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FIRST-PERSON: A Just Word or Just Words?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Former President Jimmy Carter, flush with recent praise by Norwegian liberals, has attacked war on Iraq. He sketches a five-point version of the just war theory in The New York Times and claims the U.S. is wanting on each point. He gets it wrong and, in the process, he exposes the injustice of his own war, a war of words, full of invective volleys. Here are his five principles, his canon for decency. Can his rhetorical assault measure up?

— The war can be waged only as a last resort, with all nonviolent options exhausted.

Has Mr. Carter rushed to scold the president of the United States on the pages of The New York Times? Should he have first editorialized against Saddam Hussein? Has he tirelessly and even tiresomely hammered Iraq to obey the U.N. resolutions, striking at least one thundering editorial blow each year since 1991? Has he penned op-ed pieces against the French and Russians for enabling Saddam, even while the tyrant was gassing his Kurdish people? Has he invited Iraqi refugees to the Carter Center for high-visibility colloquia on the horrors life under the present regime? Has he wondered out loud about the oppression of Christians in the lands of the Pax Islama? Did he lead a delegation to monitor the recent unanimous election of Saddam Hussein? While the U.S. has worked in a thousand ways for over a decade to disarm the mendacious and murderous Saddam Hussein, Mr. Carter has done little in that cause, saving his major, preemptive strike for his own president.

— The war’s weapons must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.

Carter talks as though the U.S. is some sort of thoughtless bully, bent on hegemony. Maybe there are some who work from hubris. Maybe he’ll embarrass them. But what about the many who would rather be home or have their sons and daughters at home, those who see this as an important aspect of the war on terrorism, those who would like to end unspeakable tyranny instead of “kicking the can down the road.” He disparages our American forces as some sort of outlaw band when most are extraordinarily decent and high-minded.

He dismisses “a few spokesmen” from the Southern Baptist Convention, claiming they’re driven by end-times theology. He ignores the fact that these spokesmen actually represent the sentiments of countless Southern Baptists who, without so much as an eschatological side thought, oppose metastasizing terror and support embattled democracies, such as Israel. He has read their rationale for combat, and he knows they appeal to just war theory more effectively than he does — never mind that he “takes out” innocent amillennialists with his anti-dispensationalist bomb.

He speaks of “collateral damage.” What about the damage he has done to language and logic. He talks of Americans raining bombs and missiles “on a relatively defenseless Iraqi population.” But aren’t U.S. forces doing everything possible to guide their munitions with precision, avoiding innocent civilians. Yet Mr. Carter uses language better used to describe the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki than the careful planning by our military to avoid harm to Iraqi innocents.

While he defames American military personnel, he calls Saddam Hussein merely “obnoxious.” Obnoxious is talking loudly on a cell phone on the commuter train. Obnoxious is smacking while you eat. Obnoxious is a former president’s undercutting his successor on the world stage. Torturing your political opponents and committing genocide against a resident ethnic group are not obnoxious … those acts are ghastly and abominable.

— Its violence must be proportional to the injury we have suffered.

What harm has the Carter Center suffered so that its spokesman should lash out in this way? Has President Bush pressed the IRS to audit the center’s books, questioning their tax-free status? Has the president enlisted the FBI for background checks, looking for dirt on the center’s employees? Has he commissioned a new federal highway through center property, initiating imminent domain proceedings? Did Mr. Carter think he had to write the column to stave off future censorship?

Actually, the former president was not responding to any injury to the Carter Center. Rather, he was going to bat for another group, the United Nations. Indeed, the U.N. is on the ropes, but U.S. leadership didn’t put it there. The U.N. has serious self-inflicted wounds. Whether bumping the U.S. from the human rights commission while retaining Sudan, fiddling while the Tutsis were slaughtered, or indulging Saddam’s lies, slaughters and subterfuge, they have only themselves to blame for the sorry spectacle of their undoing.

Mr. Carter seems to think it is fine to defend the imperiled even when his own institution is safe. Yet he finds the U.S. “domineering” when it throws its weight on behalf of other imperiled folks. Be that as it may, the United States has reason enough to count itself both wounded and imperiled by Iraq and its terrorist cohorts. That justification for war satisfies most Americans.

— The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.

Has the Carter Center cleared this editorial with other think tanks and special interest groups? Is the Cato Institute on board? How about the Daughters of the American Revolution, Focus on the Family and the Association of the United States Army? The Carter Institute works with Emory University. Did they clear his editorial with other regional universities? Is Bob Jones happy with the column? Of course, he didn’t need their okay to write this, any more than the United States needs the approval of Cameroon or Syria. Mr. Carter needs the assent of the Carter Center trustees. President Bush needs and has the backing of the American people through their elected representatives.

— The peace it establishes must be a clear improvement over what exists.

Mr. Carter praises “the presence and threat of our military power to force Iraq’s compliance.” But what power will it have if he succeeds in shaming its leaders and essentially compromising its threat? Does his sniping at the military strengthen its deterrent value or undermine it? Does it dismay or comfort tyrants?

Suppose the former president wins, and American troops come home, leaving Saddam in place. Suppose U.S. leaders apologize and defer to the moral sensitivities of the French, the Russians and the Chinese? Would this make for a better world?

Philosophers call it “self-referential inconsistency.” Pastors call it “hypocrisy.” Writers speak of a man’s being “hoist by his own petard.” Aphorists counsel, “If the shoe fits, wear it.” Consider sharing a just word, Mr. Carter, not just words.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. For more reflections by Coppenger, logon to listten.com or evanstonbaptistchurch.org.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger