But Jean Bethke Elshtain, a leading political ethicist, believes Bush can 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 a tragedy," Elshtain said here recently, noting the dithering in Bosnia and the inaction in Rwanda. "I think the president is striking the right tone." Elshtain argues that the Iraqi people -- stripped of basic human and political rights, allegedly assaulted, gassed, tortured and slaughtered -- can make a moral claim on foreign powers for armed intervention. The 61-year-old Elshtain has met with Iraqi dissidents and political refugees and listened to their stories of dismemberment and rape. "We can't just keep averting our gaze," she said. "You've at least got to acknowledge that if we don't act, it has to be with moral regret." "Here is the punch line," Elshtain told about 100 Catholic professionals gathered to hear her. "At this point in history, the one most likely to be called upon to dispatch this moral obligation is the United States." Elshtain, a University of Chicago professor and a leading public intellectual, anchors this obligation in the principle that every human is entitled to equal moral regard, even those who live far away under the heel of a dictator. Her arguments stirred some apprehension among her listeners. "There are great moral principles to apply, but I'm troubled," said Robert E. Matyjasik, an employment lawyer for Cuyahoga County. "I'm not sure the United States should charge in." William Francis Ryan, director of the John Carroll University Institute of Humanities, heard Elshtain speak later on campus about the moral legacy of St. Augustine. Even as he admired her scholarship, Ryan rejected her conclusions about the impending invasion. "I'm bothered that we've had a year of preparation and mobilization for this war without a real cause being nailed down," said Ryan, who helped collect 150 John Carroll faculty signatures on a letter opposing a war. "I'm suspicious that this is a diversion for Bush's failures against al-Qaida." The faculty petition states: "In an Iraqi war, the disproportionate costs in American, Iraqi and countless other lives consumed by spreading violence throughout the Mideast would make a mockery of any claim of victory or successful outcome. In all likelihood, the result would be a dramatic escalation in human suffering that will breed new hatreds and new violence." But Elshtain noted that one of the core difficulties in weighing the merits of war is the inability to know outcomes.
Elshtain puts some of the blame on the American media for its laziness in framing discussions. "Augustine," she said, "would be very resistant to the habit of adjusting political convictions to fit religious ones, or vice versa."