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 principles emerging from the Bible and Christian tradition can and must be applied to public life. My comments about the looming war were offered from within an ancient tradition of such thought.

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

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

Christian involvement in the debate over war goes back to the very origins of our faith and extends throughout the entire history of the church. Those familiar with this tradition see war-making through a grid so well-established as to be second nature. Pacifist Christians reject all war. Crusaders fight wars for what they believe are holy causes. The just war tradition says war must be subjected to review by rational criteria grounded in principles of justice and peace. The newer just peacemaking tradition emphasizes the peace efforts that must be attempted before war can be justified. All except the crusade tradition lament the horrors of war and begin 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 any encroachment of crusade-type thinking. Testing a possible war by just war criteria, I concluded that, given the available information, an Iraq war probably failed the tests that theory imposes. I was clear that just peacemaking criteria had not been met.

But the implacable George W. Bush, a fellow Christian in the White House, brushed aside a chorus of such skeptical voices and launched an attack on Iraq he clearly had been planning for many months. The extraordinary skill of our military personnel; the superiority of our training, tactics, and technology; and the inherent weakness of a regime based on fear and lies all contributed to our defeat of Saddam Hussein in less than a month.

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

Outcomes do not settle moral arguments, however. If moral principles apply to an action, they apply intrinsically -- to the action in and of itself -- rather than solely to the consequences of the action. The stunning success 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 any nation's international conduct:

The United States destroyed Saddam's regime because we could. An irritating enemy in the heart of the Middle East was eliminated. And the smashmouth nature of the defeat sent a shiver down the spine of every enemy of the United States anywhere in the world. If we did it to Saddam, we can and 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 of international life? Can Christians really accept that moral standards are irrelevant to the relations between nations?

The viciousness of Saddam's regime has become all the more clear since his fall. It really was a "republic of fear,'' and its collapse brings relief to millions of long-terrorized people. The toppling of murderous dictators is indeed a moral victory, a good in the world, and one that reflects very deeply the biblical mandate for justice. If morality counts at all in international life, if biblical principles do apply to the real world, setting the oppressed free is the best moral reason for doing what we did.

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

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

I conclude with the paradox that the destruction of Saddam is both a good in itself and a dangerous precedent. I also conclude that Christians must not abandon the ancient moral traditions that in their own small way have attempted to keep human beings from butchering each other through the routine resort to war.

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