09/24/2012 04:09 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Prudence and the Unfortunate Mr. Romney

It is a sad but undeniable truth that presidents kill people. With every combat operation ordered, men and women die. Christians have rightly disagreed for centuries over whether their faith ought to be pacifist in the face of threats or may engage in proportionate, armed self-defense. The advocates for a right of defense have generally pledged allegiance to the doctrine of just war.

Just-war theory must not be used as some mechanically-applied checklist that allows leaders to embark on reckless foreign adventures. It is much more serious than that. At its root, it is about prudence, good judgment, caution. That is why just-war principles counsel that war should be a last resort, that diplomatic means must be exhausted first, that presidential killing should never be undertaken lightly.

Such prudence served us wonderfully well in the Cold War. Presidents showed consistent leadership in tamping down frenzied calls for the use of nuclear weapons against our adversaries. Harry Truman privately rebuked and finally dismissed General Douglas MacArthur for advocating the use of nuclear weapons against China. (Nina Tannenwald, "The Nuclear Taboo and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945," Cambridge, 2007, p. 131. To the world's lasting benefit, John F. Kennedy rejected the advice of General Curtis LeMay to go to war with the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis.. Truman, Kennedy, and other great leaders were playing a long game. They may not have foreseen the outcome but thanks to their collective wisdom and prudence, the Cold War ended not in nuclear holocaust but in peace.

In its post-World-War II incarnation, the Republican Party has always had to deal with its militarist wing. There were MacArthur and LeMay, of course (although LeMay eventually threw his lot in with George Wallace). And then there was Barry Goldwater, whose circle talked so naively about using nuclear weapons to end the Vietnam War. (Goldwater did himself no favors when he joked about "lobbing a [nuclear missile] into the men's room at the Kremlin." (Robert Mann, "Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater, and the Ad That Changed American Politics," LSU Press, 2011, p. 16).

The peaceful resolution of the Cold War was a triumph of prudential thinking. The sad irony, alas, is that the closing of the Cold War released the toxic contagion of militarism among the American right wing. The Iraq War was driven by a fifty years' fever of pent-up frustration, the repressed need to flex muscles and bash someone who could not really fight back. Hans Blix, Chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, reported in February 2003 that his aggressive and comprehensive inspections regime uncovered no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Pope John Paul II sent his personal envoy to ask George W. Bush to demonstrate prudence and refrain from hasty war. But, seduced by the siren song of advisers who promised a swift, self-justifying war, Bush embarked upon a reckless, needless foreign adventure that squandered human life and wasted trillions of dollars.

Prudence matters in a president. And as this campaign has unfolded, Mitt Romney's statements on foreign affairs have moved steadily, from comical, to reckless, to craven and opportunistic. He blustered his way around Britain in the days before the summer Olympics, fretting ominously about how England's organizing efforts had fallen short, clumsily hoping to make his own Salt Lake City Olympics look good in comparison. But the Brits are always more amused than hurt when some bumbling American does asinine things in their midst. More troubling was his trip to Jerusalem where he blamed Palestinian "culture" for their economic weakness, overlooking the debilitating effects of Israeli controls on transport and trade. Presidential candidates should not pour kerosene upon flames. Even worse was Romney's breezy announcement that Russia must be seen "without question as our number one geo-strategic foe."

Can this walking, talking animatronic catastrophe do any worse? Well, yes he can. His comments on the assault of the American consulate in Benghazi this past Tuesday, on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks, truly places him in a league of his own. Before the truth of the assaults were known, Romney put out a statement: "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who urged the attacks."

The statement was a falsehood. The Obama Administration had said no such thing. Well, the truth is often a casualty of political campaigns. What's new? But this was more than one more effort to deceive and dissemble. It was the smirk, the gloat, the giddiness in Romney's demeanor that was frightening. Where was the sympathy for the American embassy personnel who died in the line of duty?

Christians must exercise the most solemn care when voting for president because they are foreseeably electing someone who will kill in their names. Even before Romney's sorry spectacle last Tuesday night, he had given me pause. His foreign policy advisers are filled with the discredited has-beens of the Bush Administration, the pathetic lot that led us into the Iraqi boondoggle in the desert. And now this?! Really, the man should be disqualified from high office.