It was a dogma of my political education that the question “What ought to be done?” always had a right answer. Now I know that that is false. Sometimes there is no right answer, even when we know that we have to do something.
Here are a few propositions to keep in mind when thinking about what to do in Iraq, where we don’t know — at least I don’t — what ought to be done. The propositions hold, I think, whether you believe that the war was wrong from the start or only wrong, though terribly wrong, in its execution.
First of all, whatever our philosophical inclinations, we are consequentialists for the moment. Neither staying on nor leaving Iraq is a categorical imperative. We have to figure out a strategy that produces the least bad results for the Iraqi people, for other people in the Middle East, and for American soldiers.
In making these calculations there is an order of moral priorities, shaped by what we have done in the past and by what we are capable of doing now.
Our first obligation is to ensure the security of the Kurds and the relative autonomy of Kurdistan. We have been involved with the Iraqi Kurds for a long time. We have betrayed them in the past, and we must not do that again.
Our second obligation is to prevent the massacre or a radical subordination of Sunni Arabs in what is almost certain to be a Shiite-dominated state. This is also very much in our interests, as helping the Kurds may not be, since our closest allies in the Arab world are Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. It may be that safety for the Sunnis will require some kind of autonomy, a version perhaps of the soft partition that has already been achieved in Kurdistan.
Our third obligation, but I could easily have put this first, is to guarantee the safety of all the people who have helped us directly in Iraq, or who have put themselves at risk by standing up for liberal and democratic principles in political parties, in labor unions, and NGOs. Perhaps we will have to offer these people — and there are a lot of them — refuge in the United States. But that would deprive any future Iraqi state of some of its most valuable citizens. It would obviously be better if a process of national reconciliation gave them a reasonable chance to survive and work at home. We should aim at that. But right now it seems more likely that a great many Iraqis will need a refuge.
Our fourth obligation is to help pay the costs of resettling Iraqi refugees, both the 2 million who have crossed the border into Syria and Jordan and the million or more who have fled and are still fleeing from their homes to other parts of the country. It should be clear, given the extent of the Iraqi disaster, that resettlement doesn’t mean return. So it doesn’t depend on an improbable victory, or even on national reconciliation. It is necessary even in the absence of those two.
Our fifth obligation is to make sure that the Bush Administration’s early hopes for military bases and direct access to Iraqi oil don’t lead us to prolong our military presence. The only reason for staying on now, or for withdrawing slowly and partially, is to prevent a greater disaster than the one we have already, but not we alone, created.
Our sixth obligation is to find some way to continue the struggle, harder now than it was in 2003, against jihadist zealotry and terrorism. I don’t know whether al Qaeda has operating capacity in Iraq, but people sympathetic to al Qaeda clearly do, and it is entirely right for us to view those people as enemies. Fighting them may require a continuing military presence in the Sunni provinces, the only places where we seem to be having some success, though we should remember that this is success against terrorists who had no presence in Iraq until we opened the way for them to move in.
How do we meet these obligations? If the aim of our military effort is to give the Iraqi government a monopoly on the use of force, then the effort is clearly failing, maybe has clearly failed. There are local successes, but I can’t see how these add up to any larger success.
The political effort is also failing, chiefly because the Baghdad government we helped to create and are currently propping up is unpopular, corrupt, brutal, and radically ineffective. What we need now, though I am not optimistic about this either, is a strenuous diplomatic effort to get other countries usefully engaged, including the Europeans (and the new French government offers some possibilities here), all the neighboring states, and the United Nations.
When the New Republic posed a question similar to the one that we are addressing here, I wrote a piece called “Talk, Talk, Talk.” That is still my position. But talking will not produce decent results if we are in headlong military retreat.
We need to keep soldiers in the Kurdish north and probably in the Sunni west. But I don’t see how we can ask Americans to risk their lives fighting the Shiite militias while we are supporting a government that they have effectively infiltrated and whose policies they often determine. So we should probably begin to disengage from the Shiite areas, which means from much of the country, as the British have done and are doing in the south. But I don’t think that we are ready yet, or morally entitled, to disengage from the country as a whole.
To read the Q and A session, click here.
Michael Walzer is the co-editor of Dissent and the author of Just War and Unjust Wars.