Biden and Ryan on War and Peace

Biden and Ryan on War and Peace October 30, 2012

America Magazine submitted some additional questions to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan after their vice-presidential debate.  Their answers (and non-answers) are interesting and revealing.  The lead question, however, really caught my attention for the difference in their answers:

America: In what circumstances is war morally justifiable?

Vice President Biden: War is morally justified when it is necessary to protect the safety of innocents from an aggressive act. The threat must be grave and certain. Every effort must be made to peacefully avoid conflict.

Congressman Ryan: American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose. Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome. That is how we keep problems abroad from becoming crises. That is what keeps the peace.

Mitt Romney has said that he would only send troops into combat in very specific circumstances. Number one, there needs to be a vital American interest at stake. Number two, there needs to be a clear definition of our mission. Number three, a clear definition of how we’ll know when our mission is complete. Number four, providing overwhelming resources to make sure that we can carry out that mission effectively. And finally, a clear understanding of what will be left after we leave. All of those would have to be in place before Mitt Romney would deploy American military might in any foreign place.

Biden’s answer is much more closely aligned with Catholic teaching; one need only compare it to the Catechism.   One can and should question whether the Obama administration, of which he is part, actually lives up to this standard.   Certainly, the expansion of drone warfare is a cause for serious concern as is the continuing bloodshed in Afghanistan.    Nor does his answer address the vexing problem of which “innocents” are worthy of protection.  We helped bomb Libya to protect civilian lives, but we are studiously avoiding military intervention in Syria where thousands of civilians have been killed.   This is a matter of prudential judgment, but since he is running for political office, he should give us some indication of what principles will shape his judgment in practice.

Ryan, on the other hand, frames his answer in terms of realpolitik:   the guiding principle is “vital American interest” rather than self-defense or the defense of others, which is the bedrock of the just war theory.    Moreover, his answer contains more than a hint of American exceptionalism:  “only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome.”     I really do not see anything in this statement which appears to draw on Catholic teaching.  At least on this issue, Ryan has shown himself to be much less Catholic in his answer than Biden.

Though not possible given the framework of this article (five quick questions to follow up on the debate), I think both candidates need to be challenged on the military budget:  how do they justify spending 20% of the discretionary budget on the military?  A detailed answer to this question would perhaps be more revealing of their commitment to Catholic social teaching than the direct question actually posed.

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  • Lindsay

    I have no sympathy for the current administration’s foreign policy, especially the drones, so I in no way want pick one side over the other in this area. However, I completely agree that “Biden’s answer is much more closely aligned with Catholic teaching; one need only compare it to the Catechism.” Ryan saying, “there needs to be a vital American interest at stake” may be the reality of how much of our foreign policy works, but it is a shocking answer to the question of moral justifiability.

  • Doc Fox

    I noted that would-be Veep Ryan simply did not answer the question. He uttered a glittering generality.
    I also noted that Romney did not answer the question. It looks like more generalities from staff which do leave open the risk of outright aggression.

  • I can’t decide which is more appalling: Biden’s apparent straight-faced lie or Ryan’s statement that “Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome.” Didn’t Jesus do that on the cross?

  • Mark VA

    The America Magazine piece studiously avoids asking difficult questions about abortion and the Faith. Instead, it offers several softball “challenges” that allow for maximum verbiage with minimum content.

    Overall, yet another exercise in the compartmentalization of the thought process. To offer a parallel, this piece isn’t even on the level with elementary algebra or trigonometry, nowhere near calculus, an area Jesuits once excelled in. This is forgettable fumbling with fractions.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I disagree. The questions were powerful precisely in their ingenuousness and simplicity. The candidates themselves reveal much by the degree to which they grapple or avoid answering them. Ryan, for instance, told us a great deal about his views on the just war theory, which he seems to reject in practice.

      • Mark VA

        I somewhat agree with your point Mr. Cruz-Uribe, but here we run the risk of reading too much of our own context into their replies and non-replies. I prefer very pointed questions that leave little wiggle room for bs.- the questions offered were very open instead.

        In this vein, and in my imaginary world, the ideal presidential debates would be moderated by:

        Graucho Marx;
        Slavoj Žižek;
        Mark Twain.

        Not the Jesuits.