“That will set the United States’ position in this part of the world back fifty years!” I can still hear the despairing tone of an eminent scholar in the Athens Tennis Club as our conversation was interrupted by a waiter who announced that the American Marines had just stormed the beaches of Beirut. I agreed, but was wrong.
Forty-nine years later, it’s clear that our preemptive strike prevented civil war in Lebanon, splitting apart Christian president & Sunni prime minister. Conclusion: Give me 49 years and I’ll tell you whether any particular preemptive strike was a Good Idea. (Was our Army & Marine pull-out of Lebanon 25 years after our Marine invasion a Good Idea? I don’t know. It’s too soon to tell.)
On this week’s question, I’m so ignorant as not even to know whether our preemptive war in Iraq was a good idea—so how would I know whether our staying in, or getting out, would be a good idea? But the question is not about strategic foreign-affairs decisions made and to be made by persons democratically empowered to make them. It’s about the moral component in the decision-making process involving all our citizenry. The question is even narrower: Can we speak of “the moral position” on the “out of Iraq” question?
Cynics say we can’t, moralists say we must. When they stand toe to toe, there’s no space between them. The noise they make gets much media attention. But the on-the-ground reality is that the space between them is huge. It’s occupied by ignorant people like me and most of the American citizenry.
Now, lest any reader think me cravenly modest in calling myself ignorant, I remind you that Socrates claimed to be the most ignorant man in Athens. We open our mouths not only so words can come out but also so food can come in; and if our minds eat junk food, junk ideas will come out.
As a Christian, I can’t be cynical. Jesus, who didn’t stay dead, forbids me to live without hope. Daily I pray and hope the best for the Iraqis and our relations with them. Nor, as a Christian, can I be moralistic. By eating a God-forbidden apricot, Adam and Eve became moralists, authorities on what’s right and good and what’s wrong and bad.
I press my case. Not only do I reject cynicism and moralism, two forms of folly. I consider cynics and moralists enemies of the humility without which our human hearts are not open to receive the food of wisdom, so that what comes out of our mouths will not be folly.