Should First Things Apologize?

A lot of focus has been placed recently on Mark Movesian’s First Things (FT) blog piece on the deplorable situation of Christians in Iraq, “A Line Crossed in the Middle East.” You should go read it; it’s quite good. The article does, however, inadvertently raise the question a friend of mine asked, “What responsibility does FT bear for Iraq?” For those of you too young to remember, during the 1990s and 00s, FT was the main hub for neoconservative Catholicism. The late Fr. John Neuhaus, along with his ideological sentries George Weigel and Michael Novak, beat the war drums leading up to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 while trashing those Christians who stood in the way. While FT has undergone some significant internal shakeups since the death of Neuhaus in 2009, the magazine—which at this point is a minor Catholic institution—has never publicly repented of its support for the Iraq War and, by extension, the misery which followed it.

Soul searching does not come easy for Americans. When we do it, we do it begrudgingly. When political leaders such as our current President, Barack Obama, issues public apologies on the world stage, it is taken by many as a sign of weakness and shame. To own up to a past mistake or bad intellectual bet amounts to a self-inflicted reputational gunshot wound, or so we often fear. While it is understandable—though hardly defensible—that overtly ideological rags such as The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and Commentary aren’t falling over themselves to issue mea culpas for America’s Mid East debacle, shouldn’t we expect better of a Catholic publication? It seems almost self-serving and shallow for FT to run pieces condemning the genocide in Mosul without first coming to grips openly for its support of the military action which made a murderous band of radicals like ISIS possible.

Now, some might say that FT only had a “minor role” to play in the Iraq affair, and to a certain extent they are right. In the grand scheme of things FT is a small-time player compared to mainstream conservative publications. For American Catholics, however, FT was, and still remains, a powerful voice. At the very time when certain Catholic intellectuals in America and Europe were expressing skepticism toward the justness of going to war with Iraq, FT was there to set consciences at ease that invading a country which had not attacked the United States was meet and right. There are more than a few Catholics in “my generation” (I am 34) who will say with a straight face that FT tipped their hearts and minds to backing the American invasion of Iraq. Besides, no matter how one judges “influence,” there is no doubt that FT came out for the war and dedicated column space to defending it. That is sufficient for putting them on the culpability hook.

Others might argue that while the FT of the 1990s and 00s bears responsibility for getting into bed with neoconservatism and supporting the Iraq War, today’s FT is a different story. The editorial leadership has changed and many of the regular contributors were not around back then. Ideologically speaking, FT appears to be more diverse than it ever was. Are the children responsible for the sins of their fathers? Well no, not directly. However, as custodians of a publication which committed itself to a disastrous political position, the current editorial leadership, along with its supporting staff, owe it to the Christians now suffering terribly in Iraq to repent of the publication’s misdeeds. Perhaps no single editor or writer on FT is responsible, but here we are talking about a publication/institution which still carries a lot of heft. Shouldn’t it be easier for the current leadership at FT, as compared to the old guard, to take a hard look at the magazine’s past position on Iraq and publicly distance themselves from it?

Of course, even if FT were to dedicate a page or two to lamenting its past association with pro-war apologetics, that does not relieve certain individuals—particularly Novak and Weigel—from making their own professions of error public. While I don’t see that happening anytime soon, it’s still the right thing to do. Even if an apology is far too little and too late to lend any material assistance to the ravaged Christian communities of Iraq, perhaps they would serve as sobering reminders to Catholic intellectuals that they must carry out their vocation in the light of the Church’s wisdom, free of the dark machinations of earthly powers.



  1. Ita Scripta Est
    July 23, 2014

    Here is a recent interview from the pompous Weigel:

    Ask Weigel if he has reconsidered his support for the Iraq invasion, and you will get a “No,” with qualifications.
    “No, in the sense that I still think it was necessary to compel regime change in Iraq, and the invasion was the only way to do that,” Weigel told the Register.

    Yet more criminal stupidity from George “duckbill platypus” Weigel.

    Novak also gives inane advice further down the page.

  2. bernardbrandt
    July 24, 2014

    I shall have to have to answer your question from my own perspective.

    After the end of the first Gulf War in 1993, the UN had determined that at that time, Iraq had been within six months of having developed a working nuclear weapon. For my part, I was concerned then that their possession of such a weapon could have led to a nuclear attack on Israel (as Saddam Hussain had been indulging in the endemic pan-Islamic rhetoric of ‘destruction of Israel by any means necessary’). What I feared, and what I still fear, is that some islamic nut will manage to lob a couple of tactical nukes upon Tel Aviv and Haifa, and prompt the Israelis to use their arsenal of some 400+ weapons to turn the entire Arab and Iranian world into a self-illuminating parking lot. What is likely to happen thereafter could ruin one’s whole day.

    The fact that before the second Gulf War, Saddam had both been rebuilding his weapon making capacity, and had been playing rather fast and loose with required disclosures to the U.N. Atomic Energy Committee, prompted me to believe that going into Iraq to settle matters was justified.

    Then we went into Iraq, but without the special forces necessary to preserve whatever materiel and evidence remained after the locals looted the place. For some of the fiasco involved, I would suggest that you google the words ‘Al Tuwaitha’, and pursue a fair number of the leads. Tons of materiel got looted, and perhaps some of it was recovered. I doubt we’ll ever get a complete story of what happened then.

    But wait! There’s more! The whole premise that the Allied forces had was that after the war, the Iraqi armed forces and civil service would be left to take over the running of Iraq. But between Rumsfeld the Unspeakable, and Bremer the Incompetent, we simply created a whole lot of people with nothing to gain by helping us, and everything to gain by insurrection, and put the rebuilding (such as it was) in the hands of the U.S. military, who were generally ill prepared to do so.

    Now we have a situation where the region is so destabilized that both the Iraqi Sunnis and Shia are mightily pissed off by the allegedly Christian nation which ruined them and then abandoned them. In consequence, they are united only in the desire to remove the remaining Christian element.

    For my part, and after the fact, I regret our involvement in Iraq, particularly after we had won the war, and lost the peace. But for most of the people there, I suspect they were just sympathizers with this poem by Kenneth Patchen:

    In Order To

    Apply for the position (I’ve forgotten now for what) I had
    to marry the Second Mayor’s daughter by twelve noon. The
    order arrived three minutes of.

    I already had a wife; the Second Mayor was childless: but I
    did it.

    Next they told me to shave off my father’s beard. All right.
    No matter that he’d been a eunuch, and had succumbed in
    early childhood: I did it, I shaved him.

    Then they told me to burn a village; next, a fair-sized town;
    then, a city; a bigger city; a small, down-at-heels country;
    then one of “the great powers”; then another (another, an-
    other)—In fact, they went right on until they’d told me to
    burn up every man-made thing on the face of the earth! And
    I did it, I burned away every last trace, I left nothing, nothing
    of any kind whatever.

    Then they told me to blow it all to hell and gone! And I blew
    it all to hell and gone (oh, didn’t I). . .

    Now, they said, put it back together again; put it all back the
    way it was when you started.

    Well. . . it was my turn then to tell them something! Shucks,
    I didn’t want any job that bad.


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