March 30, 2007
We are in the midst of March Madness, the time of year when many of us become
avid fans of college basketball. I was listening to two sports reporters the other day describe a classic past battle between University of Michigan and Southern Illinois, teams which included NBA legends, Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd. The commentator recalled how while watching the game, his co-announcer said, “looking at these two teams, if I was to start an NBA franchise, I would select… Greg Kelso.” So much for insight and prognostication!
In a similar vein, but on a much more serious subject, I am here to say that I was
wrong! As many will readily tell you, I do not use those words too often, but tonight I am here to tell you that I was wrong. Granted I was wrong along with many others and I was wrong due to misinformation. Note, I am qualifying and rationalizing, but nonetheless I was wrong.
What was I wrong about?…. Supporting the war in Iraq in 2003. Four
years have passed, more than the time of U.S. involvement in World War II. I’m not sure which is more frustrating for us in New Orleans, the governmental response to Katrina or the handling of the war in Iraq. There are many similarities. It began with high expectations, then plummeted by reality. Clearly we are witness to a failure of Federal Government to do what it says it will do. There has been open deception, which leads to suspicion and lack of faith in leadership. The big difference is that 3000 U.S. troops have been killed, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and there is no end in sight.
The War in Iraq is continually in the news, as it should be. Congress has now voted for a pullout with timetables. President Bush threatens a veto, trying to paint opponents as undermining the good men and women fighting for freedom and democracy and the War on Terrorism, appealing to a macho mentality when suggesting that his opponents simply wish to “cut and run” by surrendering.
Let’s be clear on what all of us support: We all care about our men and women, and other nations’ soldiers, who risk their lives for duty; this includes the chaplains who serve them. We all want to see continued funding for the troops who are in Iraq to be able to do their jobs. This includes armor, supplies and weaponry, some of which have not been adequately provided throughout this war. We also recognize the need for generous health care and benefits for military members and their families. The effects of war last long beyond the battlefield. The Veterans Administration must also be provided with quality facilities and funding in order to offer life-long care for the wounded and their families.
So far what I have said is no different than what you can read in the newspaper, Newsweek or Time. What is it that I can say that is different? You should know that I am prompted to speak at this time based on a resolution passed by the board of our Union for Reform Judaism in recent days. What is a URJ resolution? These resolutions are a way that we as an organized Jewish community bring the strength of numbers as we speak what we see as truth to power. Our message reflects an interpretation and application of Jewish values to critical issues of our time.
They are not simply Jewish Democrats outnumbering Jewish Republicans. As in all Jewish matters, there are different opinions, so that the resolution in its body makes it clear that it does not represent the views of every Reform Jew, nor does it imply that if you do not agree, you are a not a good Jew. It reflects consensus and is consistent with earlier resolutions.
In preparing for tonight I looked at my archives and the sermon I wrote for January 31, 2003. At that time, using traditional Jewish legal understandings, we spoke of a possible war with Iraq as a “milchemet reshut- a discretionary war.” This type of war was permitted, only when there was a clear threat, following serious and honest deliberation with appropriate authorities, and only then with a variety of restrictions. And so I wrote the following in 2003: “I believe it is fair to say that Iraq is a threat to the United States and its allies. Iraq has attacked Kuwait and Israel in the past, both allies of the United States. Iraqi links to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups which have attacked either the United States or its allies seem clear. Whether it is an imminent threat or simply potential is no longer meaningful in our day… The goal is to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The goal is to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, to rid them of a reign of terror that has swept that nation for a generation or more.”
The problem is that not only me, but most Americans reached this same conclusion, but based on erroneous information. The bi-partisan 9/11 Commission has made it clear that “Saddam was not close to developing or obtaining nuclear or biological weapons, that his chemical weapons capacity was almost eliminated, and that he did not cooperate with Al Qaeda in attacks on the United States.” (URJ Resolution) I now believe that the Bush Administration had this information and did all in its power to mislead the American public in order to proceed with a tunnel vision agenda.
I am certainly no fan of Saddam Hussein and I might still have wanted to see him removed regardless of the faulty information, but the missteps that followed are grounds for a reassessment. David Saperstein, the head of our Reform Religious Action Center has put it this way: “The war has vividly demonstrated the limits of American power to reshape the world in accordance with our vision and interests…. Our bombs may be smart, but our tactics from the moment the occupation began, have not been. American setbacks curtail our ability to project our power and pursue our interests.”
So where are we now and how do our Jewish values speak to the situation? Jewish tradition teaches us to continually “seek peace and pursue it.” U.S. policy has been heavy on military and light on diplomacy from the very beginning. With the factional fighting, outside influences and a light base of support for U.S. involvement within Iraq, the diplomatic path is required, including to dialogue with those with whom we disagree.
The reality of the war has been that thousands of Iraqis have been killed. Their land is in turmoil including their agriculture and economy. The URJ resolution looks at the Jewish value of Baal Tashchit, the Biblical idea that we are not to destroy fruit trees in the course of war. In later Rabbinic teachings, this principle has evolved into the idea that “war should be fought in a manner so as to allow normal civilian life to resume after the war…. The failure of the U.S. government to secure the civilian infrastructure in the aftermath of the successful invasion and the failure in the following three years to rebuild effectively ignores these values.” (URJ resolution)
These are not simply the views of the URJ, but they are cited as a major reason of the failure of U.S. policy in Iraq by the bi-partisan Baker-Hamilton Report, a group created and then ignored by the Bush administration.
In halacha, Jewish law, we learn that if the rabbis apply law to a situation and unintended consequences are the result, then the implementation of the law can be changed or suspended. In other words, as any fool knows, “my mind is made up don’t confuse me with the facts” is not a sound maxim for foreign policy. There is a time to say “I was wrong.” and change course. The American people have voted to make that statement. Now the Congress reflects that vote. I concur with the URJ and many others that now is a time for a change in policy.
Last March in a statement on Iraq by the CCAR our Reform Rabbinic body shares our dilemma in trying to decide what is right. “Some who supported the war now think we should withdraw immediately, while some who opposed the war believe we cannot begin to leave until the situation stabilizes. Opponents of immediate withdrawal argue that the U.S. should not establish a timetable for withdrawal because if we withdraw too soon, Iraq will devolve into civil war and become a haven for terrorists. Opponents also note that if we set deadlines and then fail to meet them, we will be perceived as weak by our enemies. Supporters of a more imminent withdrawal argue that Americans and Iraqis continue to die as a result of the insurgency, and that rather than maintaining order in Iraq, the presence of the United States as an occupying power engenders resentment and resistance from the populace and creates sympathy for the insurgents to continue fighting.”
That was last March. This is now and hundreds of lives have been lost in between. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but can see that the current policy of our government is not the way. Stay the course, does not always reach the desired destination. Stubbornness and arrogance are closely related.
I support the basic message of our URJ resolution which begins by first calling for the moral and financial support of our troops in the field and when they come home, along with economic support for Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure. Most significantly the resolution states that the President should announce a clear timetable for the phased and expeditious withdrawal of troops from Iraq and opposes an escalation in troop strength. Third there is a call for reconciliation talks among all effected interested parties, including international involvement. At this time, this seems to be the prudent course of action to bring peace and a future to the region and the world.
Friends, I could be totally wrong again. But I can not be silent and we should not be silent. I approach this issue not in a partisan way, but according to the Jewish principles that I believe apply to this situation. I certainly can respect those who disagree and interpret tradition and the political possibilities differently than I do.
I conclude with the same words I wrote in 2003: “May God bless America with the vision to see the full diplomatic landscape with clarity, with the wisdom to discern between truth and deception, with the strength to bring greater peace and security to our land and the world. Oseh Hashalom- May the ultimate source of peace bring peace.”