John Kerry, Liberal Christians, and Preemption

“I cannot profess Christ as my Savior and simultaneously support pre-emptive war.”
—Jim Winkler, United MethodistChurch, February 26, 2003

I’m still searching for the political fallout—for the outrage. It has been a week since Senator John F. Kerry, before a huge audience on national television, came out in favor of pre-emptive war. Put differently, he firmly favored the doctrine that sent liberals into a rage and began their irreversible split from President George W. Bush. I’ve waited and watched for the criticism; yet, the left has responded with dead silence.

During the first presidential debate on September 30, Kerry said: “The president always has the right, and always has had the right, for pre-emptive strike. That was a great doctrine throughout the Cold War…. No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.” There is much that could be said about that statement, as well as the contradictory caveat that followed, in which Kerry averred that all U.S. pre-emptive action must first pass a “global test;” nonetheless, the point is that John F. Kerry fully backed pre-emptive war. That is a crucial development.

Consider: pre-emption became a major issue after September 11. The Bush administration concluded that in a war against an enemy that cannot be deterred the surest way to prevent another September 11 is to act pre-emptively.

Of course, it can be argued that pre-emptive action against terrorists and the nations that harbor them is not really pre-emption, but, rather, the only response to a war begun by terrorists against the United States long ago—certainly since at least the attack that killed 241 Marines in Beirut in October 1983. Still, on September 17, 2002 the Bush administration released, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” The “NSS” laid out a legal basis for pre-emption, stating that international law recognizes “that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack.” The NSS states that the Bush administration would always seek “to enlist the support of the international community.” However, the United States “will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.”

This drama was played out in Iraq in 2003, as President Bush sought out the ruthless Saddam Hussein, a man who harbored some of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, such as Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Here, too, some argued that Iraq had long ago targeted and killed Americans, and thus a U.S. invasion should not be considered pre-emptive. Yet, the primary intent of a war in Iraq was to head off a perceived potential disaster; so, in that sense, it was pre-emptive.

Liberals went ballistic when Bush moved in this direction. The hostility was especially acute among the religious left—Bush’s Christian brethren.

Writing in the April 2003 issue of The Christian Century, Robert Bellah, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, called the Bush NSS “the most explicit blueprint in history for American world domination.”

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, described the Bush doctrine as “a dark vision of eternal war,” both immoral and a violation of international law. “We who follow Jesus simply cannot support this,” judged Winkler. “I cannot profess Christ as my Savior and simultaneously support pre-emptive war. I can deny Jesus and support war but I will not.”

In a pastoral letter sent to 8.4 million Methodists, Bishop Sharon Brown, president of the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, wrote that pre-emptive action against Iraq would go “against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel…. To be silent in the face of such a prospect is not an option for the followers of Christ.”

Likewise, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis asserted: “Neither international law nor Christian ‘just-war’ doctrine allow pre-emptive military action by one state against another.” Writing in the Boston Globe, Wallis contended that “the strong majority” of Christian leaders had “concluded that a doctrine of pre-emptive war to change a regime, however evil or threatening that regime may be, is not acceptable.”

Of course, not merely the religious left objected. In a March 23, 2003 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in which he labeled John Ashcroft a “religious fanatic,” Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., dubbed the Iraq action a “misadventure” that was “alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor.… Today it is we Americans who live in infamy.” The president’s doctrine of pre-emption, said Schlesinger, assigned America the role of “the world’s judge, jury and executioner.”

Clearly, the left detests pre-emption. So, how can liberals passively accept Senator Kerry’s sudden support for the doctrine? If a President John Kerry attacked a country pre-emptively, would liberals rally behind him, abandoning their angriest objection to President George W. Bush’s use of force in Iraq? Would the religious left declare Kerry’s actions un-Christian, or would they continue to say nothing? This is confusing.