Virtual Talmud

To the chagrin of many of my friends, being ethical does not entail defenselessness. Power, like anything else, can be ethical; it must be ethical.

From a Jewish perspective, it’s tempting to make powerlessness a pre-condition for ethics. Jewish liberals are fond of pointing to the biblical prophets’ ability to speak ethical truth to power. As if truth and power are at opposite sides of the spectrum. They thrive on the prophets’ persecution and their howling in the wind.

While I agree that there is a time for prophetic politics, what these Jews sometimes forget is that a) the prophets may have been right but usually ended up being ignored because their policies were simply way beyond peoples’ present capacity, and b) if the kings (against whom the prophets railed) were themselves just and ethical, we would never have needed the prophets in the first place.

It’s tempting to spend this post ranting and condemning Bush/Cheney, etc. (God knows how long we could do that.) But I would rather deal with the painful reality of the present, recognizing the ethical complexity of the situation. Arguing that we must jump ship from Iraq because this war is unethical is, simply put, far too simple to be the ethical solution to the problems we are facing.

The great 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Niebuhr coined the term “Christian realism” to describe his sober views about the nature of man, sin, and politics. More than anything else, Niebuhr realized the dangers of absolute political ideologies. Most notably, he spoke out against absolute pacifism and those who stood on what they thought was the moral high ground looking down on power and coercion as unethical.

While for Christains, Niebuhr’s position was somewhat of a hidush (a new idea), for Jews spiritual realism was no new idea. The Bible is packed with ethical complexity. Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s ideas greatly influenced theologians across the the spiritual spectrum. In Judaism, those such as Rabbi Irving Greenberg developed their own brand of post-Holocaust Niebuhrian Jewish realism, arguing that power and ethics can be compatible. The challenge of the modern age–what Greenberg calls the third millennium– is to harness power for ethical means.

Which brings us to the question of the ethics of the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. Was the President wrong in going after Saddam Hussein? As I wrote three years ago in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, probably. (I will spare you the myriad reasons why).

The war on terror will never be won by just attacking nation-states, especially those nation-states that have nothing to do with radical Islam (Iraq was a secular state!!). We should have attacked Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia well before we went anywhere near Iraq. But that is not what happened. As it now stands, we are three years into this mess with no exit plan in sight, and each day, human lives are being sapped. Iraq has been nothing but trouble and disappointment.

Nonetheless, now that we have gone in and torn apart the social fabric of the country, we can’t just walk out leaving Iraq to eat itself up alive. To use a biblical analogy, you can’t take the people of Israel out of Eygpt and leave them to wither in the desert! To do so would make us guilty of nothing less than a hit and run. Responsibility and ethics go hand in hand. Imagine if God had washed his hands of the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf.

We as a country must take the responsibility for finishing what we started. Simply put, Iraq is still incapable of functioning day-to-day. Whether we like it or not, we have an obligation to its citizens to be there an ensure day-to-day social and political stability.

Yes, it would be nice if we could just walk out of Iraq, forget about this whole episode, and go on trying to hunt down the real terrorists. What we forget, however, is that the act of hunting down to capture, kill, and coerce puts us in a most precarious and ethically risky situation. Almost always, when one lifts up one’s fist, ethics, in some sense, are suspended. But that is how politics and power work.

Politics is a messy business that has no neutral ground. Every decision is a lesser of two evils. Still, at every moment there is a more ethical and less ethical option to choose from. While it is hard to say that staying in Iraq is ethical, leaving Iraq is unethical.

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