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Being Antiwar Isn't Enough

March 16, 2003|Daniel Terris | Daniel Terris is director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University.

BOSTON — Like many other Americans, I have been increasingly uneasy in recent months about the Bush administration's single-minded march to war in Iraq, about the abandonment of meaningful multilateralism and the assault on civil liberties that have accompanied the martial drumbeat.

Yet as rhetoric and preparation escalate, I find myself worrying that opponents of the rush to war are falling into the same habit of single-mindedness that is getting the country into such trouble. The president insists on reducing a complex world to simple dualisms. Those in opposition complain about this but seem determined to follow his lead in falling back on pieties.

The peace camp needs a broader and deeper platform than the simple slogan, "No War in Iraq." The slogan threatens to ignore two of the most significant developments of our time: the destructive capacity of modern weaponry (in both its high-tech and low-tech forms) and the growing international consensus about the paramount importance of human rights.

It is true that the most virulent proponents of the war have manipulated the issues of security and human rights to serve their ends, and it is always easier to fashion a position in opposition (as President Bush has discovered, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as his foil). But those are not reasons for critics of the war spirit to resort to single-minded positions that ignore these crucial developments.

We need an opposition that makes a clear stand against the rush to war but refuses to yield the ground of security and human rights to the hawks. We need a peace movement that maintains the flexibility and broad-mindedness that we crave in our leaders.

To accomplish this, opponents of the rush to war need to strengthen some of their rationales for restraint. Other rationales, which do more harm than good, should be jettisoned.

A peace movement must embody a robust ideal of peace. Both supporters and opponents of the haste to wage war claim to be acting on behalf of "peace." The hawks want us to believe that peace is security, and security is strength. The antiwar camp wants us to believe that peace is the absence of war.

If it was not already obvious, the 20th century made perfectly clear that the absence of war is not peace. It is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the internal violence of sovereign nations; surely a country is not at peace when it is systematically murdering and exiling those who do not conform with its vision. Peace, justice and human rights are inseparable.

The human rights community has been at the forefront of calling such abuses to the world's attention, while antiwar activists have warned of the ways that military intervention can itself cause havoc among the dispossessed. Both camps represent important principles. What has not yet been developed is a common language and strategy that actively seeks to protect the world's most vulnerable people, while simultaneously applying our best ideas about preventing conflict.

Opponents of the rush to war need the courage to defend a robust ideal of peace, one that precludes reckless forays but also embraces and responds to the needs of men and women around the world who do not have the luxury of living with either security or justice.

There is a place for both conflict prevention and preemption. The Bush administration's lack of faith in the painstaking work of negotiation is obvious, as is its disdain for alternative methods of stopping violence before it begins. The world needs strong leadership that is willing to invest in grass-roots efforts that strengthen opponents of tyranny and encourage democratic political activity.

The peace camp's disdain for the idea of preemption, however, is misplaced. It seems obvious that there are some situations where all other means have been exhausted, and where it is better to take early military action against known tyrants in order to prevent mass violence before it begins. Like any principle, it is vulnerable to abuse; a doctrine of preemption can, of course, turn into a doctrine of self-righteous unilateralism.

Preemption done well involves assessing risk accurately, using conflict as a last resort, working in concert with other partners and keeping human rights concerns at the forefront. To dismiss it out of hand is to settle for a reactive stance that puts the lives of millions at risk.

One of the best reasons to oppose the rush to war is that an ill-considered act, defended as preemption, will link the idea forever with self-righteous unilateralism. The chance to develop a better form of preemption for the 21st century will be lost.

Selective action is better than inaction. Why Iraq, ask critics of American policy, when there are brutal regimes on nearly every continent? The critics are right to demand a high standard of proof and a high threshold of violence and repression in any situation where outsiders are inclined to intervene.

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