Jean Bethke Elshtain is rightly admired for her courage, for her trenchant critiques of peculiarly American pathologies, and for the wisdom of her political judgment. We think, however, that her current attempt morally to justify the Bush presidency’s “war against terrorism” along with its entire National Security Strategy”in Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic, 2003)”is nothing more than an uncritical justification of the ideology of America as empire. It is itself a deeply ideological work rather than one of careful and critical thought.
Elshtain’s argument presents itself as an answer to the question, “What is America’s special burden in light of its extraordinary power?” It’s a good question. American military and economic preeminence has no parallel in modern times, and perhaps none at any time. Since 1989, the U.S. has been the only superpower, and the distance between its military capacity and that of its nearest rivals is now such that it is no longer realistic to think that any nation or coalition of nations can offer it a direct military challenge. This may change if the European Union mirrors its growing economic unity with an equivalent political unity; but that, if it happens at all, is a generation or two away, and in the meantime Elshtain’s question remains a pressing one.
Elshtain’s answer to the question is straightforward enough. First, she says, America ought to defend itself against attack by interdicting and punishing aggressors, and by using lethal force to do so where necessary. Second, when America perceives itself threatened but not (yet) attacked, it should do whatever is necessary to prevent such threat from turning into attack, up to and including the use of lethal preemptive force. Third, when America judges that a state has failed or is failing, it should intervene by practicing a new imperialism of the sort recommended by Michael Ignatieff and Sebastian Mallaby. This new imperialism involves a “form of nation-building that is primarily concerned with a new version of deterrence.”
Put more bluntly: when America sees states organized on principles it doesn’t like (this is what Elshtain means by “failed states”) it should remake them by force (if necessary) into states organized on principles it does like. These principles will be those of rights-based democracies with free economies”that is, countries like the United States. This new imperialism means that the more a state diverges from American principles, the more pressing will be America’s duty to remake it in its own image. This is a heavy burden to bear, for a moment’s thought shows that a high proportion of the world’s states diverge deeply and systematically from American principles. If Elshtain’s program were followed, perhaps thirty or so invasions and nation-buildings on the Iraqi model would be immediately required.
So much for Elshtain’s position. Kipling thought the white man’s burden heavy; on Elshtain’s view America’s similar burden is immeasurably heavier. Elshtain advocates calling things by their right names and thinking with precision and care. She says that “there is no substitute for the facts. If we get our descriptions of events wrong, our analyses and our ethics will be wrong too.” This suggests that description is one thing and moral evaluation another ” a classic instance of distinguishing between fact and value. But then she also says that moral evaluation is embedded in the very act of description itself, noting that “any description of an evil act as good is false to the facts.” She wants to have her cake and eat it too. She does this, we think, because on the one hand she needs to convince her readers that her descriptions of events are morally pellucid: that they are obvious, unobjectionable, and to be disagreed with only by the confused or the fanatical. But on the other hand, she needs to give her descriptions moral weight. Hence the soft-shoe shuffle between accurate description and moral evaluation. But this is not careful thought. It is confusion.
What Elshtain in fact offers”as she must”is a description of the world already committed to a set of moral values and not separable from those values. Her values are almost entirely in accord with those of the Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy. The truth of these values is not obvious; neither is the accuracy of the descriptions that accompany them. Elshtain’s claims to the contrary are the principal evidence that her work is ideology masquerading as dispassionate analysis. The masquerade is one problem, and the ideology another. We’ll focus on what’s wrong with the ideology.
First, Elshtain’s ideology reproduces that of its opponents. Her argument is a foil to that of its demonic other, the terrorist, the Islamist, the Islamic fundamentalist, of whom Osama bin Laden serves as the paradigm and archetype. Her Americanism glows throughout as the dangerously radiant mirror image of bin Laden’s “ideological fanaticism” (her words, often used). As Elshtain sees it, bin Laden and America can see each other only as threats to be removed: if, from bin Laden’s point of view, America endures, he and his like will cease to be; and if, from Elshtain’s Americanist viewpoint, fundamentalist Islam endures, she and her like will cease to be. “Islamist fanatics,” she says, “tell themselves that the infidel is a lower order of being and a menace, and they are doing a good deed by eliminating a threat to the purity of their faith.” And it is clear that some of them do. But Elshtain’s response is exactly symmetrical: “One fights back,” she says, “against those who have declared you a mortal enemy unfit to share our beautiful earth””which could be a sentence lifted from an al-Qaeda training manual. Elshtain’s advocacy of the demonic other’s elimination via a new imperialism is no more nuanced and just as fevered as the demonic other’s advocacy of her elimination. This is not careful thought and accurate description.
What would lift Elshtain’s argument to a higher level? Thoughtful attention to the grammar of its own moral assumptions, and to their potential difficulties. Since Elshtain does not provide this, we’ll sketch it for her. Her most fundamental assumption is that rights-based, market-ordered democracy (“America” for short) is superior to every other form of political order. Elshtain’s inability to think about this assumption is evident in at least two ways. First, there is her repeated tendency to describe the actual America in such a way as to minimize its failings and to maximize those of its principal rivals, especially those states ordered around Islamic law. Second, there is her repeated attribution of those American failings she does acknowledge to the actual America rather than to the ideal America, a move she does not make in her characterization of the failings of Islamic states, whose failings are represented as intrinsic to them.
In this book (as opposed to much of her other work, which stands in dramatic contrast), Elshtain describes America in the most favorable light possible. It promotes equality and justice for women; it raises the living standards of its entire population; it is a beacon of hope for the poor and oppressed of the world; and it seeks to promote democracy and freedom throughout the world. When she does mention flaws”difficulties about race, excessive economic inequality, remaining inequities in the treatment given to women”she depicts them as incidental, flaws that will be overcome with time as the ideal America, the America of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, realizes itself more and more fully. The trajectory is upward; the narrative is one of progress. Like the New Jerusalem, Elshtain’s ideal America is without spot or blemish, and the imperfections found on the former’s face will be smoothed away with time.
Such a depiction is either mendacious or culpably blind. A fuller picture would show that America has come to interpret its own Constitution in such a way as to make it impossible to limit by law the slaughter of more than a million unborn babies each year; it would not shrink from entertaining the possibility that the American experiment with constitutional separation of church and state has been deeply destructive to the serious practice of Christianity, as of every other religion; it would note that America now imprisons more than two million of its citizens, a significantly higher proportion than that of all but a few nations; it would discuss the fact that more people die by violence each year in every large American city than in many war zones; and it would give serious thought to the possibility that the now (and perhaps always) inextricable link between democracy and the market makes it exceedingly difficult for any American to think of himself as anything other than most fundamentally a consumer. The American polity, it is at least arguable, is one in which the value of individual choice has become paramount: (almost) anything may be chosen, (almost) anything advocated, and (almost) anything bought and sold.
The significance of these features of America can certainly be debated. But Elshtain offers no argument. These features of America are simply absent from her depiction of the state into whose image all other states should ideally be made. This absence is a deep intellectual and moral failing and clear evidence that what Elshtain offers is cheerleading decked out as analysis. If she really wants to argue that America should export itself by force, she should pay close and careful attention to what is being exported. She does not. And because she does not, her answer to the question about the burden of American power cannot be taken seriously. It remains on the same intellectual level as the polemic of her Islamist mirror images.
The more moderate among critics of America (Muslim and otherwise) show a proper hesitation about accepting the whole American package. And yet the whole package”the benefits extolled by Elshtain and the miseries catalogued above”is what would be exported were the new imperialism given free rein. How can this reasonably be ignored?
When it comes to Elshtain’s attempt to link American imperialism to the Christian just war tradition the results are, in our view, no less disappointing. Indeed, she shows no evidence of having thought about the theological assumptions and implications of what she argues.
Consider first her attempt to use just war criteria to justify Bush’s “war on terrorism.” She does not ask herself whether the description “war on terrorism” makes sense within the tradition to which she appeals. She rightly argues that those who kill themselves in attacks on civilians are not martyrs but murderers, but she fails to draw the obvious conclusion that you do not go to “war” against murderers. Instead, you try to arrest them. It’s at least arguable (Paul Ramsey so argued) that the just war criteria are best understood historically as attempts to rationalize and constrain the police power of the state. Elshtain seems to believe that the only thing these criteria are good for is thinking about whether to send the gunboats in.
We also find dubious her attempts to tell Christians how they should think about American power. She assumes (at least there is no evidence to the contrary in her book) that there is little or no distinction between the way Christians and Americans should think about the “war on terrorism.” In her book’s introduction she observes that the war against German fascism and Japanese militarism put America into the world to stay. Accordingly we, meaning the American “we,” cannot let terrorists make “us” withdraw from our responsibility to remake the world in our own image. This is a claim implicitly extended to American Christians, apparently just because they are Americans.
It is not a claim that we accept, any more than we accept the assertion that what’s wrong with Islam is that it doesn’t accept the separation between church and state”itself an odd criticism to the extent that many of Elshtain’s conservative allies, and she herself elsewhere, worry rightly that the phrase “separation of church and state” fails to do justice to the complex relation between church and state contained in First Amendment jurisprudence. Equally problematic is her claim that Christianity has never been a law-based religion committed to recommending to all societies a comprehensive good. This, we suspect, would be surprising news to one of Elshtain’s heroes, Pope John Paul II.
Elshtain also appears to assume that just war thinking is compatible with a realist foreign policy. She celebrates Reinhold Niebuhr’s “realism,” which justified American Christianity’s willingness to go to war on the grounds that it was a lesser evil than refusing to fight. But she owes us an account of why she does not think, as Niebuhr himself did, that, in order to contemplate going to war, Christians had to become somewhat less than true Christians”that is, followers of Jesus Christ. She criticizes all utopian ambitions for politics that suggest Christians enter politics primarily to restrain evil; but this means that she should say why she abandons John Paul II’s insistence that politics is always about the common good. With Niebuhr, she thinks pacifism justified as long as pacifists withdraw from the world, but she does not consider that nonviolence may be one of the ways Christians have been given to resist evil.
The assumption underlying all of this is that good Christians simply accept the American solution to the church-state question and to the complexities of how best to advocate Christian teaching in a pluralist society. But as Elshtain knows perfectly well, not all Christians do (these two don’t, for different reasons and in different ways), and her elision of the boundary between the category “Christian” and the category “American” is another feature of the book’s grammar never explicitly addressed or shown for what it is. At times she makes distinctions that suggest the beginnings of thought about it: she is, for instance, very critical of nongovernmental organizations for what she calls their utopian border crossings, but she exempts from these criticisms “religious institutions and organizations,” who have been “border crossers for centuries.” But why is such an exemption justified? Perhaps because the refusal of the Church to be determined by national boundaries and national identities is among its defining characteristics”but further to explore this would require of Elshtain serious thought about what Christian thought and Christian institutions have to contribute to the world’s present difficulties, and that is something she is not prepared to provide.
In the end, the use of Christian language and ideas in this book is nothing more than window-dressing for a passion to impose America upon the world. It is not a book whose argument should convince Christians; it is not a book whose argument should convince anyone thoughtful; it is a book”and here, out of respect for its author, we do not mince words”informed by jingoistic dreams of empire. Clarity about Elshtain’s question, the question of the burden of American power, can only be had if clarity is gained about America. That clarity has both a theological and an empirical aspect. Neither is present in this book.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.
Paul Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
As readers of my work are well aware, I have challenged positivist epistemologies lodged in a fact/value dichotomy for over a quarter century. Just War Against Terror is faithful to my commitment to a hermeneutic strategy in which our descriptions “secrete” (philosopher Charles Taylor’s term) moral evaluations. One of my examples is to contrast those who saw in the slaughter of innocents on September 11, 2001 a good day’s work and even chortled about it”in which case moral evaluation is blunted”and those, like Pope John Paul II, who described what happened on that awful day as an “unspeakable horror,” a description that exudes a potent moral evaluation. (September 11, it should be noted, provided the historical, political, and rhetorical occasion for the writing of my book, yet in the Hauerwas/Griffiths critique the events of that day are notable by their absence, save for the risible suggestion that we should have sent out a posse to arrest Osama bin Laden for murder.) Hauerwas and Griffiths offer no evidence that I both assume and deny a distinction between facts and values. I leave it to fair-minded readers to decide for themselves.
On the more substantive issue of America and its sins, the authors know perfectly well that I have for years criticized the weaknesses of American society. But my critiques of American society and culture have always turned on a critical comparison of American practices and American principles. I have criticized our practices, from the founding sin of slavery, through the civic incapacitation of women, de jure segregation, and all the rest, in light of those principles. In my current book, I remind readers that our great dissidents have been able to use our founding principles to defeat practices that violated those principles. I conclude that “in a decent polity, our prejudices should be challenged rather than reinforced by our principles.”
In responsibly judging American society one is obliged to note that it is premised on the moral equality of all persons; the separation of church and state; a civic law applying to all (meaning, among other things, that not all sins are crimes); the emancipation of women based on the moral equality articulated in the Declaration of Independence; and, since Brown v. Board of Education and a slew of subsequent laws and decisions, the promise of racial justice. All of this is devoutly to be preferred by any reasonably decent human being to the alternative of an oppressive, even totalitarian theocracy.
What is disturbing and destructive about Hauerwas and Griffiths’ moral equation of bin Ladenism with Americanism is that it pulls the rug out from under current efforts by thousands of devout Muslims to achieve in their own societies the minimal basic freedoms that are our civic inheritance. These Muslims deserve our support rather than patronizing put-downs for desiring a rights-based society. Do Hauerwas and Griffiths really mean to deny that the men and women in the Muslim-majority Arab world would be better off if their societies became more respectful of fundamental human rights? To presume that “other societies” are not suited to a rights-based polity is to insist, in effect, that their human dignity doesn’t count for as much as our own. It is also to deny the line of logic Pope John Paul II has laid down in his articulation of the connection between the dignity of the person and basic human rights.
Hauerwas and Griffiths are determined to distort what I say and to deny, in effect, the right of a country to defend itself against attack. They quote a sentence from me that they claim “could be a sentence from an al-Qaeda training manual.” An al-Qaeda training manual talking about the need to “share our beautiful earth” with others? That seems highly improbable. I argue that we must resist any ideology that declares whole categories of persons targets for elimination”whether kulaks, or Jews, or Muslims, or, yes, Americans. To claim a right of self-defense against those who would destroy you is quite different from calling for the outright murder of all Americans anywhere you can find them, as does Osama bin-Laden in his several fatwas. I challenge Hauerwas and Griffiths to produce any shred of evidence that I believe all persons”all noncombatants”of any group should be destroyed. Over and over again, I indicate that against an unrestrained ideology of terror, one must practice restraint. Just war restraint and indiscriminate slaughter belong to different moral and political universes. The sleight of hand Hauerwas and Griffiths deploy to collapse my argument into bin Laden’s does mimic something: the tried and true techniques of propagandists everywhere.
Hauerwas and Griffiths insist that I believe America “ought to defend itself against attack by interdicting and punishing aggressors” whenever the country deems it necessary. They associate my argument with blanket approval of preemption. They claim that I believe America can arbitrarily assess when a state has failed and move to install an American-style democracy whenever it feels like it”that, in other words, we can and should remake the world in our image. They associate my argument with the old “white man’s burden.” All of these charges are false and calumnious. The calumny is to link my discussion to imperialist racism. The falsehood derives from the fact that Hauerwas and Griffiths ignore the principle under which I articulate the requirements of “love of neighbor,” which is founded on equal moral regard for all persons. To the authors, what is at stake isn’t human lives and stopping murder but rather the imposition of a market-model democracy on the world”despite the fact that so much of the world diverges “deeply and systematically from American principles.”
No doubt much of the world does diverge from those principles. Perhaps my critics have in mind recent developments in Liberia, where drugged and drunk child “soldiers” terrorized the population. Liberia under Charles Taylor diverged quite dramatically and systematically from respect for, and protection of, fundamental human rights. Perhaps that is why the citizens of Monrovia longed for America to intervene. Such interventions”to stop the violence”are precisely what I advocate and Hauerwas and Griffiths well know it.
Nowhere do I call for the importation of American culture wholesale”as if that could be done. Nowhere do Hauerwas and Griffiths note that I mention forceful interdiction in the context of stopping violence. Nowhere do they indicate that my discussion falls under the heading “Defending Human Dignity,” animated by a principle of “equal moral regard” for all persons. Nowhere do they acknowledge that my primary concern is to stop the slaughter of innocents. Nowhere do they cite my words: “The most exigent matter before the international community is bringing about the minimal civic peace in all polities necessary to attain and secure fundamental human goods, beginning with basic justice.” Nowhere do they tell the reader that my discussion of failed states emerges in tandem with my treatment of violence and genocide. I make it clear that the United States cannot simply declare a state “failed” and move in. There are recognizable criteria for failed states, the most obvious being random, arbitrary, brutal violence.
Hauerwas and Griffiths are remarkably unconcerned with the tens of thousands of lives being lost to violence”to ethnic cleansing, to the brutality of dictatorial regimes, to actual genocide as in Rwanda when the world stood by and did nothing”and America’s singular capacity, and thus unique responsibility, to stop the slaughter. Only if the violence is stopped can the people of those nations begin to build decent civil societies.
Hauerwas and Griffiths devote the bulk of their prosecutorial case to what, in their view, would lift my argument above the level of an al-Qaeda training manual. Since, they note, I do not provide any articulation of “the grammar” of my own “moral assumptions,” they feel called upon to do it for me. Thanks very much, gentlemen, but I think I’m capable of mounting arguments on my own. Here are a few additional ones.
They claim that I maximize the failings of states governed by strict Islamic law. Here the best testimonies are from those who have suffered under such repressive regimes and who have risked their lives to oppose them. Such testimony exists in abundance for any fair-minded reader to take up.
They claim I see America as the New Jerusalem “without spot or blemish.” My argument is, rather, that the American story is one in which dissidents”see Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King”use principles embedded in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s great speeches, among others, to fight against unjust practices. You cannot follow such a strategy in a repressive theocracy because the principles are the problem, not the solution.
They say I present “cheerleading decked out as analysis.” It is preposterous for Hauerwas/Griffiths to ascribe to me unconcern about a range of cultural issues I have over the years addressed in my work. I refer the reader to my discussion of abortion and economic inequity in Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities (2000). Those criticisms remain intact. You cannot do everything in a single book. Hauerwas/Griffiths know that. This is a book about war and what is at stake in fighting Islamism. That is its appropriate focus.
Given that all Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, accept separation of church and state and”here see John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus ”the insistence that democratic civil society is the political form that best speaks to the dignity of the human person, Hauerwas and Griffiths’ position is clearly extreme. Had I been writing a book about separation of church and state, I would have gone into its complexities. Here I will simply note that separation of church and state does not entail the withdrawal of religion from civil society, pace the view of extreme separationists.
There seems to be real confusion involved in Hauerwas and Griffiths’ claim that if I criticize “all utopian ambitions for politics that suggest Christians enter politics primarily to restrain evil,” I should then explain why I abandon John Paul II’s insistence “that politics is always about the common good.” The utopian ambitions for politics I criticize are those that go far beyond either restraining evil or searching for the common good, and instead aim to bring the Eschaton within reach in earthly time. In any case, why do Hauerwas and Griffiths drive a wedge between restraining evil and promoting the common good? Surely these can and should go together.
Finally, Hauerwas and Griffiths insist that I collapse Americanism and Christianity. This is patently false. In my discussion of why such noted civic republicans as Jean-Jacques Rousseau rated Christianity an inferior civic religion, I point out that they condemn Christianity primarily for what I take to be one of its great virtues”namely, that it does put people at odds with themselves. Rousseau, interestingly, endorses the system of Muhammad, as he calls it, because it fuses religious and political power. Rousseau doesn’t want us to be in conflict with ourselves. He wants all forms of power and authority fused into one overarching structure. By contrast, I insist that all Christians must constantly sort out what citizenship requires or demands and what their profession of faith requires or demands. To assume that there will always be a neat fit between them is to assume far too much. No Christian should desire a fusion of religious and political power, for such is an invitation to idolatry.
What is stunning by its omission in the Hauerwas/Griffiths’ diatribe is any sustained discussion of either jus ad bellum or jus in bello criteria. My book revolves around the just war tradition and the loss”a devastating one, I believe”to the American Christian community of that tradition, as the many statements issued by denominations about the war against terrorism make clear. It is particularly painful to be accused of using Christianity in order to impose “America upon the world,” and for respected colleagues to go so far as to warn Christians, indeed, “anyone thoughtful,” away from my writing. I, by contrast, believe Christians can take it”can make up their minds for themselves and don’t need to be told what they should or should not take seriously. Were I indeed guilty as charged, it strikes me as improbable that Francis Cardinal George of Chicago would endorse my book, the text of which he read in full, with these words: “Jean Bethke Elshtain shows clearly and persuasively how ‘just war’ teaching meets both the imperative of peace and the responsibility a government has to defend its people. Just War Against Terror challenges Christian theologians and preachers to apply theological discernment more rigorously and realistically when they reflect on terrorism, and at the same time faults the academy’s reaction to counter-terrorism as evasive and simplistic. Speaking vividly and directly to the moral decisions America is making, Elshtain provides a service to us.”
On another recent occasion, Cardinal George noted in reference to America’s radical critics that you “cannot effectively criticize what you loathe.” Perhaps this loathing explains the sour tone of the Hauerwas and Griffiths collaboration. Looking out at a world filled with violence and oppression, they have nothing to offer their fellow citizens but denunciations of their own society. The crude message of this screed suggests to Americans that they are essentially deluded by their leaders, even as it simplistically indicates to the Christians among them that in finding something worth defending in their society they are thereby being untrue to the demands of their faith.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.