisals. That is when the United States and other nations stepped in.
President Obama declared that “we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.” He explained: “Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.” The President was saying this is a just war, and he is correct. Coming to the defense of the defenseless in a situation like this is just. The thing about just war theory, however, is that the “justness” of a war does not necessarily coincide with whether it should be fought.
Applying traditional just war analysis, many people thought that the Gulf War was just. Pope John Paul II, however, spoke against it. He did not call that war unjust, but he did not want to see it fought. He also opposed the invasion of Iraq, but when the Wall Street Journal said he called it an unjust war, the paper had to run a retraction. He never went that far. A war can be justified (or justifiable) and still be a bad idea.
The situation facing President Obama is very complex. U.S. policy toward Libya (or any other country) must depend upon the interests of the United States. The president also has to decide whether he can protect the protesters without ousting Gaddafi. If ouster is necessary, he must consider how that will impact American interests.
The fact that Gaddafi is a reprehensible human being and no friend of the U.S. does not automatically mean that the next guy will be better. Serious questions remain about the belief systems of the rebels: Who are they? Will the system they endorse in a post-Gaddafi world be better for human rights? If, as some suggest, they are Islamists in rebels clothing, the justification for ouster seems questionable.
These later questions are political, not religious. I have opinions (Gaddafi should have been removed years ago on the grounds of abuse of human rights), but I am well aware that there are complexities beyond my knowledge. I think the best I can do is pray for protection for those in harm’s way and guidance for the president and other global decision makers.
Ronald J. Rychlak | Mar 28, 2011 11:16 AM