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Commentary: War now would not be justifiable

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

NOTE: A photograph of Joseph L. Allen is available.

A UMNS Commentary By Joseph L. Allen* By Joseph L. Allen*

President Bush has said that he would decide about attacking Iraq "within weeks, not months." I believe that such an attack would be unjustifiable in terms of the Christian just-war criteria for resort to war.

Four criteria are especially pertinent.

First, the criterion of just cause is about grave wrongs to be repaired or prevented. There is little question that Iraq's recent actions constitute grave wrongs. It has used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own people, has biological weapons and has sought for years to develop nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein has gone to great lengths to hide evidence of these weapons and has shown no scruples about using violence against his neighbors or his own people.

The Bush administration claims that Hussein has aided al-Qaida. Evidence for that claim is thus far unconvincing, including to some in the CIA. Although Saddam could possibly provide al-Qaida with weapons of mass destruction, it would be out of character for him to give them to groups over which he has no control.

Nevertheless the situation calls for strong action of some kind to prevent the grave evils he might inflict. Yet that does not settle whether the United States should resort to war. Other criteria must also be met.

Second, the criterion of proportionality asks whether the evil effects of a war would be disproportionately great. Some of these are that casualties on both sides will likely be far higher than in the Gulf War; Iraq might use chemical or bacteriological weapons against its neighbors (including Israel) or against the attacking forces; Israeli retaliation might trigger a wider war and vast Middle Eastern unrest; the United States might use nuclear weapons against Iraq (it has threatened to do so) with ominous results; and reaction among Pakistan's radical Islamists against our attack could lead to the overthrow of President Pervez Musharraf's government - a disaster for the war on terrorism and relations with India.

Furthermore, war against Iraq could draw attention and resources from the crisis over North Korea and the war on terrorism. And how long would the United States occupy Iraq, what would that entail in antagonism among Middle East Arabs, and would the resulting Iraqi government be a stabilizing influence in the region? These issues raise serious doubt that the benefits of war against Iraq would outweigh its evils.

Third, war is justifiable only as a last resort, after all other alternatives have been seriously considered and found inadequate. The Bush administration claims that last resort has virtually been reached and proposes to launch what it calls a "pre-emptive attack." That term is misleading. A pre-emptive attack seeks to anticipate an imminent enemy attack, as the Israeli attack on the Egyptian air force did in June 1967. But there is no reason to believe that Iraq is about to attack. The proposal is in fact for a U.S. preventive attack, responding to a more distant danger.

Without an imminent danger, there is time to explore other alternatives. One is to extend U.N. inspections by months or even years. As long as the inspectors are doing their work, the Iraqis are unlikely to make progress toward nuclear weapons or to attack anyone. And the longer inspection goes on, the more opportunity the United States has to build broad international support.

Another alternative is deterrence. It worked for nearly half a century against the Soviet Union, which had leaders as unscrupulous and threatening as Saddam Hussein. The administration claims that Saddam cannot be deterred, but he has never gone to war where a clear deterrent threat was present. Not to persist with inspection and deterrence is not to have arrived at last resort.

A fourth criterion, right intention, is about inner attitudes embodied in outer actions. High-level U.S. leaders have disdained and ridiculed the opinions of their critics, both foreign and domestic. Behind this attitude seems to lie excessive confidence in their own wisdom and goodness. The term "axis of evil" conveys that the designated countries are unambiguously evil and that we are good. Moral matters are not that simple. For example, the government of Iran, a so-called "axis of evil" country, is deeply divided politically. And we, like people everywhere, are mixtures of good and evil. Moral self-righteousness alienates former friends around the world and makes our road more difficult.

We are seeing in U.S. national security policy a radical departure from that of any other presidential administration since the Second World War. It involves the wholesale discrediting of policies, such as deterrence and continuing international consultation, that have shown their value over decades. Central to this radical change is a unilateral attitude, a disregard for the opinions of people beyond our borders, an assumption that because the United States is the one superpower, it no longer needs to try to win the hearts and minds of other people. This attitude invites great difficulties.

I believe that we were justified in going to war against Iraq in 1991. I believe that we are justified today in using force to combat al-Qaida and other terrorists. But I have grave doubt that at this time we would be justified in attacking Iraq. In spite of Iraq's grave wrongs, the proposal to launch a preventive attack is dubious on several counts: proportionality, last resort and right intention. We have other alternatives - continuing U.N. inspection together with deterrence over the long term. What is most needed now is less crusading rhetoric and more exploration of the options before us.

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*Allen is professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. He interprets and responds to war from the perspective of the just-war tradition, and is the author of War: A Primer for Christians.

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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