If Saddam Hussein were actually to deploy his weapons of mass destruction against the United States or its allies, there would be little moral hesitation on the part of American citizens and the leaders of Western Europe. They would throw their whole-hearted support behind a military effort to topple the Bully of Baghdad.

But absent such an outright attack, some Christians argue, America has no warrant to attack Iraq. Indeed, a pre-emptive strike would violate Jesus' teaching in the second great commandment: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

President Bush has our profound sympathy and fervent prayers. A world war in the 21st century could topple civilization. No one with children, spouses, siblings, or parents of military age wants to offer them up to the war gods of commerce, energy sources, or political reputation. Nevertheless, the Christian tradition may not prohibit a pre-emptive strike in all circumstances. If all other requirements of just-war teaching are in place, such a strike could become a duty.

The just-war tradition is not merely a checklist of requirements to meet before undertaking military action: just cause, proportional use of force, no direct attack on civilians, etc. Instead, Christian just-war theology is a positive theory of domestic governance and international relations. Both George Weigel, author of Tranquillitas Ordinis, and the late Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey of Princeton have argued eloquently for this constructive understanding.

Ramsey demonstrated that when Christianity entered the Constantinian era, Augustine and Ambrose applied Jesus' command to love our neighbors to the responsibilities of government. It would be illegitimate (as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount) for an individual Christian to defend himself against attack, they said. But it was a duty of those with public responsibility—magistrates, soldiers, police officers—to use discriminate and proportionate force to defend and protect their fellow human beings. They must also target only combatants, permitting no direct attack on enemy civilians (who are also our neighbors).

Thus a pre-emptive strike against an urgent and imminent threat may be an act of neighbor love. In a recent speech, Weigel argued that "the regime factor" is crucial in this moral analysis, because "weapons of mass destruction are clearly not aggressions-waiting-to-happen when they are possessed by stable, law-abiding states." For example, he said, "No Frenchman goes to bed nervous about Great Britain's nuclear weapons." But in the hands of a rogue state, such as Iran, Iraq, or North Korea, such weapons do keep their neighbors awake. In such hands, "the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction constitutes an aggression—or, at the very least, an aggression-waiting-to-happen." And thus "pre-emptive military action to deny the rogue state that kind of destructive capacity would not contravene the 'defense against aggression' concept of 'just cause.' " The likelihood that Iraq would transfer deadly technologies into the hands of terrorists increases the force of Weigel's "regime factor" argument.

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Is the evidence sufficient? Have we, as yet, seen sufficient evidence that Iraq plans to use weapons of mass destruction in the near future? Because Saddam Hussein so effectively hamstrung United Nations weapons inspectors, we can only guess at what he has been able to do in his severely weakened state. People with access to classified information—European heads of state and Bush administration officials offer varying responses to what they have seen.

Because the Christian tradition teaches that nonviolent options must be exhausted before a country resorts to proportional and discriminate force,it was good for President Bush to make one final full-court press for United Nations inspectors to have complete access to every corner of Iraq. For the sake of building much-needed international support, this was the wise path .

If weapons inspections do go forward, let it be with no illusions. Hussein cares little for the welfare of his own people and little for world opinion. In 1968, Ramsey disparaged the liberals of his day who "face[d] down every fact with the myth that there is a nonviolent solution to every conflict." The truth is that some leaders, Saddam Hussein likely among them, are impervious to nonmilitary efforts.

Many prudential questions need to be asked. Would a regime change in Iraq bring greater freedom to its people? How much has Saddam Hussein's increased friendliness with neighboring Arab nations weakened their willingness to cooperate with a U.S. action against Iraq? If Saddam responds to an American attack by firing missiles at Tel Aviv, will it ignite a Mideast conflagration that cannot be extinguished? Can a military effort be carried out without placing civilians in the direct line of attack? Will America become mired in a long-term propping-up operation for a client regime that would never have sufficient support in its own country? (See our earlier coverage for how evangelical leaders are weighing such questions.)

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If all the prudential and practical questioning points to the conclusion that Iraq or its proxies are about to use weapons of mass destruction—and that military action would not create catastrophe and chaos—then we believe, though with heavy hearts, that a pre-emptive strike could be considered just, and perhaps an act of Christian charity and duty.

Related Elsewhere

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a column by Peter Steinfels titled "Deaf Ears on Iraq". In it he writes, "It is interesting how little has been made of the declarations by so many Christian leaders and ethicists that the Bush Administration's proposed war against Iraq is unjust and immoral."

Recent Christianity Today articles about U.S. Foreign policy and Iraq include:

Christian Leaders Respond to Bush's National Security Strategy | The White House outlines foreign policy in a changing world. (September 25, 2002)
Is Attacking Iraq Moral? | Christian leaders disagree, too. (September 4, 2002)