WASHINGTON — In his Jan. 23 State of the Union address, President Bush said his plan to send 20,000 additional soldiers to Iraq is “the best chance for success” there.

But others disagree — including Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

“I do not believe that sending more troops to Iraq is the answer,” Brownback, a pro-life Catholic who until recently was a strong supporter of Bush’s military vision, said Jan. 10 during a visit to the war zone. “Iraq requires a political rather than a military solution.”

Meanwhile, the new Democrat-controlled Congress is openly opposing the president’s plan to ramp up troops.

Freshman Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., delivered the Democratic response to Bush’s address. Webb served as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan and is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran.

“We need a new direction,” Webb said, calling for “an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq’s cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq.”

To gain a clearer picture of the moral and practical issues at play in the debate, the Register interviewed several prominent Catholic commentators. They were asked whether they supported Bush’s troop surge, about the arguments for and against a continued military presence, and whether they hold the same opinion as they had in 2003 about the decision to intervene in Iraq.

George Weigel

Catholic apologist and papal biographer George Weigel supported the 2003 decision to intervene in Iraq.

In an e-mail interview, Weigel said he stands by that judgment.

“I believe that removing the totalitarian Saddam Hussein regime by the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force, and trying to create an independent, free Iraq as a model of a new way of politics in the Arab Islamic world, were morally justifiable, indeed morally noble, goals,” he said. 

“The cause was, and remains, a noble one,” Weigel said, although he acknowledged that U.S. policymakers have made “a lot of mistakes” in conducting the war.

Weigel said he thought that Bush’s new strategy “will move us in the direction of success.

“The moral and political imperative in Iraq is success: meaning a self-governing and economically viable Iraq at peace with its neighbors and not harboring international terrorists,” Weigel said. “If increasing troop levels, coupled with a strategy change that actually results in stabilizing the security situation in Baghdad and elsewhere, can move us toward that goal, then that’s the right call from every point of view.”

Said Weigel, “What I know for sure is that failure in Iraq will be catastrophic, for the U.S., for Iraq, and for the war against jihadism. People who think that a U.S. withdrawal is the magic answer to Iraq are just not serious.”

Mark Shea

Unlike Weigel, Catholic writer and speaker Mark Shea has changed his opinion about the merits of the Iraq war.

Shea said that initially he believed the warnings that “there was an imminent threat of nuclear attack on the United States — the famous ‘mushroom cloud’ imagery that Bush and Condi Rice were pushing.”

But when it later became clear that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not possess weapons of mass destruction that could have posed a threat to the United States, Shea re-examined his conclusion that the U.S. invasion was morally just.

“When I began to go back and look at just war criteria, it became much more difficult for me to buy that this war met just war criteria,” he said.

Like the Vatican, Shea thinks that while the initial decision to enter Iraq was morally unjustified, a hasty U.S. withdrawal would also be a mistake because it likely would lead to anarchy and a bloody civil war.

But he believes that a commitment of only 20,000 additional soldiers will do little to secure a lasting peace. “If we are going to send more troops, we need to send a lot more troops,” said Shea.

“I don’t think as things stand that we can just pull out, but I think that what we’re doing is not going to help anything because it’s not an adequate application of force,” he said. “And the administration has given us every reason to suppose that they simply do not understand the internal politics of Iraq.”

Added Shea, “I don’t know if there are any good alternatives.”

Russell Hittinger

As the son of a soldier who lost his life in Vietnam, Russell Hittinger has a special empathy for the suffering that has resulted from the conflict in Iraq.

“My father fought and died in Vietnam,” said Hittinger, who is the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa’s College of Law. “And I’ll tell you that I grieved as much as I did after he died as when all those Vietnamese people were abandoned.”

Hittinger said that protecting Iraqis from a similar abandonment to tyranny and violence is one of the moral arguments in favor of a continued American military presence.

Another moral argument is trying to prevent a wider conflagration throughout the region, which would result in even more suffering.

“These are two that many people have mentioned,” Hittinger said. “In principle, they sound like good considerations. How they apply to the actual facts of this case, I don’t know.”

One moral consideration that could argue in favor of withdrawing troops is the question of whether more social harm is being caused in Iraq by their presence than would result from their absence, Hittinger said.

Another is the injuries that the war may be inflicting on U.S. society.

“Wars can lead to the derangement of the proper order of the society that fights them,” Hittinger pointed out. “And by the way, that can happen even when they’re just wars.”

Hittinger said that “like 90% of Americans,” he has no solid opinion on what the U.S. should do about Iraq.

He said that one difficulty in assessing the issue is that there hasn’t been much exploration in just war theory of the question of how and when to withdraw from a military conflict.

“It’s interesting that that should be so, because nine times out 10, people do have to extract themselves,” Hittinger said. “Wars don’t usually end very tidily.”


Robert Royal

Faith and Reason Institute President Robert Royal said that the United States has a moral responsibility to maintain its military presence in Iraq in order to curb sectarian violence.

“Our withdrawal would lead to an absolute bloodbath,” he said, adding that “it might even create worse situations in other countries if people have the sense that the United States cannot be relied on to follow through when things get tough.”

And while some Catholic critics of the war argue that it is unwinnable and therefore violates the just war principle that there must be a reasonable chance of success, Royal said “it doesn’t seem to me that it is absolutely clear that there is no way to stabilize the situation.”

Royal backed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Asked if he still held that same position, he noted that almost every credible authority believed at the time that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that might be used against the United States.

“It seemed to me in particular that the invasion was justified given that just war categories have kind of a new pressure put on them by this presence of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

“But it’s a bit difficult to go from that and say that I still believe that the situation is exactly the same, because we just know a lot more right now,” Royal said. “So the moral case at this point has to focus primarily on the situation in which we now find ourselves.”

As for Bush’s planned troop surge, Royal said that while he’s inclined to support it he’s not sure whether it will deliver the results the president is seeking.

“I know people, including my son-in-law who has done several tours in Iraq, and they seem to think it’s a good idea, but I’m still not sure in my own mind,” Royal said. “I think it’s still a little premature to say definitively.”

Robert George

Princeton University law professor Robert George, author of Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, said that the question of whether to increase troop levels in Iraq is primarily a practical judgment, not a moral one.

“There is not a moral principle you have to apply to get to the right judgment here,” George said. The question is, ‘Is there a good likelihood the additional troops will make it possible to secure Iraq?’”

Added George, “It’s a practical, military judgment about whether sending more troops will work. If it won’t work, then obviously it’s pointless to do it, and worse than pointless, because you’ll get a lot of people killed in the process. If it will work, if the underlying justification for the war is sound, then it’s the right decision.”

George said that he supported the decision to invade Iraq and continues to believe intervention was morally justified.

Along with the belief at the time that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them, the atrocities the Iraqi dictator committed against his own people were ample justification for taking action, George said.

“Obviously the war has not been conducted as well as it should have been,” George acknowledged. “But people would have said the same thing about the Civil War in the United States. Lincoln changed generals time and time and time again because he was so dissatisfied in how poorly the war was being run by the Union militarily.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.