Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Was there any moral case against the Iraq war? (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)
October 26, 2004

Was there any moral case against the Iraq war?

Jeff Weintraub

Although these distinctions are to some extent artificial and have to be handled carefully, it is a useful first approximation to say that most arguments for and against the Iraq war fell roughly into three broad categories: 'moral' (including humanitarian), 'legal', and 'realist' or prudential. There certainly were and are arguments that tried to integrate all three of these concerns. (I was and remain convinced, for example, that the war was necessary and justified on all three of these grounds, in mutually reinforcing ways.) There were also some types of argument that fitted only awkwardly and sometimes ambiguously into this outline (e.g., opposition to the war on grounds of generalized anti-Americanism and/or 'anti-imperialism'). And in many specific cases the categories are overlapping (for example, prudential arguments of the realpolitik national-interest variety are also making moral claims, implicit or explicit; legalistic arguments are sometimes advanced as versions of so-called 'realist' arguments about maintaining the stability of the international order; and so on).

Nevertheless, bearing all these caveats in mind, these categories can be an analytically useful first step in disentangling the different kinds of arguments involved and making some sense of the confusing (and often confused) melange of issues that they address.

Norman Geras has tried to wrestle with these issues in his thoughtful and intelligent reflections on The argument over Iraq. The most recent posting in this series, semi-facetiously entitled 'The last word on the Iraq war', focuses specifically on the question of whether there was any serious or convincing moral argument against the Iraq war (as distinct from legalistic, 'realist', and/or prudential arguments). Geras concludes (but read the whole thing):

There was no persuasive moral case against the Iraq war. There were creditable moral reasons for entertaining doubts about it; and some people have articulated such doubts in a creditable way; but this is something different from a compelling case that the war was wrong. Speaking from my own experience of the debates, both before and since the war the majority of those who opposed it, or at least the majority of its most vocal opponents, opposed it in anything but a creditable way.
I might want to complicate some of the formulations in his discussion. But, fundamentally, what Geras has to say there strikes me as right and important. Arguments against the Iraq war took a lot of different forms, and I have consistently recognized that some of them were serious, substantial, and in certain cases not entirely implausible. The most substantial and convincing of such arguments were basically prudential and, broadly speaking, conservative ones - i.e., Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed real and dangerous problems, but the attempt to solve these through a war for regime change was likely to lead to even worse consequences than the alternatives. I respected, and continue to respect, many of the arguments along these lines, even though I was ultimately unconvinced. The legalistic arguments against the war (even those that were sincere and principled) have struck me as mostly incorrect and, at all events, a lot less morally and politically compelling. And the vast bulk of the moralistic and pseudo-'humanitarian' arguments against the war range, in my (possibly fallible) opinion, from unconvincing to logically fallacious to factually inaccurate to morally despicable (and sometimes all at once).

Some aspects of the current political situation make it especially important to re-emphasize these points right now. In my view, it is legitimate and essential to criticize the Bush administration for the irresponsible, incompetent, and often dishonest way that it has framed, justified, and conducted the Iraq war, particularly the post-Saddam occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. These add up to one major reason (among many) to vote against Bush in the US Presidential election. But having said that, it is also important to make it clear that these criticisms do not necessarily vindicate the positions of most of the people who opposed the war - some of whom continue to advocate abandoning Iraq now, and in certain cases even support the appalling collection of fascist thugs, Sunni revanchists, theocratic religious fanatics, and foreign jihadist terrorists carrying out the 'insurgency'.

On the contrary, people (and governments) who opposed military action against Saddam Hussein and his regime need to honestly face up to the fact that they supported leaving Iraq under the control of an exceptionally sadistic fascist regime with a proven history of genocidal mass murder, military adventurism, and catastrophic miscalculation - and that the policies they supported entailed, at the very least, significant risks that these would lead to the collapse of 'containment', to another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan, to Saddam Hussein's resumption of his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programmes, and to other unpleasant consequences. If they start out by acknowledging these realities, and still want to argue that the war was a bad idea, then there are arguments along these lines that deserve respect. But arguments against the war that refuse to face up to these realities, and to the moral dilemmas they involved, are hard to take seriously... and, in most cases, they deserved and still deserve to be morally condemned.

Some of these crucial realities have been nicely summed up by the scholar of Islam Juan Cole, whose Informed Comment weblog has offered knowledgeable and politically acute analysis of the Iraq crisis over the past two years. Cole has been a scathing critic of the Bush administration, especially of its conduct of the Iraq war and the post-war occupation. However, while he did not exactly support the war, he could not bring himself to oppose it either, he refused 'to march to keep Saddam in power', and he unambiguously welcomed the overthrow of the Iraqi Baath regime. Since Cole can't plausibly be accused of being an ignorant warmonger, a neo-conservative zealot, or a lackey of the Bush administration, his diagnoses of the situation are worth considering:

John Kerry has been accused of 'waffling' on Iraq because he supported the war but has criticized the outcome. [....] I also sympathize with Kerry, because I declined to oppose the war. I felt that a) Saddam was a genocidal monster, and getting rid of him would benefit the Iraqis, and b) the 'dual containment' of Iraq and Iran as a policy was a fatal dead end that had just put the US in the position of denying needed medicine to Iraqi children (actually Saddam manipulated the system to rob the children and give to the Baath officials, but the US got blamed). Even the 'no-fly' zone for the Kurds probably couldn't have been kept up indefinitely, and if the US ever withdrew, Saddam would have massacred the Kurds all over again.

But I disagreed almost completely with the *way* the war was carried out... [Juan Cole, Informed Comment - September 1, 2003]

On several other occasions, Cole has responded sharply to claims that there were no 'humanitarian' justifications for the Iraq war. For example, in January 2004 the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, argued that the war in Iraq was 'Not a Humanitarian Intervention'. Cole replied:
I deeply disagree with the way the Bush administration pursued the war against Iraq. [....] That said, I simply must disagree with HRW and Mr. Roth that there were no humanitarian grounds for such a war. I believe that what Saddam was doing to the Marsh Arabs from the mid-1990s could legitimately qualify as a genocide. Likewise, the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Although the latter was carried out some years ago, the former had been recent and ongoing. Moreover, there is not in most legal systems any statute of limitations on murder, so I am not sure why there should be one on genocide or mass murder.

In short, I believe that the United Nations Security Council was obliged to remove Saddam Hussein from power on the basis of egregious violations of the UN Convention on Genocide. [Juan Cole, Informed Comment - January 28, 2004]

Taking all this into account, I am not sure whether Cole's position that he 'declined to oppose the war' is fully adequate, since in the end one had to choose one way or another. But I can respect Cole's ambivalence, which is complex and intelligent, and many of the dilemmas he has emphasized are quite real. The crucial point is that his position faced up to the realities of the situation in a morally serious way. Arguments against the Iraq war that do not start from an honest and serious acknowledgement of these realities are, again, at best unconvincing and often disgraceful. (Jeff Weintraub.)

Posted by Norm at 12:17 PM | Permalink