The swift and devastating defeat of the Iraqi regime brought to an end the many months of debate about the morality of such a war. Reviewing my many columns about the subject over the last year, though, I am inclined to offer one final retrospective reflection.

The premise of all Christian social ethics is that moral principlesemerging from the Bible and Christian tradition can and must be applied topublic life. My comments about the looming war were offered from within anancient tradition of such thought.

Many reject the premise of Christian social ethics altogether. Withinthe church one finds privatists who believe that the Christian faith appliesonly to spiritual matters or at most to personal morality. Others doubt thecontemporary applicability of biblical texts or of ancient Christiantraditions. Some believe the only relevant Christian moral obligation is toobey our government and support its decisions.

Non-Christians frequently reject Christian thought related to publiclife as simply irrelevant or nonsensical.

Christian involvement in the debate over war goes back to the veryorigins of our faith and extends throughout the entire history of thechurch. Those familiar with this tradition see war-making through a grid sowell-established as to be second nature. Pacifist Christians reject all war.Crusaders fight wars for what they believe are holy causes. The just wartradition says war must be subjected to review by rational criteria groundedin principles of justice and peace. The newer just peacemaking traditionemphasizes the peace efforts that must be attempted before war can bejustified. All except the crusade tradition lament the horrors of war andbegin with a bias against it.

This long tradition of thought governed my own approach to the Iraq war.

I am not a pacifist. But I am also an ardent opponent of anyencroachment of crusade-type thinking. Testing a possible war by just warcriteria, I concluded that, given the available information, an Iraq warprobably failed the tests that theory imposes. I was clear that justpeacemaking criteria had not been met.

But the implacable George W. Bush, a fellow Christian in the WhiteHouse, brushed aside a chorus of such skeptical voices and launched anattack on Iraq he clearly had been planning for many months. Theextraordinary skill of our military personnel; the superiority of ourtraining, tactics, and technology; and the inherent weakness of a regimebased on fear and lies all contributed to our defeat of Saddam Hussein inless than a month.

Though there were a large number of Iraqi casualties, our own losseswere relatively minimal. By any military standard it was a stunninglysuccessful operation. Shock and awe, indeed.

Outcomes do not settle moral arguments, however. If moral principlesapply to an action, they apply intrinsically -- to the action in and ofitself -- rather than solely to the consequences of the action. The stunningsuccess of this military campaign does not settle the moral question.

It is tempting to listen to the voices of the foreign policy "realists''at this point and simply abandon the relevance of moral criteria for anynation's international conduct:

The United States destroyed Saddam's regime because we could. Anirritating enemy in the heart of the Middle East was eliminated. And thesmashmouth nature of the defeat sent a shiver down the spine of every enemyof the United States anywhere in the world. If we did it to Saddam, we canand just might do it to you. He who has the most power wins.

But do we really want to succumb to such a ruthless vision ofinternational life? Can Christians really accept that moral standards areirrelevant to the relations between nations?

The viciousness of Saddam's regime has become all the more clear sincehis fall. It really was a "republic of fear,'' and its collapse bringsrelief to millions of long-terrorized people. The toppling of murderousdictators is indeed a moral victory, a good in the world, and one thatreflects very deeply the biblical mandate for justice. If morality counts atall in international life, if biblical principles do apply to the realworld, setting the oppressed free is the best moral reason for doing what wedid.

But even so, it is hard to imagine any coherent version of Christianjust war theory stretching to now include blessing the routine pre-emptivedestruction of unjust regimes by other countries that have the power to doso.

Just war thinking is intended to limit the resort to force, not expandit.

I conclude with the paradox that the destruction of Saddam is both agood in itself and a dangerous precedent. I also conclude that Christiansmust not abandon the ancient moral traditions that in their own small wayhave attempted to keep human beings from butchering each other through theroutine resort to war.