CLEVELAND (RNS) -- French and German opinion leaders depict George W. Bush asa Texas cowboy running roughshod on the world stage. Nelson Mandela of SouthAfrica mocks the American president's intelligence.

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. About 200 John Carroll faculty and staff met to consider how to addressunknown outcomes in the classroom. Lt. Col. David Hagg, who operates thecampus ROTC, asked the gathering to keep an open mind about militaryservice. Campus ministry discussed plans for prayer. Ryan, who helped organize the meeting, said his campus work against theGulf War was harder than this time around. "A dozen years ago, people werecautious and afraid to sign (a letter of protest)," he said. "We got veryfew signatures from business faculty. Now we have business and scienceprofessors as well as the ones you expect from the humanities and socialsciences." Francesco Cesareo, who leads the campus Institute of Catholic Studies,said Elshtain argued at a private dinner that Vietnam-era faculty across thenation are reliving their protest days free of serious philosophicalinquiry. Cesareo said Elshtain makes a strong moral case for military actionagainst Iraq, emphasizing Pope John Paul II's writings on human rights. In April, Basic Books will publish Elshtain's newest book, "Just WarAgainst Terror: The Burden of American Power." Her writings on war,democracy and civic life have earned a prominent place in public discourse. Asked by a John Carroll listener if St. Augustine was a neoconservative,Elshtain chuckled. "I've found over 30 years of being in the arena, as soonas you label a person or an argument, everyone stops thinking," she said."You just react to the label."

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."