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In Support of Pre-Emptive War Doctrine

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When President Bush first introduced the doctrine of preemptive war, we asked a number of people about the moral, legal and military justification for attacking a country without provocation. Father Richard John Neuhaus was one of the people we spoke to. He's the president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, and he's editor-in-chief of the monthly journal called First Things. When we last spoke to him, he thought the president had made a strong case for attacking Iraq.

Father Richard John Neuhaus joins us again today. And, Father, the president today reaffirmed his doctrine of preemptive war. Are you still steadfast in your support of this policy?

Father RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS (Institute on Religion and Public Life): Steadfast in support of this policy would be a bit of an exaggeration of where I was three years ago and where I am today. Yes, you can make that case if one understands preemptive as a response to a plausibly threatening aggression.

NORRIS: There are many who believe that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq undermines this doctrine of preemptive war. How has the failure to find any evidence of those weapons changed your thinking about this doctrine, this policy?

Father NEUHAUS: Well, I'm not sure how it affects the doctrine. I mean, there's a clear distinction, isn't there, between doctrine and the application of the doctrine? If you have reason to believe that someone coming into your office intends to do you violence, you think they have a gun in their pocket that they're pointing at you or whatever, that informs and supplies a moral rationale for the kind of response you might make.

NORRIS: Now, I have to interrupt you here, because I guess the question is, are they standing at your threshold or are they sitting in their own house thinking about the possibility of breaking into your abode?

Father NEUHAUS: Let's go back and consider some of the circumstances. Saddam Hussein, first of all, was clearly intent upon doing very nasty things to other people in the world, including the United States.

NORRIS: So if we can extend that, then, based on the set of facts that we know to be true right now, does that justify going to his home and attacking him in his domicile?

Father NEUHAUS: Oh, justify going -- he was, I mean, if what was believed to be the case in 2002-2003 and indeed for the whole 12 years before that, namely that he had or was rapidly obtaining weapons of mass destruction that he intended to use in an aggressive way against others, then you have a threat. That threat appeared quite plausible. Obviously, it appeared overwhelmingly plausible.

NORRIS: Were you surprised that the president today, in issuing his new national security strategy, made this vigorous defense, actually reaffirmed his doctrine for preemptive war? Was that surprising to you?

Father NEUHAUS: Obviously, it's not surprising that he would defend the action that he took is morally defensible in principle. Whether or not it turns out to, in retrospect, appear to be vindicated is quite another question. When you say that something is morally defensible, it has to do in large part with the intention and the circumstance within which that intention was formed, namely of a perceived serious, threatened aggression.

Now, if you look back in retrospect and say, hey, Saddam Hussein was bluffing, and that he had even succeeded in bluffing his own generals into thinking that he had these weapons of mass destruction, does that change the moral judgment with regard to the decision that was made at the time on the premise of mistaken perceptions? And the answer, I think, is no. Morally it doesn't.

NORRIS: Father Neuhaus, thanks so much for talking to us.

Father NEUHAUS: Okay. Good being with you. God bless.

NORRIS: Father Richard John Neuhaus is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. He's also editor-in-chief of the monthly journal First Things. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.