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Public Theology: Pushing the President into War
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Pushing the President into War
People around the President have been pushing for an Iraq war for a long time.

By Ed Knudson

Only a president can convince the American people to go to war. The president must be able to articulate in compelling ways the reasons for spending lives and national resources in war. So far George W. Bush has been unable to do so in relation to Iraq. In a new poll large majorities of the American people now question the wisdom of a war with Iraq at this time.

Why wouldn’t a president be able to make a convincing case? If there are good reasons for a war and the president cannot explain those reasons then he is incompetent. It may be that there are not good reasons for the war but the president wants to go to war anyway. I believe the latter is the case. President Bush is allowing himself to be pushed into war.

Certainly, the president has tried to appear forceful and determined to disarm Sadam Hussein. But even his blustering raises a question. A person who knows clearly what he wants to do does not need to use emotional language to support his case. Simply calling Sadam an evil tyrant again and again does not make the case; there are lots of evil men in the world. Why is it necessary at this time to remove this particular evil man? Wars are tremendously expensive in lives and resources and they always have grave consequences not all of which can be calculated before hand.

The president is being pushed by particular people and by particular political forces on the basis of particular ideological beliefs. The fact that he allows himself to be pushed raises further questions about the internal character of George W. Bush.

In news reports about the possibility of war with Iraq there is one name that keeps appearing as a key figure among the president’s advisors. He is Paul Wolfowitz, second in command in the Department of Defense. I did an Internet search on Wolfowitz and found many documents that describe his role in promoting war with Iraq. In fact, just four days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, in a meeting at Camp David to discuss policy options for responding to terrorism, Wolfowitz recommended to the president that he immediately begin military operations against Iraq. The president did not accept that recommendation at that time, but Wolfowitz has been persistent in advancing his views and has finally prevailed within the contested internal administration policy process by which priorities for action are determined for the president.

So it is important to understand that war with Iraq at this time has not been justified by the same kind of events that normally justify war in the eyes of the American people. The American people could clearly see why the first Gulf War was necessary; Saddam Hussein had attacked its neighbor, Kuwait. There was only minimal opposition to that war. The American people could also clearly see why the military option was necessary in the Cuban Missile Crisis; President Kennedy displayed on television the photographs of Russian missiles on the territory of Cuba. But at this time Saddam Hussein presents no such clear threat to the security and interests of the United States. Therefore the reasons for going to war with Iraq must be based on something else, on something other than a clear and unavoidable threat. It has been based on the process used to create defense policy within the administration.

Paul Wolfowitz has been the one in the administration advancing the “what if” argument within that policy process that has been repeated time and again on the various news broadcasts by administration spokespersons. What if Saddam used weapons of mass destruction on the United States? But “what if” arguments are always very weak and rely on creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. While many Americans may respond to appeals based on fear it is not a compelling argument for war with all its consequences. Most people know intuitively that to act on the basis of fear is to admit weakness and put one’s self in an even more uncertain position. When George Bush uses this argument he appears himself to be rather weak and uncertain. For such a person to be able to command the vast military resources of this country opens the possibility of a major mistake with devastating consequences for the United States and people in other countries.

The American people want their president to be able to think things through carefully and thus be able to articulate his thoughts and commitments. George W. Bush is not demonstrating those abilities and it is making people nervous. Paul Wolfowitz is the most significant policy advisor of the president on Iraq. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, has served in the administrations of several presidents, has been promoting Iraq as a problem country in the middle east since 1979. Wolfowitz is the brains behind the war. But he has not been able to transfer his ideas to the president in such a way that the president himself believes and is able to articulate that war is necessary. Policy concepts cannot carry the weight for a decision to go to war. But the president has allowed himself to be pushed into it.

The war on terrorism, of course, resulting from the events of September 11, has created tremendous pressure on the administration to do something, to develop policies and programs that can deal with the continuing terrorist threat. The war in Afghanistan was quickly successful in defeating the Taliban and scattering the followers of Osama bin Laden. But there has been little evidence of successfully dealing with terrorism other than Afghanistan. The administration has developed the policy of preemptive war, that the United States will attack countries that support terrorism. Wolfowitz is one who has believed all along that Iraq must have played a role in the 9/11 attacks, but that view is contested even within the intelligence agencies of the country. No clear and uncontested evidence for a connection between Saddam and the 9/11 terrorists has been presented. Even the presentation to the United Nations by Secretary of State Colin Powell has not been able to answer all the questions in a compelling way; at this writing important European nations are trying to find alternatives to war.

Yet George Bush continues to place war with Iraq within the context of the general war against terrorism. The American people are not dumb. They can see that only general claims have been made. War, specific war fought by real people with real weapons in real places cannot be justified based on general claims. The need to do something, to demonstrate that we are really fighting against terrorism, is pushing the president into a war with Iraq. But if it is the wrong thing to do, if it accomplishes little or nothing because there is no connection between Saddam and the terrorists, then Americans are being very substantially misled, and the country is under an even greater threat from real terrorists. We will have expended our resources against the wrong enemy. The United States can win a war with Iraq that has no effect on the war against terrorism; in fact, an Iraq war has the potential to create even more opposition to the United States.

One place opposition to the United States can be generated by an Iraq war is Pakistan. The government there is not stable but does possess nuclear weapons. I have seen no evidence that the administration is adequately taking into account the effects of an Iraq war on Pakistan. In fact, Paul Wolfowitz promotes the concept that a war with Iraq will create a new atmosphere in the Middle East. A democracy created in Iraq will encourage democracies to develop in other countries in the region. This concept has been called a wildly utopian notion by its critics and I would agree. Although the American people support the general idea of promotion of democracy around the world they are realistic about its chances of succeeding.

Related to this is another notion that the United States must demonstrate its power and its willingness to use its power decisively. Iraq can be such a demonstration, and then other countries in the region will more willingly go along with the dictates of the United States. Thus the United States can use its power to force democracy on other nations. The idea that the United States should use its power to just “show off” is not popular among people in the country, however, except among those who identify themselves as extreme hawks.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is full of such people and they are all pushing the president into war. Wolfowitz is just one of them. His boss, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice-President Cheney are also in this camp. Soon after he was elected I happened to see a brief incident on television where Bush was entering a room for a congressional breakfast and on camera he was heard to say, “We’re all hawks here.” But it is one thing to identify as a hawk, as one willing to use the military power of the United States, and it is quite another thing to decide exactly where and when to use that power and to be able to articulate in a compelling way why this is so. If George Bush must allow himself to be pushed into war to demonstrate that he is like his friends a hawk then such political leadership is threatening to the integrity and honor of this country in the first place. We are talking about war here, after all.

There are people in the country who are extremists when it comes to war. They are a minority, but they do scream and holler a lot, especially on radio talk shows. They too are pushing the president into war. For them it matters less where the war is than that we must fight a war to glorify the nation. The predisposition to militaristic nationalism began especially among those reacting to the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. It was promoted by Ronald Reagan who escalated the cold war with his talk of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. Anti-communism was raised to hysterical levels by the television preachers and the religious right who believe that the United States is a Christian nation chosen to rid the world of atheistic communism. The Republican Party to gain electoral victories has aligned itself with the program of the religious right.

That program has to do not only with moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality, it promotes particular religious, apocalyptic views about the role of both Israel and the United States in world history, warrants these views on biblical authority, and translates these views into practical political activity pushing for war in support of Israel and against global institutions such as the United Nations. It is the views of these religious extremists that are now pushing George W. Bush into war. Saddam Hussein is just a most likely enemy at this time.

What is not always obvious from the general public coverage of debate over the war with Iraq is the extreme hostility that right-wing Republicans and the religious right have toward global institutions, especially the United Nations. Let me illustrate this with a personal example. I once participated in a radio debate with a pastor of the religious right concerning a legal issue involving a so-called Christian counseling agency. Afterwards, as we were walking down the hall from the radio studio I began some small talk with this pastor but he turned to me and with real hostility said, “You are one of those one world people aren’t you?” He walked away from me. I was rather taken aback Nothing I had said had anything to do with global political issues as far as I could determine. But in his mind I represented a viewpoint which he associated with support for the United Nations, and therefore opposed to his own belief in this country as a Christian nation destined to save the world. During the radio debate he had tried to express himself in a rational manner. But now in private this man exhibited such extreme hostility I was truly shocked. It is this kind of extremism that is nurtured in the religious right and it has become a very powerful political force now even pushing a United States president into war.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has been able to influence the administration to place the issue of the Iraq war before the Security Council of the United Nations. To satisfy those opposed to the U.N. in principle President Bush has had to say that the United States will do whatever it wants no matter what the Security Council does. Polls now indicate the vast majority of Americans do not support an Iraq war if the United States has to fight that war alone. A new poll announced today by the New York Times indicates sixty three percent of Americans said Washington should not act without the support of its allies and fifty six percent said Mr. Bush should wait for United Nations approval, even after news reports about the hesitancy of Germany, France, Russia, China, and Belgium to send in the troops.

Most Americans are not filled with anti-United Nations fervor so the president has to try to work with the United Nations in some way. He is using all the power and resources at his command to try to persuade other countries to back him in his war plans. But they too, like Americans in general, have not been convinced of the necessity of war. By large majorities the people in Europe reject the need for war. George Bush has not been able to articulate adequate reasons for this war.

The American people want to believe in their president and give him every benefit of doubt. They do not have time nor do they feel they have the ability to study and understand all the details of international relations. They want the president to be a leader in whom they can place their trust. But George W. Bush is not a leader. He is being pushed into this war.

A leader is one who takes an action based on his calculation of the best thing to do in current circumstances whether or not that action corresponds to the desires of his constituencies. Richard Nixon was such a leader. Elected on platforms of anti-communism he never-the-less saw that it was necessary to create an opening with communist China. Ronald Reagan was such a leader. Though a conservative Republican he never-the-less saw the need to continue social welfare programs such as Social Security and he hesitated to use the full military force of the United States in the Middle East. His tough talk did not translate into war.

But in George W. Bush we have a president who is doing just what his extremist constituencies want him to do. He is not a leader, he is allowing himself to be pushed by policy officials and political forces which reflect extremist views of how this country should conduct itself in the rest of the world.

I think the American people sense this weakness about George Bush. They know how serious war is. They have the experience of Vietnam that wrenched the heart of America and divided us as a people. Now, again, because the Iraq war cannot be supported with adequate reasons we see growing opposition to war not only among those who oppose all war on moral grounds but by large numbers of people willing to turn out in public demonstrations again. An Iraq war, even if the United States is able to quickly claim a victory, will very seriously divide the country again. When George Bush publicly claims that the American people are united those very people know it is not true. They are uncertain because they do not share the underlying beliefs that are pushing this president into war.

The policy officials and political forces pushing this president into war are based on certain ideological beliefs not broadly shared. Most people live their lives using a sort of practical rationality; they try to see and think about the situations in which they find themselves and do what they feel is best. Yes, they have general beliefs about their life and the world, they may have strong religious beliefs, but they are not ideological extremists; they do try to rigidly enact their every ideological or moral belief in concrete terms. Yes, most folks believe both freedom and democracy are important but if asked to define what they mean by these terms most people would not find it easy to put it into practical terms especially on the level of relations among nations. I would say that, most folks are what we might call “realists”. They know they have to function within the reality of specific conditions facing them at the moment. They do have beliefs to guide them, and some, such as professionals, try to practice their beliefs with some consistency.

In foreign policy matters Henry Kissinger represents a professional who practiced what has been called a “realist” philosophy. As an advisor to President Nixon and Secretary of State he focused on the interests of the United States and did not feel called to promote democracy all over the globe. Realism suggests that not everything is, indeed, perfect in the world and will never be so. There is real evil out there and it comes in many different forms. And sometimes it is necessary to use evil means to achieve what are believed to be good results; Kissinger was involved in the actual overthrow of an elected government in Chile, for example. By referring to Kissinger, I do not suggest that I agree with him, but only to contrast him to a person such as Paul Wolfowitz, and to suggest that some realism is necessary in matters of war.

Wolfowitz is not a realist in foreign policy. He is an ideologue. He is one who believes that the United States has a moral mission in the world, to spread democracy using the full power of the country. As such he is like those in the religious right, which as we have seen has a very clear idea about the role of this country in the world and, in fact, sees this role in explicitly religious terms. The problem with both of them, both policy officials like Wolfowitz and the religious right, is that what they consider to be “moral” at any particular moment needs to be tested against practical rationality. Is the Iraq war the way right now to promote democracy around the world? It is not enough just to make the claim, it must be demonstrated.

And it is precisely that demonstration that is lacking. Troops are being sent to Iraq. Actions are being taken to prepare for war. But the president has not been able to articulate compelling reasons why this war should take place because those reasons do not exist. He is being pushed, pushed by people with a particular ideological agenda. This is making the American people very nervous, as they certainly should be.

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Date Added: 3/29/2003 Date Revised: 2/21/2003

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