Thirty years from now, students in ethics classes who study the Iraq war will be stunned by the manner in which ethicists twisted themselves into pretzels searching for a moral lens that would fit this war experience. They will be particularly puzzled by how the political realm continued to define the substance of the moral high ground and then, without much critique from the cowed ethicists, used methods that neither led to nor were supported by the moral ground they had defined.
No better example of this process exists than the Bush administration’s decision in January, amid sinking poll numbers about support for the war, to shift the turf on which moral argument might be conducted. The U.S. goal in Iraq was no longer to stay the course so that Iraqis could be sufficiently self-governing, but rather to achieve victory. By ratcheting up the U.S. goal, the president framed those calling for U.S. withdrawal as political defeatists and ethically irresponsible. However, the administration’s declaration to achieve victory in Iraq is so far from the realities unfolding there, that the White House strategy of condemning its critics now lacks credibility.
At this point, where the political and the ethical converge, a moral critique of U.S. policy must begin. The pursuit of this goal to its logical conclusion leads me to concludefor better or worsethat current U.S. policy is not morally defensible. Further, a strategically planned withdrawal is at least as viable and defensible a position as any other.
The Bush approach to Iraq has not provided, and in many cases has actually obfuscated, the collection and discussion of accurate information, which is so necessary for political and moral decision-making. Good ethics must be based on facts. But in Iraq, true facts have been fewer and farther between, as things have become more difficult for the American effort.
For their part, ethicists, journalists and university researchers have given a pass to the Bush administration regarding critical facts and numbers. These include not only the numbers and nature of the insurgency, but also the lack of serious accounting for civilian casualties and the instances of fairly large, disciplined, nonviolent protests objecting to American rule that have occurred throughout the country.
U.S. leaders have likewise been consistently incorrect about the scope, motivations and actions of the insurgency. The administration predicted that insurgent attacks would ebb after the capture of Saddam Hussein; then, after the handover of authority by the Conditional Provisional Authority to the Allawi interim government; then, after the pacification of Najaf; after Falluja; after the elections of January 2005; and most recently with the passage of the constitution in October. Instead, the insurgency against the United States and those perceived to be U.S. collaborators has continued to intensify and diversify.
The insurgency’s persistence throughout 2004 and into 2005 gave rise to the White House characterization that the rebels were being mobilized and supplied by an alarming increase in foreign fighters. This, of course, coincided with increased claims by the administration that Iraq had become the primary front in the war on terror. But in field operations from Fallujah to Anbar Province to the Syrian border, U.S. military have continued to find that only about 1 in 10 insurgents killed or captured are foreigners.
Furthermore, after the Pentagon was forced to admit that the insurgency was more than just the old Baathists fighting for Saddam to the end, administration estimates placed the insurgency at 20,000 to 22,000 strong. Now, nearly three years into this conflict, the discussed size of the insurgency remains the same, while we know that somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 insurgents have been killed and anywhere from 13,000 to 16,000 Iraqis suspected of involvement with the insurgency are being held in prisons and detention facilities. How does this not lead to a recalculation of size, scope and meaning of the insurgency and, by implication, of the U.S. position in Iraq?
The Threat of Civil War
Those who are searching for an ethical compass to guide them in assessing this war point consistently to the possibility that a U.S. departure soon will trigger civil war. So, they reason, it would be the height of moral irresponsibility for the United States to depart.
But such discussions ignore the constantly shifting character of violence in Iraq, which resembles that of a failed state more than of a state prone to civil war. In addition to insurgent-based political violence of the more formal and deadly kind, there has been a substantial increase in privatized violence by gangs and militias, ranging from ethnic revenge-killings to kidnappings. Ample evidence suggests that segments of the militia units of the Iraqi army are involved in these actions.
Amid such societal breakdown, heavily resourced factions, like those in the Iraqi ruling groups, will be able to create only pockets of safety and the semblance of governance, such as the Green Zone. Geography, as in the case of about a dozen of Iraq’s provinces, will also provide protection to portions of the country and produce some examples of communal rebuilding and success. But the cities will not be safe, national infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, and in a society armed to the teeth and with few economic opportunities, such violence will be ongoing, increasingly criminalizedpossibly through links to terrorist networksand strengthened among social groups. Iraq will continue to experience its own blend of Lebanon, Liberia or Colombia at their worst.
And this may be the less troubling scenario. A distinct possibility exists that as such violence proceeds, the Shiites will lose patience with the ongoing social instability and, quite possibly in alliance with Iran, undertake a military offensive to restore order to the country. Inevitably, this would entail a great deal of violence directed especially toward the Sunnis.
Neither the current anarchy, which history shows will only cease when the factions involved see a real need to end this violence and important regional and international actors become involved, nor the more deadly scenario just sketched is a subject of much policy discussion. Some argue that a robust U.S. military presence could forestall a portion of the strife, but the existing U.S. presence has not been able to stifle the emergence of the former trend.
In fact, the recent attacks around the Green Zone notwithstanding, U.S. forces are becoming sidelined in much of Iraq. Because we continue to be present in high numbers and with a great deal of firepower, we continue to make good targets, while the violence that is most devastating unfolds around us. In this setting, worries about civil warand ethical debates about itmay be academic.
Support Our Troops
Even faced with mounting evidence that our war position in Iraq may be untenable in a moral sense, ethicists are placed in an excruciating position, as the Bush administration casts the ethical discussion in the direction of two fundamental cultural values that we hold as Americans. These values are so deeply ingrained that one feels they must be ethically sound.
The first value is that we must support our troops. This is a laudable tradition. But in reality, appeal to this value is being used by the administration to stifle domestic criticism of its policy. To suggest that the best way to support the troops might actually be to bring them home, following a planned schedule or otherwise, is condemned as irresponsible. The White House argues that university discussions, op-ed articles calling for withdrawal and public debates about the war dangerously harm troop morale. This claim is repeated without any empirical validation, yet the administration receives no challenge. At the same time, the effect on soldiers of orders sending them back to Iraq for yet another tour, or the fact that their departure from military service has been delayed by the Pentagon’s stop-loss program, is not evaluated. And U.S. citizens hear little of the more than 17,000 U.S. troops who have been wounded and the capacity of their families or communities to assist them.
A second distinctive American cultural value trumpeted by the White House is our can-do attitude. We believe that even if we have knocked Humpty Dumpty off the wall, our rare combination of will, resources and righteous intention can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We believe, in fact, that the effort will be noble, validating our best projection of American power and purpose. While even those who support this war now admit that a certain American hubris guided our sense that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, an even greater hubris now sustains our commitment to stay until we have made Iraq whole. The fact that this goal may be impossible for us to achieve is beyond our imagination. And the administration uses fidelity to this goal as an ethical measuring stick by which all proposals must be judged.
An Ethical U.S. Policy
A political commitment to a stable and viable Iraq that had ethical credibility would pursue policy actions different from current U.S. policy on three important fronts. First, the administration has budgeted no economic reconstruction aid in its 2007 request to Congress. More than any other single action, this shows the gap between administration rhetoric and reality. U.S. officials speak in grandiose terms of the future of Iraq, yet in reality we have packed it in on rebuilding the country and consider our only task to be to inflict as much military damage on terrorists as possible. Ethicists who insist that we are in an era of post-bellum ethics should be screaming about this decision.
Second, any serious commitment to Iraq’s future internal security would involve the transfer to the Iraqi armed forces of weapons superior to those possessed by the insurgents fighting the government, as well as training in the use of those weapons. It is widely known that the United States has resisted this, lest Iraqi army units use them in factional fighting.
Finally, the United States would be acting jointly with the Iraqi government to ensure more cooperative relations between Baghdad and its neighbors. U.S. policy toward Syria and Iran has been confrontational and speaks increasingly about economic isolation and regime change as strategies. Both Damascus and Tehran have indeed engaged in contemptible actions that raise legitimate concern by the United States and the international community. But the special enmity that has been fostered by the United States between these neighbors of Iraq must be repaired and bridged by more engaging and creative policy if a Baghdad government is to thrive in the region. Nothing in the U.S. approach to Iraq’s neighbors suggests such policy engagement will happen soon.
I fear the ethical crisis we face is that this war and the attempt to structure the conversation about it, as directed by the White House, has shifted in focus from our own soldiers or the Iraqi people to the U.S. elections coming up this fall. Any ethicist who denies this knows nothing about politics.
Unfortunately, those with ethics on their mind too readily accept the place to which they have been relegated. We are told by the administration that our critique is only legitimate if we come up with a policy that can be proven to protect Iraqis and their struggling attempt at self-rule, end the terror threat in Iraq, protect U.S. forces and, most recently, offer a strategy for American withdrawal that will not be interpreted by our enemies as a victory for them.
Increasing evidence indicates a low likelihood that these goals the Bush administration has now redefined can be achieved by that administration’s current policies. That they cast upon others the ethical burdens that they themselves cannot shoulder is ludicrous and irresponsible. Whatever the original intentions of the administration, ethical judgment about our current situation in Iraq must recognize that the Bush position on Iraq is now indefensible.