Just War Doctrine and Impeachment

June 4, 2019

I don’t typically refer to Catholic doctrine to support a point I want to make. However, even the Catholic Church can get things right occasionally—and, in this case, its doctrine aligns with common sense and political prudence.

First formulated by Augustine, and subsequently reworked by Aquinas and recent Church councils, the Catholic Church’s just war doctrine holds that resort to armed force is justified only if four conditions are met: the harm caused by the unjust aggressor is grave; other means of avoiding the harm are ineffective or impractical; the use of force in resisting the aggressor must not produce more harm than good; and, importantly, there must be a reasonable prospect of success. In other words, force isn’t justified if it’s impossible to win.

Christian theologians developed this doctrine in an effort to reconcile a faith that claims to hold nonviolence as a paramount value with the reality that absolute pacifism is inadvisable and self-defeating. But, not being a Christian, I’m not concerned about the origins of this doctrine or, for that matter, its specific application to armed conflict. Instead, I cite it because I believe it sets forth conditions that should be considered by anyone contemplating action that is likely to have substantial consequences for a political community, regardless of whether force is involved. In particular, two conditions merit careful consideration. Is there a reasonable prospect of success, and will the action produce more benefit than harm?

Which brings me to the debate within the Democratic Party over whether to pursue impeachment proceedings against Trump. Nancy Pelosi, among others, has been criticized by many Democrats for not moving quickly enough on impeachment.

That this debate is largely confined to Democrats, however, shows why this criticism of Pelosi is misplaced. For the foreseeable future, there is zero chance that Trump will be removed from office through the impeachment process. The House, controlled by Democrats could pass articles of impeachment, but the Senate has sole power to try impeachment. Two-thirds of the senators must vote to convict; Democrats do not hold even half the seats in the Senate. Senate Republicans have already vowed that the Senate would promptly dismiss articles of impeachment.

Some Democrats have argued that, nonetheless, there is a constitutional duty to impeach Trump. Really? I’m not aware of any clause in the Constitution requiring members of Congress to engage in futile actions. Yes, members take an oath to support the Constitution; the Constitution isn’t supported by voting to hold a meaningless trial.

We’ve all been brought up on stories of how important it is to stand up for justice and do the right thing even against overwhelming odds, even against the certain prospect of defeat. But in these stories, the heroic struggles ultimately serve the underlying purpose of furthering a just cause. For example, the sit-ins, marches, and other protests of the Civil Rights Era did not bring immediate change, but they did have a reasonable prospect of laying the foundation for success in the long term. Absent some new revelation (more on that below), there is no prospect of removing Trump through impeachment. Articles of impeachment will not miraculously shame Senate Republicans to engage in an impartial weighing of the evidence.

There are also some Democrats who believe it will work to the Democrats’ political advantage to impeach Trump, even if the Senate will not remove him from office. This is a miscalculation born of wishful thinking and a deep loathing of Trump—much like the miscalculation which made the Democrats so confident of victory in 2016. There is no national consensus in favor of impeachment. A vote to impeach along party lines followed by an acquittal in the Senate is much more likely to cost Democrats votes than to improve their chances in 2020.  Trump’s favorite narrative is that he’s the victim of vengeful partisan politics. Why give him more ammunition?

This is not to say that the Democrats should not continue to pursue investigations into Trump’s conduct. It’s certainly possible that these investigations will turn up something analogous to the infamous “smoking gun” tape that ensured that Nixon would be impeached and convicted. Not probable, but possible. But absent that smoking gun, impeachment should not be pursued.

In this essay, I have assumed there are sufficient, justifiable grounds to impeach Trump and remove him from office. My point here is that having a just cause isn’t enough. One must choose one’s battles wisely. At a minimum, one must ensure that the decision to undertake action doesn’t put the cause of justice in a worse position.

The foregoing is solely my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Center for Inquiry, a nonpartisan organization. Nothing said herein should be interpreted as an endorsement of any candidate or political party.