Dirty Hands and Concrete Action

Published September 1, 2003

In her book Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books), Jean Bethke Elshtain critically examines responses to 9/11 and its aftermath, particularly from the academy and from church leaders, and makes the case for the principled use of force in the just war tradition. The book was published very soon after the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq, and it is sharply relevant to the ongoing debate about U.S. policy there. Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, spoke with Michael Cromartie early in the summer.

How would you assess the debate leading up to the war in Iraq?
It was, in many respects, quite extraordinary. Serious discussions were held in coffee shops and the halls of Congress. The fact that the Bush administration tried to work through the UN meant the issue dragged out for a considerable time. (Much easier to bypass the UN altogether, as the Clinton administration did when it commenced hostilities against the Serbs using NATO as cover.) Within the just war tradition, serious airing of issues, including whether a justifiable casus belli pertains, is a good thing.

That said, the debate was also disappointing, especially if one looks at the official statements from our churches. First, these statements were forthcoming without anything like widespread consultation with “the pews,” so to speak. How else to explain the huge disparity on the war issue between the vast majority of ordinary Christians and the leadership of various denominations? Second, the just war tradition either was not referenced seriously or was actually misstated. I mean the criteria were distorted and the many complexities, subtleties and nuances of just war fell out. The notion that you must be directly attacked in order for a casus belli to pertain is wrong, for example. A strict interpretation of that requirement would mean we shouldn’t have gone to war against Hitler’s Germany, either: Germany had not directly attacked us. What was interesting to me is that people who otherwise lament sovereignty in favor of a far more internationalist or “cosmopolitan” outlook were suddenly using sovereignty and non-interference as if these were well-nigh inviolable concepts!

I would also have emphasized, from the side that favored the war, the absolute horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime at least as much as Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. I don’t think the Bush Administration got the proportions right in making its case. (But here, too, the critics seem to have a strange view of things. You could put enough mustard gas or botulinim or VX to kill 250,000 people in a single UHaul! We’re not going to suddenly happen on a huge storage facility with WMD emblazoned on the front.) Saddam is the biggest killer of Muslims the world has ever seen. With some 50 mass gravesites now unearthed in Iraq, the full horror is coming into view. I talked recently with Hassan Mneimneh, who co-directs the Iraqi Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University—now relocated to Washington, D.C. He will be executive director of a project I will likely co-chair on International Civil Society. This will be a serious cooperative enterprise with the Arab Thought Forum, headquartered in Cairo. Hassan described some of the documents seized in the 1991 Gulf War (there are “millions of documents,” he says), and he can barely talk about what was going on, it was so hideous.

So, I would have put the human rights issues front and center, the genocide against the Kurds, the destruction of the whole way of life of the Marsh Arabs, the attacks on Shiites in the South, on and on. Read Samantha Power’s book on genocide for the details. Here the just war formulations of St. Thomas Aquinas would come to the fore very quickly, given his arguments about the “repression of wrongdoing,” applied to the offensive as well as the defensive use of force. A passive toleration of massive injustice and wrongdoing in the name of “peace” is, for Aquinas, a serious offense.

In theory, it would be nice if one could count on the UN to act. But in the last 50 years, the UN has only chosen to act three times under the collective security rubric. It defaulted in Bosnia, where people were beaten and hauled off never to be seen again as “peacekeepers” stood by and where folks flooded into un-declared “safe havens” and were there shot to pieces. The European community, in whose backyard this was taking place, failed to act as well. The UN defaulted in Rwanda, as did we. It defaulted in Kosovo. Clearly, some tough thinking needs to go on about collective security arrangements, perhaps regional alliances, as an alternative to the UN. Security Council vetoes pretty much guarantee that there will be future instances when people are being slaughtered with impunity as the “world community” stands down.

In the debate over Iraq, then, you see a continuation of the failures you discuss in your book, Just War Against Terror.
Exactly. Again and again, we’re given false alternatives. Americans, we’re told, must plant themselves implacably in the face of a cowboy president and a cabal of arrogant, hawkish advisers hell-bent on world domination; the only alternative is to be a craven apologist. Or, from the other side, the notion that any criticism of the Bush Administration’s policy in Iraq is tantamount to giving aid and comfort to our enemies. These false choices provide no ground to say, “I’m going to take these issues case by case, look at what we are doing in this circumstance and why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it,” and respond accordingly.

It’s the perennial problem that I learned about as a young political theorist—the problem of dirty hands and concrete action. As Bonhoeffer says, “you may incur guilt.” Free responsibility may bring a measure of guilt along with it, because when you act, there is rarely a way that is an absolute pure and true pathway. The ways in the world are always fraught with peril; there are always unintended consequences of your actions. To acknowledge this is not to preemptively dismiss criticism! Yet one is called upon to act. Otherwise, you retreat into private virtuousness, and I’m afraid there is a lot of that going on.

You are critical of the rhetoric of peace, especially as employed by church leaders. Why?
Again, there is a tendency to offer crude alternatives—it’s peace or it’s war. And Christians must be for peace. Much of this rhetoric rests on a vision of peace that will be available only in the eschaton. It’s a vision that equates peace to unruffled harmony and assumes that you can actually have on this earth such a peace. The only thing that stands in the way, in the minds of many, is that the powerful are too powerful and so on. Somehow, we’re just not trying hard enough. And that ignores human fallenness and sin—ignores our fundamental condition. We must reflect critically on war, but we must also reflect critically about peace and what’s being passed off as peace. There’s a difference between an unjust peace and a just peace.

This goes along with a tendency to see the Christian God as a God exclusively of love and not of justice. Justice is left out. God gives all love all the time. So you get slogans like, “Wage Peace/Wage Reconciliation,” and you can imagine when serious scholars of politics look at that, they just scratch their heads and say, “What world are those folks living in?”

Augustine talked about politics as trying to reconcile conflicting human wills, and that’s the world out there—where you have conflicting sources of power and of willing agents, some of whom mean you harm. That’s what you have to deal with.

I think we need to recognize that if there’s an opportunity to stop hideous violence being perpetrated against people, if you have the power to do something about that, and you refrain from doing it, then you’re complicit at some level in the continuation of that horror. Now, you may decide if you intervene, it would make things worse, so you may stand down on that regard. There may be prudential reasons that preclude intervention. But to do nothing just because it’s bad to use force—that makes you complicit in what’s going on. Some people don’t want to come to grips with that at all.

As I’ve gone around to talk about my book in a number of different churches (and I’m very glad they’ve welcomed me into their midst), I’ve noticed a refusal to think about the victims of Saddam’s regime or to think about all the evidence that is pouring out about the brutalities of that regime. I’m perfectly willing to respect people who are against the war in Iraq if they have some solid arguments and they are prepared to face the realities of the situation. But I don’t have any respect for people who think they can remain pure and above the fray by simply being against the war. If you are against the use of coercive force to disarm that regime and bring it down, you have to then be prepared to say what realistically will work, what realistically we can do.

Christians owe the world a reckoning with these sober facts. Such a reckoning won’t give you your marching orders about what precisely you should do. People of good will—people who share the same fundamental values—will continue to disagree. But minimally, you have to acknowledge these realities.

Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
September/October 2003, Vol. 9, No. 5, Page 18

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today