The Errors of Michael Novak

By Robert Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House in Oklahoma City

February 17, 2003


Michael Novak , a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has recently given a presentation in Rome at the invitation of the US Ambassador to the Vatican, in defense of the United States' proposal to wage war on Iraq. The text I am responding to was found on the National Review Online website, reporting a speech he gave in Rome on February 10, 2003.

The first and primary error he makes is in the point of view of his presentation. His analysis 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, and for the most part confines his comments to the jus ad bellum questions, without also considering the demands of jus in bello and in particular, the poor record of the United States in this regard. Under many pretensions of justice and self defense, 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, but only from that of the rich and powerful, whatever his analysis may be, it cannot be considered Catholic.

1. The United States does not come to this present situation with clean hands and an untroubled conscience..

The impression given by Mr. Novak's presentation, and the general propaganda line of the United States government, is that the United States 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, deploying a second weapon of mass destruction (the sanctions and embargo). Since February 1991, more than a million Iraqi civilians have 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 innocent people.

2. Michael Novak argues that this proposed war is a continuation of the "lawful" first Gulf war.

His reasoning apparently is that since the first Gulf war was just, and this is simply a final battle in that just war, therefore this is a just war. In other words, he is appealing 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 does not explain how this juridical paper trail somehow trumps the unconditional and nonnegotiable right to life of the civilian population of Iraq. In fact, he never acknowledges 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".

3. Michael Novak argues there is a direct connection between the attack on the US of September 11, 2001 and the regime of Saddam Hussein. There is an imminent danger that Saddam Hussein and Al Queda will form a united front against the US, and Iraq possesses biological and chemical warfare munitions that it will give to Al Queda terrorists.

The United States government has not put forward one bit of evidence connecting the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States with the behavior of the Iraq government. If I am attacked by my neighbor, I certainly have the right of self defense, I do not have the right to kill other neighbors, not involved with the original attack, just because they have weapons and I think they "might" attack me at some time in the future. Yet, this is the basis of his argument. In fact, Mr. Hussein has been recently denounced by Osama bin Laden as an apostate and a socialist, who has also noted that it is morally licit within the Islamic law to kill him.

At the beginning of his essay, Novak claimed that this was not a preventive war, but rather the conclusion of the original Gulf War. Now, in the heart of his argument, we find him saying that public authorities have a duty to wage preventive war. What is this but a prescription for perpetual international violence and the imposition of imperial rule? The consequences, which he glosses over as though of no importance, are likely to be devastating not only for people in the countries we will attack but also for the people of the United States.

Very little evidence has been presented to confirm US accusations, even though our nation spends billions of dollars on spies and surveillance hardware such as satellites and monitoring stations, and the United Nation's inspectors have free reign within Iraq itself. Generally refuge is taken in some variation of, "the real evidence has to remain secret so we don't expose our sources." But perhaps the evidence just isn't there, and the United States government does not want to acknowledge that its hand is so weak. The credibility of a government which daily stands aside while 4,000 of its own children are butchered by abortion does not stretch to cover its assurances that it is not lying to the public to serve its own ends. We should not forget that history records many times when the United States government has lied to the public to cover up its own crimes and its complicity in the crimes of others. We should never 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.

Regarding the anthrax issue, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting a United States source for the post 9/11 anthrax attacks, which indicates that the United States itself may not be effectively guarding its stockpiles of these materials and weapons. I used to live in Utah, about 40 miles from the Tooele Army Depot where chemical warfare munitions are stored, and there were often reports in the local press of inventory problems with these weapons. To paraphrase Mr. Novak, "Somewhere between 0 and 10, in other words, there already is a probability of the United States' deadly weapons falling into al Qaeda's willing hands (or the hands of domestic terrorists)." Should the United States itself therefore be considered a rogue state because it has not properly accounted for all its chemical munitions and some germ warfare agents may have been stolen, misplaced, or even given to terrorists?

4. The rage of the United States leadership over the attacks of 9/11 is justification for the United States to attack an unrelated third party.

This is the effective meaning of his introduction of the events of September 11th into the issue of war and peace with Iraq. Because the United States is angry and afraid about what happened in that attack, we therefore have moral license to attack and kill anyone that we are afraid of, even though they have no connection to the events of 9/11/2001. Mr. Novak makes much of the duty of leaders to protect their people, he says nothing of their duty to not provoke attacks upon the civilian population, nor of the failures of the United States defense establishment on September 11, 2001, nor the failures of our political leaders and the foreign policy establishment in the months and years prior to that attack..

The official position of the US government since Sept. 11th is that this war came upon us with no warning, and was allegedly an ahistorical eruption of evil into normality. But in fact there were several warnings of the attack, all of which were ignored by the responsible United States authorities. At minimum, after September 11th we needed a national examination of conscience regarding the failures of these leaders and our foreign policies, so we could determine a proper response to make sure the guilty were punished and the events did not happen again. But instead of this, we have endured a major all media propaganda campaign of demonization that has purposely distracted the people of the United States from demanding accountability from our own leaders who have so obviously failed us with such evil and terrible consequences. In fact, the rising risk of terrorism against civilians in the United States, as a consequence of our foreign policies, has been discussed for years. Osama bin Laden has formally declared war on us, and published his manifesto on the internet, effectively giving us a public warning of his intentions, and the Twin Towers had already been attacked once before. Even so, before September 11, 2001, the present administration, led by President George Bush, and supported by a bipartisan Congress, was apparently not interested in the problem nor the risks and did not take the threat seriously, and as a result, thousands of innocent people are dead not only because of the evil of the terrorists, but also because of the shameful and scandalous failures of the United States government, which was so busy doing other things on September 11th that it had no time to protect the people from a military attack.

The war on Iraq in fact is a diversion of attention and resources away from the real threat against the United States homeland and its civilian population. It should be noted that despite much pious rhetoric about the importance of "homeland security," very little practical help has actually been given by the federal government to the "first responders", the local police and fire fighters and emergency medical personnel of the city and county governments who are on the front lines of this war upon the people of America. Mr. Novak dwells on the responsibility of leaders for making proper decisions about war, and he is correct in noting their responsibility for future actions. But when they have failed us so egregiously, as happened on September 11th, they should be held accountable for their failures. We have not done this, and the men and women who failed us remain in positions of high power and responsibility, and it is those same failed leaders who are now proposing this present adventure. Before we pick at the dirt in the eyes of Iraq, it would be better if we removed the giant beams protruding from our own eyes. We would not want to be judged by the standards we are applying to Saddam Hussein, because if we were, our leaders would be on trial for crimes against humanity.

5. "This is the context in which the ad bellum question concerning a limited and careful war upon Iraq is properly raised today. The primary duty of public authorities in well-ordered democracies is to protect the lives and rights of their people. "

Michael Novak seems to think the ad bellum considerations are more important than the in bello discussion, as though a just cause could somehow negate the moral law. He dwells extensively on ad bellum, but has little to say about in bello except for the "limited and careful" comments. Yet, moral authorities for years have pointed at the total nature of modern warfare as a major moral problem. The temptation of those pursuing a cause they believe is just is to wage the war with immoral weapons and strategies, and I think the evidence clearly is that a just cause can be invalidated by a non proportional response that directly or indirectly targets civilians. The only difference between strafing a school yard full of children and deploying an economic embargo is the method chosen to kill the children.

The proposed war can only be considered "limited and careful" if it is seen from the viewpoint of the military aggressors. For the civilian population of Baghdad, the war will not be limited nor will it be careful. The United States military has a long history of targeting the infrastructure that is necessary for the support of the civilian population, and there is every reason to expect that the same will happen with Iraq. We should not ignore recent comments from Pentagon officials that the war will start with a massive launch of missiles, they say they will use more missiles in two days than were expended in the 40 days of the original Gulf war. That amount of ordnance cannot rain down on a nation without causing considerable loss of life, both directly and indirectly. An artillery and missile barrage of that magnitude can only be considered a weapon of mass destruction.

The protection of the lives and rights of the American people cannot be at the price of murdering the innocent. The United States does not have an exemption from these basic moral laws as it prosecutes its many "just" wars. The government's practice of using neutral language such as "collateral damage" about the consequences does not change the moral calculation, it only encourages depersonalization and dehumanization so that US citizens feel better about murdering foreigners in our tawdry pursuit of a never ending supply of cheap gasoline to satiate our bloated and gluttonous appetites..

The primary responsibility of leaders is to protect the common good, which certainly includes lives and property, but their actions in this regard must be founded in the moral law. It is evident from the recent history of the United States that our leaders have repeatedly put the American people at grave risk, and murdered the innocent in other countries, not to protect the common good but rather to serve motives of greed, cruelty, and injustice. El Salvador, East Timor, Guatemala, Indonesia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, the list is very long and full of tragedy and sorrow and death.

Furthermore, to state that the United States is a "well ordered democracy" is to make a claim that we may not be able to establish by the evidence. The first point to be noted is that at no time has a declaration of war been sought by the executive branch of government from the Congress. The Founding Fathers of the American nation were troubled by the experience of Europe, where wars had been waged at the command of kings who were not accountable to parliaments or to their people. They sought to avoid this problem in the new Republic by investing in the legislature the power to declare war. Yet, President Bush is sending fleets and proposing war without a legal declaration of war against Iraq, voted on by the Congress. Contrast this with the example of President Roosevelt, whose first response to the attack on Pearl Harbor was to seek a proper declaration of war from Congress.

The second point is to question the health of the constitutional order in the United States. I consider the United States to be a nation whose constitutional order is in an ongoing state of collapse. The present administration maintains its authority by virtue of the votes of less than 15% of the American electorate, and acquired office by order of the Supreme Court. Greed and gluttony, violence and theft, not justice and prudence, temperance and fortitude, are our national "virtues". This can be readily discerned by reviewing the actions of the national government in recent years. And every day, 4,000 innocent children are murdered by abortion. This is not a picture of a well ordered democratic republic, but rather a description of the zero sum power game our politics have become. 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.

When these truths are noted there is commonly a response of marginalization which makes accusations of "anti Americanism." Those who deny these facts by resorting to such ad hominem attacks only confirm to the discerning mind that they have no argument to refute this history. In any event, I am a native born American citizen whose ancestors came here in colonial times. I pay my taxes to my local, state, and federal governments, I do not have to defend my right to criticize my own government for its costly and foolish failures, but increasingly, in America at war, those who dissent are branded as traitors by the highest officials in the land. This is further evidence of the collapsing constitutional order in the United States. How far our present leaders have departed from the attitudes of their predecessors such as 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"!

6. Novak argues that the United States is not dependent upon Iraqi oil and we are deploying a credible program to end US dependence upon oil imports.

With six percent of the world's population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's oil production each year. The world's oil markets are effectively one large pool. 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.

Even a cursory examination of the geological facts of oil production shows that the center of gravity of world oil production is shifting inexorably to the Middle East. The oil production of the United States peaked in 1971, it will never return to its previous level because the oil is not here to be found. One by one, in other regions of the world, the same event is happening or about to happen in coming years.

Moreover, even the oil supplies of the Middle East are not infinite, most of their fields are old. They too are approaching their peak production; world oil discovery peaked in the 1960s, a production peak must inevitably follow. There are credible petroleum geologists (Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Kenneth Defreyes are some of the scientists publishing about this issue) who are predicting that world conventional oil production will peak within the next 10 years and begin an inexorable decline. World oil consumption is presently increasing every year, at some point the increasing demand will run into a declining supply, and at that point, 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 its fleets of aircraft carriers to preserve market share as we approach the last days of cheap petroleum.

The much ballyhooed hydrogen initiative cannot actually replace petroleum, primarily because hydrogen is like electricity: it is manufactured, and thus it takes energy to generate it. Although it is the most common element in the universe, it is not found like petroleum and then mined or pumped from wells or mines. 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. For example, 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. By some calculations, 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, as the US is presently also facing problems with replacing its natural gas consumption. Eighty percent of the nation's gas production comes from 20% of the nation's gas wells, most of which are old and depleting, and new wells coming on line are not as productive as the ones being replaced. In spite of a massive exploration and drilling program which began in response to high natural gas prices two years ago, natural gas production remains flat due to the high rates of depletion. So where will the fuel come from to generate such a massive increase in electricity in order to power a hydrogen economy? This is not answered in the administration's program, and until it is, their proposals to alleviate United States dependence on Middle Eastern oil do not constitute a credible program.

If the United States government was serious about reducing its petroleum dependence, the most productive public initiatives would include serious investments in public transportation, coupled with incentives for conserving energy, using it more efficiently, and replacing fossil fuel consumption with renewable resources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. Hydrogen has a role to play, but it is not the "Freedom Fuel" that the administration has made it out to be. For the foreseeable future, the nation will remain so dependent upon petroleum that it seems likely that after we are done with Iraq, we will find one reason or another to go after other oil producing states like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

7. Michael Novak does not properly evaluate the potentially negative consequences of the war.

He has nothing to say about the civilian population of Iraq. How can one consider the justice of a war without considering its impact on the civilians, especially a people so long suffering and down trodden as the Iraqis? Our own nation shares responsibility with the tyrant Hussein for their present misery. The United States policy of bringing pressure to bear on a government by driving its people into misery and poverty is a crime against humanity. It is a weapon of mass destruction, just like chemical, biological, or nuclear arms. From the viewpoint of the people of Iraq, their own government is in league with the Americans to murder them; they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

This failure to consider the consequences for the civilian population of Iraq is typical of the apologists for the increasingly imperial policies of the United States. Like the pharisees of old, the United States perpetually brags about its generosity to former enemies, yet even as these words are written, the United States is reneging on its promises of assistance to Afghanistan, and our latest venture in "nation building" there is apparently faltering. The days when we assisted our former enemies in Italy, Japan, and Germany to rise from the ashes of defeat are gone with our grandfathers.

Rather than make an argument for a just war in the Persian Gulf, Michael Novak has presented an apologia for initiating an American empire. He is distorting the just war teachings of the Church to serve the political purposes of the American government. He marginalizes those who will die under our guns to the point of invisibility. 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.


Michael Novak's presentation may be read online at