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

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. About 200 John Carroll faculty and staff met to consider how to address unknown outcomes in the classroom. Lt. Col. David Hagg, who operates the
campus ROTC, asked the gathering to keep an open mind about military service. Campus ministry discussed plans for prayer. Ryan, who helped organize the meeting, said his campus work against the Gulf War was harder than this time around. "A dozen years ago, people were cautious and afraid to sign (a letter of protest)," he said. "We got very few signatures from business faculty. Now we have business and science professors as well as the ones you expect from the humanities and social sciences." Francesco Cesareo, who leads the campus Institute of Catholic Studies, said Elshtain argued at a private dinner that Vietnam-era faculty across the nation are reliving their protest days free of serious philosophical inquiry. Cesareo said Elshtain makes a strong moral case for military action against Iraq, emphasizing Pope John Paul II's writings on human rights. In April, Basic Books will publish Elshtain's newest book, "Just War Against 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 soon as 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 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."

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