Hawks Ascend in White House: Just War or *Just* War?
Written by Rhett Burns on April 11, 2018
Three weeks ago, I wrote a response to Michael Gerson’s essay in The Atlantic about evangelical support of President Trump. I found it hypocritical that Gerson, a senior policy advisor to President Bush and a member of The White House Iraq Group, was lecturing evangelicals about Trump’s rhetoric when his own administration’s war caused such damage. Further, I pointed out that despite all the bluster and personal immorality, Donald Trump, as president, has actually governed more conservatively than his recent Republican predecessors.
I spoke too soon.
The following week, President Trump signed the gargantuan 1.3 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill, which includes a half a billion dollars earmarked for Planned Parenthood and a hefty increase in defense spending. While continuing to fund an infanticide industry group that traffics in the sale of dismembered baby parts will always spark conservative and Christian ire, exorbitant defense funding and interventionist policy rarely causes one to raise an eyebrow. However, with President Trump’s recent appointment of John Bolton to the National Security Advisor post, my eyebrow is now high-fiving my receding hairline.
Bolton served President Bush as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and as the Ambassador to the United Nations. As a senior official, Bolton was a leading proponent of the Iraq War, and still believes overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the correct call. In his immediate post-administration punditry, he advocated for expanding the war into Iran, and, recently, proposed a legal case for a preventative strike against North Korea.
In a recent column, Ross Douthat outlined four conservative foreign policy camps: paleoconservatives, realists, neoconservatives, and pure hawks. Bolton “emphatically” belongs to the fourth camp, a group characterized by its lack of nuance:
“The default response to any challenge should be military escalation, the imposition of America’s will by force — and if one dangerous regime is succeeded by another, you just go in and kill the next round of bad guys, too.” —Ross Douthat, on the hawkish tradition
Douthat’s column makes the case that Bush-era hawks are now ascendant in the Trump White House, while the promised paleoconservative and realist foreign policy voices are sidelined. Which means: now that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has allegedly launched a chemical gas attack against his own people in Douma, many of the voices advising President Trump are the same voices that advocated for regime change in Iraq in 2003.
What should Christians make of hawkish foreign policy?
Bruce Ashford helps us make sense of the various foreign policy camps by distinguishing three underlying foundational categories: pacifism, crusade, and just war. According to Ashford, pacifists attempt to achieve peace by laying down the sword, while crusaders make the same attempt by picking up the sword. Both are idealistic attempts that never achieve peace. Ashford summarizes the just war category:
“Over and against the idealism of pacifists and crusaders is the realism of the Just War tradition. Just War theory articulates conditions for determining whether or not it is morally right to go to war, and conditions for how a justified war should be fought. A just war must have “just cause,” meaning that it is defending against an unjust aggression. It must be initiated by a competent authority, as a last resort, with reticence, and for the purpose of restoring peace. There must be a reasonable hope of success and the anticipated success must be worth more than the anticipated costs.”
Hawks have historically toed the line of just war—and have often outright obliterated it. Bolton’s proposed preventative strike against North Korea is unjust according to the just war tradition. Christians must insist that our leaders adhere to just war principles, without resorting to military intervention as the default solution to any global problem.
But why? Why is hawkish militarism so bad? By hawkish militarism, I mean the default response to any challenge being military escalation. Here are four reasons:
First, human life is valuable. Our soldiers, their soldiers, and bystanding citizens are all made in the image of God. War always takes human life, and, therefore, should only be waged when necessary and appropriate. The just war tradition provides a time-tested framework for determining when war is necessary and appropriate.
Second, when combined with neoconservative idealism, hawkishness misuses the sword. According to Douthat, neoconservatives retain “a basic view that American power should be used for moral purpose, to spread American ideals.” According to the Bible, the sword is given to governments to punish evildoers. Any American ideals worth spreading globally are not foundationally American; they are downstream blessings of the Gospel. They will not be disseminated by the sword of the U.S. Marine Corps, but by the two-edged sword that is the preaching of the word of Christ. We are right to want liberty for the world, but we are wrong to believe we can impose it by sheer force. The nations will have liberty when the nations have Christ.
Third, hawkish foreign policy often leads our country to meddle in the conflicts of others.
“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.” —Proverbs 26:17
The one who takes a street dog by the ears will be safe for a moment, but will have an angry dog after him once he lets go. Once we let go in Iraq and Libya—our two most recent regime-change adventures—a whole pack of dogs filled the void: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Further, our meddling breeds resentment around the world. It may be true that Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists hated our freedom, as we were told ad nauseam. But, his stated complaint against us was our continued military presence in the middle east. Americans got real prissy about the possibility that Russian actors meddled in the 2016 presidential election by posting fake news stories on Facebook and other online hackery. Now, picture Russian soldiers stamping your thumb blue after you cast your ballot at your local polling station. We don’t like meddling, but we are willing to meddle.
Fourth, the cost of continual war is extravagant at every level. Our defense budget is astronomical, though at this point that is to be expected. But what about the hidden costs: the marriages and mental illnesses of veterans, the life and property of local citizens in the places we wage war, and the extermination of middle eastern Christian communities. What about the future cost of military action when groups like ISIS fill the vacuum created when regimes fall? What about the decades of nation-building we commit ourselves to? Wisdom teaches us to count the cost before any endeavor, but that is impossible to do with open-ended conflict.
Christians developed the just war tradition because we realized the need to be wise and righteous when we engage in military conflict. But foreign policy hawks are not necessarily committed to the just war framework. Instead, they are just committed to war. And Christians ought to be wary.