April 29, 2003

April 29, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Anti-Liberation Theology

Religious figures who opposed the liberation of Iraq have a lot of explaining to do. Fashioning themselves prophets of peace, they caustically denounced the "rush to war." Having granted the United Nations an almost transcendent moral authority, they declared Operation Iraqi Freedom an "immoral" act of aggression. In the months leading up to the conflict, they made a litany of brash claims and gloomy predictions--all proven to be utterly false.

Take their suggestion that Saddam Hussein was not the devil many made him out to be. Some religious leaders even denied that he ever used chemical weapons against the Kurds. George Hunsinger, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, cited approvingly the Nation's dismissal of the charge as "a catchy slogan to demonize Saddam in the popular American imagination." Meanwhile, Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, derided prowar Christians for holding "simplistic views of good and evil."

Yet "evil" is the word that most often passes from the lips of newly liberated Iraqis to describe Saddam's regime. "If you only knew what this man did to Iraq," said an elderly man in Baghdad beating Saddam's portrait with his shoe. "He killed our youth. He killed millions." Day by day we learn more about the arbitrary arrests, tortures, and executions; the special prisons for children of dissidents; the diversion of food and medicine intended for needy Iraqis. None of it should surprise anyone: For years, the same facts had been uncovered by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. special rapporteur. Not since Cambodia's killing fields had a government terrorized so many of its own people.

Antiwar clerics remained silent about these facts, apparently in order to keep the faith about containing the Butcher of Baghdad: He had no serious interest, they said, in weapons of mass destruction. Seeing little evidence that Saddam was rearming, editors at the Christian Century rejected arguments for war as "extreme and unfounded." Jim Winkler, of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, complained of "an astonishing lack of evidence" to justify military intervention.

What's truly astonishing, however, was the clerics' willful neglect of Saddam's deception and defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors. Kenneth Pollack, a former Iraq specialist with the National Security Council and a scholar at the Brookings Institute, doubted that any inspections regime could prevent Iraq from developing the most deadly weapons. "Saddam is working to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction programs," Pollack wrote on the eve of war, "and the more time he has, the more lethal that arsenal will become." Even German intelligence services concluded in a December 2000 report that Iraq was close to producing a nuclear bomb. Yet church leaders said nothing when Secretary of State Colin Powell exposed Baghdad's "web of lies" with chilling clarity before the U.N. Security Council.

As to the conduct of the war, opponents were certain that a U.S. strike would devastate Iraq's infrastructure and foment a humanitarian crisis. The Church World Service, an association of faith-based relief agencies, expected "horrendous humanitarian consequences." Jonathan Frerichs of Lutheran World Relief complained bitterly that "we're attacking the government who's running the food distribution system for two-thirds of the country." The reality, of course, was that Saddam built lavish palaces and hijacked the country's oil-for-food program while 400,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died of malnutrition.

In fact, Pentagon planners engineered a brilliant military campaign that minimized the war's effects on daily life. Five months prior to the invasion, the State Department assembled emergency relief organizations at Iraq's border. Thousands of tons of food, water, and medical supplies were delivered within days after the conflict began. By quickly putting troops on the ground, coalition forces secured the nation's 600 oil fields, preventing an ecological disaster. Bombing raids, which focused intently on military targets, left bridges and power grids mostly untouched.

Indeed, the most shameful accusation made by religious liberals was that American troops would blithely ignore the rules of warfare and kill "massive" numbers of non-combatants. Joseph Sprague, a bishop of the United Methodist Church, said innocent civilians "will not be protected." Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, insisted that U.S. forces wouldn't hesitate to kill women and children. Rose Marie Berger, an editor of Sojourners, agreed: "Imagine our 200,000 troops . . . bringing home pictures of kids they helped save, rather than images of children they were trained to kill."

Innocents have died in this conflict, as they do in every war, which is one of the reasons war should be a last resort. But considering the tactics of the Iraqi military--using human shields, dressing in civilian clothes, hiding in schools and mosques--civilian deaths could have been much higher. Indeed, in an extraordinary effort, the U.S. military linked moral principle to modern combat. Satellite-guided bombs were carried by almost all navy and air force fighters, giving them unrivaled accuracy. Cities were bypassed to avoid bloody urban campaigns. Coalition troops put their own lives at risk to get civilians out of harm's way. When all is said and done, military historians will identify Operation Iraqi Freedom as the most justly fought war in the history of modern warfare.

What of the wailing prophets? Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, warned that if America attacked Iraq, "then it is Americans who have become the barbarians." Catholic Bishop John Michael Botean called the war an "objectively grave evil." Any killing associated with the conflict, he intoned, is "unequivocally murder." Even Pope John Paul II, no pacifist, declared it "a defeat for humanity." Compare all this with the cries of joy from Iraqis after Saddam's 40-foot statue was toppled in Baghdad: "We are still scared but we are happy," said Maysoun Raheem. "Thank God this has happened and the Americans have come." For them, this was indeed a war of liberation. "I am 50 years old," said Kareem Mohammad Kareem, "but my life just started today."

The victims of tyranny always seem to understand the implacable nature of its evil better than anyone--better than those who safely hurl jeremiads at the world's injustices as their bread and butter. The clerics were wrong about this war, wrong about the despicable regime it toppled, wrong about nearly everything. And yet they remain unrepentant: "Prophetic voices are always way out ahead of the congregation," boasted the NCC's Bob Edgar. "None of the Old Testament prophets had a majority."

Perhaps, but at least their predictions conformed to reality. That's a lot more than can be said of the prognosticators of our own day.

-Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public Radio.

Originally appeared in the Weekly Standard.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Related Issues: Middle East