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Thursday, Dec. 19, 2002

What is the moral case against war with Iraq? To find it, you might look to the statements issued recently by various religious organizations and leaders. But you would look in vain. The "moral" arguments against the war turn out to be strikingly, well, amoral.

Countless organizations and individuals oppose war with Iraq in any circumstances short of an attack by Iraq on the U.S. But the opposition of religious leaders is necessarily weightier than the musings of, say, actor-turned-anti-war-activist Sean Penn.

And the religious opposition to war is cast explicitly in moral terms. The statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, contrasts "political and military" considerations with "moral ones"; it is with respect to the latter that the Bishops presumably believe they have special authority.

The Problem with Many Religious Leaders' and Institutions' Opposition to the War

The signal feature of the religious opposition to military action is its failure to weigh the horrors of war against an honest assessment of the horrors of the Iraqi regime. A joint statement by religious leaders in the U.S. and the U.K., for example, envisions "tens of thousands of innocent" civilians losing their lives in a war, and declares categorically that "this alone makes such a military attack morally unacceptable." In contrast, the statement laments, in plain vanilla, the "neglect and oppression of a brutal dictator." The statement by the World Council of Churches is even more mendacious: it is literally silent on the evils of Saddam Hussein.

Ignoring how a government treats its own people is the prerogative of the foreign policy realist. In response to the brutalities of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, President Roosevelt nicely summed up the realist position: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch." Our government's sole concern is the interests of our people. If that involves making common cause with governments that oppress their own people, that is irrelevant. Regrettable, but irrelevant.

Realism Versus Moralism

But this is realpolitik, not morality. One would think that the role of religious voices in this debate is to widen our lens, so we can see the effects of our policies beyond our borders. Unlike the realist, the moralist must be solicitous of the interests of the Iraqis - and the Kurds, and the Kuwaitis, and the Israelis, and all those threatened by Saddam.

In the eighties, after all, religious activists demanded that U.S. policy toward South Africa be based on the evils of apartheid, and the Catholic church lobbied western governments to confront the dictators who ruled Poland. But the sufferings of the Iraqi people (and the dangers to Saddam's many enemies) apparently do not seem to figure in the ethical calculus of religious opponents of the war.

The Moral Case in Favor of War: Iraq's Exceptionally Brutal Government

This is nothing less than astonishing. The Iraqi government is one of the most brutal on earth. Kenneth Pollack, Director for Research at the Saban Center at Brookings and one of the world's foremost Iraq experts, estimates that Saddam Hussein is responsible for approximately 200,000 deaths through torture alone.

That does not include the hundreds of thousands dead as the result of Saddam's military adventures and gross mismanagement of his country's economy and resources. And that does not include the countless millions maimed, raped, and otherwise made to suffer and endure life in Iraq.

The ostensible difference between yesterday's anti-apartheid protestors and today's anti-war activists is that the Bush Administration is gearing up for war, not economic sanctions. But is that much of a distinction? Not for the Iraqi people. For them, the captives of a murderous despot, daily life is a state of war. Indeed, it is worse, because it is a war with no allies and no hope of winning.

The alternative to war, in other words, is not any sort of "peace" that should matter to a moralist, even if it is the sort of peace that is good enough for foreign policy realists. While no wants to be responsible for shedding blood, it will be shed, one way or the other. It should be the job of our consciences - not the State Department - to point out that, morally speaking, there is not much difference between our allowing Saddam to use his own people for target practice and our waging war.

Indeed, this formulation is not fair enough to the war party. The point of any pre-emptive war, along with disarming Iraq, is to turn that nation into one in which its citizens (and others in neighboring states) are not subject to state-directed murder and aggression.

The choice, in other words, is really between bloody repression without foreseeable end, or warfare intended to end that repression. For our public moralists, that ought to be a very tough call.

Why U.N. Approval, While Desirable, Is Not Morally Necessary for War

While many religious leaders ignore conditions inside Iraq, they are slavish to the views of regimes outside of it. Many of the statements of religious leaders demand an international sanction for warfare. The American Bishops, for instance, insist that war requires "the framework of the United Nations."

This insistence on numbers is simply bizarre. Christianity began as a heretical sect within a persecuted Jewish minority. More than most religions, it teaches that might does not make right, that the many can be wrong, and that moral action is not preceded by a finger in the wind.

The truth is that checking international moral sentiment before acting is not integral to anyone's religion. And moral sentiment is not really what is being checked in any case. The United Nations, after all, is not a church synod. It is simply a place for nations to haggle about their differences and, occasionally, find common ground as a basis for action.

When France votes for a resolution authorizing weapons inspections in Iraq, it is expressing the view that at that moment, French interests are better served by voting for the resolution than not - and nothing more. Similarly, Russia's conflict with Chechens may well have informed its decision to support the resolution. It is hard to imagine, morally speaking, why a confluence of interests would transform an immoral war into a moral one.

The Only Truly Moral Case Against War Focuses Only on Its Aftermath

There is, of course, a case against war with Iraq. It is mostly a strategic one, having to do with whether the Iraqi threat is really so grave that it warrants the massive loss of blood and treasure that this war will require.

The case does have a moral component as well, involving U.S. willingness to keep the post-war peace among Iraq's tribal leaders and on Iraq's dangerous borders with Turkey and Iran. If the U.S. were to attack Iraq and then depart, the cost in human lives both within Iraq and on its borders would be immense. Such a humanitarian tragedy would be of our own making.

But it is unlikely. Chaos in and around post-war Iraq would have disastrous consequences for the strategic interests of the U.S. and our allies - far more so than, for example, the tribal contests now going on in Afghanistan outside Kabul.

Because of this, the U.S. will necessarily be far more committed to rebuilding Iraq than it will ever be to rebuilding Afghanistan. And even there, life is better without the Taliban, and in the Pentagon there is a growing awareness that the U.S. has obligations outside the capital to make sure the current improvements in Afghanistanis' quality of life continue.

Because the buildup to the war has been so long, we have been able to conduct a long and sometimes even serious debate about the prospects of going to war in Iraq. Thus far, however, the religious leaders of the West have failed to make any meaningful contribution to that debate. Once they urged the U.S. to intervene to stop suffering abroad; now they merely ignore it.

Barton Aronson is currently a prosecutor in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was in private practice in Washington, D.C. and an Assistant District Attorney in Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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