As president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Richard Land is one of the most influential moral voices on the conservative Christian scene. He spoke to Beliefnet's Holly Lebowitz Rossi about why, as a Christian, he supports the war in Iraq as much today as he did when it began 3 years ago.

Do you support President Bush and the war in Iraq as it stands now, 3 years after it began?

I do. I think that the progress in Iraq has been very encouraging. After all, we've had 3 elections in the past 15 months where the Iraqi people, braving threats of violence and intimidation and retribution, have come out and voted in larger numbers than we did in our presidential election, which isn't very flattering to us and our commitment to democracy, but does tend to underscore the Iraqis' commitment to democratic self-government and the understanding that their votes make a difference.

Increasingly, the Iraqis are taking over the defense of their country. I'm told that about 60 percent of the country geographically has been turned over to the Iraqi army and police forces, and that by Labor Day, it'll be 80 percent. They are performing very well, and this is making a real difference. In the latest air assault [Operation Swarmer, in mid-March 2006], there were 1,500 troops—800 of them were Iraqis, and 700 of them were American paratroopers. The Iraqis give every indication of understanding what democratic self-government is, and understanding that they want it. I find it particularly intriguing, in light of public opinion in the United States, that the Iraqis, when they are polled, are more positive about their country's future than Americans are about their country, and certainly more than Americans are about Iraq.

That was your view of events from a political perspective. How do you reflect on the war as a Christian?

I believe in just-war theory, and the first item in just-war criteria is that it has to be a just cause. I believe our cause in Iraq was just; I think it was one of the more noble things we've done. We went to liberate a country that was in the grip of a terrible dictator who had perpetrated horrible atrocities and crimes against humanity, against his own people, as well as his neighbors. We removed him and we are giving the Iraqis the ability to defend themselves and to build a stable democracy.


I as a Christian believe that all human beings have unique dignity and the right to freedom, the right to freedom of conscience. I believe the Declaration of Independence, which says that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The people who were responsible for the drafting and approval of that were people who were operating mostly from a Judeo-Christian worldview. They understood that to be what the Bible taught, and I agree with them. The Iraqis have the same right to freedom.


I would also say that there's a very important principle in scripture that says that to whom much is given, much is required. As an American, I have been given much. We have freedoms that we didn't die for, we have freedoms that we haven't sacrificed much for. To use a biblical metaphor, we drink from wells we didn't dig, and we live in houses we didn't build. We benefit from tremendous rights that we didn't do much sacrificing for, at least not in my generation. My father did, my father was in a good deal of combat in World War II to help defend and secure those freedoms. But we have been given much. And to whom much is given, much is required. And I believe that makes it incumbent upon us as Americans to help others when we can to secure the same freedom that we have. The idea of American exceptionalism is not a doctrine of empire, it's not a doctrine of domination, it's a doctrine of responsibility and obligation. We have a responsibility and an obligation based upon the blessings that have been showered upon us as a nation and as a people to help others when we can.


Obviously there are some situations, there are other parts of just-war theory that would mitigate against our ability to do so. North Korea comes to mind. North Korea is a situation where we certainly would like to help the North Koreans obtain their freedom, and there are certainly ways in which we can put pressure on the North Korean regime, but military action is not an option, because it would not pass the test of proportionality.


Even without nuclear weapons, the estimates are that if there were to be armed hostilities breaking out on the Korean peninsula, that close to a million Koreans, North and South, would die within a month. That's the level of armed might on both sides on the peninsula. So the last thing that any human being would want is to see an outbreak of military hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, conventional or nuclear.

North Korea isn't the only other dictatorship in the world. According to biblical principles, does the American military have an obligation to go into other countries that are suffering under unjust regimes, in Africa or Iran?

You have to use all of the tests. You have to use the test of just cause, just intent, you have to have a declaration of war or a joint resolution from Congress, it has to be authorized by legitimate authority, which in the case of the United States is the elected Congress of the United States. It has to meet the test of proportionality—will the good gained outweigh the suffering in the loss of life.

You talked about some future examples, let's talk about some past ones. I argued for intervention in Rwanda. If we had intervened in Rwanda, it would have taken probably 10,000 Marines to save about 750,000 Africans from being hacked to death. I think we're morally culpable for not having done so. I think we should have intervened in Bosnia, and I argued in 1991 that we should have. One of the biggest tests that we face as an international community today is not how we deal with aggression from one state to another, but how we deal with a state that is committing crimes against humanity and is acting in an aggressive way that amounts to genocide against its own people. I argued for American-led NATO or U.N. intervention in Bosnia, and I argued for the same thing in Kosovo.

Do you argue for the same in Sudan now?

I sure do. I think there needs to be international action. The sad truth is that without American leadership, the international community won't do it. They should. NATO should have intervened in Bosnia. NATO should have intervened in Kosovo. But only after we were willing to do it ourselves if they didn't support us, they finally agreed to help us in Kosovo. And they never did agree to do it in Bosnia until after the terrible kinds of atrocities that we saw at Srebrenitza.


I think that we have an obligation and a responsibility when we can to act. We could stop what's going on in Darfur, and I believe that we should. I would not use American troops, except as a last resort, but I would use American logistics, and I would use American leadership to say, we must do this. This is not the kind of thing that human beings should allow to happen to other human beings in the 21st century. We as an international community must act to stop it.


This is a genocide going on in Sudan, and one of tests is, when you can do something and you don't, then you become culpable morally for not having done something. I believe that the United States and the international community are culpable for what happened in Rwanda. It didn't have to happen, it could have been stopped with minimal effort and minimal sacrifice on the part of the western powers. We just didn't care enough to do it, and it's morally reprehensible. I'm not saying this after the fact, I said it in print and on the air about Bosnia-Herzegovina, about Kosovo, and about Rwanda, and I've said it about Darfur.


Getting back to Iraq, if the situation were to devolve into sectarian civil war, what kind of moral responsibility would the United States have at that point?

I think our responsibility would be to try to do what we could to help bring about its end, to bring about a cessation of ethnic conflict. I think we have to ask ourselves, what are the consequences? This is a question too few American commentators are asking, and they need to do more of it. What are the consequences of failure in Iraq? The consequences of failure in Iraq are horrific for the security of the United States, and for the security of moderate Islamic regimes and moderate followers of Islam around the world. The consequences of failure in Iraq are too horrendous to allow failure to happen.


So, I would argue that it must be the policy of the United States to help bring about a stable democratic government in Iraq and take whatever steps we can, along with moderate Iraqis, to ensure that civil war doesn't happen. I must say to you that I have been very encouraged by the admirable restraint that has been shown by the Iraqi people in the face of supreme provocation by the radical Islamic jihadists who have tried to foment a civil war, have so far been unsuccessful in doing so.

President Bush's speech this week urged Americans not to rush to judgment based on the violent images from Iraq they see on the evening news. As a religious leader, do you see this as the president asking us to take this war on faith? Is it easier for people of faith to relate to that request?

I don't think it's easier for people of faith to be skeptical about the national news media. That's what the president is talking about, he's talking about a national news media people of faith and otherwise believe have presented a very biased view of this war. We believe that based upon our own conversations with American military who have served in Iraq and who have a very different viewpoint, by and large, from the one that's presented in the electronic news media and The New York Times, and from our discussions with Iraqis.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, I had a chance to spend about an hour with the speaker of the Iraqi Assembly, who is a Sunni Muslim, and he was very optimistic about the future. He went out of his way to say thank you. He said, "I want to thank you and your country for all the wonderful young men and women that you've sent and continue to send to help us secure and defend our freedom. We are very grateful."

Somehow that doesn't seem to make it on CBS and ABC and NBC and CNN and The New York Times. But many of us have other sources.


I think the president is saying there is another reality than the one that is being presented by our national news media. Something has to account for more Iraqis having a positive view about their nation's future than Americans have a positive view about their nation's future.


Over the course of the war, has anything changed about your support for it?

No, I don't think so. In hindsight, I think there are things that could have been done differently, but that always happens once armed conflict begins. There are some strategy issues that could have been done differently. I think we should probably have put more troops in to present overwhelming force, as we did in Germany and Japan after World War II. I think we should have put more troops in, certainly in the immediate aftermath to keep the looting from taking place in Baghdad, when I think we lost a lot of confidence from individual Iraqis at the very beginning that we were going to be able to provide security.


I profoundly wish that the Abu Ghraib atrocities had not taken place, and I am grateful that our government has prosecuted the people responsible to the fullest extent of the law. Some of them are in prison now, as they deserve to be, for having dishonored their country and dishonored their uniform and having committed human-rights abuses that are grotesque in nature. I wish we had gone to more training of the military and police forces in the way that we're training them now earlier, but then again, those are the kinds of things that are the benefit of hindsight. You don't have the benefit of hindsight when you're making decisions in a war zone.


What about in the area of justification for the war?

My justification for the war was not based upon weapons of mass destruction. To me, and I said so at the time, this was a continuation of Gulf War I, which was an act of aggression by Saddam Hussein. We did not have a peace treaty after Gulf War I, we had a cease-fire. And the cease-fire was predicated upon Saddam Hussein complying with U.N. resolutions, which he did not do for 12 years. So finally, after 12 years, we continued the war against the man who was a very dangerous and de-stabilizing influence. We're seeing now, with the release of these documents that have just been released to the public, that the connections between Saddam Hussein and terrorists were far more extensive than some had believed.


Whether he had weapons of mass destruction, and of course everybody believed that he did—every intelligence agency in the world believed that he did—he certainly, it seems, was trying to keep the ability to reconstitute those weapons as soon as the pressure was off. The idea that he could reconstitute these weapons, and because of the extensive contacts and relationships and the thousands of terrorists he was personally allowing to be trained in his country—we now know from the Iraqi secret-service documents that there were extensive connections there—that at some point, for a quid pro quo, that he might give some anthrax or some ricin or some other biological weapons, which could be used against the United States, to terrorists,. Given a post-9/11 world, I don't think that's something we can allow to happen before we respond.


For me, the overriding argument was always the President's argument that after 9/11, we had to acknowledge that the way we'd been doing business in the Middle East for the last 50 years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, was erroneous and wrong. We had been supporting fascistic and oligarchical regimes, first in the name of anti-communism, and then in the name of stable oil supplies, but these repressive and terrible regimes were the breeding ground for terrorism.


The only way to adequately address long-term the question of radical Islamic jihadism was to help build stable democracies in the Middle East. The idea that Arabs don't want stable democracies is, in my opinion, at root a racist belief. I think human beings anywhere, given the choice, will choose governments that are accountable to them, and not governments that feed the ambitions of megalomaniacal dictators.


And you feel that Christian tradition supports that belief?

I do. We didn't go into Iraq to conquer Iraq, we didn't go into Iraq to subjugate Iraq, we went in to liberate Iraq. We turned over sovereignty to a provisional government, and now there's an elected government that is in the process of forming a constitution. We are there as guests of the Iraqi government. If the Iraqi government asked us to leave, we'd leave. But the last thing the Iraqi government wants is for us to leave. They want us to leave when they're able to defend themselves and they're able to defend their society. We're helping them to do that, and when that's done, we'll leave.


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