The Pope, ISIS and U.S. Foreign Policy

03/24/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

A longer version of this post can be found on The Arc of the Universe blog.

Much is being made of the Vatican's uncharacteristic statements lending support for limited use of force against ISIS. [Vice News] The most recent came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's representative to the UN agencies in Geneva and Vienna. In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Tomasi said, "We have to stop this kind of genocide. Otherwise we'll be crying out in the future about why we didn't do something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen." [Crux interview]

Archbishop Tomasi's recent statement is consistent with statements by Pope Francis, who said last August, in response to questions about the U.S. bombing campaign, that, "In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor." [Pope interview]

Is the Vatican position on ISIS a sharp departure from recent Church teaching and action on the use of military force?

It certainly is, if one considers the Church's opposition to the Iraq interventions in 1991 and 2003, an increasingly strong emphasis on nonviolence in Church statements, and numerous papal warnings that "war is not the answer."

But, in fact, the statements on ISIS are not charting a new, more militant position for the Church. The Catechism retains the Church's traditional embrace of a highly restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition. Moreover, the statements on ISIS are very similar to earlier statements on the use of force against Al Qaeda and the right and duty of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other cases of genocide. The Church has long said and continues to say that there is just cause for the limited use of military force in exceptional circumstances. Specifically, it supports the Responsibility to Protect: the duty of the international community to intervene to protect civilians against mass killings and other egregious human rights violations when the government is unable or unwilling to do so.

None of this suggests the Vatican is abandoning its healthy skepticism about the ability of military interventions to meet strict just war norms. Two issues are of special concern, especially for those concerned about the implications for U.S. policy.

First is legitimate authority. Consistent with its strong support for strengthening international law and international institutions, the Vatican has called for the UN Security Council to determine what means are necessary to deal with cases like ISIS. As the pope said last August, "One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor." Archbishop Tomasi reiterated this point: "It will be up the United Nations and its member states, especially the Security Council, to determine the exact form of intervention necessary, but some responsibility [to act] is clear."

Why insist on UN Security Council authorization? After all, at least in Iraq, U.S. (and Iranian) intervention at the invitation of the Iraqi government may be justified as collective defense under article 51 of the UN Charter. The problem is that the Iraqi government's moral and political legitimacy is in question. While the government has taken some positive steps to include Sunnis and Kurds in recent months, it remains largely sectarian and its efforts to combat ISIS risk exacerbating that sectarianism. Its reliance on Iranian and Shiite militias to retake Tikrit is the latest example.

In Syria, the need for UN Security Council authorization is even more clear, but less possible. It is more clear because there is a failed government and an anarchic situation with hundreds of rebel groups of various stripes. It is a classic case for invocation of the Responsibility to Protect. But it is less possible to get Security Council authorization due to differences among the Permanent 5. Unilateral intervention might be justified because the UN Security Council has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in response to the crisis in Syria. But unilateral intervention does not solve the problem that there is no legitimate and credible government or opposition group to support.

Legitimate authority is closely connected to a second concern: finding morally appropriate and effective means. As Pope Francis clarified when he said there is just cause to stop ISIS: "I'm not saying bomb or make war, just stop." Since the end of the Cold War, the Vatican has repeatedly called on the international community to intervene when whole populations are at risk. By intervention, it means a wide range of actions, only some of which involve military force. Efforts to cut off ISIS' access to weapons, financing, oil markets, and new recruits are just one example of what needs to be done.

While limited military intervention also seems necessary, we must be brutally realistic about what that might achieve. For most of the past 12 years in Iraq, the United States has bombed, deployed boots on the ground, and trained and armed the security forces. Yet Iraq is as violent and unstable as ever. Is it reasonable to expect military intervention to produce significantly different results today than it has over the past decade?

Without a serious and sustained political strategy to build a more democratic, human-rights respecting, and effective government in Iraq, military force will be of only limited effectiveness against ISIS, whose strength is, in part, a function of the Iraqi government's political weakness.

And Iraq is relatively easy compared to Syria. What would be the objectives of military action? To defend civilians against ISIS? Against the Syrian government, too? Against all armed groups that threaten civilians? To rebuild a nation? If the latter, who would undertake the Iraq-style occupation and nation building that would be necessary, and what grounds do we have for thinking that would succeed any better than it did in Iraq?

There are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums the international community faces in Iraq and Syria. The United States, in particular, faces a serious moral conundrum.

After many years, many deaths, many billions of dollars, and many missteps later, we are tempted to say that we have done all we can do and wash our hands of the problem, letting Iraq and Syria be torn apart by their "ancient hatreds." But that would be shirking our moral obligations, for the United States has become -voluntarily! - very much a part of those hatreds. [More on U.S. obligations to Iraq]

The more serious temptation at this moment of crisis is to do what we did in 2003: pursue a quick-fix military solution justified by best-case scenarios about the good that would be achieved - peace, freedom, and democracy for Iraq and the region. But that approach lacks the realism essential to any ethic of military intervention.

Because past U.S. interventions helped create the current crisis, we have a moral obligation to act. Limited military intervention might be necessary. But without a serious effort to address the larger political, economic, and cultural dynamics - and, yes, to engage in nation building in two countries torn asunder, it will be no more successful than it has been until now.