I try not to sound too preachy in these columns, but having just celebrated Christmas with more of my extended family than we have been accustomed to in recent years I had to wonder in print. Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, about never returning evil for evil, about humbling oneself, about taking care not to despise even one of these little ones, about noting that the peacemakers shall be called the children of God. Do many American Christians take those sayings at all seriously?
I just read a piece saying that it was appropriate that Pat Robertson resign as head of the Christian Coalition because by common consent George W. Bush is now the real leader of the religious right, mainly for his prosecution of the war on terrorism. It strikes me as curious that waging a war is what it takes to be acknowledged as a Christian leader.
I hope I'm not going for cheap shots here or an overly simplistic analysis. I understand that among sincere Christians some of these issues are hardly cut-and-dried. Jesus physically went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, so he wasn't consistently passive in the face of activities he viewed as wrong. Some of his rhetoric about what will happen to evildoers in the hands of an angry God is downright fiery. Theologians and scholars have agonized at great length and with a certain amount of intellectual sophistication over concepts like "just war" and the special burdens that fall on the shoulders of avowedly Christian statesmen.
I think I recognize that the world as it is currently constituted sometimes demands hard choices of people in situations where none of the available alternatives is especially moral or even satisfactory. And the attacks of Sept. 11 were despicable, unprovoked by a specific U.S. action and – well, evil. In the political world as presently constituted a response is appropriate. A Christian might have to buckle up his armor and do what he considers his duty. But is it appropriate to relish the killing and bloodshed, to take satisfaction and even joy in the death of a purported enemy? Is it appropriate to consider the prosecution of a campaign of death and destruction something of a holy calling, as some have implied that George W. Bush does?
The United States has long had something of a civic religion – a generalized, nondenominational, nonsectarian acknowledgment of some kind of higher power who calls us to do good, be good and do our duty. Politicians have long called on this rather amorphous, vaguely Christian but generally inclusive civic religion to serve the functions that civic religions have served in almost every regime – to keep the people in line through exhortation to morality and duty rather than fear of punishment, and to buttress the power of the state.
I wonder whether some in the religious right don't see their own interpretation of Christianity as a more proper civic religion than the amorphous, not even strictly Christian civic religion that has served American leaders so well over the centuries. That might explain their fascination with political leaders, their desire to embrace politicians willing to give them the time of day or a modicum of respect.
To my way of thinking that would be a comedown for evangelical Christianity, which should be willing to sit in judgment (though without secular power) on regimes, governments and leaders, to criticize them, to take a radically prophetic stance from time to time. If evangelical Christianity is seen by its leaders (or some of them) as mainly a political or even a socio-cultural movement seeking to influence contemporary politics and culture, then its God is too small.
Perhaps the war is justified and necessary, given the possibly unattractive options and the way this generally secular world responds to mercy, kindness and turning the other cheek. But I would hate to see it viewed as a religious or even quasi-religious crusade. Casting one's lot with the political leaders of this world – even given that some are less contemptible than others and some strive with some integrity to be righteous rulers – makes any religion less than it could and should be.
SADDAM HUSSEIN AND THE IMPERIAL IMPULSE
But enough of seasonal musings. I still think that Somalia (or possibly Yemen, given some recent news stories) will be the next active theater in the ongoing American war on terrorism and evil. The administration seems to be still weighing the options when it comes to Saddam Hussein, the preferred target of neocons, New Republicites and a substantial number of the more traditional conservatives at National Review. But Saddam Hussein is definitely on the target list, and in some ways that's curious and revealing.
What pushed my buttons was a couple of segments on National Public Radio the day after Christmas that explored the pros and cons of going after Saddam next, but there have been numerous similar articles recently. Two aspects strike me as especially curious.
NO 9/11 CONNECTION, DAMMIT
The first is that the campaign to go after Saddam continues despite the lack of any hard or even soft evidence that he had anything to do with the September terrorist attacks. For those who yearn to take him out, any evidence at all that Saddam had harbored, financed or had anything other than a remote, tangential connection to any of the hijackers would have been as welcome as a stream in the desert. Then it would have been pretty easy to mobilize public opinion behind a campaign to take out the dictator in Baghdad once and for all.
But if there has been any connection between Saddam and al-Qaida, it seems to have been a prickly and perhaps even hostile one (though I don't presume to know all the ins and outs of such shadowy and secretive relationships and wouldn't be amazed to learn later that the appearance of hostility has masked quiet cooperation). Even the Israelis, whose intelligence services are widely respected and who would seem to have an interest in fostering enough hostility to persuade more powerful Western regimes to take Saddam out, have not been able to establish a 9/11 connection.
What's fascinating is that most of those who now advocate attacking Iraq, while they might have spun some interesting conjectural theories early on about Saddam's complicity, now acknowledge this lack of a nexus – and it doesn't make any difference. Saddam might not have fostered the 9/11 terrorists, but he's a bad guy who covets weapons of mass destruction and more geopolitical power, and he's still riling in Baghdad just as if we hadn't kicked his butt in 1991.
That's not complicity in current terrorism and it isn't a clear and present danger to the United States. But who cares? He's a dictator, a jerk and a potential threat someday, and that's enough to justify an attack.
As recently as 1991 it took the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (ignoring for the moment whether American diplomats winked and nodded and gave him "permission") to mobilize an American army and an international coalition against him. The old "rules" of the supposedly enlightened internationalists some of us learned in college still had some sway. Our leaders thought they had to phony up a Gulf of Tonkin incident to justify escalation in Vietnam. The idea that recognized regimes were sovereign in their own territory but forfeited the right to be left alone when they invaded other sovereign countries still had some psychological heft.
Today, however, that regnant mythology is gone, gone, gone. The United States doesn't have to be defending against aggressors or protecting the integrity of the international system to justify an invasion. It simply has to dislike a ruler or a regime and what that ruler does within his country to feel perfectly righteous in beginning a war and in attacking first.
That to me is the attitude of a world emperor more than a first-among-equals in a system of sovereign nations. This is not to say that some of our foreign policy gurus are not thoughtful and even (in their view) apparently benevolent over the long haul, or that some of the regimes they target don't richly deserve at least the opprobrium of all decent people. But there's no longer even the pretense of recognition of sovereignty or the need to have an attack or incident of aggression to justify war by the United States. It's enough to dislike the leader in another country or to consider him a potential threat.
This attitude no doubt feeds my second observation. The NPR report, along with other discussions, was fairly frank about the various opposition groups that have opposed Saddam's regime. They are factionally and ethnically divided, they have generally been ineffective, and some exist almost solely to gather money and sympathy from Westerners.
But the report rather nonchalantly (in my view) discussed the possibility that these groups could be "shaped up" by a proper infusion of United States money and advice into an effective fighting force with some political heft. And if that could be done, then the possibility of ousting Saddam and replacing him with a more congenial regime might just make an attack more congenial and therefore more likely.
So serious people in the US foreign policy establishment are ready to consider not just an attack on a regime that has not invaded anybody or supported the terrorist attacks in September. They are ready to spend our money to groom and shape the opposition so it will be a more effective tool of their version of American interests. They don't even bother with the pretense that there is a powerful and effective opposition with deep roots in the beleaguered Iraqi people who need just a little help to succeed in their patriotic task of ousting the dictator-usurper. They are eager to use an acknowledgedly ineffective and weak opposition movement.
I'm trying not to be shocked here. Such maneuverings have been the way of the world and the way of great powers for eons. But it seems important to me to make it clear that these attitudes are not those of a country that seeks (as John Quincy Adams had it) to be the friend of freedom everywhere but the guarantor only of its own. They are not even the attitudes of a conscientious and responsible member of the "international community" willing to use its own power to protect the innocent and defenseless against the rapacious aggressors who abound in the nasty world at large.
No, these attitudes are those of an imperial power that believes it not only has the ability but the right to decide how any country in the world shall be run and to use force if need be to see to it that the proper outcome occurs. The fact that so many of our policymakers see this role as benevolent and constructive and don't see themselves as hypocrites is, if anything, more chilling than the notion that our leaders are conscious imperialists. They are imperialists without even knowing they are, making assumptions that could only be justified by an empire's stance in the world while believing they are simply out to do good in an unruly world.
But the rest of us should be clear. Discussing an attack on Saddam Hussein in the absence of an overt provocation is the act of an imperial power that believes it has a custodial duty to make things right in the rest of the world.