This is probably the toughest issue of ethics and international affairs that our country has faced in at least a generation. What I would like to try to do is make three points about the relative balance between what I see as the moral imperatives that our country faces and the consequentialist reasoning that, as Michael Walzer and Jean Elshtain and Sohail have said, has to be a key part of the moral analysis.
The first point is we have to distinguish between the ethics of intervention and the ethics of exit. For those of us who opposed the original intervention in Iraq, it is tempting to conclude that since it was immoral to go in it must be immoral to stay. A number of Catholic Democrats recently wrote a letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops making this kind of argument. In 2002 and 2003 those same Catholic bishops said, with greater nuance than I can present here, that it was immoral to go into Iraq. Since then, however, they have not said it is immoral to stay, but instead have emphasized the need for a responsible transition. According to the bishops, “The U.S. intervention has brought with it a new set of moral responsibilities, to help Iraqis secure and rebuild their country and to address the consequences of the war for the region and the world.” In short, the U.S. intervention may have been an optional, immoral war, but the post-intervention U.S. involvement is not an optional moral commitment.
Second point: The central moral issue is not what serves U.S. national security interests and is not the nature and timing of U.S. military withdrawal, but rather the nature and extent of U.S. responsibilities to the Iraqi people.
The current debate on Iraq is focused on a host of issues related to probability of success and proportionality. These are crucial moral strategic questions. As ethicists like to say, “ought implies can.” If we don’t have a reasonable chance of success in Iraq, we don’t have a moral duty to keep trying.
And, of course, in ethics, as Michael Walzer has pointed out, consequences matter. If we are doing more harm than good, then we should reconsider our policies.
My concern is that the preoccupation with legitimate questions of success and proportionality is obscuring a more fundamental moral issue. Yes, “ought” implies can, and the good should outweigh the bad, but we can’t assess the “can” or calculate proportionality if we are not clear about the “ought.”
The preoccupation with an ethics of efficacy and a utilitarian calculus of “good” and “evil” has to be complemented by much more attention to an ethic of responsibility. Ron Paul’s aphorism, “We broke it, we bought it,” has a lot of moral merit. As Noel Feldman argued so well in his book What We Owe Iraq, “When the U.S. overthrew the Iraqi government and became the de jure occupying power, it incurred a host of legal and moral responsibilities to promote the common good of the Iraqi people until a legitimate and effective Iraqi government could take over those responsibilities.”
As a temporary substitute political authority, what the U.S. owes Iraqis is akin to what the U.S. owes its own citizens. In that respect, our duties to Iraqis are not all that different morally than our duties to help the people of New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina. The fact that the U.S. is no longer the de jure occupying power does not absolve it of its residual, but still substantial, moral obligations to Iraqis. This is especially so given that what we broke is still very much broken.
There is a related reason that an ethical responsibility should be given more prominence in our public debate. The United States is hardly a disinterested humanitarian offering a helping hand to a country riven by ancient hatreds. Rather, the U.S. is deeply implicated in the turmoil in Iraq. The U.S. supported Iraq in its war against Iran, supported Saddam Hussein when he was committing genocide against the Kurds, devastated Iraq during the 1991 war and the ensuing embargo, overthrew its government in 2003, and then bungled the aftermath. The U.S. role in Iraq might not be ancient, but it is very much a part of the hatreds that are there. The United States can no more walk away with a clear conscience than a father can abandon the mother of his illegitimate child.
If we are clear about our moral obligations to Iraqis, we might want to significantly qualify two ways the debate is now being discussed.
According to Senator John Warner of Virginia, in addressing General David Petraeus last week, “The key question is what policies and strategies will best serve U.S. national security interests.” Certainly that is a question we must ask. But the harder question is: What policies and strategies will best serve the interests and well-being of the Iraqi people?
Similarly, the anti-war protesters and presidential candidates who speak glibly about ending the war in Iraq by withdrawing U.S. troops next year are focusing on only one part of the moral equation. They need to also ask: Will withdrawal of U.S. troops end the war between Sunnis and Shiites? Will it end the insurgency? Will it end the al Qaeda terrorist attacks or the general criminality in Iraq?
This violence might end for Americans, but it won’t end for Iraqis. In fact, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, driven by a narrow conception of U.S. moral responsibilities, could contribute to an ever deeper and widening spiral of violence that could, ironically, even resuscitate a re-intervention for humanitarian and security reasons down the road.
Third–and this is a prudential point–given the robust nature of this U.S. obligation to Iraqis and the immensity of the task of nation building that the United States willfully undertook, prospects for success in Iraq should be measured more in decades than in months or years.
Patience is a virtue, but it is not a virtue that is always evidenced in U.S. foreign policy. In Central America, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Somalia, to take just some recent cases from the 1990s, the U.S. record of sustained policy on its military interventions was spotty, at best. Even if there had been a plan and all had gone according to that plan in Iraq, would it have been reasonable to expect a stable, united Iraq, with an agreed constitution, a respected and effective government that could survive without substantial outside help–all of that in only four-plus years?
The fact that Iraq is a failed state that has descended into violence and chaos does not seem to me to be an argument for U.S. withdrawal but is an argument for finding more effective ways to meet our heavy responsibilities to Iraqis. Given what is at stake, the burden of proof it seems to me is on those who contend that it is simply impossible for the U.S. to meet these obligations.
To conclude, in 2003 millions took to the streets around the world to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq, protests that Pope John Paul II called “a sign of the awakened conscience of humanity.” The fact that we see relatively few mass protests today is a sign, I think, that, four-and-a-half years later, most people recognize that there are no morally clear or clean answers to the moral conundrums we face in Iraq.
U.S. policy in Iraq has suffered from a double moral failure. It was immoral to intervene in the first place, and in the years since the U.S. has willed the ends but it hasn’t willed the means. The U.S. voluntarily took on nation-building in 2003, but it has not committed the troops or the resources and it has not pursued the policies necessary to achieve that goal. The first moral failure made the second more likely.
Those who say it is too late and too costly to fix what we have broken obviously need to be taken very seriously, because they might be right. I fear, however, that a preoccupation with the inherently speculative and often short-term assessments of success and proportionality could worsen the second moral failure by allowing us to forget what we owe Iraqis and by minimizing the real risk of even more serious humanitarian disaster in the future.
Whether we have reached the point of futility in Iraq or should still try to salvage what moral integrity is still possible is not entirely clear to me. What should be clear, however, is the moral bankruptcy of the preventive war doctrine, which got us into this predicament in the first place.
To read the Q and A session, click here.
Gerard Powers is the director of the Director of Policy Studies, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.