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Commentary: Just cause exists for action against Iraq

2/20/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Donald Sensing is available.

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Donald Sensing* By the Rev. Donald Sensing*

Methodists are rightly concerned about the Iraq problem, but so far our denomination has shed more heat than light on the issue. The United Methodist Church is neither officially nor historically pacifist. Our Social Principles denounce war, but acknowledge that when peaceful alternatives fail, armed force may be necessary.

We all wish for a world where force would never be needed. We all hope for it. But serious reasoning, not wishful thinking, is our duty in these perilous times. Wishes are not plans, and hope is not a method.

Sojourners magazine editor Jim Wallis wrote this month, "For nonviolence to be credible, it must answer the questions that violence purports to answer, but in a better way. I oppose a widening war that bombs more people and countries, recruiting even more terrorists and fueling an unending cycle of violence. But those who oppose bombing must have an alternative."

Simply using religious language and claiming divine authority is not offering a credible alternative. Just saying "Jesus" and "love" and "peace" is not a plan. The Bush administration's claims about Saddam's rule of terror and the threat his regime poses to world peace deserve our sober consideration of what they are and our understanding of what they mean.

Many details are not pleasant. They are often technical. "Connecting the dots" is often frustrating. Interdisciplinary expertise and strategic vision - not just theological education - are required by religious leaders now. If we wish our voices to be heeded, they must be worth listening to.

Saddam's regime threatens American lives and the peace of the entire Middle East. The Bush administration and the U.N. inspectors have provided conclusive proof of Iraq's programs to develop mass-destructive weapons and its extensive efforts to conceal them - efforts that continue to this day. There is solid evidence of Iraq's links to transnational terrorists. Saddam's regime is brutally repressive of its own people.

Whether the status quo with Iraq constitutes a cause for war should be debated. That the status quo should continue cannot be faithfully maintained. The question is not whether Saddam's regime must be ended and the Iraqi people freed; the question is only how. We pray that open war may yet be avoided. But to fail to act effectively to accomplish the just end is to make oneself an accomplice of injustice and ally oneself with murderous oppression.

The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops has twice commended President Bush for his diplomacy. He has worked with the Congress, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union to resolve this crisis. There has been no "rush to war."

Iraq has defied 17 U.N. resolutions over 12 years. In 1998, President Clinton withdrew the UN weapons inspectors so he could bomb Iraq. President Bush insisted they return to confirm that Iraq has disarmed as the United Nations requires.

Therefore, last November the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously that Iraq should be given a "final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations under (existing) relevant resolutions of the council." Note: The United Nations placed the burden of proof and the onus of compliance on Iraq, not on the inspectors or the United States.

Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, wrote: "Inspections can only do one thing well: verify that a country's declarations about a weapons program are honest and complete. For inspectors to do their job, they have to have the truth, which can only come from the Iraqis." Yet every report to the United Nations by the inspectors details more lies and deceit from Saddam's regime.

U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix said he does not need more inspectors and does not want them, nor is there insufficient time for inspections. The problem, he said, is that Iraq is not cooperating and is not complying with the United Nations' ultimatum.

Every nation in the world, except Iraq, agrees that Iraq must disarm. The desired outcome of the crisis is not in question. The only question now is that of means: how shall Iraq be disarmed? If Iraq does comply, fully and quickly, open war will be avoided, but if not, the last peaceful means to resolve the crisis will have been exhausted.

If military action against Iraq comes, it will be neither pre-emptive nor unilateral. America has been legally and actually at war with Iraq since 1991 with varying intensity. President Clinton struck Iraq repeatedly, claiming 1991's resolution authorizing force never expired. America has the announced support of 35 nations (19 European) against Iraq if such action comes.

A key fact is being overlooked in today's debate. The choice is not really between peace and war. We have not been at peace with Iraq since 1991, and Saddam wages war upon his own people every day. The issue is not beginning a war, but how long the present war will continue. Absent Iraqi compliance, the choice is between brief, controlled warfare imminently or the continued suffering of the Iraqi people, the continued absence of peace and almost certainly a truly terrible war later.

President Kennedy's words during the Cuban missile crisis still apply: "We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security... The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. ... Our policy has been one of patience and restraint, but now further action is required. ... The greatest danger of all would be to do nothing."

Sadly, Saddam's cruelties toward Iraqis are barely noticed by religious leaders. Iraqi exile Rania Kashi wrote, "Saddam has murdered more than a million Iraqis over the past 30 years. Are you willing to allow him to kill another million Iraqis? Out of a population of 20 million, 4 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their country during Saddam's reign. Are you willing to ignore the real and present danger that caused so many people to leave their homes and families?" So far, our denomination is answering, "Yes."

Reasoning about war, wrote Catholic theologian George Weigel, is not to "set a series of hurdles that statesmen must overcome before the resort to armed force is given moral sanction." The first consideration is "the moral obligation of government to pursue national security and world order."

Just cause exists for decisive action against Iraq, exhaustively documented in the public record. Just intention has been stated by the administration: halting Iraq's weapons programs, creating conditions for Iraqi democracy, freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam's murderous regime.

There have been many strident, uninformed people claiming that war with Iraq will kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. One man told me recently, and incorrectly, that we will "flatten Baghdad." War is violent, let no one doubt. But at no time in history has the just-war tenet of discrimination and proportionality been more achievable than it is today by American forces. If war comes, our forces will strive to end the issue quickly, with minimum death and destruction, abiding by international conventions and the U.S. Law of Land Warfare.

Liberation theologian James Cone wrote that in opposing oppression, the choice for Christians is not between violence and nonviolence because violence is already present. Christians must decide whether violence to overcome the oppression is a greater evil than the violence of the oppression itself.

"Of course it would be ideal if an invasion could be undertaken ... by the Nelson Mandela International Peace Force," wrote Ms. Kashi. "That such a force does not exist - cannot exist - in today's world is a failing of the very people who do not want America to invade Iraq, yet are willing to let thousands of Iraqis die in order to gain the higher moral ground."

Shall we fret over our personal piety while Saddam murders his own people?

I believe that America may justifiably use force to resolve the crisis. Let everyone decide this question prayerfully, trusting as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did that grace will ultimately abound. And let us agree to be united in desiring God's will to inform the decisions and actions of every national leader. Let us pray for God's wisdom to prevail and God's justice to be obtained. Let us give thanks that God is one who, in times and places he chooses, can indeed break the bow and shatter the spear asunder (Psalm 46).

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*Sensing is pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. He also is a retired Army artillery officer.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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