Where Do the Angels Reside? The Moral Dimension of Invading Iraq

As the political debate over what to do about Iraq has been engaged, there has been an increasing tendency to put the matter in moral terms: what is the right thing for the United States to do in that country? This aspect of the discussion has been mostly submerged or left implicit, but it clearly nags at anyone trying to reach judgments on what to do about Iraq. What is the right (or moral) thing to do? On which side (staying or withdrawing, for instance) are the angels? Based on the moral judgment of right or wrong, what is the ethical course of action (are those actions consistent with the moral positions underpinning them)?

Putting it this way complicates thinking about Iraq, because it forces the discussion away from the purely physical consequences of different actions to whether those actions represent an underlying good or evil. Moreover, they complicate analysis because there is no universal agreement on good or bad in this instance (or most others, if one believes in morality based in situational ethics—the idea that good or bad depends on the context). Nevertheless, almost anyone who thinks about the issue of Iraq is at least partially conflicted over the question of what is right or wrong about what the United States has done in Iraq, what it is continuing to do, and what it may do in the future.

These three dimensions of the Iraq puzzle—past, present, and future—offer useful benchmarks against which to measure the morality of the U.S. actions and future actions and will form the basis of this and the next two entries. The rest of this entry addresses the moral basis of the decision to invade Iraq in the first place.

This concern centers on the decision to engage in “regime change” in Iraq in the first place. Changing the Iraqi regime required attacking and conquering Iraq—the necessary condition for overthrowing the Hussein regime. It raises two corollary questions. The first is whether the action contemplated was somehow right and good: should the United States stand as the arbiter of the goodness of regimes and act to rid the world of “bad” regimes. Opposing evil is a form of acting morally, after all, but doing so by no means represents universal behavior (the United States has both accepted and opposed regimes of arguably the same or higher levels of tyranny than Saddam Hussein’s). If the United States had a right, or more strongly an imperative, to oppose the evil represented by the Hussein regime, does it not have a similar imperative regarding all tyrannical regimes? And if it acts selectively, is it hypocritical (hardly a moral virtue)?

The second corollary question is whether the United States was justified in taking the kind of action it did. For those countries that are signatory to the United Nations Charter, there is a prohibition on attacking other sovereign states (and especially other members of the UN). This rule has only been openly broken twice: by Iraq in 1990 when it invaded Kuwait, and by the United States in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. The United States tried before the invasion to get a UN imprimatur on the invasion that would be a de facto endorsement of the morality of what was proposed. The American argument was that Iraqi possession of WMD and ties to terrorism posed such a threat that invasion would be an act of just war, thereby making it a morally defensible action. The UN Security Council disagreed and only permitted the continuation of sanctions on Iraq.

The morality of invading Iraq is a matter of making the case conclusively that what the United States did was an act of just war. Its implicit base was the connection of the U.S. action to the war on terrorism, a clear moral response to evil that, if true, provides a moral justification. The fact that the connection has never been proven makes a moral judgment difficult. If those who argued the action should be based in opposition to terrorism, their position may have been moral if they truly believed in the connection and believed the invasion was the only available action. The action was, in other words, ethical if it was an honest response to a perspective that the holders truly believed. Whether it was moral depends on whether the action was appropriate to the challenge.

The moral question becomes more complicated if those who advocated invasion knew (or strongly believed) the argued connection to be false. The evidence on this question is not complete, but there was certainly a large amount of contrary evidence that suggested neither basis for invading was true. If those who made the decisions knew or strongly suspected their stated case was bogus, the morality of their positions simply dissolves, and their action has to be deemed both immoral and unethical if the stated case was indeed the motivator of action (about which some of the arguments in What After Iraq? raise questions).

Deciding on the morality of the decision to invade Iraq is, of course, pivotal to assessing the morality of subsequent decisions. Without the initial decision, quite obviously, none of the subsequent decisions would have been necessary, thus obviating questions of morality. But what if one deems the initial decisions immoral? Does that mean that actions taken since to implement the original decisions are also immoral? Or that future actions to continue or reverse the original decision are based in the morality of the first decision? These questions will form the subjects of the next two entries.

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One Response to “Where Do the Angels Reside? The Moral Dimension of Invading Iraq”

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