I had a debate with a Catholic friend about religion and foreign policy some time ago. This friend insisted that the conflict we are having with the Islamic World should be viewed through the lens of a "culture war," i.e. a battle between irreconcilable opposites that can never be settled except by inevitable conflict.
History shows, however, in this conflict as well as those that the U.S. has had with nations in Latin America, Europe, and Southeast Asia in the last century, that while cultural differences can create tension, the source of armed conflict is not religious intolerance but a history of political and economic conflict exacerbated by invasions of foreign lands, supporting of foreign despots, and in some cases all out mass murder of civilians and guerrillas alike.
Viewed through the political lens, the fact that 95% of suicide bombers have attacked occupying forces begins to make sense. Even the Catholic Church doesn't view it as a religious war, considering Muslims to be part of God's "plan of salvation."
If the real problem is not religious but political, then is hegemonic U.S. foreign policy the real culprit? Though it may seem an unlikely source, the Catholic Catechism can shed some light on why we in the U.S. always seems to be in a perpetual state of conflict.
In its capacity as a religious and moral authority, the Church saw fit to include certain parameters on war into its official teachings — parameters that do not align with U.S. foreign policy traditions, particularly with respect to our interactions with the Muslim World. In fact, the Church's official stance on war is a libertarian one, since both are rooted in the theory of Just War: essentially, war is only justified in self-defense, with violence only allowed when all other measures have been exhausted.
The Church lays out in its Just War doctrine four conditions that must be met to start a war; the War on Terror violates two of them. The doctrine says there must be a “serious prospect of success”; this is problematic for U.S. policy because the War on Terror has no endgame, no capital to capture and no definition of victory, guaranteeing only perpetual asymmetric conflict so long as there are organized efforts to attack American civilians, a practice that is unlikely to abate as long as the U.S. enjoys it's considerable influence in global affairs.
The doctrine also says the "use of arms must not produce evils and disorders greater than the evil to be eliminated" which also creates moral problems for U.S. policy, given 100,000+ Iraqis who died as a result of the invasion and several hundred thousand children dead from sanctions on Iraq before 2003, as well as hundreds of thousands of civilian dead in Afghanistan. It is difficult to quantify loss of human life in a strict cost/benefit analysis, but it is evident that the human costs of the invasions, both compelled by the Bush Doctrine's approach to fighting "terror" has been incredibly high and vastly fewer people would be dead if they had not occurred.
The invasion is also inconsistent with Just War doctrine on the issue of preemption. According to Pope Benedict (in 2002 as Cardinal Ratzinger), the concept of "preventive war" that has been a cornerstone of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy doesn't exist in the Catechism. Wars cannot be justified without an imminent threat to security, which morally excludes the Iraq Invasion and the idea of "regime change" as a tool of fulfilling foreign policy objectives.
The implications of the Catechism’s policy leave no room for core neoconservative beliefs that dominate geopolitical strategy (American global hegemony, pre-emptive war when no threat is imminent), but in fact align brilliantly with libertarian foreign policy beliefs.
Out-going libertarian Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) has repeatedly endorsed the Just War theory, and it remains a central aspect of libertarian political thought. "I do not believe in pre-emptive war" he said to an audience during the debate in Iowa. "We have rejected the Just War theory of Christianity … we have to come to our senses about this issue of war and preemption… not to think that we can change the world by force of arms." Even though many libertarians are not Christians, the ideas are fundamentally the same for both.
Pope John Paul II and Ron Paul both believed sanctions on Iraq were wrong since they indiscriminately forced further suffering upon innocent people already living under the brutal rule of a dictator. Both men also opposed the preemptive invasion of Iraq since it clearly violated fundamental Christian principles.
There is ample evidence that the America's violation of Just War principles over the last 60 years and its utilization of torture, bribery, assassination and other covert operations has led to the hostility we have been experiencing in the last thirty years from the Middle East.
From overthrowing Iran’s elected leader in 1953 due to his nationalization of its oil production to funneling money to Qaddafi, Mubarak and Saddam Hussein while they butchered their own population, the U.S. government’s rejection of Just War principles long predates the War on Terror and has inflamed anti-Western animosities in the region for decades.
These interventions are the very reasons that Just War principles exist in the first place — violence, when used as a tool to achieve strategic outcomes beyond what is necessary for basic security, produces disproportionate suffering for people who cannot defend themselves effectively, and inevitably results in serious backlash.
Those of us who are Catholics as well as other Christian voters have a tough decision to make — finding a balance between ensuring the safety of our own families and those of people we don’t know who live in other parts of the world is a test of our values that has global implications. Those goals needn’t be mutually exclusive, and global security needn’t be zero-sum. Beginning to understand the implications of our own actions may be crucial to avoiding serious bloodshed in the coming years.