by Peter Daou
The Ethics of Iraq: Moral Strength vs. Material Strength
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" - Matthew 16:26
The unbridgeable divide between the left and right’s approach to Iraq and the WoT is, among other things, a disagreement over the value of moral and material strength, with the left placing a premium on the former and the right on the latter. The right (broadly speaking) can’t fathom why the left is driven into fits of rage over every Abu Ghraib, every Gitmo, every secret rendition, every breach of civil liberties, every shifting rationale for war, every soldier and civilian killed in that war, every Bush platitude in support of it, every attempt to squelch dissent. They see the left's protestations as appeasement of a ruthless enemy. For the left (broadly speaking), America’s moral strength is of paramount importance; without it, all the brute force in the world won’t keep us safe, defeat our enemies, and preserve our role as the world’s moral leader.....
War hawks squeal about America-haters and traitors, heaping scorn on the so-called “blame America first" crowd, but they fail to comprehend that the left reserves the deepest disdain for those who squander our moral authority. The scars of a terrorist attack heal and we are sadder but stronger for having lived through it. When our moral leadership is compromised by people draped in the American flag, America is weakened. The loss of our moral compass leaves us rudderless, open to attacks on our character and our basic decency. And nothing makes our enemies prouder. They can't kill us all, but if they permanently stain our dignity, they've done irreparable harm to America.
The antiwar critique of Iraq is that it is an immoral war and every resulting death is a wrongful one. Opponents of the war view the invasion and occupation as a dangerous and shameful violation of international law. Iraq saps our moral strength and the sooner we leave the better. Opposing the invasion on the grounds that the administration lied its way into it, they see every subsequent death, American or foreign, as an ethical travesty and a stain on America's good name.
They have held this view consistently since 2002. Millions marched down the streets of our cities before the invasion, believing that the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein constituted a dire and imminent threat to the US was absurd on its face (whether or not the exact word ‘imminent’ was used is a semantic exercise, the implication was clear). Where the hawks screamed that Saddam gassed his own people, the war's opponents countered that there is no shortage of murderous tyrants. Where the hawks said that Saddam wouldn't hesitate to arm terrorists, the war's opponents argued that there’s no lack of regimes that will help terrorists obtain lethal weapons.
For the less gullible among us, the administration’s alarmist rhetoric in 2002 was a grim farce, and the unfolding of the nightmare we see today was a foregone conclusion. Saddam was no greater or immediate a threat – and arguably a lesser one – than North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. Hindsight has proven these war critics correct. Few dispute that the threat from Saddam was over-stated - to put it mildly. And evidence continues
to mount that the invasion was a fait accompli by 2002 if not 2001. Calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq has nothing to do with capitulation and everything to do with righting a moral wrong and undoing the damage done to America's moral standing.
Yet to many of Bush’s supporters, anything short of ‘victory’ is a weakening of America in the eyes of its enemies. They believe we are "taking the fight to the enemy," with the word 'enemy' defined so over-broadly as to conflate Iraq and the attacks of September 11th. It’s the “kicking ass and taking names” mentality, moral justifications be damned. Revenge for being attacked is rationale enough. Material strength trumps moral strength.
Bush plays to the basest instincts of this crowd, but he and his handlers know it’s not enough. If the left values moral strength over material strength and the right values material strength over moral strength, the common ground between the two, and the place where Bush would find his widest base of support, is a case where material strength is put to use for a moral cause. Bush et al want desperately to prove that Iraq satisfies both conditions. That’s why the Sheehan-Bush battle revolves around the words “noble cause.”
Faced with the disintegration of the original rationale for war, Bush and his supporters are scrambling to find the elusive moral ground to undergird America’s presence in Iraq. But when you’re on the record invading a country because it was a grave threat and the threat never materializes, you’re left with little but a means-ends argument to justify it. In the eyes of the war’s opponents, Bush and his apologists are mired in an ethical swamp trying to justify the mess they created. Judging from recent polls
, what they’ve come up with so far is inadequate:
MORAL JUSTIFICATION #1: Bush and his administration may have knowingly exaggerated the threat but still had a hidden, righteous agenda: the removal of a murderous dictator, liberating the oppressed, etc. They simply used the most "marketable" story to gain the support of the American public.
This borders on the absurd. I'm no fan of slippery slope arguments, they're easy and ubiquitous, but this leads to the slipperiest of slopes: if it's OK to fib the country into war as long as the fibber has "good" intentions, then it's OK to lie about any policy so long as the president believes he or she is aiming for some secret "good.”
MORAL JUSTIFICATION #2: Ends justify means. In other words, pick and choose your preferred version of the following argument: “Despite the shifting rationales and lack of WMD, removing Saddam ... free elections ... an Iraqi constitution ... spreading freedom and democracy justifies the death and destruction.”
This point is often made in the form of a challenge: "Would you rather Saddam still be in power?" But rhetorical questions can go both ways. Estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties range from the low tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. Taking 50,000 as an arbitrary number, who tells those 50,000 families that they have to suffer and die to prevent 100,000 other families from suffering and dying under Saddam? Are Iraqi lives fungible? Who plays God? Without an iron-clad moral justification for war, aren’t we callously and capriciously toying with matters of life and death?
Again, why Iraq? If the hyped up threat was bogus - which we now know it was - and it wasn't about self-defense, why are we there? What is it about the Iraqi people that requires Cindy Sheehan to give her child for their freedom? Why not liberate the people of Darfur
or North Korea? Who tells them that an Iraqi deserves liberation but not them? Bush crows about "progress" in Iraq as though Americans had some unique obligation to ensure progress in that particular country. But if it's simply a matter of "doing good," why not spend $200 billion on cancer research or alleviating poverty or educating the uneducated or boosting safety and security at home so young girls
don't get raped and buried alive?
Why spend precious lives and money in Iraq? If the answer is freedom and democracy for the Middle East, one could easily argue that a cure for cancer would be infinitely more beneficial to humanity. Spending $200 billion to find a cure for cancer may be a long shot, but judging from the news, there's a distinct possibility that our $200 billion experiment in Iraq may leave it in a worse state than when we invaded. Wouldn't it make more sense to apply those resources to research that could potentially save tens of millions of lives? And we'd have thousands less Americans killed and wounded, and tens of thousands less Iraqis slaughtered.
The problem with the Bush apologists' reasoning is that using an infinite time horizon - which they are so fond of - virtually any action, no matter how egregious, can be shown to lead to some positive results. It’s the bastardization of utilitarianism; asserting a causal relationship between a pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign nation and all future good developments in Iraq and the Middle East may swell the hawks' breasts with pride, but it's a dubious and dangerous way to conduct foreign policy.
Which is precisely why we need to adhere so strictly to the rule of law, to basic moral precepts, and to established principles of international relations, something that this administration has failed to do, and that the administration's supporters can dance around but can't justify.
While bumper-sticker patriotism may have anodyne effects on Bush and his followers, the retroactive ethical justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq are flimsy at best. And for so many on the left, the undermining of America's moral strength under this administration is more of a "grave and gathering danger" to America than Saddam Hussein ever was.