If All You Have Is A Hammer

The best line I heard in the period leading up to the war in Iraq was, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It came from my friend Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when we were on a panel together in England about the best response to terrorism.

The premise of the panel was that the threat of terrorism is real, that there are real dangers prowling about in our world, and that the problem of evil is a very serious one. The question we were addressing was what the best response to the real threats of terrorism should be.

Let me say what we have said before in these pages, before this awful war began: The war with Iraq was not a war of last or only resort, or the best way to deal with the real threats offered by Saddam Hussein. There were other alternatives possible—even some non-administration hawks thought that the “six-point plan” offered by some American religious leaders and released by Sojourners in March 2003 should have been tried—and they were simply not seriously considered by the Bush administration. And it is now undeniably true that this administration lied about the facts in Iraq and consistently manipulated intelligence to justify going to war.

Now the stories come every day, of thousands of young Americans dying and being maimed forever, of wives losing husbands and husbands losing wives, of children losing their parents and parents their children—suffering and pain that I believe was unnecessary.

I NOW CALL THIS the American “hammer habit.” If we don’t know how to solve a problem, we just fight. Diplomacy has become a “weak” word to those who run our foreign policy and, in the House debate on Iraq in June, Republicans made numerous references to those who are “afraid to fight.” Right on cue, Fox News Sunday’s Brit Hume accused Democrats of being a party that just doesn’t like to fight. And according to the neo-conservatives masquerading as journalists, such as Hume and William Kristol, continuous fighting is the only foreign policy that makes any sense.

Even more frightening is how much their friends such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have the same strong preference for fighting over talking. If they had their way, we would have fought or would still be fighting several wars by now—all at the same time—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Iran at least, and probably against North Korea too, if they thought we could win the war. They act as if talking and negotiating with potential adversaries is just a waste of time. It is truly astonishing and even shocking how people who simply question the efficacy and morality of the continuing American occupation in Iraq—including longtime military supporters such as Rep. John Murtha—are so quickly and viciously accused of “cutting and running” or not having the “courage” to fight.

This spring, the hostile rhetoric aimed at our adversaries—like that we heard before the war against Iraq— turned toward Iran. I was in Australia during the war of words in March between Washington and Tehran, and I was interviewed on one of Australia’s top political shows. I was asked whether a standoff between the “two fundamentalists” (meaning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. President George Bush), with nuclear weapons in the balance, should concern the world. I said yes.

Again, there was a real threat: The possibility of the Iranian regime obtaining usable nuclear weapons is a very reasonable concern for the region and for the whole world. Yet again, the question becomes what the most appropriate and effective response should be.

Cheney and others quickly raised the prospect of military action—even nuclear attack—against Iran, threatening “meaningful consequences” and saying that “the United States is keeping all options on the table.” (In April, The Washington Post reported that “Pentagon planners are studying how to penetrate eight-foot-deep targets and are contemplating tactical nuclear devices.”) A bipartisan list of retired generals and other military experts pointed out that mere air strikes would be relatively ineffective in removing Iran’s nuclear threat, and that only a full-scale war, invasion, and occupation could guarantee an end to Iran’s nuclear program—a solution almost nobody thinks is realistic or prudent. At the same time, the potential disastrous consequences for the region and the world of a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran were reiterated by both military and foreign policy elites outside the Bush administration.

SINCE THE EARLY spring saber-rattling, a more reasonable course has emerged, backed by the Europeans, the Russians, and others who are concerned about Iran’s nuclear threat but who are also opposed to a military response. And to its credit, the Bush administration is, at least for the moment, supporting this approach, which combines incentives with the threat of sanctions. That is good news indeed.

I hope this is a sincere effort, and not one intended to simply expose the “unreasonableness” of the Iranians and then use that to justify a military response, or even to manipulate a national security issue in hopes of discrediting Democrats and helping Republicans avoid a devastating mid-term election defeat. It would not be the first time such things were done in U.S. politics.

Three groups of Americans are now making strong statements against military action in Iran and lifting up instead the better alternatives of incentives, pressures, and sanctions. They are religious leaders, former military leaders, and former foreign policy and national security officials.

If America can resist its hammer habit with Iran, the world may be spared a nuclearized Iran and the disastrous consequences of another misguided military confrontation. The clear witness of America’s religious community and our wisest military and foreign policy leaders may be essential to prevent those twin disasters.

A new statement from an interfaith group of religious leaders (see “Words, Not War, With Iran,” page 15) lists the strategic, ethical, and theological arguments against a military attack on Iran, and calls for people of faith to speak out against the option of war. “While we agree Iran should not obtain nuclear weapons,” the statement says, “we come together as religious leaders to urge that the U.S. engage in direct negotiations with Iran as an alternative to military action in resolving the crisis.”

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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