Beware of the Foreign Policy Opinions of Religious Professionals

[1] Whenever mainstream Protestant religious intellectuals and church leaders-let’s call them religious professionals-reach near unanimity on questions of political policy, especially foreign policy, it is time to be suspicious. They seem to have reached near unanimity in opposing American policy toward Iraq.

[2] Now, it is axiomatic that on foreign policy questions those religious professionals are nearly always wrong. Their track record bears this out-their opposition to American entry into the Second World War against Germany and Japan before Pearl Harbor, near unanimous support of the nuclear freeze during the Cold War, endorsement of moral equivalency theories between Soviet socialism and the Western democracies, hostility toward Reagan’s vigorous pressure on the Soviet Union, sympathy for Marxist-Leninist insurgencies in Central and Latin America, support for African socialism, antipathy toward anti-missile defense systems, insistence on complete divestment of American economic assets from South Africa, and now resistance to American efforts to topple Saddam Hussein.

[3] It’s not that these folks have bad motives or goals. I admire them for their passion for peace. However, there are three weaknesses that usually bend their opinions in the wrong direction. They usually have too benign an assessment of the “opposition,” be it the Soviet Union, the Sandinistas, socialist utopians, or now Saddam Hussein. The second weakness is that they shrink from employing realistic instruments of power–military power and the threat and use of it. They plead for persuasion and diplomacy, if not for love. They forget the important Lutheran teaching on the two ways that God reigns in the world–through love under the Gospel but through power under the Law. (Even our Lutheran bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seems oblivious to that teaching.) The underlying problem seems to be that which Reinhold Niebuhr identified several generations ago–sentimentality. The religious professionals simply are incapable of a realistic assessment of evil in the world, as well as the harsh means necessary to deal with it. The third problem is that mainstream Protestants since the 60s have an inordinate dose of skepticism about America. One could even call it a “blame America first” syndrome. After having shaped the culture of America for centuries, these Protestants have decided that they don’t like what they’ve brought forth. They’ve stood in an adversarial relation to America and its purposes for some time now.

[4] To be honest, I have had reservations about our aggressive policy toward Iraq, but the unanimous opinions of religious professionals and a recent symposium at our college have dissolved many of those reservations. On successive evenings Roanoke College hosted Benazir Bhutto, Dennis Ross, and Stephen Cohen. (Bhutto is former Prime Minister of Pakistan; Ross was for 12 years the main American negotiator in the Middle East, and Cohen is the pioneer of Track Two behind-the-scenes diplomacy.) All three gave qualified support to vigorous action against the Iraqi regime. All thought the fall of Saddam could do great good for the Middle East. Let me list some of their specific points as well as some of their reservations.

[5] None of our speakers denied that Saddam was seeking weapons of mass destruction and that if he had them he would be a major threat to the whole region, if not to the world. It is very important to find out how far along he is with them and destroy them before they can be used. We cannot afford to be complacent in this matter. A pre-emptive strike, like that of the Israel’s on Iraq’s nuclear reactor some years ago, would be justified, once we are reasonably certain of the existence of such nuclear or biological weapons.

[6] In the meantime, Ross and Cohen found great benefit in the “saber rattling” the United States has done toward Iraq. That has resulted in a frantic scurry of the Arab states to insist that Saddam accept inspectors, who will not only try to find Saddam’s weapons but to destroy them. Ross mentioned that the saber rattling alarmed those Arab states who thought they might be next in America’s push against the “evil axis.” They gathered quickly and drew up plans for the inspectors to return. Would that have happened without the saber rattling? Unlikely. And now we can afford to wait to see what happens with those inspectors.

[7] Failing a successful inspection and disarmament, Ross suggested that a quick victory in Iraq would have very positive short and long term effects in Iraq and the Middle East. It would rid Iraq of what he called “one of the last Stalinist regimes in the world,” one which has used terror repeatedly against its own people, engaged in horrendous wars that have resulted in a massive loss of Iraqi lives, has refused to abide by U.N. sanctions and thereby sentenced many of its subjects to starvation, has supported terrorism around the world, and has designs to dominate the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction. Iraqis would be elated were they rid of Saddam and his murderous regime. The fall of Saddam would dramatically strengthen reform elements in all the Arab and Islamic countries. Moreover, if we gave proper attention to building up Iraq after the fall of Saddam, Iraq could indeed be a model of a prosperous and moderate Islamic country. It has oil, water, rich soil, an educated middle class, and few problems of overpopulation. It could be the beginning of a Middle East recovery.

[8] The speakers had reservations about our emerging policy. Bhutto insisted that we consult widely with the U.N. and allies. Ross and Cohen worried about the consequences of not quickly finding and capturing (or killing) Saddam, or of not achieving a swift victory. The people of Iraq have been so brutalized that they will not risk resistance or independent action until they are certain Saddam and his murderous regime are really gone. A prolonged struggle would add fuel to the hardliners’ fire in all the Muslim countries. Both Ross and Cohen insisted that we give serious thought and planning to building up post-Saddam Iraq. We cannot walk away; we should work with Iraq as we did with the Germans and Japanese after World War II.

[9] With those provisos, however, there seemed to be affirmation of current American policy. At the conclusion of a lively question and answer period with Ross and Cohen, one of my colleagues said, “Listening to them almost makes me a hawk.” Well, my inclination was already in that direction and our guests confirmed that inclination. On Tuesday we will hear Edward Said, who will offer a sharply opposing viewpoint, but I think he will not convince me. Nor will the religious professionals–including our ELCA Bishop. Paraphrasing Luther, I would rather follow the advice of bright Jewish laymen whose vocation is politics than that of religious leaders who have neither direct engagement nor accountability for the consequences of their opinions.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.