That was a bumper sticker Sojourners published at the outset of the Iraq war more than a decade ago. American church leaders had not only opposed the war but offered an alternative: "An Alternative to War for Defeating Saddam Hussein, A Religious Initiative." We not only presented it to Colin Powell’s personal council and Tony Blair, but also printed full-page ads in every major British newspaper the day before their Parliamentary debate and vote on the war. The U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Affairs, Clair Short, told me the only real alternative on the table in their Cabinet meetings was “The American church leaders’ plan,” which, she said, was seriously discussed. U.S. and U.K. leaders showed they were drawn to an alternative plan to war that would remove any weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein might have had (which he did not) and even to ultimately remove him from power but without going to war. Pope John Paul II was also opposed to the potential war. Both the Vatican and the American church leaders warned that the potential costs of a war in Iraq could include increasing the scope and threats of international terrorism. ISIS is that sad prophecy come true; the habit of war prevailed.
I have always believed that any alternative to war must still address the very real problems at hand — just in a more effective way. To say that “war is not the answer” is not only a moral statement but also is a serious critique of what doesn’t work; wars often fail to solve the problems and ultimately make them worse. War has to answer to metrics, just as more peaceful alternatives do. The war in Iraq was a complete failure with enormous human and financial costs; ISIS is now one of the consequences.
Yesterday I spoke at a very creative non-partisan conference at the American Enterprise Institute on finding a new approach to end poverty. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw all the press cameras — until I realized they were only there to cover Dick Cheney’s news conference on how America should respond to ISIS in the room next door. Dana Milbank in The Washington Post said:
“It was just like the good old days. Scooter Libby was in the front row. Paul Wolfowitz was in the second. And on the stage was Dick Cheney, beating the drums of war.”
Yet again, Cheney railed against President Obama in a “pre-buttal” to the president’s speech coming that night. Cheney’s strategy, along with others like John McCain and Bill Kristol, calls for serial American invasions and continued occupations in every Middle Eastern country where there is conflict — one after another. Milbank concluded, “In summary: War, war and more war.”
I agree with Pope Francis when he said it is legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor:
"I underscore the verb 'to stop'. I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but 'stop him.' The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the unjust aggressor is legitimate."
This morning, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski agreed, saying the war 10 years ago “was a monumental disaster for which we are still paying.”
President Obama spoke to the “unique brutality” of ISIS, destroying all who are in their path, including children; turning women into sex slaves; perpetrating genocide against religious minorities, including Christians; beheading their enemies,; and turning foreigners into hardened fighters who could bring their terror back to other countries around the world. ISIS clearly revels in its own brutality by eagerly putting it all up on YouTube. I would add religious “blasphemy” to the crimes of ISIS, doing their proud brutal deeds in the name of God — which is an utter offense to all people of faith.
That the world, including the United States, needs to respond decisively to the real threats of ISIS is beyond dispute, but the practical and moral question is — how? Let’s remember the principle that alternatives to war must answer the questions that war promises to answer — but in a better way.
I give President Obama credit for wanting to respond in a “different way” than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His strategy will focus on air strikes but also relies on supporting and training Middle East partners on the ground, which will be necessary to defeat a force already as powerful as ISIS.
But who those partners will be is still a huge question at this point. All our potential allies are on one side or the other of the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, which produces very different visions for the future of the Middle East. Air strikes will always kill innocent civilians, which will fuel the hatred of the outside superpower and be used to recruit more terrorists. And the 1,600 American troops who will soon be in Iraq will have to stand with their “boots” someplace, which will be more likely “on the ground” than in hotel rooms and offices.
To forge solutions to conflict that are an alternative to the endless and failed habits of war demands a much stronger set of other strategies — which the White House has yet to fully understand or embrace. I applaud the president for seeking a multi-national coalition and a more international approach. But that could have begun with the United Nations, where the U.S. will chair the Security Council in just two weeks — rather than taking the American plan to the U.N. for support. Strong U.N. leadership could both recruit more Middle East partners and help take the United States out of the role of the most hated target of Islamic fundamentalism.
Aggressive diplomacy and the willingness to impose crippling economic sanctions are both necessary if we are ever to find alternatives to war. For example, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Emirates have yet to be held accountable — for their enormous inequalities and injustices that have spawned terrorism and for their export of hateful ideologies and funding support for jihadist groups. Stifling money for terrorist groups must extend to any and all nations, businesses, or organizations with any connections to the flow of that lethal money.
Ultimately, we won’t see an end to our “war on terrorism” without dealing with the underlying causes, and not just targeting the consequences of growing terrorism. We must address the world of oil that the West has created, that has literally defined nations, changed geography, and institutionalized the injustices and hypocrisies that breeds the grievances of terrorism. Having justified the unjust structure of that oil world to accommodate our addiction to fossil fuels has produced both a profound threat to our planet and the rise of an angry terrorism that threatens our own children. We must address the fact that 60 percent of the Middle East population is under 30 years of age, and many of them are unemployed, uneducated, aggrieved, and angry young men — too easily drawn to the rhetoric of revenge. To overcome terrorism we must address the grievances that give rise to it and are exploited by hateful extremists.
Again, we must address all of these causes. War and more war will not be able to solve any of it.