NO CHOICE

-REVIEW: of Just War Against Terrorism: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World By Jean Bethke Elshtain (Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Elshtain clearly thinks a war now against terrorism and Iraq meets just-war criteria.

Her guiding ethos is an “Augustinian realism that resists sentimentalism and insists on ethical restraint.” The great Church father appreciated, in her words, that “power is a basic reality of political life” and “justice and force are not mutually incompatible.” Indeed, President Bush’s much-mocked view that he might go to war partly to create a just peace for now-oppressed Iraqis is vintage Augustine, who advocated force to protect innocents from harm, and even saw it as a form of obligatory Christian love for neighbors.

Elshtain’s trench-level arguments about such matters include reflections on the thoughts of such theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich about force and evil. Some of her citations sound eerily contemporary, such as Niebuhr’s 1940 observation that history “refutes the idea that nations are drawn into war too precipitously. It proves… that it is the general inclination, of democratic nations at least, to hesitate so long before taking this fateful plunge that the dictator nations gain a fateful advantage…”

Elshtain’s least persuasive moments concern America’s role in the world. “The role of preventing or interdicting violence in other countries is not new to the United States,” she writes, “it was thrust upon the United States in 1989 when it became the world’s only superpower.”

That’s the kind of disingenuous malarkey currently infuriating America’s allies. No one thrust the role of world cop on the United States – we took it. Even if one believes we should take it, we owe the world some arguments beyond “might makes right.” Since agreed-upon “just take” criteria don’t exist, working out the principles is a challenge.

In the end, one values Elshtain’s judgments while regretting her often inadequate brief for them. She says “we have no choice but to fight.” Better to say, “It’s our choice to fight,” and explain why.

A couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a NY Times column in which he said that jouranalists had some obligation to at least try and comprehend the religious beliefs and motivations that move a wide majority of their readers, if not themselves. Here’s an example of where that might be helpful. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, which is where Ms Elshtain wries from, what morally defensible choice do we have but to prevent and interdict violence whenever and wherever we can? Where and when, as in a place like Rwanda, we fail to do so, it is not because there was any “choice” to the matter but because we failed to answer the summons of justice. Who among us can contemplate the genocide there and our inaction and not feel a deep sense of shame?

Paul Jaminet has already offered a long post on just war theory today and we finally posted our long-promised review of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. But quite the best thing you’re ever likely to read on just war is the essay Just Cause
Revisited
by James Turner Johnson. It is exceptional.

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