Monday 18th February, 2008

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Iraq and ethics of exit

Fewer people will dispute today that the original intervention in Iraq was illegitimate, and that the lack of broad international support and the failure to link the toppling of Saddam’s regime to a realistic post-intervention plan contributed to the chaos that followed.

That said, one should note that the pressing issue now is not post-mortems on the ethics of intervention but what considerations should influence the ethics of exit.

The anti-war sentiment today is strong, and it stems as much from the intervention as from what followed from it. The sentiment translates into leaving Iraq in as quick and efficient a manner as possible; but would that acquit the US of all responsibility for what was begun there?

Precisely because the war was unjust, the burden to build a just peace, one may say, is that much greater. With an unjust intervention went the assumption of a whole set of obligations to promote the welfare of the Iraqis, until they could make their way after Saddam—and the interventionists.

Legally speaking, with an Iraqi government in place, the US is no longer an occupying power, but Iraq remains by any account a failed state. The US bears a shared responsibility for this, and some form of continued engagement commensurate with the common good of the Iraqi people therefore remains an important residual responsibility.

This is not the prevailing wisdom, however.

On the one hand, the advocates of “completing the mission” would not admit the illegality of intervention, and consider any deadlines for redeployment as defeatist.

On the other hand, those who want to end the war note the great cost to the soldiers (and their families) and the enormous burden on the American people (US$2 billion a week), in a situation that seems to have no foreseeable resolution.

What’s missing from either perspective is any attribution of weight to the common good of the Iraqis.

Michael Walker, the distinguished ethicist noted for his writings on politics and war, understands the range of moral consequences differently. “We have to figure out,” he writes, “a strategy that produces the least bad results for the Iraqi people, for the people of in the Middle East, and for American soldiers.”

The question put by Senator John Warner, of the Armed Services Committee, to Gen David Piraeus instead took the familiar line: what policies and strategies will best serve US national security interests? No hint there of anything resembling the good of the Iraqis. It’s as if they brought their continuing calamity on themselves. 

There’s no small amount of sentiment, in fact, far from notions of American obligation, that what the Iraqis should be forced to do is “look into the abyss” of a civil war.

This is what redeployment deadlines would force. It would bring the people to their senses, and the proper degree and atmosphere of realism will be injected into the situation. It would also make pundits in the media less full of their own abstractions.

What this really does is make policy equivalent to a high-stakes game of chicken. It’s not the place or judgment you would come to if you began with the sense that the US has obligations and responsibilities to Iraq both in view of the past and the present.

The US is not a disinterested humanitarian presence in the country. It supported Iraq in the war against Iran, and Saddam in his genocide against the Kurds. It devastated Iraq during the 1991 war and the ensuing embargo, overthrew its government in 2003 and displayed great incompetence and negligence in the aftermath.

When critics of US involvement insist that Iraq should be left to sort out the divisions and feuds spawned by years of ancient hatreds, what they omit to note is while the US presence in Iraq might not be “ancient,” it is part of the stew of “hatreds” there.

Once again, reflection from a position that attends to history is not much in vogue today.

We have, says Senator Carl Levin, no obligation to protect Iraqi civilians. And indeed, there was no attempt to do so until “the surge,” even though it was abundantly clear that the Iraqi security forces could not provide the required security alone.

What does the US owe the Iraqis? What does it mean to have regard for their common good as well as for America’s national security interests? What would represent a fair statement of goals for the US, whose near accomplishment would mean that obligation and responsibility were met?

Let me attempt to list a few qualifying choices. Security would, of course, be primary. Not a complete end to all political division, which seems impossible, but security to a reasonable degree, that minimises the threat of chaos or civil war.

Secondly, fairly representative government, not an imposed western democracy, but a stable enough system that respects fundamental rights, especially the rights of minorities.

Thirdly, a restoration of Iraq’s infrastructure and a viable economy that first serves Iraqi needs, not outside interests.

And finally, a commitment not to protract one’s stay without the consent of the legitimate government, or failing that, the UN.

This presumes that the US will be in Iraq for some time. I confess I fail to see how anything remotely resembling the agenda outlined is possible in a brief space of time.

Once again, this is not the prevailing wisdom. On the contrary, for many people, the US has already stayed too long, though Hillary Clinton, I think, envisages some continuing presence in military bases.

What proponents of a quick exit fail to consider, I think, is that while the intervention of 2003 produced unintended consequences, at least for the interventionists, an ill-timed exit may precede a spiral of violence in the ensuing vacuum, which may only lead to reintervention by the US, five or six years later—this time on humanitarian grounds.

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