But Jean Bethke Elshtain, a leading political ethicist, believes Bushcan make a compelling moral case for starting a war against Iraq. "Not going to war can be a tragedy, just as going to war can be atragedy," Elshtain said here recently, noting the dithering in Bosnia andthe inaction in Rwanda. "I think the president is striking the right tone." Elshtain argues that the Iraqi people -- stripped of basic human andpolitical rights, allegedly assaulted, gassed, tortured and slaughtered --can make a moral claim on foreign powers for armed intervention. The61-year-old Elshtain has met with Iraqi dissidents and political refugeesand listened to their stories of dismemberment and rape. "We can't just keep averting our gaze," she said. "You've at least gotto acknowledge that if we don't act, it has to be with moral regret." "Here is the punch line," Elshtain told about 100 Catholic professionalsgathered to hear her. "At this point in history, the one most likely to becalled upon to dispatch this moral obligation is the United States." Elshtain, a University of Chicago professor and a leading publicintellectual, anchors this obligation in the principle that every human isentitled to equal moral regard, even those who live far away under the heelof a dictator. Her arguments stirred some apprehension among her listeners. "There are great moral principles to apply, but I'm troubled," saidRobert E. Matyjasik, an employment lawyer for Cuyahoga County. "I'm not surethe United States should charge in." William Francis Ryan, director of the John Carroll University Instituteof Humanities, heard Elshtain speak later on campus about the moral legacyof St. Augustine. Even as he admired her scholarship, Ryan rejected herconclusions about the impending invasion. "I'm bothered that we've had a year of preparation and mobilization forthis war without a real cause being nailed down," said Ryan, who helpedcollect 150 John Carroll faculty signatures on a letter opposing a war. "I'msuspicious that this is a diversion for Bush's failures against al-Qaida." The faculty petition states: "In an Iraqi war, the disproportionatecosts in American, Iraqi and countless other lives consumed by spreadingviolence throughout the Mideast would make a mockery of any claim of victoryor successful outcome. In all likelihood, the result would be a dramaticescalation in human suffering that will breed new hatreds and new violence." But Elshtain noted that one of the core difficulties in weighing themerits of war is the inability to know outcomes.
Elshtain puts some of the blame on the American media for its lazinessin framing discussions. "Augustine," she said, "would be very resistant tothe habit of adjusting political convictions to fit religious ones, or viceversa."