Saturday, January 22, 2005

Faith, Culture and Politics--Post War Thoughts on Iraq 03

Before the war on Iraq began I sent out a moral argument against the war from a Christian point of view. I made no attempt to look at the war from a political perspective, though that’s certainly an important way to analyze any war.

The gist of my argument then was that a pre-emptive and unilateral war fought by a nation which is a superpower by any historical standards, and which is now officially committed to a policy of perpetual pre-eminence and to pre-emptive violence against other nations, would be unjust and immoral and should not be supported by Christians.

I based my argument on the ‘just war theory,’ which is arguably the most lenient and widely held Christian viewpoint on state sponsored violence. I’m not necessarily a devoted supporter of the just war theory, but using the most lenient and respectable Christian view on war seemed the best way to measure the moral acceptability of a potential war on Iraq and the best way to give that war’s supporters the benefit of the doubt. Other respectable and historical Christian viewpoints on war would have been much less open to sanctioning a pre-emptive and unilateral war.

The war’s been fought.

It seemed appropriate after a year to revisit the whole situation now that we have the benefit of a measure of hindsight and now that we aren’t limited to well meaning attempts at foresight.

The primary moral argument for the invasion of Iraq was that Iraq was a clear and present threat to the US and to other “civilized” powers. The threat was so great and pressing, from the point of view of the current administration and its supporters, that no time could be wasted in destroying it. The uniqueness of the threat required a new morality of war which discarded time tested Christian views of war and previous U.S. perspectives on state sponsored violence as well.

As it turned out, responding to the perceived threat also meant alienating most of the nations of the world and the vast majority of the world’s population.

I went into some detail arguing against the war beforehand while trying at the same time to be fair to those who felt this kind of state sponsored violence was necessary. There were strong and understandable emotional reasons and a few concrete reasons as well to consider a war against Iraq, given the apparent “facts” at the time, even though I considered those reasons to be insufficient to create a new morality of war.

But my main concern was to argue that fallen nations and individuals, particularly when they have an overwhelming advantage in power and influence, are in a very tenuous moral position when they choose pre-emptive violence against other nations and peoples, especially when they act alone and without honest accountability.

The reason that’s true is that they are fallen. And besides being fallen, they are also simply human and therefore limited and fallible; as are all of the complex governmental and military and intelligence structures they inevitably create.

They are susceptible, along with every one of us, to believing what they want to believe, and at times to trumping up or even creating reasons against the evidence to do what they would like to do. The temptation to do those kinds of things increases exponentially as a person or nation’s relative power over others increases, as both the Bible and simple common sense make clear.

In my original piece I wanted to apply these kinds of moral critiques to the current U.S. regime.

Now that we have a bit more experience to go on, I’ll leave it to you to decide if there were actually weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or whether the Iraqi regime was potent and powerful and an immediate threat to “civilization” and the US. Or whether it was so powerful and such an immediate and unique threat that a new and more invasive ethic of war was required.

Or whether it was so grave that we had to rush into the war and alienate the nations that are our natural allies by virtue of values and convictions, if not always by virtue of national interest. Or if there was any real evidence at any time that Iraq was allied with Al Queda and other terrorist groups.

Those were the moral justifications for war that our present government aggressively pressed onto a nation still emotionally overwhelmed by the events of 9/11.

And you can make up your own mind whether the whole thing distracted us from the more reasonable and just pursuit of the Al Queda terrorists and their collaborators.

The issue, in my view, isn’t whether intelligence agencies believed Iraq to be an imminent threat. Some important leaders in some intelligence agencies, especially those who had to please their bosses, obviously did, though it’s interesting that the CIA is scrambling now to distance itself from this position and to demonstrate that they made every effort to tone down the intentional and very generous spin toward war on the part of the Bush administration officials.

Many people within many intelligence agencies, no matter what kind of spin our leaders now want to give it, warned that the intelligence on Iraq was iffy and tentative. And it’s important to also state that the striking majority of countries who’s intelligence indicated Iraq could have some form of chemical weapons did not consider those potential weapons as a serious current threat and therefore rejected the invasion as unnecessary and inappropriate.

From a Christian standpoint, we shouldn’t be surprised that the CIA and the Bush administration “were all wrong” in believing Iraq was a serious threat, to quote the administration’s own chief weapons inspector. Fear combined with immense power is a bad combination when it comes to discerning the truth and sticking with the facts.

Chief Inspector Kay’s findings were pretty much what the UN inspectors found. I feel especially bad for those unfortunate and honorable people who were ridiculed—hilariously in my view--by our current administration as “cheese eaters and chocolate makers.”

Recent revelations by two top ex-Bush Administration officials (one of cabinet rank) indicate fairly strongly that the administration was committed to taking out Iraq militarily both before and immediately after 9/11. Richard Clarke, who was the Bush Administration’s top Anti-Terrorist Director, and who served in four presidential administrations of both parties (three under Republican presidents), makes it clear that Bush and others in his administration wanted to attack Iraq from the get go.

The vicious political “smear” machine which both parties run so well, but which the Republicans seem particular gifted for, will undoubtedly try to discredit both of these officials, especially Clarke, but after a while the argument that key past administration officials “weren’t in the loop” or “don’t understand” or “have a personal vendetta” or “are in league with the devil” (a.k.a. the Democratic Party) simply won’t wash. That’s particularly true in the case of Clarke, who has an impeccable non-partisan track record of over 20 years and who was one of the people most “in the know” about the war on terror within the Bush Administration. I think there is enough evidence at this point to raise important reservations about the present Administration’s motives in the run up to the war on Iraq.

The strong consensus on the part of 2000 years of Christian theology and tradition—with very few exceptions--has always opposed pre-emptive war, and especially unilateral pre-emptive war, because Christians have understood and appreciated in an unusual way the weaknesses and failings of the flesh, and because they’ve clearly understood the particular pitfalls and even evil that can arise when immense power and authority is colored by both fear and self-righteousness.

Self-deception, particularly for those who are unusually powerful and without real accountability, is easy. Rigorous honesty is much more difficult. Those are some of the important and unique insights Christians can contribute to the current public discussion

Unlike Islam and other spiritual traditions, Christianity arose from a 300 year experience of unjust violence and persecution at the hands of an economic and political superpower. Though we’ve lost our way a number of times, and though at times our attitudes have aped the support of the kinds of invasive and dominating violence so characteristic of imperial Rome and imperial Islam, the Church has still—miraculously in my view--had a reasonably consistent witness against pre-emptive and unilateral state violence. That’s very encouraging to me.

And there is no doubt in my mind that the Christian witness against such violence made a big practical difference over the centuries in restraining ill-advised state sponsored violence.

But with the evangelical Christian church largely a captive of the Republican Party right now and desperate to win the “culture wars,” this important and inspiring witness was muted during the run-up to the war on Iraq. I understand that many Christians are looking at a number of important cultural issues and may see the Republicans as their greatest allies, and perhaps felt the need to be loyal to “one of their own.” But I think that kind of “citizenship” is misguided and destructive. When a policy is morally wrong, it is wrong, no matter the president or the party he or she may belong to.

Taking a look at the development of the moral argument for the war in Iraq might be worthwhile at this point.

The Bush Administration’s moral arguments have evolved, to say the least, since the war began.

At first we were told Iraq had weapons of mass destruction they could use within 45 minutes (based on Tony Blair’s striking and totally erroneous contribution to the rhetoric of war) and that they were in bed with Al Queda and other Islamic fundamentalist murderers.

Then, once US forces got inside of Baghdad, we were told that maybe Iraq wasn’t allied with Al Queda. This line of argument was dropped almost immediately since there was little or no evidence for it before or after the war. “Subterranean” Dick Cheney is the lone holdout among current government officials for this point of view. I respect his commitment to what he thinks is best for the U.S. and the world, however dark and pagan and somewhat paranoid it might be.

Then we were told we invaded because Iraq was a center of planning for weapons of mass destruction.

Then, after greater doses of reality and evidence intruded, we were told, in Washington’s characteristic obfuscation-speak, that we invaded because Iraq was the center of a looming and gathering threat of weapons of mass destruction “related activity.” Clearly, by that time the lawyers were loose in Washington, attempting to cut very fine distinctions in order to protect the Administration from the fallout to come. I know they had no desire to be funny, but I thought this particular argument was unintentionally hilarious. Those Bush types are such jokers and characters.

And more recently, after they realized this line of argument was making them the butt of late night humor shows, the argument was paired back to a simple, Iraq was a looming and gathering threat. Whatever that might mean specifically and practically, it does have the virtue of a poetic and mythical touch, which normally goes over well with partisans when facts are slim.

The “looming and gathering threat” rhetoric and argument are all that is left of the once alarming and specific arguments about the immediate and dramatic threat Iraq posed to the U.S. and other nations. So on one level, the Administration deserves credit (outside of “Groundhog” Dick Cheney, the last true believer) for adjusting its moral rhetoric to evidence and reality. Too bad more attention wasn’t paid to evidence and reality before the war.

Within a few months, if trends continue, we may be told through images and music and slogans that the reason we invaded was because Iraq bad, US good.

Along with being short and to the point and also emotionally satisfying on a primitive level of moral reasoning (say, the level children reach at about 5th grade), this final argument could potentially turn out to be the most accurate and honest assessment of the moral sophistication of some of our most powerful leaders.

Of course, I’m being a little facetious in my last comments. But maybe only a little.

From my point of view, the best remaining moral argument for the war has little or nothing to do with the supposed threat Iraq posed to the U.S. or to “civilization.” The strongest argument left for supporters of the war is that the US used its unique power to take out a murderous and evil dictator who oppressed millions of his own people. The hope was that by freeing the Iraqi people the Muslim peoples of Iraq and the many other nations in the region would eventually turn to democracy and free markets and throw off the petty dictatorships and silly theocracies which control them. This is the best of neo-conservative moral position, as much as I can make it out.

This is definitely a moral argument worth considering and taking seriously.

I think that’s especially true because it’s the one moral argument that would have failed miserably from a political point of view. If that had been the main thrust of the run-up to the war only a small percentage of Americans would have supported the war. In my view, that speaks both well and badly of Americans.

We’re a nation that’s inherited the medieval notion of “chivalry” where the Christian “knight” uses his military prowess to rescue the oppressed and downtrodden. How many of our most popular westerns, crime dramas, and even sci-fi movies are based directly on that still potent image and idea? And we’re also heir to the Puritan notion of a “revolution of the saints” where serious Christians use worldly power, including crusading violence, to bring about a more Christian and just world. The Bush folks are clearly in line with a strong theme of “crusading violence” in our national moral fabric and in the moral fabric of the West. I think that’s part of what makes this particular argument so powerful for many.

It’s a powerful argument for me personally. I’m thoroughly delighted that Hussein is out of power and that he’s in custody. I pray he’ll be tried and put away for good, however that might be accomplished.

I’m also very sympathetic to the idea that the Arab and Muslim world is captive, for the most part, to dictators and ignorant religious leaders who are contributing to the gross poverty and ignorance of that vast and remarkable community. On one level, anything that promises to change that situation for the better is very emotionally attractive and is worth considering.

It’s possible that Iraq and the Middle East may emerge better off after our pre-emptive, largely unilateral, and crusading violence. I hope and pray so. Sometimes God’s grace abounds all the more even after unwise and even immoral decisions. Thank God for that. I’m not one of those who believe things in Iraq are hopeless or will turn out disastrously, though I do think the whole occupation has been handled remarkably badly.

But the question at hand is whether pre-emptive and unilateral state sponsored violence, however emotionally satisfying, is a moral alternative for dealing with nations like Iraq or the broader challenges of the Arab and Islamic worlds. I would argue it is not.

I believe that the long-term moral and practical dangers of an unprecedented superpower like the U.S. giving itself the moral leeway to attack nations without direct provocation, and to do it in the face of the strong opposition of the vast majority of the world’s nations and peoples, are too great to justify any short term gains from knocking out a second rate dictator like Hussein and a nation like Iraq which had been devastated by many years of Saddam’s rule and over a decade of brutal sanctions. That’s particularly true when our government commits itself to perpetual American dominance in the world.

Once we discount all the heroic hype and hyperbole, what we actually saw in the most recent war on Iraq was one of the greatest military and economic powers in history smashing a backwards and already devastated regime. It was about as impressive as a tank rolling over a barking dog.

That’s the way that the Islamic world, and the vast majority of the rest of the world, saw things. Is it possible they may see an aspect of the truth?

As I’ve tried to argue in both of these essays, Christian ethics always puts those with the greatest worldly power under the greatest scrutiny. The burden of proof is with the superpower to explain why attacking others without direct provocation should be supported. I don’t believe the facts of the case in Iraq support a new morality of war.

The events of 9/11 were such a shock to every American that I have sympathy for the Bush Administration and its supporters. It’s easy to criticize after the fact, and I’m sensitive to that.

But when an administration decides to argue for a new pre-emptive morality of war, and when it argues for perpetual American dominance in the world (that’s our official and clearly articulated foreign policy now), it invites the strongest possible critiques.

I believe there are a number of better and more moral alternatives to what we’ve seen recently.

We should make every effort to eliminate terrorist groups. When groups like Al Queda clearly commit themselves to mass terrorism they must be stopped in whatever ways may be necessary, including the use of violence. The sword of the state may be wielded legitimately against these types of groups. One of my greatest regrets about the war on Iraq is that it diverted monies, energy, and attention away from breaking the unfortunate rise of the Islamic death cults. The war on Iraq was a side-show in the battle against terrorism. That’s a shame. Sadly, it appears that the war on Iraq has actually emboldened terrorists and created even greater opportunities for them.

Perhaps even more important, we should make every effort to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. That will take moral persuasion and every diplomatic resource at our disposal, as well as severe sanctions and even military intervention if necessary.

We are the world’s most powerful nation, and perhaps one of the most powerful nations in history. We are the world’s largest supplier of weapons. Since we are neck deep in weapons of mass destruction which we originally created and which give us some of our unprecedented power in the world, our moral leverage in trying to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction is not very impressive.

It’s possible that a diplomatic approach which recognizes the moral ambiguities created by our own immense power rather than ignoring them would be the best way to go in order to achieve the moral ends of defeating terrorism and disarming nations attracted to mass terrorism. This will mean exercising a little patience, showing some measure of humility, and actually listening to our allies and to other nations. Odds are that they are not all immoral idiots, in spite of what some of our present leaders seem to think. Even those stupid and spineless people who aren’t Americans (a.k.a. the U.N. in Bush-speak) might be useful if we decide not to insult them regularly.

States that clearly support and harbor terrorist groups are legitimate military targets from the point of view of millennia of Christian ethics. Afghanistan is a good example of a “terrorist state” which required a military response. The vast majority of the world supported that war because it was clear the U.S was responding to an attack and that it was responding to a terrorist group and a regime which pro-actively supported those terrorists.

Defining “terrorist groups” is best left to a wide consensus of governments and peoples. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But I think a broad consensus can be achieved, particularly with nations so aware now of the threat of mass terrorist violence.

Pre-emptive violence against terrorist states may be necessary in those rare instances when long-term and serious attempts to solve the problem non-violently fail, though even in those situations the moral consequences of taking such a step should be made clear and discussed publicly. There must be a very wide agreement of states and peoples, as was the case in Afghanistan. That wasn’t the case in Iraq. That kind of wide agreement is particularly important when the chief instigator for a potential war is hyper-power like the US.

That kind of moral discipline would demonstrate that the U.S. recognizes the moral ambiguity of its situation (armed to the teeth and able to destroy the world many times over, but working to disarm other nations “for their own good”), as well as the dangers inherent in possessing such overwhelming relative power. As I mentioned in my last essay, there has been a lot of knee-jerk anti-Americanism over this whole thing, but I believe firmly that much of the unprecedented opposition and hostility to our present Administration is a result of a failure to demonstrate more clearly that we understand the moral issues that our immense power creates. Most assuredly, most of the world’s peoples and cultures understand those issues very well.

What should we have done in Iraq? I think that U.N.-imposed economic sanctions and enforced isolation devastated Iraq. It was no immediate threat, and therefore did not require the use of immediate, pre-emptive, and unilateral violence. I agree with the Bush Administration that it was a longer term threat as long as Hussein stayed in power. Sanctions should have been tightened and continued. And if eventually the majority of the nations of the world agreed that invasive violence was necessary because Iraq had become a real and imminent threat, a united approach patterned after the first Gulf War might have been considered reasonable and moral, in the tentative way those terms must always be used when dealing with fallen nations and powers and their affairs.

My own guess is that Hussein’s regime would have collapsed within a few years had we been a bit more patient and had we done a better job of working with our natural allies. And had we taken that approach and given ourselves time to create a rational approach to rebuilding Iraq along with our allies afterwards, my guess is we would have seen a much smoother and much more effective occupation of Iraq. Even staunch supporters of the war like the Economist regularly castigate the Bush Administration for its astonishingly poor job of planning and executing the occupation. There was an excellent and fair article a couple of months ago in The Atlantic entitled, “Blind Into Baghdad,” which chronicled this failure in detail. And a better job of occupying, had the situation come to war, would have saved many lives and a lot of suffering, which are not unimportant moral considerations.

And of course, making positive efforts to create greater conditions of justice in the world, and particularly in the Middle East, is critical. I think the present Administration has made some good efforts, such as their AIDS policy in Africa, but it seems to me that for every dollar and minute invested in seeking positive solutions to issues like the Palestinian conflict or the repressive regimes of the Arab world, ten dollars and ten minutes have been spent on violent solutions and on cleaning up the mess in Iraq.

Finally, I’d love to see Christians, and the country as a whole, begin to examine seriously the moral and practical implications of our immense and new-found relative power in the world. It seems to me that the overwhelming majority of thinking and discourse has been to examine the meaning of the rise of radical Islam, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of rogue nations and regimes. I’m still looking for a reasonably good article in any of the leading Christian or mission periodicals which asks the questions, “How should Christians respond to the overwhelming power the U.S. has in the world?” or “What does it mean for mission and our everyday faith lives that we live in possibly the greatest worldly superpower in history?” or “When does support for U.S. policy begin to become idolatrous?” I would guess folks would draw somewhat different conclusions based on the Christian traditions they come from, but what’s been surprising so far is the silence. Is the evangelical church so captive to U.S. nationalism, and perhaps to a particularly narrow version of Republicanism, that we’ve lost our ability to be prophetic? I hope not, but the response we’ve made so far does make me wonder.


Blogger Sean said...

Thank you for articulating such a well thought out, informed and legitimate alternative for a Kingdom response to our current political situation. I can only hope and pray that we as the body of Christ will eventually improve in our attempts to reconcile our faith with our politics rather than blindly taking sides.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

assiddige [url=]Buy Cipro without no prescription online[/url] [url=]Order cheap Buspar online[/url]

5:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home