Archbishop: U.S. must honestly assess what is achievable in Iraq

By Julie Asher
Catholic News Service

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CNS) — At this stage in the Iraq War, the United States “must honestly assess what is achievable in Iraq using the traditional just-war principle of ‘probability of success,’ including the probability of contributing to a responsible transition,” said Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien.

The U.S. and its allies “also have a grave responsibility, even at a high cost, to help Iraqis secure and rebuild their nation,” unless the conclusion is reached that “a responsible transition is not achievable,” he said.

The archbishop, who heads the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, made the comments in a Memorial Day pastoral message to Catholic men and women in the U.S. armed forces. He delivered the same message at a packed session May 25 during the 2007 Catholic Media Convention in Brooklyn.

The annual convention, a joint effort of the Catholic Press Association and Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals, drew about 400 people working in Catholic communications in the U.S. and Canada.

The archbishop told his convention audience that he was not speaking with “any special insight or experience” of what has gone on in Iraq or in Afghanistan, but said he is in contact with many who are engaged in the conflicts there.

He used the first part of his talk — and his letter — to review the four major statements on the war issued by U.S. bishops; the first was released in September 2002 and the most recent was issued in January of this year.

The 2002 letter, signed by then-Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the U.S. bishops’ president at the time, urged President George W. Bush to “step back from the brink of war,” warning that a pre-emptive military strike on Iraq was unjustified.

The bishops’ most recent statement — dated Jan. 12 and issued by Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, the current president — said every U.S. action or policy in Iraq “ought to be evaluated in light of our nation’s moral responsibility to help Iraqis to live with security and dignity in the aftermath of U.S. military action.”

It said benchmarks for progress toward such a transition 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.”

These statements, along with what the Vatican has said in opposition to the war, provide a moral framework for discussing the current situation in Iraq, Archbishop O’Brien said.

Raising grave moral questions about U.S. involvement in Iraq is in no way questioning the moral integrity of those in the military, he said.

Archbishop O’Brien said he feels that Bush and other administration officials have taken the Catholic bishops seriously and “appreciate our evenhandedness. … Condemnation is not what we’re about.”

Unfortunately, what many Catholic leaders and others predicted would happen in Iraq — the chaos and the difficulties of consolidating peace — has come true, he said.

What was missing at the outset of the war was a comprehensive blueprint to administer and restore Iraq after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deposed, Archbishop O’Brien said. “There was not sufficient foresight about what we might do after our seeming victory.”

The archbishop argued against pulling out of Iraq now, and said the U.S. must look at what is achievable. He added that military personnel feel that Americans at the grass-roots level still support them.

He thinks there is still a chance to have a free Iraq and see democracy spread through the region.

Archbishop O’Brien compared the Iraq situation to the Vietnam War. He was an Army chaplain in the early 1970s and served a year in Vietnam. The U.S. was gaining the upper hand there, he said, until the Tet offensive conducted by the North Vietnamese. Technically, it was a failed military action but it was a turning point in the war.

Political sentiment turned against U.S. involvement and the U.S. pulled out, but the archbishop said he thinks the U.S. still could have gotten the upper hand had it stayed.

During a question-and-answer session after the archbishop’s address, one member of the audience argued that the American people were conned into getting into the war. Another said many opponents of the war feel the decision to invade Iraq was advanced by a small group of neoconservatives who wanted to get their hands on Iraq’s vast oil supplies.

Archbishop O’Brien disagreed with both notions.

He said that “reasonable people can disagree” about the war. He said he could see why some might feel the nation was conned because there is a great deal of skepticism about the war, but added, “I don’t think there was bad will on the part of the government” in deciding to go to war.

He also said, “I don’t agree this was the invention of a small group that wanted oil.”

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