SATURDAY READING: Worshiping The Prince Of Peace, or Preemptive War?, by Jimmy Carter

From Our Endangered Values

For months after the terrible terrorist attack in 2001, the American people were inundated almost daily with claims from top government officials that we faced a devastating threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or from large and well-organized cadres of terrorists hiding in our country.  But as was emphasized vigorously by foreign allies and key members of our own intelligence services, there was never any existing danger to the United States from Baghdad.  It was obvious that with the U.N. sanctions, intense weapons inspections, and overwhelming American military superiority, any belligerent move by Saddam Hussein against a neighbor, an overt display of a weapon of mass destruction, or sharing of such technology with terrorist organizations would have been suicidal for Iraq.  Iraq’s weapons programs had already been reduced to impotence before the war was launched to eliminate them.

If Saddam Hussein had actually possessed a large nuclear, biological, or chemical arsenal, then the American invasion would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of causalities, many of them U.S. troops.  There is no evidence that British or American leaders really expected or prepared for this eventuality.  We cannot ignore the development of such weapons in any potential enemy nation or organization, but unilateral military action based on erroneous or deliberately distorted intelligence is not the answer.

Even as a small boy, my ambition was to go to the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, to become a naval officer, and to devote my life’s career to the defense of my country and its principles around the world.  I left the navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps for Annapolis in 1943 and continued this professional service until I resigned my commission in 1953.  Except for General Dwight Eisenhower, I spent more years in active military service than any other president since those who had served as generals in the War Between the States.  Although prepared to give my life if necessary as a submarine officer, I joined other officers and men in a common commitment that America’s obvious strength and steadfastness would be a deterrent to war – that we were the ones who were preserving peace.  I never felt that my dedication to military service was a violation of my faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Later, as president during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, I was faced with the truly awesome responsibility of protecting my nation and its global interests.  Aware that I was playing the key role in an intense competition between freedom and communism in almost every corner of the world, I realized that any misstep could precipitate a nuclear holocaust.  In addition to our long-range bombers and formidable land-based intercontinental missiles, we had developed a fleet of submarines that were constantly deployed at sea and almost impervious to any Soviet preemptive attack.  With multiple warheads on the missiles of a single ship, we could have destroyed every major city in the entire Soviet Union.

One of the facts that I had to accept from my first day in office was that enemy intercontinental nuclear warheads, once launched, would require only twenty-six minutes to reach Washington, New York, and other American targets.  During this brief interval, it was my sole responsibility as commander in chief to decide on our response.

There has never been any effective means of destroying an incoming intercontinental missile, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the nuclear weapon states specifically prevented attempts to develop such a defense.  Under those circumstances, the only options were to launch a counterattack or to accept the horrible damage without response.  My choice, obviously, was to avoid the possibility of this scenario, known by the appropriate acronym “MAD” (mutual assured destruction), by convincing the Soviets of our ability and resolve to respond, and through effective diplomacy to preserve the peace and protect American interests.

I have cherished a plaque that a cabinet member gave me the day I left office, with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:





As I described in the previous chapter, current U.S. policy is threatening the effectiveness of international agreements that have been laboriously negotiated by almost all previous presidents.  Perhaps even more disturbing as a threat to the maintenance of global stability is the unprecedented adoption of a policy of preemptive war.  This recent decision is not only a radical departure form historic policies of the United States but also a violation of international laws that we have pledged to honor.  The United Nations Charter grants to sovereign nations the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense, but only in the event of armed attack.  Ignoring even our closest allies, our president has announced a decision that the United States would act as a law unto ourselves and launch preemptive military attacks, while rejecting the standard of “war as a last resort.”

Daniel Webster (who four years later would be named secretary of state) in 1837 said that there must be “a necessity of self-defense. . . instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”  Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, usually a strong supporter of Republican administrations, acknowledged that a policy of preemptive war is revolutionary and “challenges the international system.”

Branding other nations as comprising an “axis of evil” marked them as potential targets and at the same time closed the usual doors of resolving bilateral differences with them through diplomatic means.  Of more immediate and serious concern, the adoption of this radical policy frittered away the almost unanimous sympathy and pledges of support that came to us after the terrorist attack in 2001, now leaving us relatively alone in our long-term and crucial effort to contain and reduce the threat of terrorism.

It became apparent soon after the presidential election in 2000 that some of our new political leaders were determined to attack Iraq.  With false and distorted claims after 9/11, they misled the U.S. Congress and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein had somehow been responsible for the dastardly attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, and that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and other mass destruction devices and posed a direct threat to the security of America.

Although the deceptiveness of these statements was later revealed, the die was cast, and most of our trusting citizens were supportive of the war.  Exaggerated claims of catastrophe from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction kept the fears alive, with Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly making false statements, such as “Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives in a single day of war.”  National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice backed him with horrifying references to mushroom clouds over the cities of America, and Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make a conglomeration of inaccurate statements to the world.  The administration later claimed that its information was erroneous, but intelligence sources were rewarded, not chastised.

There is little wonder that, at least for a few months, fearful American citizens and members of Congress supported the unnecessary war despite our nation’s historic policy of relying on diplomacy instead of conflict to resolve disputes and despite the commitment of Christians to worship Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace.  For me personally and for most other Americans, this commitment to peace and diplomacy does not imply a blind or total pacifism.  There are times when war is justified, and for many centuries the moral criteria for violence have been carefully delineated.

As it became more and more evident that our leaders were going to attack Iraq, I decided to write an essay for the New York Times that spelled out the minimal requirements for going to war.  I used the same basic arguments with which Christian leaders (such as Saint Augustine around 400 A.D. and Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century) had addressed this question quite clearly for at least sixteen hundred years, all basing their opinions on New Testament scripture.

Not realizing that the top leaders of the United States and Great Britain had already agreed to invade Iraq almost a year earlier, I wrote these words for an op-ed piece on March 3, 2003:

Just War, or an Unjust War?

Profound changes have been taking place in American foreign policy, reversing consistent bi-partisan commitments that for more than two centuries have earned our nation’s greatness.  These have been predicated on basic religious principles, respect for international law, and alliances that resulted in wise decisions and mutual restraint.  Our apparent determination to launch a war against Iraq, without international support, is a violation of these premises.

As a Christian and as a president who was severely provoked by international crises, I became thoroughly familiar with the principles of a just war, and it is clear that a substantially unilateral attack on Iraq does not meet these standards.  This is an almost universal conviction of religious leaders, with the most notable exception of a few spokesmen of the Southern Baptist Convention who are greatly influenced by their commitment to Israel based on eschatological (final days) theology.

The preeminent criterion for a just war is that it can only be waged as a last resort, with all nonviolent options exhausted.  It is obvious that clear alternatives do exist, as previously proposed by our own leaders and approved by the United Nations.  But now, with our own national security not directly threatened and despite the overwhelming opposition of most people and governments in the world, the United States seems determined to carry out military and diplomatic action that is almost unprecedented in the history of civilized nations.  The first stage of our widely publicized war plan is to launch 3,000 bombs and missiles on a relatively defenseless Iraqi population within the first few hours of an invasion, with the purpose of so damaging and demoralizing the people that they will change their obnoxious leader, who will most likely be hidden and safe during the massive bombardment.

Weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  Extensive aerial bombardment, even with precise accuracy, always results in great “collateral damage.”  The American field commander, General Franks, is complaining in advance about many of the military targets being near hospitals, schools, mosques, and private homes.

Violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.  Despite Saddam Hussein’s other serious crimes, American efforts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been unconvincing.

The attackers must have legitimate authority sanctioned by the society they profess to represent.  The unanimous vote of approval in the Security Council to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction can still be honored, but our announced goals are now to achieve regime change and to establish a Pax Americana in the region, perhaps occupying the ethnically divided country for as long as a decade.  For these objectives, we do not have international authority.  Other members of the UN Security Council have so far resisted the enormous economic and political influence that is being exerted from Washington, and we are faced with the possibility of either a failure to get the necessary votes or else a veto from Russia, France, or China.  Although Turkey may still be enticed by enormous financial rewards and partial future control of the Kurds and oil in Northern Iraq, its democratic parliament has at least added its voice to the worldwide expressions of concern.

The peace to be established must be a clear improvement over what exists.  Although there are visions of a panacea of peace and democracy in Iraq, it is quite possible that the aftermath of a successful military invasion will destabilize the region, and that aroused terrorists might detract from the personal safety of our people and the security of our nation.  Also, to defy overwhelming world opposition will threaten a deep and permanent fracture of the United Nations as a viable institution for world peace.

. . . the heartfelt sympathy and friendship offered to us after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even from formerly antagonistic regimes, has been largely dissipated, and increasingly unilateral and domineering policies have brought our country to its lowest level of international distrust and antagonism in memory.  We will surely decline further in stature if we launch a war in clear defiance of UN opposition, but to continue using the presence and threat of our military power to force Iraq’s compliance with all UN resolutions – with war as a final option – will enhance our status as a champion of peace and justice.

2 Comments on SATURDAY READING: Worshiping The Prince Of Peace, or Preemptive War?, by Jimmy Carter

  1. Fascinating post VoS. Thanks. This really rang true…

    “Of more immediate and serious concern, the adoption of this radical policy frittered away the almost unanimous sympathy and pledges of support that came to us after the terrorist attack in 2001, now leaving us relatively alone in our long-term and crucial effort to contain and reduce the threat of terrorism.”

    The whole world was sympathetic for a few days and then the US declare war on everybody and threw away their golden foreign policy opportunity. At the time I couldn’t understand the stupidity of it, but as time passed I saw that stupidity is the name of the game when you want to start a war. Crazy, and still no prosecutions.


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