Iraq, ISIS and Our Need for Repentance

05/29/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016
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Rand Paul is in the news this week for rightly pointing out that the rise of ISIS can in large part be tied to the disastrous neoconservative policies of the last two decades, which have completely destabilized the region -- most notably the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. After Jeb Bush kept changing his position on the war his brother started, the media has been pushing other Republican candidates to say what they would have done about Iraq "if they had known what we know now." There has been lots of Republican muscular talk about war and foreign policy. But given that "the facts" the United States used to justify the invasion of Iraq were all wrong, most of the candidates have admitted they might not have launched that particular war.

Those responses have caused some backlash from the neocon hawks that still have apparently learned nothing from their desire to invade Iraq in 2003, despite the horrible costs of that decision. If everything hasn't gone the way they claimed it would in Iraq, they say, it is simply the fault of President Obama and has nothing to do with them. Their logic and arrogance is both intellectually ridiculous and morally indefensible.

What we have yet to hear from presidential candidates or the habitual hawks is the appropriate spiritual response to the war in Iraq -- repentance. Instead, we hear this defensive language: "Everybody got it wrong." Well that's not true. The people who ultimately made the decision to invade, occupy and completely destabilize Iraq did indeed get it wrong. But so far, they have been unwilling to admit their incredible mistakes that we all now have to live with: the enormous number of lives lost or permanently damaged; the extremely dangerous exacerbation of the sectarian Sunni/Shia conflict that now rules the entire region; and the creation of the conditions that led to ISIS. Except for Rand Paul, none of the Republican candidates has been willing to admit that ISIS is a consequence of our complete devastation and destabilization of Iraq -- leaving us with the greatest real threat the international community has faced for some time.

Iraq was a clear case of ideology trumping intelligence. The intelligence wasn't just wrong -- it was manipulated. The American public wasn't just misguided -- they were lied to and misled into war. The American government chose to ignore the international community and, most importantly, the United Nations weapons inspectors on the ground, who found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Not only was the supposed U.S. intelligence wrong, but the U.S. strategy for invasion and then occupation showed a clear ignorance to the region's history, politics, culture, religion, and the overarching sectarianism that goes back centuries. U.S. policymakers were clueless of that history and unbelievably arrogant in asserting themselves as liberators and outside arbiters of nation building in the Middle East.

Many Democrats in the House and Senate voted against the war in Iraq, and some courageously so, like Sen. Paul Wellstone who was up for re-election. Hillary Clinton was not one of them. While she had the same intelligence as the others, she wrongly voted yes on the Iraq war. She has since admitted her mistake.

We should not forget that some of those who got it right, and pleaded with the U.S. and U.K. governments not to start a war with Iraq, were Christian leaders from around the world, along with the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide.

Several months before the start of the war, Peter Steinfelz wrote in the New York Times: "Given that the United States is repeatedly said to be a religious country and that over 80 percent of its citizens are reported to be Christians, it is interesting how little has been made of the declarations by so many Christian leaders and ethicists that the Bush administration's proposed war against Iraq is unjust and immoral." The article then lists the large number of U.S. denominations, international church bodies, and leading theologians and ethicists who opposed the war -- but the administration "turned a deaf ear."

Preaching in St. Paul's Cathedral in a memorial service commemorating those who had died in the Iraq war, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said, "When such conflict appeared on the horizon, there were those among both policy-makers and commentators who were able to talk about it without really measuring the price ... Perhaps we have learned something, if only that there is a time to keep silence, a time to let go of the satisfyingly overblown language that is so tempting for human beings when war is in the air."

Let's remember that literally hours after U.S. cruise missiles exploded into Baghdad, the Vatican proclaimed the conflict a "defeat for reason and for the gospel." It was a war, said papal confidant Cardinal Roberto Tucci, that was "beyond all legality and all international legitimacy." But the political leaders failed to listen to the clerical leaders of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

The future pope (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) also made his opposition to the war known, arguing that, "reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist," and saying that the possible positive outcomes were far outweighed by the by the negative consequences of war. He also rightly pointed out that such grave decisions should be made by "the community of nations ... and not by an individual power."

Before the war began, a group of American church leaders issued "A Six Point Plan" that offered clear alternative ways to remove any weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and even ultimately remove Saddam Hussein from power -- without going to war. It called for Hussein's removal from power through an international criminal indictment, the elimination of any weapons of mass destruction he might have through coercive inspections, and the democratic reconstruction of Iraq under international leadership (not U.S. occupation). We said there was a better way than war to solve these real problems and detailed how it might be accomplished. When The Washington Post published the plan on their opinion page under the title "A Third Way is Possible," a contact at the White House told me that "everybody" there had seen it. But there was never any dialogue with the faith community.

The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, and those who led us there are directly responsible for the rise of ISIS and our current quandary of how to respond. How we should respond to new threats has yet to be decided. But it is not the time to just repeat our old mistakes. Rather we should begin with repentance for those mistakes by listening better and humbly seeking better solutions. And that is where all the presidential candidates should begin.


Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.