Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably America's greatest theologian, often observed that it is not the bad people we have to worry about but the good people. By "good people" Niebuhr meant those who are so convinced of their own righteousness as to be blind to their capacity for evil. These are the ones who really ought to concern us.
One year after the war in Iraq began, Niebuhr's warning is on target. Consider what the year has revealed. We have learned that this war was on the administration's agenda when it took office, months before 9/11. The Bush administration wanted this war and was in no mood to build the international coalition or consensus that might have given it legitimacy and heightened the chances of post-war success. This crowd was too sure it was right to do it right.
The year has also revealed that the three oft-repeated reasons for war were largely without substance. Those reasons, some stated explicitly while others were implied, were that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks, that Iraq was linked in substantive ways to al-Qaida and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including an active nuclear weapons program. Adding the three equaled the casus belli conclusion: Iraq posed an imminent threat to U.S. national security. Though the United States had not been attacked by Iraq, war -- a pre-emptive war -- was necessary.
None of these three reasons for war have been proved. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz even acknowledged that the weapons of mass destruction argument was simply the best way to sell the war to the American public. Last fall, a sheepish President Bush had to correct his own vice president by acknowledging there was no actual evidence linking Saddam to 9/11. And it seems that with respect to terrorism and al-Qaida, the war in Iraq has proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, now Iraq is a center of terrorism and a theater of operations for al-Qaida. Once again this crowd was too certain it was right for it to do right by checking its facts and having solid evidence to support its allegations.
Given the hideous record of Saddam's regime, one might manage to overlook all of the above. But perhaps the most serious failure came not before the war, but after. So confident was the administration of its power and virtue that it lacked a credible plan for post-war Iraq. Imagining that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators, valuable time and trust were squandered in the months following the war. As post-war reconstruction has bogged down and liberation became occupation, ordinary Iraqis, who were willing to give the United States a chance to make good on its promises, have grown angry and distrustful. The future appears ominous.
The administration was so mesmerized by U.S. military might and unrivaled technological prowess -- which did indeed prove excellent at the work of destruction -- that it was blind to what cannot be accomplished by bombs, bullets or technical means alone, that is, the work of construction, the work of building and rebuilding a society. Sources inside the administration have made amply clear that the State Department's own careful plans for post-war Iraq were sent to the circular file by the master of uber-hubris, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Only now are they being dusted off and new consideration given to engaging the United Nations and international community.
Let us hope that the year's events and experience might have brought some salutary self-doubt to the Bush administration. Let us hope too that the administration begins to speak truthfully to the American public of its plans, its aims and agendas. Moreover, let us hope that the American public ceases to write the administration a 9/11-induced blank check and demands candor and accountability.
Niebuhr commented that, "Man's sin is never mere ignorance of his ignorance. It is always partly an effort to obscure his blindness by overestimating the degree of his sight and to obscure his insecurity by stretching his power beyond its limits." If events of the past year have revealed anything, it is how greatly the Bush administration has overestimated the degree of its own sight.
It is the season of Lent, a time when Christians examine themselves with fierce honesty and repent of their sins. If the United States is to have anything like success in Iraq and civil war in Iraq is to be averted, repenting of our sins of arrogance and deception would be an excellent place to start.
As the president's favorite philosopher once remarked to some who were absolutely certain of their own virtue, "If you were blind you would have no guilt, but because you say 'We see' your guilt remains" (John 9:41). May we seek God's forgiveness for our claim to see clearly and, acknowledging our blindness, may we gain both sight and insight.
Anthony B. Robinson is senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church: United Church of Christ in Seattle. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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