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Reflections On War with Iraq

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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Outside of the specific time and place of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, it has never been permissible to engage in anything other than a defensive war. Thus, if a country is attacking us, has attacked us, evidences both the intent and the ability to do so imminently, or unofficially promotes this aggression by harboring those who do attack our country, then our military may justifiably use force against that government. Christians may not engage in wars of plunder or imperialism.

Where does this leave us with respect to the war with Iraq? (It seems appropriate to use the term "war" to describe a situation in which one country has been invading and bombing another off and on for eleven years.) There are two major justifications that have been offered for what we might call the prospective Round Two of the war on Iraq. First, Iraq has supposedly been harboring terrorists belonging to the al Qaeda organization, which attacked U.S. civilians. Second, Iraq has allegedly been developing weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, or biological), and has demonstrated a willingness to use poison gas, at least. Because a nation like Iraq would presumably use these weapons against the United States, given the opportunity, some say it is only prudent to use military force pre-emptively.

The first justification is weak, so weak that one wonders if it might be better described as an excuse. Last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage revealed that al Qaeda members are not in areas of Iraq controlled by Saddam Hussein, but are residing in Kurd-controlled areas. Not that the Kurds have any fondness for al Qaeda — the Kurds may simply be unable to force them out.

As for the second justification, the case made so far has been based on shaky evidence. The Bush administration has offered the public no substantive proof that there are now any Iraqi biological weapons labs, nuclear research facilities, or chemical weapons production centers. David Kay, leader of three inspection missions to Iraq for the International Atomic Energy Agency, argued recently that Hussein is working on a nuclear weapon, but is doing now only what can be done without purchasing material that reveals their intent. Defectors have also reported that Iraq has resumed its biological weapons research. Proof, however, is elusive. Whatever Iraq has now would apparently be leftover stockpiles from the 1991 Gulf War. A 1999 UN report indicated that Iraq had concealed nearly two hundred chemical bombs and missile warheads. Iraq says it has destroyed them, but it has offered no evidence. If Iraq does have stockpiles of chemical weapons from 1991, it above all countries would have the incentive to use them against the United States. The fact that no such attack has occurred in eleven years suggests three possibilities: a) Iraq does not have these weapons, b) Iraq has not been able to transport them out of the country, or c) the threat of severe repercussions has been sufficient to forestall their use (the Cold War strategy).

If Iraq does have access to weapons of mass destruction, it might be well for us to reflect on why the Iraqis would want to use them against the United States. Perhaps, in the face of the extreme difficulty of rooting out and destroying weapons of mass destruction, it would be well to seek to reduce Iraq's motive to use them against us. This brings us to the original reason for our military actions against Iraq — Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990.

Was the United States right to come to the aid of Kuwait? Clearly, a nation may justifiably act in self-defense. In 1991, there was no question of Saddam Hussein sending troops to invade Virginia. He had specific and local military aims, which had nothing to do with American citizens. We can also quickly dismiss the much-touted "defense" of oil supplies: Iraq never had the remotest chance of raising the price of oil nearly as much as OPEC did in the early 1970s. In 1973, OPEC produced 56 percent of the world's oil; today it produces less than a third. The U.S. properly refrained from military intervention in 1973 — after all, a price hike of any magnitude is not an "attack." In any case, the blockade on Iraq has surely raised oil prices more than Iraq could have done on its own.

However, to national self-defense might be added one other justifiable form of foreign military intervention. The Calvinist Phillipe du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623), in his influential book Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), contended that a Christian nation may justifiably come to the defense of another Christian nation under attack.

As this church is one, so is she recommended and given in charge to all Christian princes in general, and to every one of them in particular; for so much as it was dangerous to leave the care to one alone, and the unity of it would not by any means permit that she should be divided into pieces, and every portion assigned unto one particular; God has committed it all entire to particulars, and all the parts of it to all in general…. Insomuch that if a prince who has undertaken the care of a portion of the church, as that of Germany and England, and, notwithstanding, neglect and forsake another part that is oppressed, and which he might succour, he doubtless abandons the church, Christ having but one only spouse, which the prince is so bound to preserve and defend, that she be not violated or corrupted in any part, if it be possible.

The very mention of a "Christian nation" has now become offensive to many Americans, and triggers the inevitable protestations about the "separation of church and state." Yet, as many scholars in the Van Til tradition have pointed out, religious foundations are inevitable in all of life, including politics. The only question is, which religion will it be? Early in the history of the United States, the answer was, very simply, "Christianity," and it was understood that the federal government was restricted only from establishing a particular church (e.g., Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, etc.). As our country has abandoned its Christian heritage and traditions, we have replaced religious distinctions with political distinctions, categorizing nations as democratic or non-democratic, more socialist or less socialist. Yet, in Mornay's day, national religious classifications were critical to international relations.

Presumably, Mornay would have no difficulty advising the leadership of a Christian nation to intervene militarily to protect Christians in the Sudan or in other places where the church is oppressed. Kuwait is another matter. Even if the U.S. could be categorized as "Christian" (which is doubtful), coming to the defense of Kuwait, as George H.W. Bush did, was problematic in more than one plane. Not only is Kuwait's population almost exclusively non-Christian, but its government is a oligarchic kleptocracy that does not comport with the expressed (but false) ideal of democracy. Of Kuwait's population of 1.9 million, only around 120,000 are eligible to vote. Mass democracy surely has its problems, but if the U.S. has expressed or implied a policy of military support for such systems, Kuwait does not qualify. The country is essentially run by the al Sabah family, which has little or no respect for democratic institutions. Two weeks before Iraq invaded, the Emir of Kuwait (an al Sabah, of course) simply dissolved the National Assembly. Neither does Kuwait have much respect for international borders. Iraq contended, with some justification, that Kuwait was stealing its oil by drilling diagonally into the Iraqi side of the Rumaila oil field. (Which, incidentally, introduces a possible rationale for Hussein's destruction of the Kuwaiti oil wells before retreating.)

Yet, as it turned out, Kuwait's political system was not an issue when the country appealed for help. While Iraq had few financial ties to the United States, the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian governments had politically influential friends in America — bankers, owners of the large construction firms that built refineries, and others. Many of these stood to lose from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and perhaps even to gain from bottling up Iraq's oil. Little wonder that these friends should turn into the foremost advocates of war on Iraq. As Mornay wrote over four centuries ago, "There are many, who, hoping to advance their own ends, and encroach on others' rights, will readily embrace the part of the afflicted, and proclaim the lawfulness of it; but the hope of gain is the certain and only aim of their purposes."

Kuwait is not a Christian nation, and certainly does not have a political system worth shedding American blood over. The same could be said of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, or dozens of other countries that have received financial and military assistance from the United States. Why not return to that Old Right isolationism that was both consistent with Christianity and kept us out of "foreign entanglements"? Such a shift seems unlikely. American foreign policy is being consistent with the new creed: it is not Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or atheism that matters, but raw political influence.


  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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