by Savitri Hensman

A US-led coalition appears ready to begin a war against Iraq. Military preparations are practically complete, though diplomatic manoeuvres continue, with pressure brought to bear and financial incentives offered to countries which might prove useful in the attack. According to US President George W Bush, 'time is running out'1. He said in early March that he was at peace with his plans for a potential war with Iraq, and was sustained by the Bible and the prayers of the public, and pledged that 'We're going to win this war and have everlasting peace'.2 The zeal with which he and some of his close associates speak of war, their confidence that God is on their side, their fierce hostility to anyone who fails to support them and the widespread perception that this is an attack by a mainly Christian West on a mainly Muslim Arab country, against the background of a history of conflict in the Middle East, have led some people to view this as a twenty-first crusade. In what ways, if any, might this be true?

Who supports the war?

This is clearly not a straightforward conflict between two religious and cultural communities, each with its own military champions (though indeed wars in ancient and mediaeval as well as modern times can be more complex than they at first appear). There is widespread dislike of Saddam Hussein's regime among Muslims as well as people of other religions worldwide because of its cruelty towards Iraqis and attacks on neighbours. In addition, Islamic extremists regard it as too secular. There are widespread feelings of solidarity among Muslims towards the Iraqi people - mostly fellow-Muslims - who might suffer even more if there is an invasion, and towards ordinary people throughout the Middle East - also mainly Muslims - whose powerlessness and expendability might be highlighted by an attack. But the Iraqi state as such is not an obvious defender of any faith, except perhaps in itself. Nor would an attack on Iraq be generally regarded by the churches as advancing the cause of their faith. Indeed the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, leadership of the United Methodist Church to which Bush himself belongs and numerous other Christian leaders at an international, national and local level have made their disagreement plain.3 Many believe that an attack on Iraq would not fit in with the 'just war' principle which should be applied whenever war, with all the misery and destruction which it brings, is being considered, while some who take the gospels literally do not believe that killing can ever be justified.

Supporters as well as opponents of war against Iraq have diverse backgrounds and motives4. Bush has sought not to alienate potential backers by open hostility to Islam - for instance when evangelist Franklin Graham, who spoke at Bush's inauguration, later denounced Islam as 'wicked, violent and not of the same God', Bush distanced himself from such views.5

At the same time, he is a leader of the Christian right, which helped to bring him to power6 and which is now intensely anti-Islamic. In January 2003 the Christian Coalition publicised the results of an on-line survey in which less than 4% of respondents regarded Islam as a divine religion, 88% believed that Islam was not a religion of peace and less than 1% thought that Christians in Islamic countries had the same freedom as Muslims in America7. Some in the administration appear to share this perspective: Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has been associated with the far right8, told a columnist that 'Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you', though it was later claimed that this did not accurately reflect Ashcroft's views9.

Dispensationalism is a belief which began in the nineteenth century and is now common within the Christian right10. Many hope for 'the rapture', when they believe true Christians will be snatched into the heavens, followed by a time of tribulation when the Antichrist will inflict turmoil, until Christ returns to rule on earth.11 To them, the crisis in the Middle East forewarns of the Apocalypse; it is important that Jews should return to Israel and take control over the Temple Mount, after which many will be converted to Christianity and others destroyed12. 36% of those surveyed in a Time/CNN poll in the USA in mid-2002 said that they supported Israel because of prophecies in the Bible which state the Jews must control Israel before Christ can return and 59% believe that the narrative in the Book of Revelation is going to come true.13 House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is believed to be a dispensationalist14. Though many even on the Christian right strongly disagree with this movement (and some would regard an attack on Iraq as immoral), it is well-organised and influential within the Republican Party, and has to be taken into account as a political force.

The Lord's anointed?

The First Amendment of the US Constitution specifies that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof', and in in 1802 the President, Thomas Jefferson, declared that the American people had through the First Amendment erected a 'wall of separation between church and state'. This was held to benefit both society and religion; James Madison, who played a key part in drawing up the Constitution, wrote that the 'number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state'15. There is widespread concern that this separation has been eroded by the administration of George W Bush.

Bush is a churchgoing Methodist who converted to Christianity after listening to evangelist Billy Graham. He later wrote that 'It was the beginning of a new walk where I would recommit my life to Jesus Christ'16. When asked in an interview about who or what influenced him to seek the presidency, he replied that 'Rev Graham planted the seed and inspired me to renew my faith. Then, a sermon by Rev Mark Craig changed my life. At a prayer service prior to my second inauguration as governor, Rev Craig preached Exodus 3:11, in which Moses resists God's call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Craig's point was that people can always find excuses, but America needs people who are willing to lead. The sermon spoke directly to my heart and life.'17 John Ashcroft shares this sense of 'calling'. A former Missouri attorney general, senator and governor and son of a pastor, he wrote that he was anointed with oil each time he was inaugurated as governor, like the Jewish kings David and Saul who were 'anointed as they undertook their administrative duties'. On the eve of his becoming senator, he was with family and friends; no special oil was to hand but there was a bottle of Crisco oil in the kitchen, with which he was anointed. He has experienced defeat as well as success when standing for office, but 'My theory about elections is mirrored in what I hold about all of life: for every crucifixion a resurrection is waiting to follow'18.

Ashcroft, a Pentecostalist who does not drink, smoke or dance, has stated that 'It's against my religion to impose my religion on other people' but also 'I think that all we should legislate is morality' (as opposed to spirituality, which should not be legislated). Despite his opposition to gambling he allowed a lottery to be set up in Missouri when voters approved this, but vetoed a bill to allow liquor to be sold on Sundays and used to question people nominated to be judges on whether they were faithful to their wives. When he became Attorney General, his aides draped the exposed breasts of statues in the Justice Department and he held voluntary office prayer meetings before work.19 George W Bush often begins Cabinet meetings with prayer, and former speechwriter David Frum reported that at the White House 'attendance at Bible study was, if not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either'.20 National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who describes herself as a 'devoted Presbyterian', has said that 'In many ways, it's a wonderful White House to be in because there are a lot of people who are of faith, starting with the president. When you are in a community of faithful, it makes a very big difference not only in how people treat each other but in how they treat the task at hand.'21

The approach of the new millennium and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 perhaps led to an increased interest in spirituality and acceptance of the use of religious imagery in secular society. It has been noted that the President has increasingly been using religious language in his speeches. In the State of the Union address in January 2003, he stated that the nation puts its confidence in the loving God 'behind all of life, and all of history' and that 'we go forward with confidence, because this call of history has come to the right country. May He guide us now.' 22 However the notion that the USA has a special mission is by no means new. Of what does this consist?

In a speech to the World Affairs Council National Conference in January 2002, Bush explained that the nations of the Western hemisphere are 'committed to building a prosperous and free and democratic hemisphere. Nothing will distract us, nothing will deter us, in completing this great work. We meet, however, at a time when there are some who question the path to prosperity and stability. Some wonder whether free market reforms are too painful to continue. Some question the fairness of free and open trade, while holding out the false comfort of protectionism. And there is even greater danger - that some might come to doubt democracy itself. Our answer to these questions and doubts must be clear and it must be consistent: The hopes of all our peoples, everybody who lives in this hemisphere, no matter where they live - lie in greater freedom. Free markets and open trade are the best weapons against poverty, disease and tyranny. And democracy is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity. The future of this hemisphere depends on the strength of three commitments: democracy, security and market-based development. These commitments are inseparable, and none will be achieved by half-measures... Citizens and businesses must know that the town hall - the alcaldia - is free from bribery, and cronyism and all forms of corruption... Markets and trade, development and democracy, rely on healthy and educated people. Therefore we are also working to bring better health care and greater literacy to the nations of our hemisphere... We share a vision - a partnership of strong and equal and prosperous countries, living and trading in freedom.'23

It might appear that Bush's vision included free trade, democracy and freedom from corruption for all nations. But less than two months after the speech, there was uproar in the USA's close ally Britain over the President's announcement of 30% import tariffs on most steel products, in violation of World Trade Organisation agreements.24 In fact, it is not uncommon for industrialised countries to pursue protectionism at home, often at the expense of developing countries, while insisting on open access to markets abroad.25 The principle of free markets and open trade was clearly intended to be applied selectively.

The following month, there was embarrassment when it emerged that senior US government officials linked with the 'dirty wars' in the 1980s, when death squads in Latin America were backed by the Reagan government, had encouraged a coup against Venezuela's elected president, who was soon restored to power. These included Elliot Abrams, convicted for misleading Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal and now a senior director at the National Security Council, and Otto Reich26, who ran a propaganda office which was investigated by the Comptroller General in 1987 and found to have engaged in illegal activities but who was appointed by Bush amidst much controversy.27 Two of the Venezuelan generals who backed the coup had been trained at the US Army's School of the Americas, as were at least eleven Latin American dictators.28 Since the 1940s, this school had offered courses on such topics as interrogation techniques and counterinsurgency to trainees who had gone on to inflict extreme violence. Some of its graduates' most spectacular exploits, including in El Salvador the massacre of over nine hundred villagers in El Mazote, the execution of six Jesuit priests, the assassination of an archbishop29 celebrating mass and the abduction, rape and murder of three US nuns and a layworker working amongst the poor.30 In 2000 the now notorious School was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and supposedly required to promote respect for human rights and civilian government - but in May 2002 Otto Reich was named to the Board of Visitors, emphasising continuity with its bloody past31, though the furore which followed led him to be replaced by a deputy32. During the Cold War, US security forces had often interfered with basic democratic and human rights overseas in the battle against 'communism' (often very loosely defined)33, and the actions of George W Bush's administration, too, indicated that such rights could be overridden.

Indeed, his commitment to democracy and political freedom within the USA itself (as these are usually defined) has been less than wholehearted. He became president only because, in the state where his brother was governor, thousands of people entitled to vote, mainly from African-American, Hispanic and poor white communities - predominantly Democratic Party supporters - were prevented, mainly by the removal of their names from election registers34, though some faced police checkpoints near polling booths35. The Patriot Act 2001, passed shortly after the 11 September attacks, was criticised by civil liberties campaigners: broad new powers granted to the US government included use of wiretaps, computer eavesdropping and searches. John Ashcroft would now like to expand these powers in a Domestic Security Enhancement Act which would reduce judicial checks on surveillance, authorise secret arrests, build a DNA database of suspected terrorists and allow US citizens who belong to or help terrorist groups to be deported.36 Terrorism is so loosely defined at present that it may include non-violent protests37.

When Bush was setting out his vision at the World Affairs Council National Conference, information was continuing to emerge about the close links between his administration and the disgraced energy multinational Enron, headed by his friend Kenneth Lay. The company and its executives had poured funds into his campaign38 and appeared to have played a key part in determining US energy policy, meeting Vice President Dick Cheney (a former oil company executive himself) six times. In addition Cheney arranged to meet the leader of India's opposition to help Enron collect a debt.39 A power company in which Enron held an 80% share had secured a deal to supply electricity in the Indian state of Maharashtra, but the project met with strong opposition: there were concerns about excessive prices, corruption, lack of consultation, people losing their homes and environmental damage. The state authorities had allowed the company to hire police, and peaceful protestors had been harassed, beaten and imprisoned.40 But in the end the deal had fallen through and, though successive US governments had failed to take action over the human rights abuses,41 the Vice President and other officials stepped in on the company's behalf.42

It is perhaps now taken for granted that major corporate supporters will influence government policy even on critical public health issues. The US government is blocking access to cheap medicines for African countries devastated by AIDS, benefiting a pharmaceutical industry which donated $63 million to the Republican Party.43 Likewise tobacco companies contributed sizeable sums to the Bush campaign44. When he won, many of the key officials he appointed had close links to the industry45, and the administration has sought to promote its interests in the USA and worldwide, including using strong-arm tactics to sabotage a planned international treaty which would bring in tough controls on tobacco, which kills an estimated 1,200 Americans a day and 4 million people in the world annually.46 And the US government, which has close oil industry connections,47 in the interests of oil and coal companies sabotaged the Kyoto protocol on emission of greenhouse gases,48 despite grave international concerns about global warming.

Indeed the methods being used by the US government to try to win a United Nations Security Council vote on Iraq, including the surveillance of foreign delegates at work and at home49 and threats and incentives offered to their governments to back a war50 regardless of the wishes of their citizens could hardly be described as fostering freedom, democracy and rejection of corruption.

How do George W Bush, and other leading figures in the US government from the Christian right, reconcile their actual practice on democracy and political freedom, international trade and buying influence with the political beliefs they profess and their faith? Their behaviour may in part be explained by the fact that, like most of humankind, they are not always consistent. In addition, there are indications that Bush shares the quite common belief that material success is a sign of divine favour: the good can enjoy the wealth with which they are rewarded and also help those in need.51 Those people, corporations and nations whom the Lord has blessed with riches might seem to deserve particular respect and support, and the methods which have brought them success might be assumed to have God's stamp of approval. Certainly Jesus' famous sayings that 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God'52 and 'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth... where your treasure is, there your heart will be also'53 are not greatly emphasised in his version of Christianity. It may also seem to Bush that the prospect of a threat to an economic and political system or force which embodies God's will is serious enough to justify bending the rules. In addition he believes that history is not guided by chance but by 'the hand of a just and faithful God'54: things are as they are destined to be.

War with Iraq: the moral case

In August 2002, Condoleezza Rice said that there was a 'very powerful moral case' for deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had used chemical weapons against his own people and neighbours and shot at US planes trying to enforce UN resolutions; he was 'an evil man who, if left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbours and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, on all of us... We just have to look back and ask how many dictators who end up being a tremendous global threat, and killing thousands, and indeed millions of people, should we have stopped in their tracks.'55 The theme of a moral case for war was later taken up by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, also a Christian at odds with Church leaders. His arguments have failed to convince many even in the leadership of his party; as historian and Labour peer Kenneth Morgan pointed out, cruel as Saddam is, the danger he poses has been exaggerated, the inspection process deserves to be given a chance, the concern professed for human rights is questionable, given the US record, and a war may lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, damage to the world economy and extreme instability in the Middle East56. It has also been pointed out that there are alternative approaches to dealing with tyrannical regimes in that part of the world based on respect for the capabilities and choices of their own peoples.57 Why, then, launch a war fraught with such risk when there might be peaceful alternatives?

In the established ethical and legal framework, indeed, an attack on Iraq might be regarded as wrong and illegal. But a different doctrine had emerged in the USA under which such an attack might be regarded as moral. A decade before, a draft Pentagon strategy paper produced under the supervision of Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had urged measures to ensure that US dominance continued unchecked, including 'convincing potential [military] competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role', playing down the role of the United Nations and advocating military force, if necessary, to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, though this was rejected at the time as extreme.58 But the far right continued to urge a new approach to foreign policy. In 1998 the think-tank Project for the New American Century wrote to President Clinton urging him to 'enunciate a new strategy that would secure the interests of the US and our friends and allies around the world. That strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime from power'. Inspectors would be unlikely 'to uncover all of Saddam's secrets. As a result, in the not-too distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons. Such uncertainty will, by itself, have a seriously destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East. It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world's supply of oil will all be put at hazard.' They also stated in a letter to Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader that failure to remove Saddam would mean 'an incalculable blow to American leadership and credibility' and that 'Other nations seeking to arm themselves with such weapons will have learned that the US lacks the resolve to resist their efforts'; and urged that 'We should establish and maintain a strong US military presence in the region, and be prepared to use that force to protect our vital interests in the Gulf'. Signatories included Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Robert B Zoellick.59

Some had links with hardliners in Israel, which has long been heavily supported politically and financially by the USA.60 Richard Perle was one of the authors of a 1996 report which urged the incoming government of Binyamin Netanyahu to make A clean break with the peace process: 'While the previous government, and many abroad, may emphasize "land for peace" - which places Israel in the position of cultural, economic, political, diplomatic, and military retreat - the new government can promote Western values and traditions... An effective approach, and one with which Americans can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon...Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq - an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right... Israel has no obligations under the Oslo agreements if the PLO does not fulfill its obligations. If the PLO cannot comply with these minimal standards, then it can be neither a hope for the future nor a proper interlocutor for the present. To prepare for this, Israel may want to cultivate alternatives to Arafat's base of power... To anticipate US reactions and plan ways to maintain and constrain those reactions, Prime Minister Netanyahu can formulate the policies and stress themes he favors in language familiar to the American by tapping into themes of American administrations during the Cold War which apply well to Israel... Israel - proud, wealthy, solid, and strong - would be the basis of a truly new and peaceful Middle East'.61 Hence toppling Saddam Hussein's regime would be part of a wider reshaping of the Middle East in line with Western values and interests. A couple of years later Netanyahu warned that 'we still face great dangers - all of us - beyond the immediate horizon. Iraq and Iran, arming themselves with ballistic missiles and unconventional weapons, this is a danger not only to the peace of Israel but to the peace of the world. And you can see these rogue states, from North Korea at the edge of Asia, to Iraq and Iran right here, who are creating an unstable and potentially violent and dangerous world for us. We know that we have to arm ourselves and protect ourselves, along with every country and every nation that wants peace and security in our world. And Israel is leading the world, alongside the United States, in giving an answer.'62

Military contractors had been major donors to the George W Bush campaign and, when he took power after the controversial US presidential election in 2000, many of those appointed to top positions had close links with the weapons industry.63 The new government also contained many of the signatories of the Project for the New American Century letter and authors of A clean break (in Perle's case he was made chair of the quasi-governmental Defense Policy Board). They found themselves striving to push forward their policies against resistance from pragmatists such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell was not squeamish - a Vietnam veteran who believed the 'hard logic of war' justified destroying homes and even gunning down civilians, he helped to cover up massacres;64 later he became 'chief administration advocate' for Contra terrorists who he knew were in part financed by illegal arms sales to Iran, and when the Iran-Contra enquiry was held he gave testimony that was 'as least misleading'.65 But he was aware of the costliness and uncertainty of war, especially without widespread support in the rest of the world.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other hardliners appear gradually to have gained the upper hand, though with some setbacks. The terrorist attacks of 11 September may have boosted their cause. For some in the West it was a reminder of the shared mortality of all humankind and the horror and pity of violence, or more pragmatically of the risks of funding and equipping extremists or of unnecessarily alienating large parts of the world.66 But for others it was a challenge to display armed might and destructive power even greater than that of the attackers, to show the world who was in charge. And perhaps the language used by certain Islamic extremists to try to justify the killings made it easier for sections of the Christian right and their allies, too, to try to sanctify the pursuit of worldly power. Moreover sections of the US government sought to show that Saddam was linked with al-Qaeda - a claim rejected in a leaked British intelligence report - and this became the official position.67 The scare caused when anthrax was sent through the US post may also have helped to create a climate of fear in which violence against terrorists and their allies might seem justified, though it emerged that the anthrax appeared to have originated in a military laboratory used in the USA's own biological weapons programme.68

In 2002 Bush dubbed Iraq, Iran and North Korea an 'axis of evil', and John Bolton, who had become Undersecretary of State, added Cuba, Libya and Syria to the list of rogue terrorist nations.69 A Nuclear Posture Review reported that the Pentagon should be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria, against targets able to sustain non-nuclear attack, in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or 'in the event of surprising military developments'.70 When an International Criminal Court was created to prosecute those guilty of serious human rights violations anywhere in the world if their own state failed to bring them to justice, a law was passed authorising the use of military force to liberate any citizen of the USA or a US-allied country being held by the Court, located in the Hague.71 And a National Security Strategy was produced under which, if US dominance over the world might be threatened in future by another country, it could use force to restore its supremacy, in breach of international law and the UN and NATO charters which only allow nations to attack others in self-defence.72 When interviewer Margaret Warner questioned Condoleezza Rice about the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike, and the criticism that if one nation claimed the right to take preventive action others would do the same, she replied that 'the idea that you have to wait to be attacked to deal with a threat seems to us simply to fly in the face of common sense. The United States has always reserved the right to try and diminish or to try to eliminate a threat before it is attacked'. Warner asked about the goal 'of the US maintaining military superiority globally, indefinitely', and Rice answered, 'Well, ask yourself if you'd rather have the converse - which is that an adversary actually catches up and overtakes the United States - the United States is a very special country in that when we maintain this position of military strength that we have now, we do so in support of a balance of freedom and indeed we don't want to do it alone; we welcome and hope that there will be military contributions from other like-minded states'.73

European nations were urged to follow the US lead because they had benefited from the exercise of US power in the past, and indeed it would be ungrateful to refuse to fall in line. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that Britain should stand by the USA as the USA had stood by Britain during the blitz in the Second World War - but in fact the USA did not enter the war until two years later when its own forces were attacked at Pearl Harbour.74 In addition, grateful as many Western Europeans are for the US soldiers who died opposing Hitler during that war, it could be argued that an even greater debt is owed for the huge number of Russians who died in the resistance to Nazi forces; the moral case for entering into a war in the twenty-first century on the basis of the alignment of armies many decades ago has been questioned.

In February 2003, at the same time that Colin Powell was urging the United Nations to tackle the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, came another opportunity to emphasise that the US state was above the UN and international law. Many on the US right strongly believe that it would be wrong to allow any international body to restrict their government's right to act as it sees fit. For instance, before he became attorney general, Ashcroft had expressed indignation to the Senate that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had suggested that the USA would probably have to consult other Security Council members before launching military strikes against Iraq: 'Let me state categorically that the United States does not require the permission of the United Nations to use our military forces in the pursuit of our national interests... the comments by Secretary General Annan over the weekend are indicative of a growing arrogance of a United Nations that has grown accustomed to dictating American foreign policy towards Iraq... The deployment of our forces to defend our national interests is not subject to the approval of the United Nations or any other multinational organization.'75 The US has repeatedly ignored rulings of the World Court, set up by the UN to resolve disputes between countries. On this occasion Mexico had challenged the legality of the execution of three Mexicans on death row in Texas and Oklahoma on the grounds that they had not been given their right to legal help by the Mexican government (people arrested outside their own countries are supposed to be given the chance to talk to staff from their consulates, since otherwise they can be vulnerable to injustice). The World Court ruled that the executions should be temporarily halted while it investigated further, but the US ambassador to the Netherlands declared that it would be premature to say whether the US would abide by the decision.76 Later Rick Perry - Bush's successor as Governor of Texas and heavily backed by the Christian right77 - said that the ruling would be ignored.78 The death penalty has long proved controversial, not only because many believe it is inherently wrong but also because, in the words of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 'economically poor defendants, particularly members of racial minorities, are more likely to be executed than others because they cannot afford exhaustive legal defenses' and statistics show that black defendants, especially those whose alleged victims are white, are far more likely than others to be sentenced to death.79 The month before the World Court ruling, the outgoing Republican Governor of Illinois, a longtime supporter of the death penalty, had changed his mind when he discovered that many on death row were innocent, and commuted all Illinois death sentences to life imprisonment.80 However Attorney General John Ashcroft - like the President a strong advocate of capital punishment - has if anything hardened his stance, overriding federal prosecutors' recommendation not to seek the death sentence in 28 cases (26 of which involve defendants who are African American, Hispanic, Native American or Asian) and seeking to impose death in states where the penalty does not exist.81 To Ashcroft, 'when we have people who have committed heinous crimes, and there's no question about their guilt, I don't know any reason to suspend the imposition of an appropriate penalty' and the death penalty is 'a way to demonstrate the value of life'.82

Some supporters of war have argued that it is about morality, while opponents have drawn attention to the role of oil interests83 and electoral advantage84. However, in the view of Bush and some of his advisors, these may not be contradictory: war will help to create a world reflecting a model of freedom based on the benevolent dominance of the USA under the correct leadership, in which the deserving will be rewarded and the wicked punished, in accordance with the divine will.

'You're either with us or with the terrorists'

The mission embarked on by George W Bush, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Tom DeLay and other prominent Christians in the top ranks of the Republican Party is open to others who do not share the same religious beliefs but who embrace the same political goals. There are less religiously involved Christians like Vice President Dick Cheney85 who are also engaged in the drive towards war86 - as well as active Christians who are loyal to the cause but whose language tends to be less militaristic, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has visited Sudan repeatedly as a medical missionary87, or whose apparent enthusiasm for war may have more to do with allegiance to the President than personal conviction, such as Colin Powell88.

Some of the leaders of the pro-war lobby in and around the White House are Jewish, including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliot Abrams. Their goals appear to include bolstering the position of a militaristic Israel which helps to enforce US interests in the Middle East89 - a commitment shared with Tom DeLay, who believes that only Christianity offers 'viable, reasonable, definitive' answers to life's questions and has urged support for political candidates who 'stand for everything we believe in and stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ'.90 However their aspirations are a long way from that of many Jewish human rights activists and moderates who believe that excessively aggressive policies on the part of Israel are contrary to their faith or, more pragmatically, expose Israelis to unnecessary risk by perpetuating violence.

Shortly after the 11 September attacks, Bush spoke of leading a 'crusade' against terrorism, but when Muslims reacted negatively he realised his mistake and did not publicly use the term again.91 In the run-up to war, he pointed to 'hopeful signs of the desire for freedom in the Middle East. Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the freedom gap so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political openness and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps towards political reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region. It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life.' He went on to explain, 'The threat to peace does not come from those who seek to enforce the just demands of the civilized world. The threat to peace comes from those who flout those demands. If we have to act, we will act to restrain the violent and defend the cause of peace. And by acting we will signal to outlaw regimes that in this new century the boundaries of civilized behavior will be respected.'92

Questions remain about how inclusive Bush's campaign really is. In 2001 one of his key allies, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, met a storm of opposition within Europe when he urged that 'We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation' compared to Islam93; though he later backtracked, his Deputy Prime Minister recently proposed that the European Union constitution should refer to it as a 'community that shares a Judeo-Christian heritage as its fundamental values'.94 Likewise Ashcroft, while a senator, said that 'God has given us freedom which comes from our Judeo-Christian heritage', and 'Without God, we cannot succeed but with God we cannot fail.'95 Nevertheless people of any faith or none, if they share a similar view of freedom to that of the US President and his followers, can enlist under the his banner to bring progress to the world. But those who get in the way of this civilising mission are, in his view, to blame for any violence that follows.

Flanked by battleships, Bush told sailors, 'The terrorists brought this war to us - and now we're taking it back to them. We're on their trail, we're smoking them out, we've got them on the run. We're hunting them down one by one, all across the world. With our allies we've arrested or otherwise dealt with many of the key commanders of al Qaeda. And that includes the terrorist who planned the bombing of the USS Cole. So far, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Just about that number met a different kind of fate. They're not a problem anymore... Today, at the dawn of a new century, America is still the leader in freedom's cause. And our generation is called to a central role in this nation's history. As Americans we can be confident: the American people are strong and resolute. The American Armed Forces are brave and ready. And in freedom's cause, we will prevail. May God bless you all. May God bless our family - your families - and may God continue to bless the United States of America.'96 It is not clear whether the mention of a 'different fate' was a response to concerns about the massacre by the US-backed Northern Alliance of perhaps 3,000 Taliban prisoners - many of them shut up in containers in trucks and left to suffocate - in some cases allegedly with the knowledge of US soldiers.97 Certainly Bush appeared to be suggesting that he would not be too particular about what happened to those who resisted the forces under his command. The recent official verdict of homicide after two prisoners died under interrogation at a US base in Afghanistan has drawn attention to the frequent use of torture of suspects by the USA and its allies.98 One of the men killed was a 22-year-old farmer and part-time taxi-driver, while the other, aged 30, was the brother of a former Taliban commander.99

Even the USA's European allies, if they fail to comply with US wishes, get short shrift. In Tom DeLay's opinion, the critical turning point in the 'war against terrorism' was President Bush's decision to focus moral clarity on the real threats facing America. He said you're either with us or you're with the terrorists... America must preempt threats before they damage our national interests. This concept of preemption is the key to victory over terrorism. Much of the opposition to the preemption doctrine is nothing but a campaign to forestall action.'100 After Colin Powell made his case against Saddam, DeLay made clear his contempt for anyone wanting further evidence: 'For Saddam Hussein's appeasers, no showing of diabolical crimes, documented militarism, and pursuit of mass terror weapons will ever constitute sufficient, so-called 'evidence' to confront his tyrannical regime. For people of common sense, no such additional evidence is needed: terrorists and terror states have to be eliminated. We won't delegate decisions determining our national security to dissolute countries which stubbornly refuse to lift their collective heads from the sand.'101 Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as 'old Europe', linked Germany with Libya and Cuba for not agreeing to assist in reconstructing post-war Iraq,102 and ordered 60,000 US troops out of Germany 'for one reason only - to harm the German economy', in the words of a Pentagon source.103 Those in the USA, likewise, who question whether government actions are truly in line with the nation's true interests, its Constitution and Bill of Rights risk being targeted. When the Senate Judiciary Committee had questioned the drastic restrictions imposed by John Ashcroft in 2001, he had told its members, 'To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists'104. To those who believe that the US government is in the midst of a battle in which it is the champion of good against evil, there is no neutral ground.

The extreme attitude of the US government has managed to alarm even its close allies. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw seemed to imply that his European Union colleagues should go along with the USA if only to rein in its excesses when he warned them to 'take care' because 'we will reap a whirlwind if we push the Americans into a unilateralist position in which they are the centre of this unipolar world.'105 In practice, it seems unlikely that allies will be able to exercise much restraining power, if the example of the Israel-Palestine peace process is anything to go by - Bush has claimed that Saddam's downfall would bring an end to his support for terrorism and help Palestinian reformers and 'democrats' choose new leaders, made it clear that the elected leadership must surrender power and given the Israeli government the go-ahead to accelerate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.106 Indeed wider support for Bush might encourage him to take even more extreme measures, since US voters would be reassured that he is not acting in isolation and the financial and political costs would be more widely distributed. But it is telling that Jack Straw thought that leaders not greatly frightened by what Saddam might do might be more frightened by the possible actions of the USA.

A twenty-first century crusade?

UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has made a cautiously positive report: Iraq has made substantial progress in destroying missiles, he could find no evidence of nerve gas and progress in disarmament is being made. Mohamed El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Authority, has contradicted US and British claims that aluminium tubes were intended for use in refining uranium for nuclear weapons, and his officials have revealed out that documents supposedly showing that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa were easily discovered to be fake. Within the Security Council France, Russia, China and Germany remain strongly opposed to an attack, but the UK and US governments seem intent on starting the war soon with or without UN approval,107 despite warnings by legal experts108 including a former UK Solicitor General that military action which is not in self-defence or deemed necessary by the Security Council would be unlawful.109

Indeed the US and UK have moved further away from even superficial respect for the laws restraining countries from attacking one another. American and British bombing of Iraq has greatly intensified. Previously it had been claimed that they had a UN mandate to police 'no-fly zones', and hence were justified in attacking in self-defence, though this was spurious - there was no mention of such zones in any Security Council resolution, as former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali confirmed to journalist John Pilger, and these 'offer no legitimacy to countries sending their aircraft to attack Iraq'.110 Now targets have been greatly extended to destroy Iraqi defences, including rocket-launchers and short-range missiles, in preparation for an attack.111 Such 'Bombardment by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State' counts as aggression - ' the most serious and dangerous form of the illegal use of force, being fraught, in the conditions created by the existence of all types of weapons of mass destruction, with the possible threat of a world conflict and all its catastrophic consequences' - under the Geneva Convention.112

There are now over 300,000 US troops in or on the way to the Gulf as well as allied forces. In a military campaign meant to 'shock and awe' Iraq into rapid submission, they are expected to bombard Iraq in the first few days with ten times as many bombs and missiles as in the first Gulf War, as well as moving forward.113 Other factors are difficult to predict. Saddam may flee or be overthrown by his own forces, or they may mount a costly resistance. While the US and UK claim they will try to minimise civilian casualties, these will be hard to avoid entirely in an assault of such a scale, though international public opinion may cause the allies to be more cautious than they would otherwise be, as well as the presence of major oilfields. Fighting between Kurdish and Turkish forces could also erupt, and other anti-Saddam forces including those linked with Iran may stake their claim at an early or later date, unwilling to submit to what they would regard as another yoke. New kinds of weapons may be used: for example the USA has developed high-power microwave bombs reportedly able to disrupt electronic equipment, cause agony and induce uncontrollable panic,114 'calmative' gases - part of a new range of chemical weapons of the kind which killed over a hundred hostages in Russia last year115 - and possibly tactical nuclear weapons capable of penetrating bunkers116. Iraqi troops may have residual stocks of biological or chemical weapons which they may use if attacked. Whether the conflict spreads is also uncertain. Some senior military figures in Israel expect Saddam Hussein's fall to be closely followed by that of other enemy leaders in the Palestinian Authority, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Syria, Iran and maybe even Libya,117 while Washington political circles have been buzzing with speculation that right-wingers in the government want to give Turkey part of Iraq, target Syria next, overthrow the monarchy in Saudi Arabia - re-order the Middle East.118 However the US military, pragmatists in the government like Colin Powell and allies like Tony Blair are likely to be reluctant to widen the conflict, especially if Iraq, even after Saddam's removal, turns out to be difficult to secure.

As Bush prepares for the conflict, he begins each day with devotional readings by Oswald Chambers, a Scottish preacher who ministered to troops during the First World War.119 He wrote, 'God engineers everything; wherever he puts us our one great aim is to pour out a whole-hearted devotion to Him in that particular work. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might,"'120 and 'Burn your bridges behind you, and stand committed to God by your own act. Never revise your decisions, but see that you make your decisions in the light of the high hour.'121

In some ways, though not in others, what is unfolding could be described as a crusade. On the one hand, clearly Bush and other war leaders do not intend to kill people simply because they are Muslims or convert them forcibly to Christianity. Those in his inner circle, in pursuit of their version of progress, have proved equally ruthless towards Christians in Guatemala, El Salvador, East Timor and elsewhere, and to people of other faiths. And attacking Iraq has been forcefully opposed by the Pope and other Church leaders. On the other hand, this will be a war by predominantly Christian countries, led by a devoutly Christian US President who believes he has been called by God to this task, with assistance from a devoutly Christian UK Prime Minister, against a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Moreover, though some support for a military campaign in the Middle East is motivated by humanitarian concerns, leaders seeking to win support for war have claimed a link between Islamic extremists of the kind responsible for the 11 September attacks and Saddam (and indeed Yasser Arafat), tapping into a visceral sense that Westerners have suffered and are vulnerable because of hostile Muslim Arabs and it is time to strike back. And Osama Bin Laden (or someone sounding like him) issued a tape urging Iraqis to fight the attackers, regardless of whether Saddam and his Ba'ath Party remained or went and despite the fact that they were socialist infidels: 'It does no harm that the interests if Muslims and socialists crisscross in the fighting against the crusaders'. Any Muslims who offered America 'any kind of support or help, even if only with words, to kill Muslims in Iraq, should know that he is an apostate', and true Muslims were urged to rise up against countries such as Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.122 While many Muslims and non-Muslims would strongly reject the more heated rhetoric on both sides, images of suffering caused by attacks by US-led forces, terrorist 'retaliation' or indeed far-right terrorist attacks on Muslim targets in the West might lead even moderates to feel targeted for their faith, and place a strain on inter-religious relations. Certainly use of weapons of mass destruction or atrocities of other kinds by US, Israeli or UK forces or against Israeli civilians could encourage support for religious extremists who might otherwise be relatively isolated within their faith communities. Tensions between races and richer and poorer nations may also be inflamed.

There are scenarios which might resemble an older kind of crusade but with more powerful weaponry, for instance if popular unrest against the war led to a more anti-American government taking power in Saudi Arabia and the US-led alliance then advanced into Saudi Arabia to safeguard access to the world's largest supply of oil - situated in the same land as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Or inter-religious conflicts could take a different direction if an uprising in Pakistan led to extremists taking control and entering into a war with a Hindu fundamentalist-led India, especially since both countries have nuclear weapons.

While many Christians and Muslims are horrified by the physical violence and negative passions that may be unleashed, some perhaps are attracted by the notion of a return to a more straightforward kind of world, in which leaders ordained by God command allegiance, identities are clear and there are fewer difficult choices. In fact, the mediaeval world in which the original crusades took place was far more complex, but a mythical reconstruction of this may have a certain appeal. Even anti-war protestors may be lured by the idea that, simply by opposing Western domination, the world's main problems can relatively easily be solved. However, important as it is for people to take action on concrete threats to their wellbeing and that of others, forces that lead to unnecessary suffering, division, alienation and conflict can be harder to confront. Perhaps those aspects of religious tradition which ask deeper questions and do not project all evil on to an external enemy, and indeed the questions asked by thoughtful humanists, can help to throw light on how peace and justice might be fostered and sustained.

March 2003


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52 Luke 18.25
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88 Linda Regensburger, General Colin Powell shares private faith with Episcopal youth, Episcopal News Service, 13 July 2000
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91 David L Greene, Bush turns increasingly to language of religion, Baltimore Sun, 10 February 2003 (
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97 Anwar Iqbal and Elizabeth Manning, Group: admitting Afghan deaths not enough, UPI, Washington Times, 31 August 2002
98 Andrew Gumbel, America admits suspects died in interrogations, Independent, 7 March 2003
99 Duncan Campbell, Afghan prisoners beaten to death at US military interrogation base, Guardian, 7 March 2003
100 Tom DeLay, The imperative for action, National Review Online, 22 August 2002 (
101 DeLay: Administration proves no additional 'evidence' is needed; terrorists and terror states have to be eliminated, Office of the House Majority Leader, 5 February 2003 (;=8)
102 Mike Allen and Vernon Loeb, A star with too many points?, Washington Post, 15 February 2003 (
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104 John Powers, On Wyatt Earp and the Witchfinder General, LA Weekly, 14-20 December 2001
105 David Usborne, Marie Woolf and Kim Sengupta, A world divided over Saddam, Independent, 5 March 2003
106 Simon Tisdall, Misleading or misled?, Guardian, 5 March 2003 (,3858,4618549,00.html)
107 Guardian, 8 March 2003
108 Duncan Campbell, Michael White and Patrick Wintour, Iraq attack very close, says Bush, Guardian, 7 March 2003
109 Blair faces resignations over Iraq, BBC News, 9 March 2003
110 John Pilger, The secret war on Iraq, Mirror, 3 March 2003
111 Nicholas Watt, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Suzanne Goldenberg, Allies bomb key Iraqi targets, Guardian, 3 March 2003
112 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX), Definition of Aggression (
113 John Leicester, 'Ten times the bombs', Associated Press, 6 March 2003 (
114 John Sutherland, Why does the US want to attack Iraq? Well, one reason is to see what it's like to microwave lots of people, Guardian, 17 February 2003
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119 Tim Reid, The Scottish preacher whose wartime writings inspire Bush's faith, Times, 4 March 2003 (,,1-5570-599162,00.html)
120 Oswald Chambers, The worship of the work, My utmost for His highest (
121 Oswald Chambers, Can you come down?, My utmost for His highest (
122 Brian Whitaker, Bin Laden offers tips to defend Iraq, Guardian, 12 February 2003 (,3858,4604024,00.html)