When President George W. Bush spoke 10 days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to a joint session of Congress, he made the case for war in Afghanistan. Bush gave the Afghan government an ultimatum and told the American military that the hour of war was coming.
President Obama greets cadets after delivering a speech on Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York on Dec. 1. (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
"These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion," warned Bush. "The Taliban must act and act immediately."
Aware that a wounded nation was hungry for vengeful war, Bush, to his credit, neither demonized Islam nor framed the war as a Christian crusade.
"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam," said the president.
An EthicsDaily.com editorial offered both praise and pause for Bush.
"From the vantage point of just war theory, the clarity of Bush's speech was mixed. He did make the case for just war theory at a number of points. He said the cause for war was justice, not retaliation. He said the intent of war was to protect global freedom and the American way of life, not preserving Western access to oil as in the Gulf War. He issued clear conditions for peace and a warning for war," read the editorial.
The editorial cautioned that for a war to be just that it must have a reasonable chance of success.
"Bush said the war on terror 'will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.' Such an ambitious goal fails to pass the test of just war theory," said the editorial.
"The promise to rid the world of terrorism reflects the dangerous ideology of purity. It bumps against the line of holy war in which crusaders believe the world may be purified from evil. Sadly, such views are theologically faulty about the destructible nature of evil in a sinful world. The best a nation can achieve is imperfect justice, not divine justice," it said. "A more limited objective would have a better chance of success."
Eight years later, the U.S. has been so unsuccessful in its war in Afghanistan that President Obama wants to make more war to end war there.
Was the 2001 editorial a word of prophecy? Or was it a word of moral prudency?
American Christian prophecy circles around the idea of God's judgment if the United States doesn't protect Israel at all costs. Some American prophecy also warns about the Antichrist's rule in Afghanistan—a far-fetched interpretation taken from Ezekiel that requires multiple linguistic moves. Nonetheless, cable TV programs, Web sites and preachers find Afghanistan in the Bible and foretell future events.
The editorial was not a word of prophecy, however. It was not about foretelling. It was an exercise in moral prudency based on the time-proven rules of just war.
Unfortunately, the moral prudency of just war rules in American Christianity seems to have less currency than "biblical" prophecy among conservative Christians. Just war rules are too readily discarded as a reliable tool for discernment in favor of a blind loyalty to the military and the presidency. Too many American Christians believe "we" should trust the president in matters of war. After all, the president (and his generals) knows what to do and God is on our side. Besides, just war theory is just a theory and isn't really realistic. War demands realism.
The latest pro-war drumbeaters suggest that Obama has thought deeply about a massive troop deployment to Afghanistan.
Now granted, Obama lacks the need to dress up in military outfits and pretend to be a man of military bearing—no flight suit or bomber jacket for Obama. The lack of a military wardrobe might reinforce the idea that he takes his job more thoughtfully than his predecessor.
Yet the argument that we can trust President Obama, who "thinks," unlike President Bush, who "didn't think," is too politically cynical to justify the spillage of more American blood and treasure. Making a case for more war based on "Trust me, I'm not the other guy" is morally empty.
Nonetheless, after Obama's speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the predictable pandering of politicians and pundits as they did the wet finger test, one can feel the breeze building to support expanding the war.
Rather than trust Obama (his generals and the cable pundits, who favor war until public opinion turns on it), ought we not lean into the wisdom of the rules of just war? In particular, should we think morally about the rule of the probability of success?
Eight years ago, EthicsDaily.com cautioned against the war in Afghanistan based on the rule of the reasonable chance of success. Last week, EthicsDaily.com made a similar point about the current president's ambition in Afghanistan, saying that "more war to end war is no just war—for there is low probability of success."
Will an EthicsDaily.com editorial need to remind readers in eight more years—in 2017—that more war to end war in Afghanistan was morally imprudent?
Or will goodwill Baptists and other people of faith find their moral bearing and speak up against the surge toward a long, long war?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.