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May 5, 2009

By Travis Harvey

Belmont’s religious left has not been shy about its opposition of the Iraq War, nor in its vitriol disgust of former President George W. Bush.

The past three years have been littered with convocations sponsored by the Office of Spiritual Development that described the United States as a war-loving, imperialistic empire.

The RAR has featured op-eds in the past; our major criticism has centered on the political nature of some OSD convocations. Perhaps we are witnessing a trend that is forming among leftist religious academics on a national level, and have missed the point. The religious left does not just disagree with Bush’s justification of the Iraq War and the international War on Terror—they disagree with war in general.

“What you have identified is a kind of quasi or neo-pacifism,” said Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. “People may stand up and say I’m a pacifist, but if they go on and talk about some wars being justified, they raise the bar so high that you realize no war could ever meet their criteria.”

Elshstain contends that it would be far better if these people would identify themselves as “functional” or “practical” pacifists.

“I think it would be far more honest just to say, ‘I really am a functional pacifist and I just don’t think war is justified,'” said Elshtain, “rather than saying, ‘oh yeah, I can imagine a Just War, but this isn’t one.'”

In an interview with Dr. Todd Lake, following an OSD sponsored convocation to mark the 5th Anniversary of the Iraq War, he pointed out that eighty to ninety percent of “informed” Christian leaders oppose the Iraq War and deem it unjustified. It was his description of the state of Iraq before the United States invasion that left the RAR skeptical, describing pre-war Iraqi communities as places that had “lived in harmony for decades.”

Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, spoke at Belmont on March 6, 2009

Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, spoke at Belmont on March 6, 2009

Clearly Iraq, under the control of Saddam Hussein, had not been living in a state of harmony. Beginning in 1987, Hussein used mustard gas against the Kurds living in Northern Iraq. Perhaps the worst attack was against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, where a chemical combination of mustard gas left 5,000 dead, and more than 65,000 wounded. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hussein launched around 280 chemical attacks on the Kurds.

“Bush hatred may play a role in the religious left’s strong opposition to the Iraq War,” said Elshtain.

“I have never seen anything like the contempt, and the hatred, and the animus against a political leader as I saw with President Bush,” said Elshtain. “I am just flabbergasted by how ugly it was and how routine it was. It went way beyond criticism to open contempt.”

Criticism and debate are needed. It can be hard criticism, but criticism is far different from hate, said Elshtain. She pointed out an essay published in a major journal of civic opinion titled “Justifying Bush Hatred.” In the article written by Jonathan Chait, published in the New Republic, Chait chastised Bush for everything from how he walked to how he talked.

Obama’s most significant policy departure from Bush in dealing with the War on Terror seems to be rhetorical. The War Against Terror is now deemed “overseas contingency operations,” and terrorist attacks are now “man caused disasters.” Elshtain thinks that this change in rhetoric may be dangerous. Terrorism is an established term in international politics and international norms. A man-made disaster could be anything from someone causing a relatively small accident, to an event like 9/11.

“Oversees contingency operations and man-made disaster mean nothing, I mean, how can you debate an overseas contingency operation,” said Elshtain. “If you say terrorist, you know it is an intentionally planned killing of civilians, and that helps you to take your ethical and moral bearings. This silliness with euphemisms destroys your ability to do that.”

According to Elshtain, President Obama’s administration has done almost nothing to change Bush era policies.

”They have reaffirmed the wire-tapping surveillance policies, which goes against what Obama said in his campaign, they are going to close Guantanamo, yes, but, not right away, and the Attorney General, Mr. Holder goes down there and says it is a well run facility. They left themselves some wiggle room with the use of rough interrogations, you know, maybe there would be some exceptions when some of the rougher methods of interrogation would be justified,” said Elshtain. “I don’t see any super-major changes, but maybe it is too early.”

President Obama’s current policies on war, compared to the rhetoric used in his campaign, may have changed due to what he learned upon taking office. However, the OSD’s attempt to classify the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism as either just or unjust is ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with teaching practical pacifism. I cannot draw judgment on whether our actions in Iraq are just or unjust, but I argue that the OSD cannot either.

Travis Harvey is a senior Political Science major.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 9, 2009 2:35 PM

    Osama better get on with the changes that Bush messed up. The US is hurting badly from them.

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