The Errors of Michael Novak

A Critique of the Catholic Neo-conservatives' Support for the Iraq War

This essay is extensively revised from two essays I published on the internet in February 2003, responding to a speech given in Rome on February 10, 2003 and subsequent comments published at the National Review Online website, by leading Catholic neo-conservative Michael Novak. The text I responded to is online at .

By Bob Waldrop

"Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." Herman Goering, April 18, 1946, quoted in Nuremburg Diary.

Michael Novak's analysis of the Iraq situation is entirely informed by the needs, desires, and world view of the rich and the powerful. He gives no weight to the impact of the war on the civilian population. He never asks, "What would Jesus do?" He ignores our frequent recourse to war and violence as a national policy. Under many pretensions of justice and self defense decorated with much pious rhetoric, the United States has participated in the slaughter of the innocent poor from El Salvador to Afghanistan and beyond. Since Mr. Novak never examines the issue from the viewpoint of the poor and weak, his analysis is not very Catholic.

Mr. Novak and the government would have us believe that the US is entirely innocent in this dispute. Yet during the first Iraq war, besides attacking the Iraqi military, the United States also wielded a weapon of mass destruction by systematically destroying the technological infrastructure that the civilian population was dependent upon. At the putative "end" of the war cited by Novak, the United States shifted the focus of its attack from the remaining military formations of the Iraqi Army directly onto the people of Iraq, by deploying a second weapon of mass destruction - the sanctions and embargo. During the 12 years of the embargo, more than a million Iraqi civilians lost their lives due to the consequences of that embargo, half of them were children. Leaders of the United States share with Saddam Hussein in the guilt of the deaths of these people.

Michael Novak said that this proposed war is a continuation of that "lawful" first Gulf war. He says this is simply a final battle in that war, therefore the present war is a just war. In other words, he appeals to due process as evidence of justice. Due process can be a very powerful tool in the protection of freedom and the common good, but it is equally the servant of the demagogue and the tyrant. Mr. Novak did not explain how this juridical paper trail somehow trumped the unconditional and nonnegotiable right to life of the civilian population of Iraq. In fact, he never acknowledged the right to life of those people, so perhaps for him the people of Iraq do not exist except as some kind of abstract target, whose deaths are regrettable but "necessary". This deliberate dehumanization of the victims is very common among supporters of wars. It is an essential feature of the political rhetoric deployed to build support for these wars. And it is evidence of injustice in a war.

In 2003, Novak argued there is a direct connection between the 9-11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. He said there was an imminent danger that Iraq and Al Queda would form a united front, and that Iraq would give biological and chemical warfare munitions to Al Queda terrorists. There was no evidence of that then and there isn't any evidence of it today because there was no connection between Osama bin Laden and the Iraq government and the events of 9-11-2001. In fact, Saddam Hussein was denounced by Osama bin Laden as an apostate and a socialist. His fatwa said it is morally licit within the Islamic law to kill him.

Stripped of the pious rhetoric, Novak was saying that the rage (and fear) of the US leadership over the attacks of 9/11 was justification for an attack on an unrelated third party. This was the effective meaning of introducing of the events of 9-11 into the issue of war and peace with Iraq. Because the US was (and is today) angry and afraid about 9-11, we therefore say we claim a moral license to attack and kill anyone that we are afraid of, even though they have no connection to the events of 9-11. By attacking Iraq, we say that self-defense includes an alleged "right" to kill neighbors, not involved with the attack, because they have weapons and they "might" attack us at some time in the future.

Mr. Novak, his neo-conservative and liberal allies, and the defenders of the Iraq war among the US Bishops make much of the duty of leaders to protect their people. But these people have nothing to say of the duty of governing authorities to NOT provoke attacks upon the civilian population. They have nothing to say regarding the failures of the US defense and intelligence establishment on 9-11, nor the failures of our political leaders and the foreign policy establishment in the months and years prior to that attack.

Despite much rhetoric, they never actually established that there was anything to protect us from in Iraq that we could deal with by a military invasion. They did the best they could with the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction fiasco but no credible evidence was presented to confirm the existence of these weapons, even though we spend billions of dollars on spies and surveillance satellites and monitoring stations, and the United Nation's inspectors had free reign within Iraq itself. Generally, when asked for evidence, our leaders took refuge in some variation of "the evidence has to remain secret so we don't endanger sources." But as it turns out, the evidence just wasn't there because there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the government did not want to acknowledge that its hand was so weak. That's a fine strategy when playing Texas Hold-em Poker, but bluffing your way into a war is certainly evidence of injustice. We should never again trust a claim to secret evidence by any government as an excuse for going to war and thus putting the lives of millions of people at risk of death and destruction.

Early in his presentation, Novak claimed that Iraq was not a preventive war. But as his argument progressed, he said that public authorities have a duty to wage preventive war. Where is this found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The answer, given before the Iraq War by then Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Benedict XVI, was "The concept of a 'preventative war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." Preventive war is a prescription for perpetual international violence. It is the argument used by Germany at the beginning of both World War I and World War II to justify their attacks on their neighbors. The consequences, which he glosses over as though of no importance, are devastating not only for people in the countries we attack but also for the people of the United States.

How can perpetual war be dangerous to us at home? Aside from the fact that it exposes us here in the heartland to enemy attack, wars drive negative trends in both government and culture. We who stand on the shoulders of giants such as Washington and Jefferson, who defended the natural and inalienable rights of the people, have ourselves become amoral followers of Machiavelli. We are willing to torture, imprison without trial, ignore the Geneva Conventions, and kill the children of our enemies to secure cheap petroleum to sustain our gluttonous lifestyles.

Just as it was in the old Soviet Union, the worse things get here in the United States, the more pressure there is to conform to the official party line. In America at War, those who dissent are branded as traitors. How far the present generation of leaders has departed from the principles of Thomas Jefferson, who believed that citizens had an obligation to be critical of their government, "for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence"!

Culturally, we are becoming coarse and heartless when it comes to the deaths of the many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars. We don't care about them, we have no solidarity with them, they are not even people to us, they are merely collateral damage. When we read in the Bible, "Love your enemies", we refuse to understand that Jesus was talking to us! We claim we are acting on behalf of the people of Iraq, but we ignore the fact that they have paid - from the very beginning and they continue to pay today - the highest price in this battle. Saddam Hussein and his cohorts are safe in one of our prisons, with three nice meals a day, air conditioning, and lots of other perks. George Bush and the rest of the neo-conservative and liberal supporters of this war are safe here at home. They aren't hurting for food or money or safety. It is the ordinary people of Iraq who daily face intermittent electricity, a collapsed economy, personal danger and death. Uncounted thousands have been killed. Our armed forces are also called upon to make enormous sacrifices, enduring danger that is often exacerbated by the political leadership. Thousands have died and many more thousands have been seriously injured, sent into harms way by a cowardly national leadership that hides its greed and gluttony with pious patriotic rhetoric.

Meanwhile, we here at home put "Support our Troops" bumper stickers on our gas-guzzling cars and wave flags at every opportunity, but that's about the extent of our investment. We aren't willing to pay the costs of the war with taxes, so we are putting it on our national credit cards and billing the principle and interest to our grandkids. We are certainly not willing to make even one tiny personal sacrifice to create a world situation where we don't have to send our troops to war for cheap oil. We would rather fill our gas tanks with blood and send our petro dollars to terrorists to buy more guns and bullets to kill our troops and the innocent Iraqi civilians than do something practical like car pool or take the bus to work or (shudder, gasp, horrors) drive a smaller car that gets great gas mileage. How serious can We the People really be about this war when so many of us give so much petro- dollar aid and comfort to our enemies? People are dying and here at home the whole tragic series of events is just another video clip on the evening news, a series of 30 second sensations that briefly stir our emotions and get our adrenaline going but then we go quickly to a commercial so we are once again safely immersed in the mindless consumerism that is the culture of death.

We hear a lot about fighting for freedom in Iraq, but those claims do not meet the test of reality. The history of US/Iraq relations does not suggest much confidence in any compassion the United States government might allegedly have for the long suffering people of Iraq. We didn't care much for them when we supported the tyrant Saddam in the 1980s, giving him weapons which he used against his own people. We armed both sides of the Iraq/Iran war and that didn't show a lot of concern for the Iraqi people. We didn't care much for them when we destroyed the technological infrastructure that the civilian population was dependent upon during the first Gulf war. And we showed zero compassion for them as they died by the hundreds of thousands as a result of our blockade of their country after the first Gulf War. That blockade was maintained through 3 different presidencies and six Congresses. In fact, according to the noted war criminal, the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, "We think the price is worth it."

When we don't see people as human persons, we are free to do whatever we want to them. By evading the humanity of the Iraqi people, we can rain down death and destruction on them. We can drive them into destitution and kill their kids and still maintain an untroubled conscience. We can save them by killing them, or so we suppose. Yes, we blamed the tyrant Saddam for the evil effects of the blockade, but that's another thing we do to ease our conscience: we refuse to accept responsibility for our actions and their consequences.

Mr. Novak claimed that the Iraqi people were "weak and defenseless," and the strong have a duty to rescue them. We should ask, however, why were they "weak and defenseless" and caught between such a rock and a hard place? Did this just happen one day because, you know, the Iraqi people woke up and decided they wanted to be defenseless before a tyrant? The fact of this matter is that for most of this century, the people of Iraq have been under attack, not only by their own government, but also by the governments of the United States and England. Novak's essay, and the war party's propaganda in general, is breathtaking in its selective historical amnesia. They have no problems recalling the most minute details regarding Chamberlain and Hitler, but the story of Iraq in the 20th century seems utterly unknown to them. It isn't, of course, they know exactly what has happened, but they don't want most people to know about this history because then some inconvenient questions might be asked. Why exactly have we killed so many Iraqi civilians? What purpose does the death of these people serve? After all this history, NOW we are going to become the "Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you" guys, and like the cavalry come riding over the hill just in the nick of time to save the day? That is an absurd thought.

The people of Iraq did not need the charity of our invading them and killing them and their children in order to save them from the tyrant Saddam. The fact that the Iraqis were weak and defenseless was due in no small part to the actions of the United States towards them. The first and foremost thing they needed then AND NEED NOW is for the United States to get off their backs so they could have a chance to do something about their situation themselves. It is, after all, their own responsibility to govern themselves and overthrow their own tyrants. That's the primary way to becoming a free society. Tyranny has been the norm in history, freedom comes when the tyrant is overthrown by the oppressed people themselves. It is the duty of the Iraqi people to liberate themselves, and they have to take the lead in it. In Catholic social teaching, this is known as "participation" and it is one of the natural and inalienable rights of the human person.

The argument that war with Saddam is morally obligatory because he was so evil and we are so good should be seen for what it is: a propaganda campaign to make us feel better about killing innocent people, including children and babies.

Novak claimed that the Iraq War would be a "limited and careful war". However, the Iraq War can only be considered "limited and careful" if it is seen from the view of the military aggressors. For the civilians, the war has not been limited nor careful. The situation in Iraq is not getting better. It continues to deteriorate. Our national response? Just as we did in Vietnam, "More guns, more bombs, more violence, more death."

In 2003 Novak argued that the United States is not dependent upon Iraqi oil and we were deploying a credible program to end US dependence upon oil imports. Therefore the war was not about oil. This was important to his argument, because a war to take resources is an unjust war. The problem with his argument however is that it has zero connection with the reality of world energy marketplaces.

With 6% of the world's population, the US consumes 25% of the world's oil production each year. Whatever the direct source of a nation's oil consumption, any reduction in the size of the world's oil production will impact everyone through higher prices. US oil production peaked in 1971 and has declined ever since. It will never return to its previous level because the oil is not here to be found. There is only so much oil in the ground, when it is gone it is gone. This is called "depletion", and we here in Oklahoma should be familiar with the concept. One by one, in other regions of the world, oil fields are reaching their peak production and then their production declines. Many petroleum geologists believe world oil production is either at its all-time peak or this event will occur in the next few years. Because two-thirds of the world's oil producing countries are in decline, the Middle East is becoming the center of world oil production. Even there, depletion is an issue. There has never been an independent audit of Middle Eastern oil reserves. It is likely that the Saudi Arabians are lying about the condition of their oil fields. There may be less oil there than people think.

At some point in the future, the increasing demand will run into a declining supply, and there won't be enough oil to go around. Prior to September 11th, there was considerable political discussion in the United States about the inability of the American people to accept any changes in their lifestyles dictated by energy problems or shortages that might result in higher prices. Rather than trust in the marketplace, therefore, the United States seems to prefer to use its armed forces to preserve market share as we approach the last days of cheap petroleum.

The much ballyhooed hydrogen initiative referred to by Novak cannot replace petroleum, because hydrogen is like electricity - it takes energy to make it. By the requirements of the laws of thermodynamics, it will therefore always take more energy to create the hydrogen fuel than the hydrogen itself will yield as useful work. If a given amount of hydrogen will produce 1000 BTU's of work, then it will always take more than 1000 BTU's of energy to produce it. It would take as much electricity as the United States presently generates in one year just to produce enough fuel to run the passenger automobiles presently in circulation on the nation's roads, if they were all to be powered by hydrogen. Natural gas is not a panacea either, as the US is also faces problems with its natural gas production. In spite of a massive exploration and drilling program which began in response to high natural gas prices several years ago, natural gas production remains flat due to high rates of depletion. So where is the fuel to generate this massive increase in electricity in order to power a hydrogen economy? This is not answered in the government's program, and until it is, their proposals to alleviate US dependence on oil imports are not credible.

In the three years since Novak's 2003 speech, the US government has done nothing to reduce our dependence upon foreign oil. The price of oil is double the 2004 price. If the government was serious about reducing its petroleum dependence, the most productive public initiatives would include major investments in public transportation, incentives for conserving energy, shifting the movement of goods and supplies from trucks to trains, and replacing fossil fuel consumption with renewable resources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric.

These facts of the petroleum marketplace expose the truth about why we are in Iraq. This is the first of a series of Oil Wars to control the last major oil reservoirs. We are never coming home from the Middle East. We will maintain a permanent military presence in the area, and will be perpetually at war because We the People of these United States would kill than conserve energy and take the bus.

In these days of violence, tragedy, and evil, it is unfortunate that the response of the Catholic Church in the US has been confused and contradictory. There are many Catholic voices that are undermining the Church's teachings on war, peace, and solidarity, and Michael Novak is one of them. Contrast the hesitancy and moral confusion about war evident in the US Bishops with the moral clarity and conviction of Pope John Paul II, who said the war would be a "defeat for humanity". When the war began, the Pope said, "When war, as in these days in Iraq, threatens the fate of humanity, it is ever more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society." On May 2, 2003, Cardinal Ratzinger said, "There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq." (Reported by Zenit News Agency.) In a letter hand delivered to President Bush by the papal nuncio, Pope John Paul II said that war against Iraq would be "immoral, illegal, and unjust."

In 2003 I wrote, "If the opinions of Novak are allowed to prevail, the world can expect nothing but a further deterioration of the world order, and ever greater humanitarian catastrophes. The Church must resist all efforts to distort its teachings to support the murder of the innocent and to hijack its moral authority as a tool of the United States government." Alas, the Church in the US did not resist the War Party's distortions and over the last three years a coterie of nationalist bishops has continued to pervert the Church's teachings to serve the Empire's goals. The "further deterioration of the world order" is happening all around us. America the Beautiful has morphed into America the Merciless, with policies of social darwinism at home and "beggar your neighbors" foreign and economic policies abroad that are causing catastrophes for the poor throughout the entire world.

It is evident that like Germany and Japan and the Soviet Union in the 20thcentury, we will have to learn our lesson about empire the hard way. Promoters of war and the imperial way always make it sound so glorious and even safe. The non-violent alternatives are dismissed as dangerous or unrealistic. But empires always end in blood and violence. As Jesus said, all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. What goes around always comes around. One day the moral bill for our wars of oppression and injustice will be demanded of us, and we will not like the price that we will have to pay. "Sow not in furrows of injustice lest you reap a seven-fold harvest."

What do mean by crushing my people and grinding down the poor when they look to you? Those who oppress the poor blaspheme their maker, but the one who is kind to the needy glorifies God. Isaiah 3:15

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