There is no room for illusions about Saddam Hussein. His rule has brought little but misery and oppression to Iraq. He suppresses every civil liberty that constitutes life in a free society. He imprisons, tortures, and murders those he finds threatening. He has created a cult of personality around himself that rivals those of the worst dictators of the 20th century.

The Bible teaches that government authority comes from God, for our good--but also that rulers can turn evil and bring tremendous suffering to innocent people. As an example of how governmental power can go wrong, Hussein is all you could ask for.

The status of his weapons programs is sobering indeed. While much about his current efforts remains uncertain, Iraq has clearly had extensive biological and chemical weapons capacity. Before the Gulf War, he very nearly had a nuclear weapon built. Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

The issue facing Americans isn't whether to believe the best about the sweet reasonableness of Saddam Hussein, however, but what we should do about him. What our government is considering--in perhaps the least secret military planning in history--is an unprovoked preemptive attack on another nation due to the potential threat it poses to our national security. This is really quite novel, and the burden of proof for such an extraordinary action will be very high indeed.

President Bush speaks often of his Christian faith. It would be significant to hear him articulate how that faith is helping to shape his thinking about a possible war with Iraq. If he is not using just war theory, is his faith providing any substantive content to guide his actions?

For Christians such as myself, the moral justification for any attack is the theory of just war. Just war thinking doesn't absolutely rule out resort to force. It does disapprove of preemptive military action on the basis of a theorized future threat or the mere existence of threatening weapons. It also imposes a series of tests-a kind of moral gut check--that must be met before war can be waged. Among the most germane here are three: just cause, competent authority, and last resort.

A feeling of insecurity does not constitute a just cause. Thus far at least, the Bush Administration has not shown that Saddam Hussein poses a direct and immediate threat to the United States. Many nations, tragically, have the same kinds of atrocious biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons that Iraq has or may have. It may be possible to justify a preemptive strike on the basis of clear and convincing evidence of an immediate threat to our nation, but so far that case has not been made.

By requiring a competent authority, the just war concept demands that war must be declared by a legitimate authority. In our constitutional system, it bears repeating, that authority rests with the Congress. This very clear principle has been weakening since Vietnam; our panicked response to 9/11 is threatening to obliterate the principle altogether. At the very least, this means that Congress must be consulted, must be shown all relevant evidence, and must authorize military action by an open and public vote.

Prudence would also suggest that the president receive United Nations authorization, as well as support from our customary allies, as the first President Bush did in 1991.

Finally, the use of force must be a last resort, after all other means to resolve the issue between nations has been exhausted. Some effort must have been made to talk with the adversary, assess his legitimate interests, communicate our legitimate interests and non-negotiable concerns, and seek to make peace. Only after such good-faith efforts have failed can war legitimately be waged.

In the current case, no effort has been made to undertake such communication. War is so devastating, so morally odious in itself, that a nation must bend over backwards to be sure that all means short of war have been exhausted before it crosses that line. Even if we have little hope that talks with Saddam Hussein will be successful, they must be undertaken anyway. Otherwise, just war theory has no teeth--and we resort to war far too easily.

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