President Bush sought last night to increase public backing for a U.S.-led war against Iraq, hoping to build support for congressional resolutions authorizing the use of military force and to obtain a legitimizing United Nation's Security Council resolution.
Speaking to a politely cheering crowd in Cincinnati, Bush's speech ran almost 30 minutes, longer than the predicted 20 to 25 minutes.
NBC was the only major network to carry the president's address, although it quickly returned to regularly scheduled programming. CBS and ABC did not carry the speech. CNN, which did air Bush's speech, carried a brief summary and analysis before cutting to news about the Maryland sniper.
For a nation considering war in the Middle East, the partial national media coverage was surprising, even disappointing. Despite the lack of new evidence and blockbuster headlines, Bush's speech was more valuable than TV sitcoms and talk-shows.
Equally disappointing was the content of the president's speech. Few, if any, civic-minded Americans doubt the evil nature of Saddam Hussein. Most know about his record of destruction, deceit and delay. Few Americans underestimate the reality of terrorism rooted in militant Islamic fundamentalism. Even fewer Americans fail to recognize the dangerous, fragile nature of these times. If Bush's speech was a closing argument for a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, he did not succeed.
Regrettably, he skipped across most of the time-honored principles of just war theory which have been widely considered, especially since before the Persian Gulf War, to evaluate the moral nature of war.
One of those principles is a reasonable hope of success. Bush made no case that a regime change through U.S. military force would make our nation free from terrorist attacks and that a U.S. occupation of Iraq would advance peace and justice in the Middle East. He avoided the deepening questions of the length of an invasion and the cost of one.
Bush did not pass the test of just cause. He correctly asked the rhetorical question, "Why now?" He simply failed to give a good answer. Yes, 9-11 was horrible. But does that justify more horror? Revenge or preemptive strikes are not considered just causes for war.
Bush also failed to discuss civilian immunity. According to just war theory, civilians are never to be targets and are always to be protected. How the United States will avoid civilian deaths in an urban war was ignored.
Bush did pass the principle of last resort, a principle that requires every effort at conflict resolution before war. Bush made a commitment to taking steps short of war, although he disparaged previous inspection efforts and economic sanctions.
His recognition of the principle of last resort is a welcomed shift for an administration that was rushing anxiously to war a month ago.
It is at this point where the American religious community should most encourage the president. He needs words of support for conflict resolution, an unpopular approach for many within his administration.
Until we have genuinely exhausted every channel, every effort, every tool, we should not turn to war.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.