Just War, Jihad, and Abuse of Tradition

by Alan Geyer

Alan Geyer, professor of political ethics and ecumenics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C., is author of Christianity and the Superpowers: Religion, Politics and History in U.S.-Relations.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis March 4, 1991. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The just war tradition continues to provide helpful set of serious moral issues concerning war and peace The misuse and abuse of that tradition, however, are among the most terrible facts of political, and religious, history.

The preacher at the Religious Broadcasters Convention on January 28, 1991 was not Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, or Pat Robertson, but George Bush. After citing Matthew’s reminder that "the meek shall inherit the earth," the president proceeded, not so meekly, to offer a rousing homily on the righteousness of the Gulf War.

The pivotal sentence contained two clauses that proved contradictory: "The war in the Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war, or a Moslem war -- it is a just war." The first clause followed a well-deserved reproach to Saddam Hussein for trying to portray the conflict as a "religious war." But the second clause was prelude to the invocation of Christian just war principles and specific citations of Saints Ambrose, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. The theological exhortation that followed was a homiletical exercise begging to be challenged by those who oppose the offensive military action that began on January 16.

The piosities continued with the assurance that "America has always been a religious nation -- perhaps never more than now. Just look at the last several weeks. Churches, synagogues, mosques reporting record attendance at services. Why? To pray for peace." Not content, however, with these impressive evidences of a prayerful people, Bush three days later announced at a prayer breakfast (with Billy Graham again at his side) that February 3 would be an official day of prayer for peace. Graham himself fervently added: ‘There comes a time when we must fight for peace."

The day after Bush’s Religious Broadcasters sermon, the Wall Street Journal -- in suspect synchronization -- offered half its editorial page to a two-thousand-word blast from Richard John Neuhaus, now a bugle boy for Bush, who commended the president for his recitation of just war principles. Neuhaus devoted more than half his article to a sarcastic assault on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and "the declining churches that used to be mainline" for failing to agree with George Bush on the morality of the war. In fact, however, Neuhaus avoided any substantive application of just war criteria to the Gulf War itself, obviously preferring to seize one more occasion to beat up on religious leaders who don’t share his brand of neoconservatism.

Politicians often resent the intrusion of churches and religious rhetoric in public policy debates -- at least when that intrusion challenges their policies. In this case, the Chief Politician of the land has implicitly challenged the churches to a public debate over the application of Christian principles to the war he has launched. Here goes.

Few would argue with Bush’s claim that Iraq’s "naked aggression" against Kuwait raises the first principle of a just cause. What is raw cant, however, is the boast that "our cause could not be more noble" or "we seek nothing for ourselves."


The heavy record of U.S. complicity in the causes of this conflict includes the following: a decade of irresponsible energy policies that (as Senator Bob Dole candidly admitted) have made oil a primary motive for war; years of inconstancy and procrastination on the Camp David Accords’ promise of Palestinian self-government, giving Saddam his own most incendiary appeal to a just cause; billions of dollars of U.S. arms dumped all over the Middle East, compounding the region’s rivalries and tensions; a strong tilt toward Iraq in its long war with Iran, with conspicuous neglect of Saddam’s brutalities and oppressions, and with assurances by U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie eight days before the invasion of Kuwait that the U.S. would not take sides in the Iraq-Kuwait dispute; and years of default on the UN imperative for an authentic multinational peacekeeping force.

The principle of just intent (or "right reasons," as Bush invoked it) has been degraded as U.S. actions have escalated from defense of Saudi Arabia and economic sanctions to a massive offensive deployment; to the initiation of history’s most devastating air assault, which has severely disrupted civilian life; to the imprudent demand for unconditional surrender. Postwar reconstruction and stability in the Middle East loom as horrendously costly and difficult responsibilities -- for somebody.

The principle of last resort rigorously requires pursuing all possible nonmilitary alternatives before undertaking military action. The president gave the Religious Broadcasters a highly quantified report on the administration’s efforts between August 2 and January 15 to avoid war: "more than 200 meetings with foreign dignitaries, ten diplomatic missions, over 103,000 miles traveled." But behind those big numbers and Bush’s earlier boast that he had gone "the last mile for peace" is the really big fact that he refused to practice any constructive diplomacy: no arbitration of claims; no discussion of a wider Middle East conference; not even any "face-saving" device for a proud Arab dictator that just might have freed Kuwait and prevented the present carnage (we shall never know). And, curiously, Bush avoided mentioning his own economic sanctions policy, the continuation of which had been persuasively urged by two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, six former secretaries of defense, and forty-seven senators.-

Last resort? Suspicion grows that George Bush and Jim Baker are grievously lacking in diplomatic imagination and/or they made up their minds last August to go to war if Saddam refused to yield to their threats.

Canons of "Success"

The traditional requirement of legitimate authority was met, according to Bush, by "unprecedented United Nations solidarity" through twelve Security Council resolutions. The UN warrant and the extravagant "new world order" rhetoric, however, are diminished by the operational unilateralism of U.S. policy in the Gulf and by years of abuse of the United Nations as a delinquent, a dropout, and a downright obstructionist in most fields of international cooperation. Reagan-Bush rejection of World Court jurisdiction, the Law of the Sea Treaty, and minimal UN norms of economic equity have severely impaired prospects for an authoritative new world order.

In the Carnegie Endowment study Estrangement: America and the World, Richard Ullman observes that "the most significant estrangement" of the U.S. in the past decade has been "from the entire idea of cooperation through a formal structure of international organizations," especially the United Nations -- an estrangement that has "verged on contempt" for the rest of the world. In short, beyond the hard-lobbied UN seal for U.S. military policies in the Gulf, the administration has shown little disposition to strengthen the political and moral authority of the UN on the great constructive tasks of world order, human development, and global survival.

Whether the criterion of reasonable prospect of success can be met depends on the canons of "success." An overwhelming U.S. military victory may create more problems in the Middle Last than it can solve, such as an unlimited U.S. military presence, more intractable Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, intensified Arab anti-Americanism, masse’s of refugees, Syrian and Iranian ascendancy, immense economic burden and unending terrorism. Bush, however, seems not to have focused very much on such matters. Witness his confident benediction to the Religious Broadcasters: ‘‘And we know that, God willing, this is a war we will win. ’’ The just war tradition continues to provide helpful set of serious moral issues concerning war and peace The misuse and abuse of that tradition, however, are among the most terrible facts of political, and religious, history.