Vatican Turns Up Volume on Cautions as U.S. Counts Down to War

VATICAN CITY—As the United States counted down to a possible attack on Iraq this winter, Pope John Paul II and his top aides turned up the volume on a litany of cautions and caveats.

The Holy Father used his globally broadcast Christmas blessing to proclaim that a new war in the Middle East is entirely avoidable and that this is not the way to fight terrorism.

Throughout December, a string of high-level Vatican experts had voiced increasingly sharp criticism of the U.S. threat to unilaterally depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, saying such a war would be unjustified, counterproductive, devastating to civilians and in violation of United Nations rules.

To many, it seemed like the world was lost in a time warp. Wasn't it exactly 12 years ago that President George H.W. Bush was building up for a threatened war against Iraq? And wasn't the Pope one of his most vocal skeptics, warning that the war violated international law and would be “an adventure with no return”?

For many at the Vatican, there was a sense of dÉjá vu this time around, but there were enough new twists to make the current situation uniquely troubling in their eyes.

For one thing, the 1991 Gulf War was provoked by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and its refusal to withdraw— an act condemned by almost every state, including the Vatican.

The current plan for armed intervention rests on the supposed threat to world peace posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction —weapons Iraq denies possessing. That is much shakier grounds for launching a full-scale war, and it explains why Vatican officials have said armed intervention should not even be considered until ongoing U.N. weapons inspections are completed.

Another huge difference between 1991 and 2003 is the level of international support for a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. By early 1991, the first President Bush had amassed a multinational force backed by a coalition of 37 countries. Even some Arab states provided bases for military operations.

Today, only Great Britain and a few allies have staunchly supported the United States and President George W. Bush in the drive to oust Saddam by force if necessary. Several European allies have voiced opposition, and Arab states are not cooperating.

What especially concerns the Vatican is that the United States has promised it will take on Saddam alone if necessary, for the good of the world. In the Vatican's eyes, that kind of reasoning delegitimizes the United Nations and opens the way to the politics of “the jungle,” as the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, put it in a recent interview.

Supporters of an attack on Iraq would argue that international terrorism has changed the “just-war” equation, and that a pre-emptive strike against those amassing chemical or biological weapons can be considered a legitimate extension of national self-defense.

But so far, at least, the Vatican isn't buying those arguments.

“A preventive war is a war of aggression, there's no doubt. It is not included in the definition of a just war,” said Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Vatican's justice and peace council.

Moreover, the U.N. charter does not foresee a preventive war, said Archbishop Tauran.

Some argue that the Vatican cannot be expected to say otherwise, given its moral aversion to war and violence. Yet it would be inaccurate to paint the Vatican's stance as pacifist.

Indeed, since 1991 there's been an evolution in Vatican thinking on the “duty to disarm the aggressor”—a phrase John Paul used in 1993, when Serb ethnic cleansing prompted a worldwide outcry.

This is not a peace-at-any-price Pope. In particular, he has accepted the right of countries to defend themselves from international terrorism, which the Vatican recognizes as a new type of threat. For that reason, when the United States launched military operations against suspected terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan in late 2001, the Vatican gave qualified support.

“Sometimes it is more prudent to act rather than to be passive. In this sense, the Pope is not a pacifist, because one must remember that in the name of peace even some horrible injustices can be carried out,” Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said at that time.

But in the Vatican's view the fight against international terrorism does not give an automatic green light to military action. Iraq is not Afghanistan, and the circumstances must be carefully weighed, Vatican officials say; in the case of Iraq, the balance comes down strongly against war.

The Vatican remains convinced that international terrorism must be neutralized primarily on different grounds: through improved security measures, closer control of the financial network that supports terrorism and resolution of the social and political injustices that feed terrorism.

In the end, a pre-emptive strike against Iraq fails too many of the Vatican's criteria to be justified. It may fit the spirit of “war on terrorism,” but that's a phrase Vatican officials have carefully avoided using.

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