National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 2003

Noble goal in Iraq lacks moral foundation

Perhaps our politics have become so personal and so laced with venom that it has become impossible to approach an issue without grinding one’s teeth over an individual who has come to represent all that one despises. That very thing happened with President Clinton, the mention of whom still pushes some conservatives into spasms of disdain. It is happening now with President George W. Bush, who as a target has proven a powerful rallying point among the political left.

It is such dislike that is keeping the left from doing the noble, moral thing in Iraq, suggests New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a leading voice on the Middle East.

Friedman leads a chorus of those who believe that what now confronts the United States in Iraq is “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad,” that is, “erecting a decent, legitimate, tolerant, pluralistic representative government from the ground up,” as he wrote in his Nov. 30 column.

However, taking a high moral position would require a solid moral platform already in place where we deign to undertake such a noble enterprise. And that’s what’s missing. Bush’s Nov. 6 speech admits as much. He repudiated “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East.” In other words, in exchange for “stability” -- read “access to oil” and strategic interests -- the United States turned a blind eye on dictatorships and human rights abuses for more than half a century. In Iraq, the United States went to war for reasons, it is now roundly conceded, that were a sham. Folding it into the wider and open-ended war on terror, initially with no justification, provides the administration greater rationale for ignoring the rules at home and ignoring the thoughts of the rest of the world.

Little noticed last week was a story by Knight-Ridder’s Frank Davies about Navy Rear Admiral Don Guter, Rear Admiral John Hutson and Brig. Gen. David Brahms. The three of them, in a bold display of patriotism, joined a challenge to the Bush administration’s indefinite detention of suspected terrorists at the Navy base in Guantanamo, Cuba. They filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of 16 prisoners held for nearly two years.

“For me it’s a question of balance between security needs and due process,” Guter said, “and I think we’ve lost our balance.”

Said Brahms, who spent 26 years in the Marines before opening a private law practice, “If we want the world to play by the rules, we have to be on the moral high ground.”

Added Guter, who was in the Pentagon on Sept. 11 when terrorists crashed into the facility, helped evacuate people that day and later gave the eulogy for a fallen colleague: “We took an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president or the secretary of defense.”

Their move highlights the fact that in the prosecution of this sprawling and ill-defined war on terrorism, which now includes a protracted and increasingly messy war in Iraq, we are seriously compromising some of the fundamental underpinnings of a nation of laws.

Even while pleading for greater cooperation, Friedman characterized the Bush administration as “such a partisan ideological, nonhealing administration that many liberals just want to punch its lights out.” Perhaps that very characterization answers why something noble can’t occur.

We agree that it would be disastrous for the United States to withdraw from Iraq at this point. At the same time, the aim should be pragmatic, not noble -- as quick a transition to Iraqi leadership as possible and brokered by the authority of the United Nations. The projection of a U.S. vision of Jeffersonian democracy throughout a region where we are held in deep suspicion and contempt can wait for another day.

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 2003

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