In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Response to Tom Farer's "Un-just War Against Terrorism and the Struggle to Appropriate Human Rights"1
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain (bio)

Where to begin with an essay that is such a tissue of indictments, overheated rhetoric, and dubious history? One notes a problem with Farer's piece from the beginning. In his abstract he capitalizes that nasty entity, the "American Right," so one knows that one will be plunked into the heart of a polemical and politically partisan piece: fine. The problem is that Farer indicts people for the very thing he himself does: "appropriating" human rights to a given purpose. Does not any interested group attempt to "appropriate"—which, in an essay with less obvious partisan purpose one might call "endorsing" or "embracing" or even "using?" By embracing the term "appropriate," Farer suggests, even before he writes the first sentence of his essay, that something illicit is going on, perpetrated by an identifiable monolithic group, the "American Right."

His essay is divided into four parts, so I will group my brief comments—frustratingly brief, I should add, when one is faced with a seventy-three page piece (in typescript), much of which is an indictment of my book on the war against terrorism written at the time of the United Nations endorsed Afghanistan invasion—accordingly. [End Page 758]


Farer offers a quite breezy history of the past several centuries that is open to challenge on every account. The real problem for Farer is that the world's complexities do not conform to his rigid model. Indeed, a leading proponent of the position known as "liberal internationalism" is a person he despises, President George W. Bush. Bush's location within liberal internationalism has been identified by a number of distinguished liberal historians and political analysts, among them Michael Kazin in a recent piece in the journal World Affairs.2 Kazin points out that you can interpose sections of Bush's speeches with those of John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt and they are of a piece. Think back on Kennedy's inaugural address about going anywhere and bearing every burden for the extension and defense of liberty. The current Democratic Party, in our topsy-turvy political universe, appears to present a combination of quasi-isolationism and soft realism, with both Democratic candidates talking about US "interests," especially where the issue of the Iraq War is concerned. More about that later.

Farer's sketch of past history is absolutely archaic. I think back to hearing Vaclav Havel's comments about those who traffic in the old left/right distinction as if two monads confronted each other are appropriate—it gives one the impression of being stuck in the eighteenth century. It is just plain, well, silly, to associate "the right" with defending "received authority" and "hierarchies" at present. All United States politicians are defenders of human rights. No group talks more about liberty and freedom than Republicans. Now, Farer might not like the way they talk about it, but there is a strong libertarian edge to much of the rhetoric that comes from Republicans that is impossible to square with Farer's suggestion that the "right" consists of defenders of some no-longer-existing ancien régime. I cannot think of a single credible political historian who would accept his breezy description of history. He also ignores the fact that the very grounding of human rights came out of the Christian insistence that all persons, without distinction, are equally children of God, therefore, morally equal. It was this argument that led Abraham Lincoln to declare that there is no way you could square chattel slavery with this moral equality and invited his pithy insistence that, in defending the holding in the Dred Scott case, Senator Stephen Douglas was "blow[ing] out the moral lights around us."3 If Farer does not accept this genealogy, which serious scholars of the history of human rights do—as history if not as current justification—he cannot ignore the importance of the natural law and natural right arguments that have an ancient lineage but were [End Page 759] then amplified and buttressed by medieval scholars, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, in his brilliant...


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