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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

October 14, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 130




Joe Feuerherd The language of war

By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

En garde! The sword fight along the Washington corridors -- The War of Words over the War in Iraq -- has turned nasty. This is the Bush Administration dueling Augustine of Hippo over the trophy of the year: the Just War Theory cup.

The dueling has more rapier thrusts than "The Mark of Zorro." It focuses on this question and hinges on this taunt: Did the Bush Administration claim that Iraq posed an "imminent threat" to the United States before launching the invasion of that country?

It's an important question. If the answer is "yes," then the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction (the source of the imminent threat) means the administration was either incompetent or untruthful. If the answer is "no," then it means we attacked Iraq for reasons other than the immediate danger it posed to us.

The debate is significant for the religious community. The concept of "imminent threat" is enshrined in Just War Theory (4th century -- Augustine of Hippo). Among the criteria for a just war: a "real and certain danger" -- an "imminent threat" or "aggression under way" -- must be present for one nation to take up arms against another.

In today's geopolitical terms, the United States clings to the notion of just war because the Bush Administration doesn't want it said that we defeat our enemies simply because we can, or that we pursue objectives better suited to diplomacy through armed conflict. Like Johnston McCulley's caped crusader, we act with honor, resorting to violence only after other viable options are exhausted.

The current skirmishing began last month when Senator Edward Kennedy threw down the gauntlet by declaring the war a "fraud made up in Texas." His downstroke -- the statement to the Associated Press that "there was no imminent threat" that justified the U.S. attack.

The Bush Administration's second was conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan. "The point," wrote Sullivan, "was less that we knew the threat was imminent, but that we couldn't know for sure that it wasn't."

Then on "Fox News Sunday" Oct. 12, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller was caught coming (he had previously called Iraq an "imminent threat") and going (he appears to have changed his mind since the war ended).

A look at the record is in order.

"We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries," according to the September 2002 National Security Strategy promulgated by the Administration.

That view was echoed by the war's supporters in the religious community.

University of Chicago theology professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of the recently released Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, wrote prior to the war that "an imminent threat does not necessarily mean one that is just around the corner."

Rather, said Elshtain, "it may, refer to murderous capabilities an outlaw regime is in the process of developing. If one can make a strong case that the use of such capabilities is highly likely, then the just war caution against 'intervening' may be overridden."

Said Catholic theologian George Weigel: "When a vicious regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an 'aggression under way.' "

A month after releasing the National Security Strategy, President Bush tried to rally the nation. He warned that "America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

Does "clear evidence of peril" and the image of a "mushroom cloud" mean we have "adapt[ed] the concept of imminent threat to today's adversaries?" It would seem so.

Perhaps Bush, Sullivan, Weigel and Elshtain are right. It is true that the bad guys can now act against us in ways that Augustine and the developers of the just war tradition could never have imagined. A 4th century vocabulary is, no doubt, ill suited to our current situation. Useless even?

Maybe imminent doesn't mean just around the corner anymore.

Instead, it means whatever George W. Bush and his war planners say it means.

Joe Feuerherd's e-mail address is

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