Last Resort

That military force must be the “last resort” in resolving a conflict is one of the classic criteria that make up the “war-decision” law within the Just War tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “last resort” like this:

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

“All other means of putting an end to [the damage done by aggression] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.” In his address to the diplomats accredited to the Vatican this past January 13, the Holy Father said that the resort to armed force should be the “very last option” taken in dealing with aggression.

How, then, do we know when we’re at “last resort”?

The question is neither idle nor abstract. For, in principle, one could always imagine yet another diplomatic initiative, another summit conference, another round of negotiations, in dealing with many threats to peace. Sometimes, as in the case of classic cross-border aggression, events irrefutably demonstrate that armed force is, indeed, the last possible resort; when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, no Pole in his or her right mind imagined that another round of negotiations would be of any use. But in many other cases, it’s not always clear when diplomacy has ceased to be a morally realistic and politically reasonable option.

Which suggests that if “last resort” is to have real meaning for statesmen, just war theorists can’t think of “last resort” mathematically, as the terminus of a potentially infinite sequence of possibilities. The world doesn’t work that way.

A piece of contemporary history may help us get a better intellectual and moral grip on “last resort”.

In early June 1981, the Osiraq nuclear reactor, which French technicians were building for Iraq, was only weeks from becoming operational. On the night of June 6-7, 1981, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed the reactor. The raid was carried out with consummate skill; the pilots took great risks to minimize civilian casualties; Iraq’s nuclear program was derailed.

At the time, the “international community,” including the United States, loudly condemned Israel’s action. A few years later, things looked different. Iraq was engaged in a protracted and bloody war with Iran, a war in which Iraq regularly used chemical weapons and attacked Tehran and other Iranian cities with ballistic missiles. Had the Osiraq reactor been completed and a supply of fissile material made available to Iraqi scientists and weapons engineers, Saddam Hussein would have had a nuclear weapon — and would likely have used it. Israel’s air raid turned out to be an effective form of nuclear non-proliferation.

The moral and political rationale Israel’s leaders gave for acting when they did is also worth pondering. In circumstances like this, the Israelis argued, “last resort” cannot mean waiting until after the Iraqis have a nuclear weapon, and then trying to prevent their using it when they’re about to do so. Failure under those circumstances is too awful to risk. Therefore, the Israelis argued, when one is dealing with a man like Saddam Hussein, a regime like Iraq’s (in which there is no internal constraint on the dictator’s will), nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction), and ballistic missiles (or possible use of the weapons by terrorists), “last resort” is reached at the point where there is no option left but to forcibly deny the aggressor the possibility of obtaining the weapons, before he gets them.

That is what Israel did on June 6-7, 1981. And it seems probable that, over the past twenty-two years, the world has been spared a nuclear “resolution” of the Iran-Iraq war — Tehran vaporized — and a nuclear war in the Middle East because of what Israel did.

Who makes the call on when the point of last resort has been reached? Who decides that there is no option left but to use proportionate and discriminate armed force to prevent an aggressor from obtaining weapons of mass destruction? The Catechism is clear on this question: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

Responsible statesmen make the call. The duty of religious leaders and theologians is to teach and clarify the principle at stake. Thinking about Osiraq helps in that necessary work of clarification.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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