Invading Iraq: Immoral Then and Now
|<The Bush Doctrine, under which the President justified his invasion of Iraq, is immoral. Pre-emptive war in the absence of imminent threat is immoral. This is as clear to me today as it was back in 2003 when I marched, wrote, and worked in every way I could against the decision to invade.|
Although the reason it's immoral is something so obvious to me it seems ludicrous to have to explain it, the confusion and fear that followed the 9/11 attacks, and that were manipulated by the Bush Administration, have sown seeds of ambiguity on basic moral issues in our country's collective consciousness (issues like torture, habeus corpus, secret prisons, etc.) to the point that even the obvious must now be restated.
Therefore, I'll offer this simple equation: war = death of innocents. Moral leaders define themselves most fundamentally through preventing the death of innocents unless there is no other option. In the absence of an imminent threat there are ALWAYS other options. There may not be easier options. In the aftermath of a devastating attack, there may not be more satisfying options. But to prevent the deaths of innocents that wars guarantee, the leaders in whom the people place their trust are obligated to exhaust, fully, the alternatives to war. Until a threat is imminent, it's always unconvincing to suggest that has been done.
In addition, pre-emptive war in the absence of imminent threat is immoral because war always carries the risk of getting out of hand and creating a situation much worse than the one the war was designed to address. That's why wars are widely seen, by moral people, as only justified when clearly they are the last resort. The potential for chaos is too great to risk it otherwise. Here again, they may not be the easiest or most gratifying solution, but every conceivable (and possible-yet-to-conceive) alternative to war must be exhausted by moral leaders.
I've been having this debate so long now, though, I'm sure there are those who feel I've beaten this horse into glue. As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, however, I see that this basic standard of morality is still not clear to some who would be Commander-in-Chief, and so I'm gonna outline for them exactly why they're mistaken with two guiding principles as my metrics: the cost of innocent lives and the predictable (and unpredictable) outcome of actions.
The main hurdle encountered thus far in making the case that the decision to invade Iraq was immoral is the near-maddening rope-a-dope of rationales for the invasion that provide cover for its apologists when they're pressed to account for their support. No one of these rationales is still solid enough on its own to shield them, but by bobbing and ducking behind the ruins of this argument and then dashing over to hide behind what's left of that argument, the apologists manage to wear out their critics or confuse themselves enough to feel they're right, that invading Iraq was a moral decision. Most of the rationales (like WMD, spreading democracy, 9/11, etc.), though, derive their remaining strength from the one that still lingers as the most compelling (the one seen as still offering the most shelter, IMO). This one was recently offered by candidate Rudolph Giuliani:
“I would remove Saddam Hussein again,” Mr. Giuliani said. “I just hope we’d do it better and we’d do it in a different way.”As I noted, this rationale--we had to invade to remove Hussein--is politically compelling (who isn't happy Hussein is gone?) but it's still morally problematic. More than that, though, it helps fortify the other rationles (it's the invasion's only real success), so my purpose today is to explain why it does not morally justify the invasion.
Hussein was a monster, and his record leaves no doubt that he was a criminal whose actions constituted, over his reign, a humanitarian crisis. Still, there are two calculations that must be made in determining whether or not invading a country to stop a monster or end a crisis is a moral decision (we don't do it everywhere monsters rule, so clearly we're using practical measures here...but what are the moral measures? I suggest they include): what it would cost in lives of innocents to do so and what would most likely be the result of forcibly changing the current situation. If it cost more lives than already lost or expected to be lost to depose of the leader or if the resulting situation would pose a greater threat to the people (both inside and outside the nation being invaded) than existed before, then the loss (risk of loss) of innocent lives trumps other concerns and the invasion is immoral, and other avenues must be pursued. That is, you can't kill or enable to be killed more people than were already going to die and claim your mission is moral. I know this gets abstract, and Bush was facing nonabstract choices, but bear with me here. I promise to spell this out in real terms.
First though, I should note that personally, I go further than that in my own moral guidelines. There is a moral distinction to me between the political assassinations ordered by a despot and the totally random killing of innocents by those trying to depose him, with the latter being more reprehensible philosophically, because they're rationalized as "just" (whereas the former are clearly crimes to us). The apologist position on this, though, seems to me to be that the lives vaporized by our shock-and-awe campaign in the first days of the invasion were an unfortunate, but necessary, part of doing the greater good. Others incredibly have argued essentially that lives are fungible and that the Iraqis we killed with our bombs could be balanced against the lives Hussein would keep taking if we didn't stop him. As an individualist who sees the shock-and-awe victims as having an inalienable right to live (and to take their chances against Hussein), I view this as a heinously unsympathetic argument.
But let me back up and take the emotion out of this. Whether the objective of removing Hussein was a moral decision in practical, nonabstract terms or not is most easily revealed via what I call the "Worst Case Scenario Paradox." Supporters justified their support by offering elaborate doomsday scenarios if we didn't act, but dismissed as "not compelling enough to stop the invasion" the other worst case scenarios that might follow an invasion. Another candidate for president outlines the first part of this paradox in his 2004 defense of the war (in which he stated quite clearly he felt it was correct on "moral grounds"). From John McCain:
By early 2003, the status quo Iraq policy--a kind of weak containment that no longer enjoyed much international support--was crumbling and simply could not be sustained. The sanctions regime no longer constrained Saddam's ability to spend money as he wished, and the regime was growing stronger, not weaker. Critics around the world were demanding that sanctions be lifted, U.S. and British warplanes were taking frequent fire in the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, thousands of American troops were based in Saudi Arabia to deter Saddam, and Iraq remained in violation of 17 Security Council resolutions. Things were falling apart. [...] We also knew of Saddam's past involvement in terrorism and his hatred of America. And we knew that, even if Saddam's WMD programs were destroyed, he planned to restart them once the time was right--presumably, once sanctions had fallen apart, he had his hands on billions of dollars in oil revenue, and international attention was again distracted. This was the situation in early 2003: The threat was grave and gathering.The formula McCain used to determine morality here is not at all balanced. Whereas he constructed the worst-case scenario to justify his support out of a complex chain of actions, any one of which might have looked very different a few months down the road (what would have had to have happened here included lifting the sanctions [no slam dunk at the time], restarting of Hussein's weapons program, the international community being distracted enough to not notice this, and [implied through noting Iraq's involvement in terrorism] some of these weapons being used against the U.S. [this is truly a stretch given the odds of terrorists getting WMD from Pakistan or somewhere in the former Soviet Union were/are much higher]), he apparently disregarded the critics who predicted another chain of events not nearly as complicated. From a report on a study by the Brookings Institution and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies released in 2002:
The Iraqi government has displaced about one million people over the last 30 years, creating deep regional and ethnic fractures that could erupt into civil war if President Saddam Hussein is deposed, a new report says.It may be human nature to take more seriously the worst-case scenario that impacts you directly than one that will impact others, but we're talking morality here, not selfish interests. The likelihood for an Iraqi civil war after an invasion was much greater in 2002 than the likelihood the international community would let itself be distracted from the WMD ambitions of a known madman. But there's another part of the "remove Hussein" rationale for invading as Iraq aside from the WMD threat: stopping the ongoing humanitarian crisis. McCain invoked this too in 2004, when, as he noted, there were "over 800 Americans dead [and] well over $100 billion and counting spent on the war."
But, when I stood in August at the mass grave at Hilla, where 10,000 Iraqis were executed--some tied together and shot so as to save bullets--I did not wish to take it all back.This one gets tricky for some people, because if you're going to criticize Bush for invading Iraq to stop Hussein, you can't, they'll argue, give a free pass to Clinton for Kosovo or others wanting to stop such bloodshed. You want to consistent on this, morally speaking. McCain prefaced his view it this way:
I supported humanitarian intervention in order to stop genocide in Kosovo, and I wish the United States had acted--with force if necessary--to stop genocide in Rwanda. In neither of these places were America's vital national security interests at stake. But our national values were: The United States should not stand silently by in the face of massive humanitarian destruction. Time and time again, the world has witnessed vast brutality, done nothing, and then said "never again." In Iraq last year, we ensured that Saddam could never again slaughter Iraqis.Leaving Dafur, and other such brutality the senator could take the lead on right now, aside for the moment (as well as how irrelevant/quaint McCain's 2004 numbers of dead and money spent seem today), I'll note there are two important distinctions to be made here. First, chaos reigned in both Kosovo and Rwanda at the point McCain argues U.S. intervention was the moral thing to support. Chaos is always dangerous beyond the borders of the conflict and can lead directly to our national security interests being at stake and even wider bloodshed. Secondly, it was difficult to truly imagine the situation becoming significantly worse if we acted in Kosovo. There were risks, as always, but nothing compared to the risk of civil war in the heart of the Middle East, as spelled out in detail by the Brookings-Johns Hopkins study. McCain is truly comparing apples and oranges here.
To summarize, no realistic formula for determining the morality of invading Iraq based on the desire to depose Hussein holds water, given what was known about the risks back in 2002. Further, given that's the only remaining, even remotely compelling rationale for why the invasion was moral, one must conclude that the standard that we've lived by for years (i.e., that war is only justified when it's a last resort, and that pre-emptive war in particular is only moral if there's an imminent threat) still holds, that the Bush Doctrine is a violation of that standard, and that the invasion of Iraq was, indeed, an immoral decision. It was clear before the invasion to those not guided by other ambitions, and it should be crystal clear to everyone now. It's high time the apologists, especially those running for president, own up to that, as well, and stop hiding behind the ruins of the shattered rationales for their original support.