Iraq War was just, says expert

The final speaker in the College of St. Scholastica's "Words on War" lecture series features a woman with firsthand knowledge of the attitudes of President George W. Bush regarding the War on Terror.

The final speaker in the College of St. Scholastica's "Words on War" lecture series features a woman with firsthand knowledge of the attitudes of President George W. Bush regarding the War on Terror.

Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, who will speak at 7 p.m. Monday at Mitchell Auditorium in an event sponsored by St. Scholastica's Center for the Study of Peace and Justice, was selected to be among a group of religious leaders who gathered privately with the president in the week after the 9/11 attacks to offer advice and pray with him before he made a major address to Congress.

It was a unique meeting, including not only Christian and Jewish leaders from a variety of traditions but also Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Elshtain describes it in an essay as "the single most ecumenical event I have ever attended" and as the very opposite of a photo op. In a phone interview last week, she described the president's behavior as "beyond appropriate," full of humility and genuine appreciation for the group's prayers and counsel. The president himself had a clear grasp of the issues and a clarity of purpose, she said.

Her presence was also unique. Elshtain is an academic and believes she was invited to get representation from a major divinity school (she is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, as well as co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and American Public Life). And she believes she was chosen in particular for her expertise on the ethics of war and war making.

It's that expertise that brings Elshtain to St. Scholastica. Her latest book, "Just War on Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World" has been named one of Publisher's Weekly's 10 best nonfiction books of 2003, and it will form the basis for her presentation.


Elshtain believes most religious thinkers in America got it wrong when they opposed the war in Iraq.

Elshtain is an expert on Just War Theory, the dominant way Christians have thought about war for more than 1,000 years, honed through the work of great theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. "There's no knock-down argument in the Just War tradition," Elshtain says -- it always involves "prudential judgment" by leaders -- but she says Just War tradition clearly includes sparing the innocent from certain harm as a possible justification for the use of force.

And she goes to an unlikely source -- the United Nations, which could not be convinced to support the war -- for validation that such a view is widely held. She cites in particular the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

"And yet, as we've seen repeatedly, the U.N. fails to act in many of these desperate situations," Elshtain said.

Specifically, she notes "violations of the most horrific sort" in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo in which the United Nations -- and the United States -- were slow to respond or absent altogether. She notes that even when engaged, Dutch peacekeepers under U.N. authority in Bosnia, due to the rules of engagement, stood by and watched while young Bosnian men were beaten and hauled off never to be seen again.

These are things U.S. officials are now busy apologizing for, she said -- and rightly so, because those same values are the founding principles of American government.

Such considerations were clearly present in Iraq, she said. "It's hard to think of a situation that is worse than what the Iraqi people were going through with almost 30 years of Baathist rule," she said.

She said analyzing the number of people in Iraqi prisons slated for death suggests at minimum 16,000 would have been killed by the regime this year -- a far higher toll than even the worst credible estimates of civilian casualties from the war.


Because of its power, America also has a greater obligation to act, Elshtain said.

"The United States has the power to project its force in a way that most other states don't," she said.

Just War Theory isn't only concerned about having a just reason to go to war, it's also concerned with how the war is conducted. There again, she said, people have overlooked our ever-increasing ability to distinguish between civilians and military targets.

"The United States military does really a rather remarkable job of that," she said, recalling the scenes of people in Baghdad going about their daily routines in the midst of the bombing, fully aware that civilian structures were not being targeted.

"With every successive engagement, we come closer to the mark," she said, particularly because the technology of smart bombs keeps improving.

As far as the weapons of mass destruction situation goes, she says Just War tradition demands action based on the best available knowledge -- and the Clinton Administration had the very same assessment as the Bush Administration's. So did many of the countries that opposed the war.

Further, she is still withholding judgment to see if such weapons are found, noting that the weapons themselves can be tiny and easily hidden.

She said that many religious leaders who opposed the war failed, in part, "by not taking up with sufficient gravity the issue of responsibility that the more powerful may have by trying to prevent harm from coming to those who cannot defend themselves." While admitting that force is not appropriate in every situation, she said it must be at least considered seriously.


She also says that some religious thinkers have lost the sense that the peaceful Kingdom of God comes into its fullness eschatalogically -- at the end of time -- rather than through human activity on Earth. This leads, she said, to a "strange and dangerous naivete" about the threats and the "worst possible assessment" of the United States' use of power.

They forget, she said, that the God of mercy is also a God of justice.

But isn't her position akin to the one attributed to a cabal of so-called neoconservatives -- a desire to impose American values on the world by force and create a new kind of empire?

"I know the criticism," Elshtain said. "I don't think it's a matter of imposing American values."

She said those values -- also affirmed by the United Nations -- are now widely held by beleaguered people around the world, even in places like Iran.

She said the idea of empire is always problematic, because any great power must be aware of its limitations, as well as its capacities.

But she adds this note: "If what's going on is empire, it's certainly a different kind of empire than the world has ever known."

It lacks any attempt at colonization or a permanent commanding presence, for instance.


"Empires historically didn't look for exit strategies the first thing (when they) got into a situation," she added.

Asked her estimation, watching from afar, on whether Bush has followed through on his promising start in the war on terror, Elshtain said, "Yeah, I think he has on these issues."

She said she's been stunned by the "astonishing attacks on him," which she characterized as despicable, poisonous and irrational.

But she said she's taken some heat for the way she reacted to that first meeting, with people saying she'd been taken in by the power of the office.

"I tell people, you know, I'm too old for that kind of nonsense. ... I'm not that easily impressed," she said.

Elshtain is a native of Colorado and earned a doctorate in politics from Brandeis University in 1973. She was the first woman to hold an endowed professorship at Vanderbilt University and joined the faculty at Chicago in 1995. Elshtain has taught at Harvard and Yale and has received seven honorary degrees.

Her lecture is free and open to the public.

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