In a speech at the United Nations not long before the start of the war against Iraq, Nelson Mandela made a number of comments that many American found objectionable. At the end of the speech, however, he said something in frustration that got spontaneous applause from the audience present: the trouble with the United States President George W. Bush is that “he doesn’t think properly.” Mandela was in deadly earnest, but the British-sounding criticism was comic. It was easy to imagine Mandela as an African schoolboy hearing his schoolmaster using the phrase as stern disapproval of an essay submitted by one of Mandela’s careless classmates.
We know that President Bush is a graduate of Yale and Harvard, but we also know that he often got the American equivalent of schoolmaster’s criticism for his performance in college and graduate school. In a commencement address at Yale in the carefree early days of his administration, the President cheerfully reminded all that he received the celebrated gentleman’s “C” when he was a student. Now that the nation has gone to war, however, the question of “thinking properly” is a matter of life and death and no longer something deserving a schoolboy’s smirk. And there’s a good deal to worry Americans in the way in which the President thinks about some things these days.
On the 25th of March, President Bush wisely warned the nation that we couldn’t predict how long the war will last. He followed this immediately with an emphatic assertion: “We cannot know the duration of this war. Yet we know its outcome; we will prevail.” I hope that the United States, Britain, and Australia do win this war and that victory is achieved before this reflection appears in print. It would have been appropriate, of course, for the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. forces to assert his confidence in the strongest possible terms. He stepped over the line, however, when he claimed to know the future. As a matter of fact, there have been overwhelming military forces that have failed against all odds in the past, despite the most advanced technology of their time. Two famous examples are the Spanish Armada’s assault on England and Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem (II Kings 18-19). It is one thing to read the Bible, and to quote the Word of God. It is quite another thing to claim to know what only God knows and to declare what only God can declare.
Regardless of whether our President intends to begin wars, in turn, against each of the nations in what he has identified as “the axis of evil,” his thinking about “weapons of mass destruction” and “preemptive war” is threatening not only to the countries of the Near East, Asia, and Africa but also to Europe, the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Listening to the speeches of their Commander-in-Chief, Americans might have supposed that Iraq was the only state in the world that contemplated the production and stockpiling of WMD–until North Korea announced its own nuclear program. President Bush seemed determined not to be distracted by North Korea, but one or two newspaper stories about the United States “reserving the right” to use nuclear weapons should have reminded even the most forgetful that we ourselves are the largest producer and holder of “weapons of mass destruction.” Russia, too, has a formidable arsenal of such weapons, and the modern state of Israel is the major nuclear power in the Middle East. Recent threats of war over Kashmir reminded the world that both Pakistan and India are also members of the nuclear “club.” Until quite recently it was widely assumed that “the balance of terror” was a deterrent to war and sharply qualified other measures of military might. President Bush’s insistent claim to command the world’s only superpower and his focus on the threat of Iraq, whose nuclear weapons are among the world’s least formidable (if they exist at all), seem odd to others besides Nelson Mandela.
The United States’ doctrine of “preemptive war” is new to us, but it is certainly not new in the history of the world. Most Americans were taught in school that the simple way to tell who was right and who was wrong in a war was to determine who actually started shooting. It is true that “just war” theory has never been very convincing. Even children involved in fights on school playgrounds know that it is not always fair to insist that the child that struck the first blow is wrong. As a minimum rule, however, it seems about the best we have–or had–until President Bush declared the new doctrine. With this new doctrine in place, the end of the war against Iraq may be more threatening to peace in the world than were the first shots in that war. It is high time for Americans, as well as other nations, to make the serious effort to think properly.