The Burden of American Power

In a Violent World

By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Basic. 240 pp. $23

Had Jean Bethke Elshtain's compelling and nuanced exposition on the relevance of the just-war doctrine been read and understood by participants in the raging debate that preceded Bush's decision to attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq, that debate might have been far more responsible. As its title suggests, Just War Against Terror addresses the challenge precipitated by Sept. 11, but its moral reasoning and political analyses are equally relevant to the dangers that the murderous regimes in Baghdad and North Korea represent.

Anchored firmly in St. Augustine's City of God and in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, this book grapples with the contemporary dilemmas of American power. Like Reinhold Niebuhr, who invoked his Christian realism to counter pacifists during World War II and Soviet apologists during the Cold War, Elshtain has unsheathed her Augustinian sword to discomfit today's naive pacifists, visceral critics of American power and assorted postmodern obscurantists and solipsists, none of whom, in her view, come to grips with the radical evil of terrorism. Or, for that matter, fully understand the genius and broad appeal of the American idea set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

The book wrestles with the excruciating ethical dilemmas facing America as the world's greatest power and symbol of freedom in battling Osama bin Laden and his ilk. How can we use our awesome might to stamp out evil without arrogance or imposing our will on those whom we seek to protect? Fanatical Islamic terrorists are mass murderers of innocent civilians whom they see as undeserving of life or liberty. Though the terrorist is committed to "violence without limits," Elshtain writes, we must maintain "the distinction between justice and revenge." At the same time, she insists on friendship between Americans and "our brothers and sisters in Muslim societies."

In Elshtain's view, President Bush's post-Sept. 11 response has been free of revenge and has met the three basic requirements of the traditional just-war theory: the intention must be just, it must be fought with just and proportional means, and its success should increase the prospects for justice.

On the first point, she posits that the Sept. 11 attacks by al Qaeda terrorists against innocent civilians in New York and Washington to frighten the Great Satan were murderous and evil. Our military efforts to destroy the terrorists and their strongholds in Afghanistan to prevent them from doing more harm are therefore just. She also argues that the tactics we have used have been just and proportional. Terror, she rightly insists, must never be answered with terror. "We cannot use biochemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against civilians," but "we can attempt to interdict, disarm, and demolish training camps, weapons, and active combatants" by measured means.

Despite difficulties, U.S. forces did just this in Afghanistan. We went to great efforts to spare civilians, but when we mistakenly caused a small number of civilian deaths we apologized and compensated the victims' families. "No institution in America pays more attention to ethical restraint on the use of force than does the U.S. military," Elshtain writes. In contrast, she cites the earlier Soviet war in Afghanistan. "Soviet air raids in March 1979 killed 20,000 civilians in a few days -- just a fraction of the estimated 670,000 civilians who died during the ten-year Soviet occupation." Finally, Elshtain believes that the U.S. war against terrorism will lead to a more just world by rooting out evildoers and protecting those committed to peace and freedom.

Invoking solid empirical evidence, she skewers academics who characterized America's response to Sept. 11 as a "mad rush to war" and others who charged that the CIA or Third World poverty created bin Laden. The terrorists are driven by a fanatical hatred of America; they "hate us," she writes, "for what we are and what we represent and not for anything in particular that we have done." She devotes a chapter each to academics and clerics who decry the war on terror, accusing them of "weak arguments and strong rhetoric." And she castigates Protestant and Catholic attacks on U.S. policy in Afghanistan as unfair, unnecessary and un-Christian.

Elshtain does not advance a new doctrine or novel interpretation of the Christian ethic. Her argument is anchored in a realistic view of human nature, an acknowledgment of the persistence of evil, and in the ethical norms enshrined in the central Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Her "ethic of responsibility" rejects "holy wars, crusades, and wars of imperial aggrandizement." And she spurns both self-styled realists and utopians. "For pacifists, the reigning word is peace, " she writes. "For realists, the reigning word is power. For just war thinkers, the reigning word is justice."

But what about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which Elshtain addresses only by inference? Her just-war views are equally relevant here. During the debate over Iraq, critics of President Bush have accused him of warmongering, imperialism and worse. Harry Belafonte called him "evil." As that controversy increased in intensity, I was reminded of the raging interventionist-isolationist debate before Pearl Harbor, when Charles Lindbergh pleaded for nonintervention in the war against Hitler. He sounded much like the celebrity antiwar activists of today, though less strident than Barbra Streisand, for instance.

The views of genuine religious pacifists who oppose "all wars under all circumstances" surely must be respected, as Niebuhr understood. But all too often today it seems as if pacifism is used as a fashionable political cloak by those who choose which of America's wars they will deign to support. As a confirmed religious pacifist in World War II, I, too, opposed U.S. involvement. My utopian views gave way to the just-war doctrine when I worked in Europe after the war and saw up close what Hitler and Stalin had wrought. The haunting sight of displaced persons' camps and German cities reduced to ghostly rubble opened my eyes to the destruction unleashed upon the European continent by evil men. I became convinced that this evil had to be met by force, and that the allied war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan had been profoundly just.

By any measure, the U.S. war against terror is likewise a just war, and the war against Saddam Hussein is an essential element in that war. Indeed, just-war criteria are relevant to all military challenges facing the United States. Relating these criteria to specific dangers requires both moral reasoning and rigorous empirical calculation. Ascertaining the actual or probable facts is the hardest part. For example, some studies suggest that Saddam's brutal post-1991 regime caused 10,000 to 20,000 innocent civilian deaths a year. Would a military assault that unintentionally killed 5,000 civilians, despite precision weapons, but saved many more in the future from Saddam's cruelty qualify as a just war? Would such a war render an Iraqi attack with weapons of mass destruction less likely? These are the tough calculations Bush has had to confront.

Those opposed to the war on terror and Bush's decision to move into Iraq would do well to read Elshtain's sophisticated primer on political ethics and its relevance to America's unsought imperial burden. *

Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. His most recent book is "America's Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue?"