Exit or No Exit? Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Response

Exit or No Exit? Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Response

Exit or No Exit?

In the invitation to this event we were sent a description of the situation in Iraq that included the following words: “To the insurgency has been added a civil war between Sunni and Shiite forces marked by extraordinary sectarian violence. Neighboring countries are taking sides, regional instability is growing, reconstruction is stalled, economic instability is endemic, refugee numbers grow, and, to top it all off, Al Qaeda has regrouped internationally.”

Is this characterization of events compelling? I put the question because this gestures toward my first point. Much of what we have to say on exit and morality will depend upon our assessment of the state of things. That is, we cannot separate the morality of exit from the consequences of exit, not unless we exist in some rarefied Kantian realm where one should do the “right thing” and the consequences be damned.

Now, the assessment of things — (Is the glass half-full/half-empty? What do we think will happen in the future?) — got a plenary jolt in the arm, as you know, a few weeks ago with the publication of the O’Hanlon-Pollack piece in The New York Times, with these liberal Democrats pointing to what they take to be the verifiable progress of the military surge.

One sentence from what they had to say: “As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily ‘victory’ but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.” That did not settle the debate, of course, because critics rightly pointed out that military improvement on the ground need not translate into political progress.

So how do we interpret the data, the incessant drumbeat of news? Realism without illusions would be best, and it is simply inherently difficult to sort that out, given just how hard it is to weigh and to sift the many accounts of events to which we are treated on a daily basis. So how we understand events will help to determine our understanding of the morality of exit.

Point 2: Should sustainable stability be the aim of a morality of exit? Approaching exit and morality questions, as I do, from a just war perspective, the aim of a justified intervention is always a just peace; that is, is the situation better from the standpoint of justice than the one that pertained prior to the military action?

Now, that would seem to set the bar pretty low where Saddam’s “republic of fear” is concerned. Certainly, one of the things that swayed my own preliminary thinking about the war in Iraq was the fact that an Arab Muslim friend of mine is involved in a massive project translating thousands of official Baathist documents seized during the first Persian Gulf War. Like the fascists and Stalinists, Saddam’s thugs kept meticulous records of their exquisitely refined regime of torture and terror. My friend could not and cannot even complete the telling of some of these horror stories that he has uncovered.

That said, a situation of endemic, unpredictable violence is no bargain either, and surely does not count as “sustained stability — or, as I have put it in my recent work, a “minimally decent state.”

Are the pieces in place that might cohere to accomplish such? I do not know. But this much is clear: if one has played a major role in an intervention, one’s responsibilities are correlatively greater than if one has played a minor role. Our responsibilities are great.

Gone are the days when the United States with its allies could simply, for example, write a new constitution for Japan, install a Japanese democracy that the Japanese maintain and cherish. When people say you can’t fight and install a new political order — it has been done, but it cannot be done in anything like the same way now, for a number of reasons.

As we all know, the Iraq war does not have the powerful political and moral imprimatur that fighting fascism and Japanese militarism did. And moreover, the international climate, and I think our own political culture, would make such wholesale imposed change, if you will, even in the direction of democracy and human rights, impossible, even if it were desirable.

So the task of change primarily falls to citizens of a country. Given the inherent divisions in Iraq, divisions that we insufficiently calibrated, and given that the Iraqi leadership has stumbled so badly, is the situation beyond redemption?

One bright spot is that the so-called “insurgents” are uniformly hated for the murderous thugs that they are. Certainly the Iraqis do not want them to succeed. The worst possible outcome would be a murderous civil war without end. Here one can imagine a regional conflagration, and that must be avoided in every way possible.

My third and final point: We have a moral obligation to see this through so that we can be reasonably assured that after an American exit there will not be a violent deluge. You heard this from Michael Walzer. I am seconding the motion. This means we cannot for the foreseeable future exit altogether. A just occupation, and eventual withdrawal, cannot permit a bad situation to get worse.

We owe this much to the Iraqis, especially, as you have already heard, the tens of thousands who joined in the effort and who were and remain glad that the days of Saddam are behind them, despite the unsettlement. To abandon these people would be an art of moral dereliction of the most egregious kind.

Final question: How long must we play a significant role? Again, who knows? There is no “sell by” date on these kinds of efforts. To exit ethically, however, this much I am pretty sure of: We cannot, and must not, just walk away.

Michael Walzer, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sohail Hashmi, and Gerard Powers.

To read the Q and A session, click here.

Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of Just War Against Terror.

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