WASHINGTON. — Former President Jimmy Carter made a startling and troubling observation a few days before President Bush launched the war on Iraq.
Although the United States professes to be a nation of peace, he asserted, it has acquired the reputation in many places around the world ''of being the world's warmonger, with the possible exception of Saddam Hussein.''
Are we, indeed, a warlike people?
Many church leaders are becoming fearful that this is exactly what is happening. It was Mr. Carter, however, a deeply religious man, who made the case most pointedly.
''We were the ones who sent troops into Lebanon,'' he said. ''We were the ones that bombed Tripoli [Libya]. We're the ones that invaded Grenada. We're the ones that invaded Panama. We're the ones that orchestrated the contra war to overthrow the Sandinistas'' in Nicaragua.
A case could be made right now, as well, that a kind of war fever is sweeping the country. Polls show a surge of public support for the war. President Bush's decision to attack Iraq was backed, 76-22, in a Washington Post-ABC poll Wednesday night. A scant two weeks earlier, a CBS News-New York Times poll reported that only 46 percent favored ''starting major military actions'' after the January 15 deadline, with 47 percent for ''waiting longer.''
The stock market soared 114.6 points on the first day of war, displaying a kind of frenzy, along with an obvious judgment that there's money to be made.
We are, in addition, the world's biggest military spenders and have been for a generation. We have more nuclear weapons than anybody, more than 25,000. We have also armed much of the world and certainly been the major arms supplier in the Middle East.
We have often sold weapons to both sides. In the Middle East, we have provided billions in arms to Israel and nearly as many billions, but not quite, to its Arab neighbors, many of whom are still technically at war with Israel.
We have been the principal source of arms for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
All this is not to say, however, that there are not powerful voices for peace. In fact, one of the phenomena of the current situation is the speed with which organized peace movements have developed. It took years in the Vietnam period before a substantial peace movement developed as a powerful force. But marches and demonstrations are already taking place around the country, involving thousands of Americans, with the war only few days old.
In addition, religious leaders of practically every major denomination have been calling for restraint and for a peaceful solution since the early weeks of the crisis.
In December, 19 church leaders, most of them heads of denominations, made a weeklong ''Church Leaders' Pilgrimage to the Middle East,'' visiting six countries, including Iraq and Israel. They returned with a unanimous conviction that, whatever else, war was not the answer.
On January 12, Edmond Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, one of the pilgrims, wrote: ''Church leaders are convinced: War will not liberate Kuwait, it will destroy it. War will not save us from weapons of mass destruction, it will unleash them. War will not establish regional stability, it will inflame the Middle East. War will not solve longstanding conflicts, it will explode them wider and deeper.''
Most of America apparently was not listening.
James McCartney is a columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers' Washington bureau.