The Dilemma in Iraq

Iraq was a preventive war. As preventive wars are wont to do, it has become a war of occupation (de jure and now de facto). Like other uninvited occupiers, the United States finds itself in a terrible dilemma: its very presence is fueling insurgency and terrorism, yet its premature withdrawal could lead to even greater chaos in Iraq and the region. There are no morally clear or clean answers to this dilemma, but we must at least try to get the moral questions right. Was the U.S. intervention moral? Is the occupation succeeding? Those are critical questions, but the starting point for achieving some degree of moral clarity about the dilemma we face is to ask: what do we owe the Iraqis?

Unfortunately, too much of the Iraq debate focuses on other questions. Two aspects of the debate are appealing but ultimately problematic. The first ties the morality of occupation too closely to the morality of intervention. Some opponents of intervention contend that since it was immoral to go into Iraq, it is now immoral to stay. Some supporters of intervention contend that the United States did Iraq and the world a huge favor by overthrowing a terrible regime; it is up to Iraqis to take it from here.


Clearly, the ethics of intervention and the ethics of exit are related. The failure to plan adequately for postwar responsibilities and the lack of perceived legitimacy of the decision to go to war have greatly exacerbated the challenge of winning the peace. But the ethics of intervention and the ethics of exit are also distinct. An unjust war could lead to a just peace. A just war could lead to an unjust peace.

We have to take seriously the moral implications of the aphorism applied to Iraq by Colin Powell: You break it, you own it! Iraq was not an intervention by invitation, as was the case with Vietnam and El Salvador. The United States imposed itself on Iraq as a substitute governing authority. Once it did so, it assumed the moral obligations that come with the exercise of sovereignty: to promote the common good of the people until they can assume control of their own affairs.

I would expand on the metaphor of the illegitimate child, as offered by a Vatican official. The nascent Iraqi government is like the dysfunctional parent with few job skills and no child-rearing experience who is sometimes abusive to the newborn child, lives in a violent neighborhood and has unsavory friends. If the other parent, weary of the responsibility, were to leave, we would rightly call that abandonment. The Iraq intervention may have been an optional war, but it is no longer an optional commitment. The U.S. intervention was not legitimate, and Americans are growing weary of the burdens they now bear; but we have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people that we cannot shirk.

A second problematic response to the dilemma of Iraq acknowledges the responsibilities that come with occupation, but despairs of any possibility of meeting them. Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The New York Times on Dec. 4, 2005: If we leave Iraq at its own government’s request, our withdrawal will be neither abandonment nor retreat. Law-abiding Iraqis may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we leave; but they may face more clan violence, Balkanization and foreign incursions if we stay. The President has said we will not leave Iraq to the terrorists. Let us leave Iraq to the Iraqis, who have survived centuries of civil war, tyranny and attempted foreign domination.

It is an appealing argument, not least because it is a reality check for what James Traub calls the doctrinal absolutists in the Bush administration who have lost themselves in fantasies of transformation traditionally confined to the left. The world is littered with failed attempts to do what the United States is trying to do in Iraq. Clearly, a healthy dose of humility about the chances for success in Iraq is needed.

At the same time, we should avoid the culturally biased historical determinism and self-fulfilling conviction of impotence that have been convenient masks for indifference to the fate of other failed states in recent years. As bad as things now are in Iraq, we must not underestimate the moral risks of all-out civil war or chaos if the United States leaves. If the potential for civil war and regional instability were reasons for opposing U.S. intervention in 1991 and 2003, should they not be morally significant reasons for opposing withdrawal today? It would be ironic, Noah Feldman points out in a recent article, if a civil war in Iraq resulted in the kind of catastrophe that would lead to calls for humanitarian intervention. It is indefensible, he argues, to claim that this disastrous outcome is inevitable and ethically obtuse to use such a prediction to justify doing nothing to prevent it.

Even if Sorensen and Schlesinger’s ancient hatreds thesis is correct, the United States is not simply a Good Samaritan in Iraq. It supported Iraq in its war against Iran, devastated Iraq during the 1991 war and the ensuing embargo, and then overthrew its government. Its role might not be ancient, but it is very much a part of any hatreds in Iraq. The United States can no more walk away with a clear conscience than a father can abandon the mother of his illegitimate child.

A morally responsible response to the Iraq dilemma does not begin with the ethics of intervention or the efficacy of occupation. It begins with an understanding of what we owe the Iraqi people. The other issues are important, but ultimately secondary.

So what is owed Iraq? Kenneth Himes, O.F.M., professor of moral theology at Boston College, argues that restoration of a peaceful status quo might be appropriate for wars to reverse aggression, but not for wars that involve the overthrow of a regime, especially when done for humanitarian reasons. In Iraq, therefore, the presumptive obligation is not restoration but some level of institutional therapy or rehabilitation.

A minimalist view would limit this presumptive obligation to providing security and restoring basic services for a relatively short period until Iraq can have elections, approve a constitution and install a new government. According to that view, the United States is making significant strides in meeting its obligations. The U.S. objectivesan Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, democratic and securereflect a maximalist view of its obligations. While some critics can dismiss this more robust goal as grandiose,it is more in keeping with the obligations owed by an uninvited substitute authority, especially one so implicated in helping to create a number of the conditions that require rehabilitation. In fact, until a viable Iraqi public authority is in place, the U.S. responsibilities to the Iraqi people are akin to those it owes its own citizens. Those responsibilities diminish only to the extent that Iraqis assume responsibility for their own country.

Drawing on the U.S. bishops’ statements and Noah Feldman’s book What We Owe Iraq, various criteria for a morally responsible exit can be derived from this maximalist understanding of U.S. obligations. These criteria have a common foundation: that Iraqi interests in a rapid return to full sovereignty must be paramount if the United States is to avoid turning Iraq into a neo-imperialist adventure. For a variety of reasons, some within its control and others not, the United States is far from meeting these criteria.

First, the Iraqi government must be able to maintain a reasonable degree of security. All political violence need not cease before the United States departs, but the level of violence must be manageable and the threat of civil war must be remote. It is obvious that progress in meeting the first criterion has been painfully slow. Casualties among U.S. and Iraqi security forces continue to mount. The much more relevant casualty figurefor civiliansis not tracked by the U.S. military, but estimates are that it is many times higher.

The violence has multiple sources: an insurgency directed against the U.S. occupation and the struggling Iraqi government; sectarian violence, mostly between Sunnis and Shiites; and the criminality that thrives in the security vacuum. The U.S. military’s aversion to policing, and its lack of the needed numbers and kinds of troops, contributed to a focus on protecting its own forces and defeating the insurgency rather than making a serious effort to meet its larger obligation to ensure security for the Iraqi population. The alternativetraining Iraqi security forces under the policy of Iraqizationis proceeding at an uncertain pace, but few Iraqi forces are capable of operating on their own, and those that are often consist of sectarian militias whose loyalties are suspect.

While we wait for Iraqization, an international force would be preferable to the U.S. military. Of the possible candidatesMuslim countries without a dog in the fight, the United Nations and NATOnone can be expected to step in at a time when even the so-called coalition of the willing is quietly leaving Iraq. Moreover, if the world’s most powerful military cannot stem the insurgency, what chance is there that some inexperienced blue helmets from Ghana and Indonesia could? Ought implies can. It is not morally responsible to call for U.S. withdrawal based on an international force that is not available and, even if it were, would probably not be effective.

Even the Pentagon acknowledges that the U.S. troop presence undermines the legitimacy and autonomy of the Iraqi government and, worse, fuels the insurgency. Yet the sectarian and criminal violence could well increase if U.S. troops withdrew, and it is not likely that a poorly trained and equipped Iraqi security force, whose allegiances are not always clear, could fare better than the U.S. military against the insurgency. Given that the alternatives seem to be chaos or civil war, it is difficult to imagine progress toward stability in Iraq in the short or mid-term without a significant troop presence from the United States.

The security obligations are closely connected to the political obligations, for security in Iraq is as much a function of politics as of military strategy. Thomas Friedman has put it succinctly: The issue is not how many Iraqi soldiers there are in Iraq. The issue is how many Iraqi citizens there are in Iraq. Without more Iraqi citizens, there will never be enough Iraqi soldiers. The United States has made considerable progress in putting in place the formalities of sovereigntyelections, a (tenuous and problematic) constitution, a reformed judiciary, a new government. These are sufficient, however, only if they lead to a government that represents the Iraqi people and that Iraqis are willing to defend.

Even then, Friedman rightly asks, will the government be one worth expending U.S. blood, treasure and credibility to defend, or is it a sectarian government out to dominate others in Iraq? The recent elections, which have given power to sectarian parties, are not a good omen. George Lopez might be correct in saying that the United States’ goal of establishing democracy in Iraq and spreading it to the rest of the Middle East might represent cultural hubris more than an ethical obligation. But would it be morally defensible for the United States to be an accomplice, however unwilling, in the establishment of an unstable Islamic state that does not protect basic human rights of religious minorities, women and Sunnis?

Without a U.S. presence, Iraq could conceivably move toward a stable, relatively representative government, but it could also descend into civil war or fly apart in a secessionist conflict. To prevent the latter scenarios, Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, suggests that the United States must remain tied to Iraq in ways that are thick...lest the Iraqi people be victimized many times over, if a stable, decent government does not emerge.

The gap between words and deeds is particularly evident in the United States’ failure to make significant progress in meeting the third test: restoring Iraq’s infrastructure and a viable economy that serves Iraqi needs, not U.S. interests, especially with respect to oil. By most measures, progress in economic reconstruction is abysmal; in key areas the situation is actually worse than the day the United States intervened. Moreover, as recent government reports show, the reconstruction program has been riddled with corruption, ineptitude and inefficiency. Despite a dysfunctional economy and infrastructure, made much worse by the violence, American officials have begun talking of drawdown of new U.S. reconstruction projects with an end in 2006, even though almost half of the $18.4 billion originally appropriated for reconstruction was eaten up by security, rebuilding prisons and the criminal justice system, and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein. Moreover, while today most contracts are belatedly being awarded to Iraqis, much of the reconstruction has been done by U.S. contractors using foreign labor.

If the United States is serious about its obligations, the relatively modest U.S. funding proposed for Iraq reconstruction in the coming year should be substantially increased, Iraqis should be granted greater responsibility for reconstruction projects, more local projects should be funded, and the international community should have a greater role.

Finally, if Iraqi interests are truly paramount, it seems clear that the United States should not stay or leave without the consent of the Iraqi government. Unfortunately, a more likely scenario was presented by a senior U.S. official recently: We’ve said we won’t leave a day before it’s necessary. But necessary is the key wordnecessary for them or for us? When we finally depart, it will probably be for us.

The United States has made some progress in meeting the criteria for an ethical exit from Iraq, especially in re-establishing political institutions, but much greater progress could have been made, and must still be made. From failures to prepare for looting or provide adequate troop levels, to the decision not to seek substantial new funding for reconstruction, U.S. policy has suffered from a moral failure: it has willed the ends but not the means. It is probably not too late to correct course, but valuable time and credibility have been lost.

Even if the United States had better matched ends and means, Iraq could not be expected to overcome decades of devastation and despotism in a few short years. Given my moral opposition to the U.S. intervention, I wish I could agree with Tom Hayden that the Iraq war is not worth another minute in lost lives, lost honor, lost taxes, lost allies. An ethic of obligation prevents me from doing so. The United States has imposed itself on Iraq. It cannot, in good conscience, withdraw until it has exhausted the long-term process of helping Iraqis through a period of what the U.S. bishops call a responsible transition. An ethic of obligation must incorporate a hard-headed calculus of the efficacy of occupation. The futility of U.S. efforts must be very clear, however, in order to override the heavy obligations the nation owes the Iraqi people. The U.S. presence is no doubt contributing to the insurgency, but it would be worse if the United States embarks, as it might be doing, on a slow, quiet version of cut and run. This could leave Iraq a festering, failed state that is a source of regional instability and global terrorism.

We are not at the point in Iraq that we were in 1971, when the U.S. bishops concluded that the war in Vietnam was futile and its harms were disproportionate to any good that could be achieved. Even if we are fortunate never to reach that point in Iraq, the moral conundrum posed by the dilemma we face there should prove, if further proof were needed, the moral bankruptcy of preventive war.

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11 years 11 months ago
The March 6 issue of America (“Iraq: Exit or Not?”) presented differing opinions by George Lopez and Gerard Powers. I have long advocated the position of Lopez: I believe that current U.S. policy in Iraq is morally indefensible.

Powers argued his points well, and I considered his stance carefully. Of course we have a moral responsibility to the people of Iraq. That is a heavy weight on the consciences of Americans (if they follow what is taking place in that country). At the very least, America must foot the bill for rebuilding the country, since our military ruined it. But the children killed, the families broken, the lives destroyed—how can that ever be made right? That is why so many Americans have told Mr. Bush: “Not in our name....”

But Powers’s reasoning fails when he appears to argue that keeping the U.S. military in Iraq will settle the moral obligation we have. The presence of the U.S. military there is the biggest problem. The problem is not fixed by those who caused it.

But, thank God, there are Americans even now who selflessly are discharging part of our moral responsibility to Iraq. Others helping to repay our debt are the Christian Peacemaker Teams. Tom Fox, recently murdered in Iraq, was one of these. Independent journalists are also helping, because they get out the stories from the ground we would otherwise not know. All of these, and no doubt there are others, are helping the Iraqi people in truth, and thus assisting with our moral obligation.

But the military? Not so.


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