Houston had a major problem with mosquitoes in the 1950s. The city's mosquito control district told the public that repellent sprays could not control the mosquito population. Instead, the office said Houston's only recourse was to drain its low-lying areas of water that were serving as mosquito breeding grounds.

"I was in Houston last week and didn't see one solitary mosquito, which is amazing if you knew how Houston was," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Like mosquitoes, if you're going to deal with terrorists you can't just swat them or use insect repellent. You have to drain the swamp. Saddam Hussein is one of the major swamps. The U.S. would be doing the world a favor and acting in the best interest of future citizens of the U.S. by removing Saddam from power."

But would it be ethical?

Inside Washington, D.C., and around the world, a pre-emptive strike on Iraq has been hotly debated. Saying that Hussein poses a threat to U.S. national security and peace in the region, some members of the Bush administration believe that attacking Iraq is necessary to force a "regime change." This week, both Pakistan and Russia have condemned the U.S. plans. The World Council of Churches last week urged the Bush administration to halt its "rush to war" in favor of diplomatic measures.

Christianity Today contacted several Christian leaders to ask what circumstances would make a pre-emptive strike on Iraq the moral option. Most of those interviewed applied just-war theory to determine the situation's morality. However, two sources who do not subscribe to the theory said any preemptive attack would be immoral.

"Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, you turn him the other also,'" said Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. "But President George Bush, who claims to be following Jesus Christ, says, 'According to the gospel of Cheney and Rumsfeld, if you think someone wants to strike you on the right cheek, hit him as hard as you can.'"

Volf says that the motive behind the suggested first strike is not national security but access to Middle East oil. "We have to have courage to look the truth in the eyes," he says. "Now is the time to act. Once the war is started, then it becomes more difficult."

Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, says that nations can slide down a slippery slope when justifying action by claiming it is a response to threats. "As a pacifist, I find this problematic," Hauerwas says. "No country is going to tell you that it ever fought an offensive war. But if the U.S. attacks, it is an offensive move. Where does a nation draw the line?"

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Just cause?

Under just-war theory, as commonly held, several criteria must be met before military engagement: It must be conducted by a proper authority with just cause, right intentions, a reasonable chance of success, and using means proportional to the ends.

Sources for this article agreed that if an operation in Iraq is launched, it would have to be carefully planned to limit noncombatant causalities, be fought with moral means, and have a clear objective from the beginning.

"If all we do is blast out a regime and conditions of long-term civil war are all that's left, then the operation can hardly be justified," says Jim Skillen of the Center for Public Justice. "Are the countries around Iraq prepared to work with us to make sure a better regime gets in, and not a worse one? Does the U.S. have the support of allies to do that while rebuilding Afghanistan? There has to be an agreement and not a presumption that the U.N. will pick up the work."

Opinions differ, however, about whether the U.S. has just cause.

"The burden of proof is high for anyone who would claim to act preemptively," says David Gushee, associate professor of moral philosophy at Union University. "Just-war theory is a paradigm to make resorting to war law-governed and debatable in a public setting. It establishes the basic perimeter that use of force must be the last resort. You never initiate an attack. It is a defensive theory."

Gushee says that for a nation to strike first it must show irrefutable proof of "hostile intentions, massing of forces, or otherwise clear evidence you are about to be struck." He says that in the current situation, this is not the case, at least not by the evidence thus far presented to the public.

"The threshold has not been reached," he said. "In fact, I think that the U.S. or Israel is more likely to suffer a catastrophic use of weapons of mass destruction if we attack Iraq first than if we were to use nonmilitary means to accomplish our goals."

Robert Maginnis, Family Research Council's vice president of policy, says that two requirements must be met to justify an attack on Iraq: irrefutable evidence connecting Hussein to the attacks of September 11 and proof that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are being prepared for imminent use.

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"If you fulfill these, an attack is justified because we have been struck and will be struck again," Maginnis told CT. "The president has an obligation to communicate why he is asking our nation to sacrifice, as well as why he is willing to sacrifice combatants and innocents on the other side."

Skillen agrees that the U.S. has to prove imminent danger. However, questions about Iraq's intent to attack other nations or use weapons against them, he says, have to be separated from the war on terrorism. Whether Iraq is planning to launch aggressive efforts or whether it funds terrorism are two different issues that should not be confused, Skillen argues.

On top of that distinction, he says, the U.S. has to prove why the need for action is now urgent.

"Part of what has to be presented for further military action is an argument that we are no longer in a position to withstand Hussein doing what he has always done," Skillen told CT. "In other words, we need to show that what we have been doing in the past is no longer sufficient? If we are not in a worse position than before, what has to be shown is not that he simply is an evil guy. We have to know that the capability is there in his hands, is intended, or could be used tomorrow in a devastating way."

Some Christian leaders say that the U.S. already has enough justification for an attack. "We need to remind ourselves that we were attacked on September 11," says Richard Land. "An act of war was committed against us. If you are looking for just cause, we have already passed that threshold."

He says that Hussein's refusal to allow weapon inspections and his previous assassination attempt of former President Bush also constitute grounds for preemptive strike. Land says the Iraq situation passes just-war criteria of last resort and proportionality. "The only way we will remove the threat is to remove Hussein," he says. "The human cost of not taking Hussein out and removing his government as a producer, proliferator, and proponent of the use of weapons of mass destruction means we can either pay now or we can pay a lot more later."

Land told Christianity Today that the operation has moral ends. "Our goal is not to kill the Iraqi people. Our goal is not to impose a government on the Iraqi people. Our goal is not to conquer and subjugate the Iraqi people," Land says. "Our goal is to remove a really atrocious, war-crimes-committing dictator who terrorizes and enslaves his own people."

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Rich Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president of government affairs, told CT that Hussein's involvement with Al Qaeda provides ample justification for attack. However, other qualifiers must precede invasion. For example, he says, Congress needs to ratify the decision. This, along with building a coalition of allies, would signify proper authority.

If Congress or other nations do not approve of a U.S. strike, it may be a sign that it is not the moral option. Gushee told Christianity Today that ensuring that U.S. actions have the best motives is necessary to maintaining the nation's character. "I like thinking that I live in a nation that exercises its tremendous power with moral restraint," he says. "Even though we were horribly victimized on September 11, our character as a nation is still relevant. We can't just do whatever we feel like doing in response to what was done to us."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor of Christianity Today.