Should America Wage War? A Review of Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Article ID: JAR2722 | By: Eric Patterson

A Book Review of 

Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

(Basic Books, 2003)

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 2 (2004). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

There are two battlegrounds for the West: a struggle against relativism in Western culture, and a second conflict between Western values and Islamic fundamentalism. In Just War against Terror, author Jean Bethke Elshtain examines how these conflicts are connected and answers whether and how America should wage war in today’s world.

Elshtain, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago Divinity School, contends that many cultural elites fail to understand the significance of 9/11. They opine, “America got what it deserved,” whereas she argues that the terrorist attacks were calculated acts of war by enemies committed to the destruction of Western values and the American system.

Elshtain rejects pacifism on the one hand and vengeance on the other. She turns to the Christian Just War theory for guidance about how the U.S. should act and as a moral yardstick with which to assess the war on terror, specifically with regard to military action in Afghanistan. American values such as equality, religious freedom, and the rule of law are worth preserving, Elshtain reasons, but a policy of self-defense, though justified, is not enough. She argues that at times the U.S. should act to save human lives in horrific predicaments such as Kosovo and Bosnia.

From the outset, Elshtain castigates the “automatic negativism” of intellectual elites who consciously choose to be against every­thing in U.S. foreign policy. This negativism, when married to an ethically relativistic worldview, makes moral distinctions impos­sible. For instance, were the perpetrators of 9/11 martyrs or barbarians? Was 9/11 a justified response to American aggression or a heinous act of war? Elshtain argues that moral people must make moral distinctions when confronted with these questions.

According to Elshtain, many failed to do so. She cites dozens of pundits, church leaders, Muslim scholars, and Western intelligentsia who were either silent or blamed the U.S. for 9/11. How could this be? She suggests that America’s leading vocal critics make poor moral distinctions because they willfully distort or ignore facts. She reports, for example, the accusation that the U.S. killed tens of thousands of Afghan noncombatants. In contrast, the Los Angeles Times concluded 1,000-2,000 deaths (68). The death of any innocent Afghan civilian is a tragedy, of course, but the initial charge of as many as half-a-million deaths is more than irresponsible. It is an overt manipulation of the facts in a way that evokes loathing for American policy.

Why misdescribe and exaggerate? Elshtain’s prognosis is “self-loathing.” She suggests that Western intellectuals, including many church leaders, are caught in a vicious dynamic of “reveling in Western guilt rather than confronting honestly Western respon­sibility” (117). She asserts that this self­ loathing originates from the deconstruction of moral absolutes to the point where objective standards are abhorrent.

Such collective self-loathing, apparent at our universities and in our press, is destruc­tive. It emasculates individual responsibility to stop evil by eroding the basis for objective morality: “Who am I to judge?” Self-loathing pretends to set a high standard for moral accountability while in reality it hides from responsible action by suggesting that all values and behaviors are equally ethical.

Elshtain argues that human beings have a responsibility to discriminate between right and wrong, as well as between lesser evils. She asks, “Where is the legacy of Tillich and Niebuhr?” These individuals, liberal in their theology but associated with Christian realism, stood against Western indifference in the 1930s and called for American action against the “demonic orders” of Nazism and Communism. In short, pacifism and appeasement are ethically irresponsible because, at times, a forceful resistance to tyranny is less evil than quietism and tacit approval.

Elshtain explains that Just War restricts without eliminating the decision to go to war by requiring just cause and right intention. It also frames how war is to be fought – with proportionality and discrimination.In general, a just war is fought for self-defense or the defense of others and is waged in ways that minimize destruction and civilian casualties.

The author declares that the U.S. response to 9/11 is just- a state has a right to defend itself and to seek justice, but not the right to launch an indiscriminate holy war to eliminate an entire civilization or religion. She points out that at home, the President called for the protection of Muslim individuals, and abroad, the U.S. did not strike other tempting Muslim targets such as Syria and Iran. This moral restraint is a hallmark of Just War doctrine and American policy, but not of fundamentalist Islam.

Elshtain faults both U.S. isolationism and liberal internationalism for failing to protect human dignity in the real world. In contrast, she advocates U.S. action based on the concept of “equal regard.”‘ Equal regard is “the claim of all persons, whatever their political location or condition, to having coercive force deployed on their behalf if they are victims of one of the many horrors attendant upon radical political instability” (168). The U.S. has a responsibility, based on its unmatched power, to promote justice, she says, and unless the U.S. acts, no one else will.

Just War theory has been the dominant theological position in church history, but not everyone will agree with the theory or with Elshtain’s application of it to the present American scenario. Martin Wight, for example, once argued that Just War theory is really an evil compromise with earthly politics. This has been the historic position of Christian pacifists and remains an en­during criticism of Just War: Can Christians morally support war of any kind, even wars of self-defense? A second important criticism of Elshtain’s argument concerns “equal regard.” On what basis should political leaders decide to intervene in one situation and not another (e.g., in Liberia but not Sudan)? How do leaders, moreover, balance their commitment to protect their own citizens, including volunteers in uniform, with a moral responsibility to protect the helpless abroad?

Elshtain is a serious political theorist; nevertheless, her book is written for the concerned citizen and is accessible to the general reader. lt argues for moral responsibility in the search for justice and security, and can help readers evaluate and under­stand the ethical justification for U.S. actions in the wake – Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of political science at Vanguard University. His edited volume, The Christian Realists (University Press of America, 2003), discusses the views of Christian realists on topics such as just war, nuclear deterrence, and pacifism.


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