The Politics of Peace

Philip M. Mouch

Published Spring 2004

What follows is the script of a talk given to the Fargo-Moorhead Unitarian Universalist Church in March, 2003, right after the United States went to war in Iraq.

Let me speculate a moment. Lots of people have said many things about why this war is happening. I think that there are many reasons, but I believe the primary reason we are on the verge of war is September 11, 2001. Perhaps various people involved in this process have other reasons. And I won't suggest that these reasons have not contributed to the push for war. But I suspect 9-11 has provided an impetus in the population that would have been absent otherwise, and that has made war possible.

The reason I believe this is that many of the people who support the war don't stand to gain from Iraqi oil. They didn't have a father who had an assassination attempted against him. They are people who genuinely think war against Iraq is a good idea. And I suspect a good bit of this sentiment comes from the feeling that we need to do something. Indeed, recently, I heard a man on the radio defending his support of the war by saying something like 'people seem to have forgotten 9-11'.

These sorts of comments strike me. We must do something. We must do something. And I wonder not what must we do, but why must we do anything?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting we sit by while criminals and terrorists do whatever they want. But we must be careful, I think, to limit our actions to those people who are acting against us. Going to war out of anger and frustration over 9-11 will not solve anything and will make us guilty of our own crimes.

Notice the shift in discussion. We must do something. But not just anything will do. After all, I would maintain, those of us opposed to war are doing something. Besides demonstrating against war, proposals for more and stronger inspections have been placed on the table. Even more intriguing, I believe, is a suggestion to lift sanctions and further restrict arms imports, thus empowering the Iraqi people to decide their own fate. But the point seems to be that these are not actions. These do not satisfy our need for avenging our loss and securing our own safety. Only military action counts as doing something. (Witness that the U.N. is being criticized for inaction, even though, until recently, inspections were ongoing and seemed to be have some effect, at the very least.)

In another recent discussion, I have heard the nonviolence movement derided. Indeed, one person commented that he believed Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi 'got lucky'. Non-violence does not work, or so it is believed. When it does seem to, it is a lucky coincidence, nothing more. If we believe this, and we believe that King's cause, for instance, was just, then we are forced to say that he should have taken up arms and violently fought for civil rights. If that result seems absurd, then we must reconsider non-violence and accord it more respect. It might not seem like it is doing something, but it can do more than might be recognized.

More recently yet, just a week ago, I saw a news item from Houston, Texas. A French woman, who has lived in the United States for 14 years, found words spray-painted on her garage door. It was something to the effect of 'Scum. Go back to France.'

In general, the French position has been derided as one of appeasement. This was tried with Hitler. It failed then. Indeed, there are lists of anti-France jokes on this score. It is this sort of ridicule that those who would advocate a non-violent solution must face.

And face it we must. We cannot meet angry words with more angry words. Doing so gives the lie to what we want to argue. If violent words must be met with violent words, then does not violence also need to be met with violence?

This is not an easy position to adopt. Listening to the war drums beat makes me angry. It makes me want to lash out. It makes me want to do something. And giving quiet, forceful arguments against war does not seem like enough. But if it isn't enough, then what does the nonviolent position really amount to?

Understanding this tension, though, can give us insight into the need many people feel to do something after 9-11. Saddam is a bad guy. And we can certainly imagine him helping those who would harm us. We cannot let something like this happen again, can we? Working through the U.N. and inspections is uncertain and won't give us the visceral satisfaction of striking back.

(Incidentally, in this regard, I have to wonder if the quick war in Afghanistan didn't contribute to the problem. It was too quick, it seems, to provide complete catharsis for the country's pain. The lack of the necessary support to rebuild that country indicates that the real work required to prevent future terrorism is not exciting enough to hold our attention. It is also a frightening warning of what might happen after a quick war in Iraq.)

Indeed, this is the problem. The things we must do to avert terrorism are long-term projects that involve a great deal of humanitarian aid. These are not ratings winners for news media. and they do not inspire folks back home. They certainly don't win elections. Unless, those of us who believe in this path rally behind it and make a convincing and vocal case for this sort of international effort, it will not be embraced. But we cannot rally the support for such action with hurt and anger.

Is this appeasement as many have suggested? No. those in the anti-war movement – this country or abroad – are not suggesting giving into Hussein's demands. In this war of words, ‘appeasement' is a dangerous term that we must reject. It conjures ghosts of Hitler. The analogy is inaccurate and unfair. A better analogy is Libya and Khaddafi, the 'Hitler' of the 1980's. He is still in power, despite obvious ties to terrorism (which are lacking in Hussein's case). Rather than appeasement or war (neither of which can we pin on Reagan, whatever we think of him), a doctrine of containment would serve our interests better.

If we keep up the restrictions on the import of weapons and keep up the inspections regime, while loosening other economic sanctions – which don't work and only hurt the Iraqi people – it is highly unlikely Iraq would be able to produce or make use of any weapons of mass destruction. This is something that could be maintained indefinitely, minimizing Hussein's risk to the world at the same time avoiding war. Having weapons of mass destruction is not enough to go to war, despite the administration's attempts to convince the world otherwise. A threat to use them would be necessary. But a continued inspections regime would curtail Iraq's ability to do this. No argument has been offered to explain why this strategy is not to be preferred.

The most frightening comment in the war of words taking place, however, came several weeks ago (maybe months, I can't remember exactly) from North Korea. North Korea's comment amounted to a claim that the United States is not the only country permitted to strike preventatively in its own defense. I believe the comment was part of a warning not to impose sanctions on North Korea. This comment is telling, for it indicates the international precedent we are on the verge of setting.

A pre-emptive strike, usually thought permissible by anyone who allows for war at least sometimes, refers to a strike against a country poised for aggression. In other words, there is a immanent threat of violence. Such violence is likely to be merely days away or less. There is room for disagreement over the particulars, but there is a general agreement on the requirement of immediacy of the threat.

This is not the concept that the Bush administration is using to justify its war. Rather, it is admittedly engaged in a preventative war. We must strike now before the threat can became immanent, because if we wait it will be too late.

Unfortunately, North Korea is right – to an extent, at least. If Bush defends this position, it sets the precedent. We will not be able to claim that only we have this prerogative. At least, we cannot claim it in any credible way.

If we acknowledge defensive wars as just, then any nation who engages in an aggressive first strike may claim that it was responding to a future threat. Some of these claims, no doubt, will ring hollow. But some will be harder to judge. India, for instance, may claim that Pakistan, a known hideout for terrorists and admitted nuclear power, may be too great a threat to allow its continued existence. On what grounds can we credibly argue that India should continue down a diplomatic path with Pakistan?

This is, by far, the most pragmatic argument I have to offer. I gives a lot to those who seek war. It acknowledges some justified warfare. For that reason, it will likely seem less persuasive to those who – like me – oppose any war. But it is an argument which can speak to those of us who are willing to accept some wars as necessary. At this moment, I do not want to argue with those in that position. I respect them, even as I disagree. My argument, then, is that even they should oppose this war. It threatens new justification for war that may destabilize the world further. It threatens to move war from the position of last resort to much higher on the list; a list that is already too short as it is.

Certainly there are other arguments we might offer against the war in Iraq. I cannot cover them all. But the most damning one is that there is no argument for war. Without that justification, this war can only be viewed as a crime against the people of Iraq, the people of the United States, the world, and peace itself.

But we must practice that behavior we hope to instill in others. It is harder to let diplomacy to work in Iraq. But it is better that it do so. And it is harder to meet angry words with reasoned arguments. But we must, so as not to escalate the war of words.

Phil Mouch sits on the Board of Directors of the Civilian-Based Defense Association and the editor of Civilian-Based Defense. He teaches philosophy at Minnesota State University Moorhead.


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