Pope John Paul II was right about the ‘war on terror’

Pope John Paul II was right about the ‘war on terror’ New York firefighters and rescue workers on September 11, 2001 carrying Franciscan Fr Mychal Judge, a chaplain with the New York Fire Department, who died while giving last rites to a firefighter in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Photo: CNS.
The world is a messy place and often the only realistic choices are between bad and even worse writes David Quinn

Everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. I was still the editor of this newspaper and had gone into a pub for lunch with some other staff and on the television set behind the bar we watched in amazement as the historic events unfolded in New York.

George W. Bush had been sworn in as US president earlier that year. Following the 9/11 attacks he declared a ‘war on terror’ which has had fateful consequences to this day.

The justification was to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again. The men behind the attacks, members of Al-Qaeda (which means ‘the base’) were self-declared Jihadists, that is, ‘holy warriors’, engaged in a ‘holy war’ to ultimately impose their version of Islam on the whole world.

More immediately, Osama Bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda’s driving force, wanted American troops out of his native Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Mohammed, and of its two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

He also wanted to wipe out the state of Israel, but in addition, he wanted to give America a bloody nose for what he regarded as its continuing attacks on the Muslim world.

Al-Qaeda was operating out of Afghanistan which was then under the rule of the Taliban. It became the first target of the war on terror. The Taliban needed to be thrown out of power and Al-Qaeda evicted from Afghanistan and, if possible, destroyed.


Most of the world supported the American efforts on this occasion and many countries provided troops in support. By the end of 2001, the Taliban were gone and Al-Qaeda, including Mr Bin-Laden, were on the run.

Then America turned its attention to Iraq, at the time ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein who had butchered huge numbers of his own people, fought a long and very bloody war with Iran, had previously invaded Kuwait, and been kicked out in the first Gulf War, and was known to have had chemical weapons because he used them on rebels in his own country, and against the Iranians. He had pursued a nuclear weapons programme. This was a very dangerous man, and the Americans were set on toppling him.


But at this point, solidarity with America began to fracture. Much of the world thought invading Iraq was a step too far, and doubted Mr Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction which might fall into terrorist hands. They also feared that the invasion might do more harm than good.

Pope John Paul II opposed the invasion. He sent his emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, to see President Bush and deliver a letter from the Pope pleading against the invasion.

Cardinal Laghi warned the president that overthrowing Mr Hussein would lead to massive instability in Iraq. He predicted fighting between Shiites, Sunnis (the two main branches of Islam) and Kurds (an Arabic people in the north of the country who seek independence).

All of this happened. But Mr Bush said the aim was to make Iraq a democratic country and an example to the rest of the Arab Middle East. He believed this would ultimately destroy the root causes of Islamic fundamentalism and roll back terrorism. This was a position I supported at the time.

But the Pope and Cardinal Laghi turned out to be correct. Iraq descended into chaos after the invasion. Iran allied with its fellow Shias inside the country, Sunnis rebelled and the Kurds made a bid for autonomy. ISIS, a breakaway from Al-Qaeda, captured whole swathes of the northern region of Iraq and waged a campaign of terror against all religious minorities, including Christians.

The project to build functioning, peaceful, democratic nation-states in both Afghanistan and Iraq failed miserably.

Among the successes was the near destruction of ISIS (‘Islamic State’) in both Iraq and Syria and the depletion of Al-Qaeda, although both groups still exist, especially in parts of Africa.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Saddam Hussein would have carried on in power. He might have been overthrown like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, or there might have been an attempt, as with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the result being a long and bloody civil war that is still not fully resolved. Libya has also descended into anarchy.

Christians have had to flee Syria, just as they have had to flee Iraq. The world is a very messy place and often the only realistic choices are between bad and even worse, a dictator and chaos.


The war on terror has also shown that it is very hard to ‘drop’ a Western-style society on top of a country that is simply not prepared for it and is very different.

Western countries have a universalist outlook, meaning they think their values are universal and will eventually prevail everywhere. This is an inheritance from Christianity. But even if Western values do prevail, it will take centuries, just as it took Christianity centuries to really transform Europe, a task never fully accomplished. But the types of societies we now have in the West grew from Christian soil.

Aside from the fact that we tried to impose our democratic way of life on Arab, Muslim countries, we overlooked that fact that these societies are often highly clan and tribe-based. Loyalty to clan and tribe is much stronger than to the nation-state or civil society. We take it for granted that we are no longer clan and tribe-based, but in fact it took a very long time for us to change this, and according to a number of leading scholars, the Catholic Church played a key role by discouraging and even forbidding cousin marriage.  This undermined the clan system making it no longer our first loyalty.

America had to respond to the 9/11 attacks. It had to do its best to ensure nothing like them happened again. So far, it has largely succeeded in that. But it overreached and has done more harm than good in many cases. The ultimate irony is that the Taliban are now back in power 20 years after their overthrow.

For America, this has been a long exercise in humility. More than the Twin Towers fall on that day in September. In the end, so did American hubris. But a humbled America might not make the world a better, safer place, not when we see increasingly aggressive, authoritarian powers like China on the rise. As I say, the world is a messy place and history is often ‘one damned thing after another’.