The Common Good
January-February 1999

Topple a Tyrant, Protect the Innocent

by Jim Wallis | January-February 1999

In November, once again, Iraq responded to a military threat and signaled that it would
allow U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their work. This was heartening news.

In November, once again, Iraq responded to a military threat and signaled that it would allow U.N. weapons inspectors to resume their work. This was heartening news. But we've been down this road before. The possibility remains that sooner or later Saddam Hussein will resume his games of hide-and-seek, leading us to threaten more massive air strikes against Iraq.

We know from past experience that cruise missiles and smart bombs will never destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, nor will they remove Saddam from power. And let's be honest: There is no such thing as a "safe" war or a "clean" military strike. Civilians, often children, usually pay the biggest price for war, and they will again. Isn't it time for a new way of thinking about how to deal with Saddam?

I remember traveling to Baghdad on the eve of the 1991 Gulf war as part of a delegation of American religious leaders who challenged Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait before the bombs began to fall. We had hoped that the Iraqi tyrant might make some concessions to religious leaders that he was unwilling to make to NATO or to George Bush. Make a gesture of peace to religious leaders to prevent untold suffering for your people—that's the way our argument went.

Our delegation met with several of Saddam's cabinet members, who privately told us they wished their leader would make such concessions and forestall the war. But Saddam Hussein would have no part of it. He wanted to call America's bluff. I think he wanted the war. The result was 100,000 Iraqi casualties, many of them civilians.

Another result was the destruction of the country's infrastructure and the consequent devastation of Iraq's civilian population. When unprecedented economic sanctions were added to that, the human toll began to mount. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of civilians have perished over the past seven years of economic sanctions. Malnutrition and water-borne disease have greatly increased infant mortality rates. It is an appalling humanitarian crisis that grinds on, largely invisible to the world outside Iraq's borders.

Last month assistant U.N. secretary-general Denis Halliday, who had been in charge of running the "oil for food" program meant to alleviate the impact of sanctions on civilians, abruptly resigned his post. "Sanctions are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis, and turning a whole generation against the West," he said. "I no longer want to be part of that."

Last spring some members of Congress concerned about the effect of the sanctions sent a letter to President Clinton: "The time has come to re-examine the intended goals and the actual effects of these sanctions," they said. "The first step should be to de-link the economic sanctions, which have been a complete failure, from the military sanctions, which have had a measured success."

If we are led once again to decide to bomb Iraq tonight or tomorrow or next year, the devastation of innocent civilians and their children will undoubtedly increase. But if Saddam is allowed to continue developing weapons of mass destruction, the consequences for other people's children could be no less disastrous. I am convinced he has or soon will have such weapons. He has used them before against the Iranians and the Kurds, and will use them again. Saddam Hussein is a brutal thug, an international aggressor, and a war criminal. It is absolutely justifiable that he be removed from power by the international community. But more bombing won't accomplish that.

FOR THOSE OF US who continue to believe that Saddam is a real threat but don't believe the answer is to starve or bomb Iraqi kids, the present situation poses a terrible dilemma. But if we allow ourselves to think differently, there may be a way out of our current cycle of failed inspections, threats, sanctions, and military actions. Consider this:

  • First, lift the economic sanctions, which have proven devastating for the civilian population of Iraq, and provide additional humanitarian aid to alleviate their suffering and show the Iraqi people that they are not our enemies.
  • Second, maintain and strengthen the arms embargo and restrictions on technology directed at the Iraqi military. We should increase monitoring of the borders and transit points between Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran. And, to show that we're serious, impose diplomatic or economic sanctions against any nation that supplies technology or any military help to Saddam.
  • Third, if U.N. inspections are thwarted once again and Saddam resumes the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, put Saddam Hussein on trial as an international criminal who has committed crimes against humanity. At a meeting in Rome last summer on the creation of an International Criminal Court to prosecute genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the United States and Iraq were two of only seven countries to oppose the idea. Now would be a good time for the United States to drop its opposition and support an international tribunal that could try, convict, and sentence him.
  • Fourth, if necessary, arrest him, put him in jail, and bring him to judgment. How would this be accomplished? Having lifted economic sanctions, flood Iraq with international radio broadcasts telling its people that the world has no fight with them, but is sending an international police force to arrest and remove their dictator. Order the Iraqi army not to protect him but to get out of the way. Then do whatever it takes to track Saddam down and place him in international custody.

I can't say if such a plan would work. But we can reasonably predict that another wave of failed inspections and cruise missile strikes won't topple Saddam. It's morally irresponsible to just keep bombing out of our own frustration. There needs to be a better plan and a clearer sense of the end result.

The Ninth Commandment and Political Leadership

When I was asked to preach on one of the Ten Commandments in Harvard Divinity School's chapel, I knew I would have to choose one of the hot ones of the moment. I left "You shall not commit adultery" to someone who wants to wade into the president's convoluted definitions of sex and decided on number nine: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."

First of all, "bearing false witness" is about more than lying. It has a deeper meaning concerned with how we present ourselves, and whether our lives testify to what is true, real, authentic, and human. This text from Exodus 20:16 suggests that bearing false witness really hurts our neighbor, meaning our kindred human beings and citizens. It damages social relations, destroys the social fabric. Bearing false witness is not just a personal matter, it has social consequences. How painfully and dramatically we have seen the truth of that these many months.

But bearing false witness has become a virtual industry. Spin doctors, advertisers, entertainers, and politicians create illusions and deceptions—what I call believable falsehoods. Bearing false witness has become a way of life in politics and culture. In both private and public arenas, the president has played very fast and easy with truth-telling, and now it is all catching up with him—and with us. A cynical nation longs for believable political leaders.

In September, I took my 2-week-old son to hear Nelson Mandela speak in Harvard Yard. It was a perfect fall day, and a scandal-weary crowd was deeply eager to welcome and embrace a truly moral political leader.

In a society used to false witnesses, the true witness that Mandela represents is deeply refreshing, especially now. When people in a society full of false values see someone exhibiting real virtues, they are drawn to them like a magnet. The spirituality of bearing false witness may control the public discourse but it doesn't satisfy the human soul. That's why we are so drawn to Nelson Mandela. He doesn't represent the fast buck or quick fix, immediate gratification or the easy lie. In Harvard Yard, I saw noisy students turned quiet and calm, yet straining to get a glimpse of this old man.

There are many legends about Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, his home for most of his 27 years in prison. Many have called Robben Island "Mandela University," because he was every day educating those around him to a vision of a new South Africa. The truth of this was shown at his inauguration when several of his former prison guards were given honored seats close to their former prisoner and teacher. It was in prison that Nelson Mandela did his spiritual formation and preparation, there that he found the true character of his own life and witness.

Henry Louis Gates, in his introduction of Mandela at Harvard, proclaimed, "Nelson Mandela didn't walk out of prison into freedom, but as one who had been free the whole time. Mandela has always been free." In his sermon the following Sunday, Peter Gomes, the pastor of Harvard's Memorial Church, said of Mandela, "This is a man who knows who he is. His ideals are intact. He doesn't live with the illusions of his demons. He does not stagger at the uneven motions of the world." Gomes could have added, "He bears true witness."

Nelson Mandela never led by opinion polls, but rather changed people's opinions. He was smart enough not to believe his own press clippings. When Mandela speaks, a genuine humility and humanity comes through. Again, he knows who he is. And that is not a perfect person, nor one without sin and flaws, nor someone who hasn't made mistakes. But Nelson Mandela is someone that the world believes to have integrity and character.

Integrity brings people together and crosses partisan political lines. When the political discussion is an endless argument about who is the worst—Bill Clinton, Ken Starr, Congress, or the media—Nelson Mandela offers us another standard of political leadership to which we can appeal.

Portions of this column appeared on the MSNBC Web site (www.msnbc. com).

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