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 Saddams
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 Saddamand 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
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.
Whats 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. Its as if they brought their continuing calamity
Theres 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
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. Its 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
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 Americas 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 Iraqs infrastructure and a viable
economy that first serves Iraqi needs, not outside interests.
And finally, a commitment not to protract ones stay without
the consent of the legitimate government, or failing that, the
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 laterthis
time on humanitarian grounds.