Reflections on the War in Iraq

[1] This is the third JLE piece that I have been invited to write on the war in Iraq, the first two being written in October, 2001 and September, 2002. As I look back on the contents of those earlier articles in light of what has transpired since then, I am inclined to say (with much more sadness than self-satisfaction), “I told you so.”

[2] I remember my feelings back in 2002 as the momentum toward war was being fueled by the Bush administration. I was living in South Carolina at the time, a state where the President was overwhelmingly supported. To oppose his intentions to punish Saddam Hussein for September 11 appeared virtually treasonous, and those of us who spoke out in opposition at forums and on an occasional radio talk show felt pretty isolated. We were the “odd balls,” the “flaming liberals” with their heads in the sand, holding no clue as to the imminent danger posed by Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction to the security of the United States.

[3] What was particularly painful about public support of the administration was its high Christian profile. Churches like the Southern Baptist Convention were more than ready to rush to the ramparts with the President; not only did they share his conservative ideology but they had “a brother in Christ” in the White House who could certainly be trusted. That confidence prevailed over their capacity to exercise any kind of critique on the basis of the church’s Just War tradition. The President has capitalized royally on the support of conservative Christians in all denominations, leading one to wonder whether a lesson has been learned. (See Charles Marsh’s op-ed piece in the January 20, 2006 edition of The New York Times.)

[4] By this time the profoundly misguided policies of this administration have become quite clear, though hardly acknowledged by those responsible. Now, finally, it is common knowledge that the invasion of Iraq fulfilled a decade-long aspiration on the part of Bush’s advisors, who lost no time in seizing on the September 11 event as an excuse to eliminate Saddam. It is this background, including neo-conservative visions of an American Empire, that accounts for the administration’s willingness to manipulate what intelligence it had (far from accurate, as it turned out) so as to make the case for invasion. It is saddening beyond words to know that one’s government was simply incapable of conducting the kind of honest, extensive, in-depth consideration of all the issues demanded by such a grave and momentous event as invading a sovereign nation.

[5] The above thoughts reflect the conviction that Just War criteria still have a place in international relations. The war in Iraq can best be understood as an attempt to wage a preventive war, which Just War teaching prohibits. There is incredible irony in President Bush’s argument that terrorism constitutes a different kind of enemy, calling for a reassessment of traditional thinking about warfare. The irony is that he then reverted to traditional warfare thinking by picking a nation against which he could go to war and seeking to justify it, rather than dealing astutely with the international phenomenon of terrorism. The end result is that he loses on both fronts: he earns international opprobrium by attacking a nation that was not an imminent threat, and in the process kindles a wave of terrorism beyond what he could have imagined back in March, 2003.

[6] The best that we can hope for now is the emergence of some semblance of a democratic order in Iraq, a prospect that at the moment does not appear likely. Here again, one is impressed with the irony in what this administration has set in motion. Its main political support in Iraq comes from the majority Shiites, who are more interested in creating a theocracy along the lines of Iran than a truly democratic order. A further irony lies in the administration’s expectation that we can establish democracy in a nation by invading it and compelling its people to adopt a form of government that is thoroughly foreign to them. Not only that, but democracy in their mind embodies the very decadence that they see and despise in the West. Public opinion polls in Iraq, to my knowledge, have always revealed that most Iraqis desire a Muslim, not a Western, government. Yet, the one argument the administration has left is that the establishment of a democratic Iraq will justify the war.

[7] Even if a democratic Iraq is realized, this argument fails to make right what must be repudiated as an unjust war. As the one remaining superpower it is particularly imperative that the United States demonstrates due respect for Just War teaching. This is so simply because it is morally right and legally respected by the international community (reflected, for example, in the United Nations Charter). It is essential to maintaining international order and respect among the nations. This fundamental belief, maintained irrespective of arguments based on consequence, can nonetheless be corroborated by consequential arguments. When the United States invaded Iraq it set off a chain of events over which it had no control, thoroughly alienating the Muslim world. The war has inevitably-I hope not irreparably-undermined possibilities for peace and understanding between the West and Muslim nations. It has strengthened the hand of radical Muslims who now have an occupying power to fight in Iraq; we have succeeded in giving the insurgents a rallying cry beyond their wildest dreams. Whatever the political outcome in Iraq, the damage has been done and the price will be paid over many years.

[8] So where do we go from here? Whether we should withdraw our troops, which has become a topic of intense political debate, is not really the issue. The issue for the administration is how they can be withdrawn without losing face. It must be done as unobtrusively as possible, avoiding any suggestion of a pell-mell retreat. It’s a safe bet that the administration will withdraw up to one-third of the troops in Iraq-from roughly 150,000 down to 100,000-by November election time so that the President can tell the American people that he has now embarked on the last stage of a successful mission (yet one more irony!).

[9] I hope that the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, will be able to address the threat of terrorism in a far more nuanced manner, moving beyond the current slogans of belligerence that pit us against “the forces of evil.” The rhetoric of warfare that has dominated administration language suggests that there is a military solution to this conflict. On the contrary, the one thing clear about the challenge posed by terrorism is that there is no military solution. On the other hand, most Americans are probably convinced that any attempt to practice diplomacy with the radical Muslims is not a viable option, either.

[10] I believe the only solution is for our nation to dedicate itself to establishing relationships of trust with Islamic nations, respecting their religious and ideological convictions. This would involve the encouragement of cultural contacts with moderate Muslims, building bridges of understanding between the West and the East. Reducing the level of fear and hostility will inevitably strengthen the vast middle in Islamic societies and drain support from the radical elements espousing violence. This is a far more promising approach than the polarizing policies of the current administration, reflected in the President’s language of warfare and the encouragement of a simplistic, “black and white” reading of the conflict. This only guarantees a continuing spirit of vindictiveness and revulsion on both sides that will prolong the violence. Unfortunately, there are always plenty of Americans who are willing to beat the military drum. It is time now for even more Americans-and certainly Christians-to refuse to march by that beat.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina