A case of too little too late

  • January 29, 2007

As one of those who opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq from the outset of this adventure four years ago, I would have liked the quick official response of the American Catholic bishops to President George Bush's recent decision to boost U.S. military force in Iraq to go further than it did, and declare the intervention to be immoral at its very core. As it stands, however, the statement issued on Jan. 12 by Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is wise and sensible counsel about the extraordinarily difficult situation faced by the Western principals in the conflict.

While sensibly offering no predictions about the troop buildup announced by Bush in early January, Skylstad directs our attention to "a key moral question that ought to guide our nation's actions in Iraq: How can the United States bring about a responsible transition in Iraq?"

Specific goals for the continuing American military presence should include "minimally acceptable levels of security; economic reconstruction to create employment for Iraqis; and political structures and agreements that help overcome divisions, reduce violence, broaden participation and increase respect for religious freedom and basic human rights." Nor will it be good enough merely to secure the lives and prospects of the Iraqi people. "Another necessary step is more sustained U.S. leadership to address other deadly conflicts in this region, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the crisis in Lebanon." Progress toward these objectives and "a responsible withdrawal (from Iraq) at the earliest time" — not "victory" in the sense the U.S. administration uses the word — are the things that matter to the bishop and his colleagues, and should matter, I believe, to all Catholics, and all people of good will.

But as much as I appreciate Skylstad's sound and humane recommendations, and believe they should be heeded by the people prosecuting this war, I find them simply too late by at least four years.

Even before the war began, it was painfully obvious to many observers (including this one) that the United States was about to blunder into Iraq without clear, useful knowledge of the country or the region — the ancient enmity between Shia and Sunni Muslims, for example — and with no plan for reconstructing a peaceful society on the ruins of Saddam's long tyranny. No serious consideration of human values and human rights was at play in official Washington. The armchair neoconservative ideologues who supplied Bush with a rationale for war promised a "cakewalk" — their phrase — for American forces, when any realistic assessment of conditions on the ground would have shown that nothing of kind could possibly take place. Iraq was a disaster waiting to happen. Now this disaster has come to pass.

I take absolutely no pleasure in knowing my prediction, in a 2003 column in these pages, has turned out right. Like many other onlookers outside the battle zone, I have been intensely saddened by the course of the war. I see no good outcome, with or without an increase in American strength. The best we can hope for in Iraq is a return to civil order, though it will almost certainly be stability of a kind that fails to meet any of Skylstad's admirable standards of justice and mercy: a "peace" enforced by an Iran-backed religious police state run by the same thugs and murderers who now operate freely in the Shia insurgency. Yet I fear that Iraq, like Lebanon and Palestine, may not have any sort of peace in the foreseeable future, only war and rumours of war.

But if the messianism of American foreign policy is overthrown, and sanity comes back into America's dealings with the world, there may still be a chance for the two societies at the bleeding heart of the Middle East: Israel and Palestine. The neoconservative advisors to the Bush White House have tried to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the diplomatic table, with a view to allowing Israel to exert unrestricted power against its Palestinian neighbours and Arab citizens. Skylstad correctly calls for this conflict to become, once again, a focus of U.S. peacemaking effort in the region. Yet how can we expect the same people who gave us Iraq to turn around and bring justice to the Palestinians? Here again, I hold out no hope for a result in Palestine that honours human dignity as the U.S. Catholic bishops rightly understand it.

Meanwhile, my prayer is that I'm as wrong in 2007 as I was right in 2003 — that, for the sake of the world, some human good will come from the bloodshed and torment that have afflicted the Middle East for so many years.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)