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Who do we say we are?

One bit of hope to be drawn from the run up to war with Iraq is that so many have earnestly made the case against the use of force. Perhaps this young century, then, will not simply be a continuation of the futile and massive state-sponsored violence of the previous century.

From the millions who took to the streets -- some for the first time -- to the diplomats, the politicians, the religious figures, the students, to the pope himself, the range of opposition to this impending war is impressive. The scope of moral, political, strategic and ethical concerns that has been placed in the path of this march to war is daunting.

Consequently, if, as seems inevitable at this writing, the war machine will be unleashed in earnest sometime in the next few weeks, it will not be for lack of discussion and opposition.

Picking through the reality of war for hope, however, is a desperate act. If it feels that way, the corresponding truth is that President Bush and his administration, in the insistent march toward war, have succeeded in rousing interest in questions too often dormant among people for whom issues of foreign policy are normally remote concerns.

It would have been difficult to imagine just two years ago, and particularly following 9/11, that so substantial a proportion of the American public (40 percent, according to a Gallup poll) would support military intervention only if the United Nations held another vote sanctioning the action.

Something new must be afoot when the American public, so often in the past hostile to the notion that we would concede any authority to a world body, now seeks such approval before warring against an avowed enemy.

I believe that when peace is at stake, it is never too late for dialogue,” Pope John Paul II said during one of his recent weekly audiences.

John Paul knows as well as anyone on the world stage today the dreadfulness of oppressive regimes as well as the horror of war. One can presume that he is not naive nor anti-American about such matters. He certainly is not adhering to some unyielding absolute pacifism. And yet he is unflinching and unrelenting in his opposition to this war.

“Despite the serious and repeated attacks to the serene and joint cohabitation of peoples, peace is possible and a duty,” the pope said in his message on New Year’s Day. “Indeed, peace is the most precious good to invoke from God and to build with every effort.”

Two weeks later, he declared: “What are we to say of the threat of a war that could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than 12 years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”

Some might be tempted to engage in a Clintonesque discussion of what the meaning of last is when it is used in the phrase the last option. On the issue of modern warfare, however, the pope seems willing to place the burden of justification not on those who plead for alternative means of settling differences, but on those who see solutions in carpet-bombing and guided missiles.

In recent weeks, this paper has devoted significant space to voices detailing arguments against going to war. Some readers have understandably questioned why, to make a gross oversimplification of thoughtful queries, we had not given equal time to those advocating the use of force. Without answering individual points, it is sufficient to respond that the case for war is being pitched elsewhere nearly nonstop. Too many news outlets, including print, but especially television, have morphed into uncritical megaphones for the Pentagon. Too few, especially early on in the debate, dare ask some of the deeper questions. If the gospels turn life upside down for Christians in everyday pursuits, how much greater the demands on us when the possibility before us is the massive killing potential of modern warfare.

How different is the view to which we are called? John Paul did not distinguish between winners and losers when he said that going to war in Iraq would be “a defeat for humanity.”

Bracing as papal words may be for Catholics seeking affirmation for unpopular views, there are reasons much closer to home for questioning the rush to war. And one of the most compelling reasons might best be expressed in a question: Who do we Americans want to be in the post-Cold War world?

The most powerful? The lone superpower? The richest? The freest?

And if all of those and more, to what end? To keep the rest of the world at bay? To be able to do whatever we wish? To maintain our lifestyles no matter what that means to the rest of the world?

The Bush administration has succeeded in isolating the issue of war with Iraq while, ironically, heightening its profile by drawing it into loose associations with the wider war on terrorism. Consequently, the primary preoccupation of the day is whether military intervention is the sole method for affecting the shifting goals of the planned military campaign: getting rid of Saddam Hussein, disarming Iraq and/or bringing democracy to that country.

Only recently, President Bush has added yet another goal to military intervention. He sees it as panacea to all the ills of the Middle East, a kind of magic bullet that will have salutary effects throughout the region, ushering in a wave of western-style democracy to the Arab world. One of the more pressing considerations, though, is whether a war will usher in a new era of constant, unmitigated and previously unimagined guerrilla/terrorist warfare against the United States and the West.

Even the cleanest and quickest military operation in Iraq, complete with regime change and newly installed democracy, will do little unless the United States is willing to scrutinize its own role historically in shaping today’s Arab world.

If, post war, the United States remains the overbearing presence that will overturn governments and roll over culture and religion as it did in past decades in Iran, or continues to pour weapons of mass destruction into the war chests of competing enemies to maintain U.S. interests, little will have been gained. The problems will only have been drawn out and forced into other configurations, to be manifest at some future date and in a form that we have not yet anticipated.

Most alarming in the execution of a preemptive war would be the final transformation of the sole superpower into a kind of empire that sees itself operating above the deliberations of the rest of the world. In a few short years, we have walked away from a host of international commitments and treaties, alienated long-time friends, antagonized anew old enemies and turned our backs on the same international courts before which we are willing to place our enemies for judgment.

We have walked away from the community of nations, manipulating any dialogue to our own designs, refusing to play unless all the rules conform to our interests.

While we are demonstrably, within our borders, a people of goodwill and an example of the benefits of living by rule of law and equality of opportunity, elsewhere we too often become a betrayer of those values.

Perhaps no one has put the case more succinctly or eloquently than John Brady Kiesling, a 20-year career diplomat who served four presidents and who felt compelled recently to submit his letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell because he could not “reconcile my conscience with my ability to represent the current U.S. administration.”

“The policies we are now asked to advance,” he wrote in a Feb. 27 letter, “are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.”

The attacks of Sept. 11, he wrote (the full text of the letter is available on the Web at www.truthout.org), “left us stronger than before, rallying around us a vast international coalition to cooperate for the first time in a systematic way against the threat of terrorism.” Rather than take advantage of that coalition, however, “this administration has chosen to make terrorism a domestic political tool, enlisting a scattered and largely defeated al-Qaeda as its bureaucratic ally. We spread disproportionate terror and confusion in the public mind, arbitrarily linking the unrelated problems of terrorism and Iraq. The result, and perhaps the motive, is to justify a vast misallocation of shrinking public wealth to the military and to weaken the safeguards that protect American citizens from the heavy hand of government.

“I urge you to listen to America’s friends around the world,” he continues. “When our friends are afraid of us rather than for us, it is time to worry. And now they are afraid. Who will tell them convincingly that the United States is as it was, a beacon of liberty, security and justice for the planet?”

The sole hope for an answer to Kiesling’s question is in the Americans, themselves. Those who oppose the war.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003