Where Do the Angels Reside 2: The Morality of Occupying Iraq
Has the United States acted morally since it occupied Iraq? The question evokes two sequential sub-questions: were the purposes for which the United States occupied Iraq good (moral)? And has the United States acted in a way that would fulfill the moral underpinnings of its actions (acted ethically)? These are not abstract matters debate about which resembles debating how many angels can sit on the head of a pin; they are concrete matters subject to observation, measurement, and evaluation.
Having said that, the first sub-question (the morality of the occupation) depends on why the United States invaded Iraq, and there is ample disagreement and varying (often self-serving) debate about the real reasons for the invasion. For argument’s sake, adopt the most morally lofty goal that has been ascribed to the American action: the overthrow of a morally reprehensible dictator and his replacement with a stable, prosperous democracy. These goals are close to morally unimpeachable in the abstract, but with a caution. Ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein is morally unassailable if the result is a better condition for the liberated population than that under which it previously suffered; it is not so clearly moral if the situation after the overthrow is no better or even—especially!—worse.
Put in these terms, how has the United States done in attempting to implement the dictates of the second sub-question? In other words, has the United Sates acted in such a way as to fulfill its moral promise by improving the lot of the Iraqis?
The United States clearly accomplished the first, prefatory goal of removing the source of “evil” represented by the Saddam Hussein regime—a moral plus. Its record on the second purpose of creating a better replacement is, even charitably, mixed at best. Certainly, the most ambitious goal of stable democracy and social and economic betterment have not been achieved, and there are no firm, optimistic projections about when—or whether—these goals will be realized, as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker admitted in their recent testimony to Congress. The Iran Study Group, reenergized in anticipation of the April 2008 report by the general and the ambassador, suggested recently that it would take an additional five to ten years of “concerted” effort to approach the goal and wondered whether the American people would accept such a burden.
What are the moral consequences of a U.S. failure to produce a “better” Iraq? It is not a simple question. For one thing, it raises the follow-on question of a better Iraq for whom—the Americans or the Iraqis? The answers are not clearly the same for both. Americans would likely emphasize a more politically democratic Iraq as fulfilling the moral mandate, but the result could well be a more disorderly Iraq where a morally stable, prosperous living condition is more difficult to achieve. Iraqis might well opt for a more orderly if less democratic outcome if that resulted in their increased safety and prosperity. What if one goal (prosperity or democracy) is possible, but only at the expense of the other? In which direction does the morally virtuous path lead in that case?
The other element of the moral evaluation is whether the United States is honestly trying to achieve the morally lofty goals it set out for itself at the outset. Certainly the efforts to date have been monumentally incompetently administered, and there is scant evidence of movement toward their achievement. Are Iraqis better off today than they were before the U.S. invasion? Answers undoubtedly differ depending on which Iraqis one asks the question, but the answers would clearly not be uniformly positive.
What are the moral implications of not achieving the goals set out for Iraq? It depends. Clearly, an ending whereby Iraq emerges as a vibrant, prosperous democracy provides the optimally desirable outcome, especially if that is what the Iraqis also want. If that happy ending is impossible to achieve (as Senator Obama hinted in his questioning of General Petraeus), the moral burden shifts to why not. If the quest was and remains quixotic, was dreaming the “impossible dream” praiseworthy or simply foolish? If the reason for the failure is the result of inadequate effort (an ethical problem), was the pronouncement of the goal hypocritical?
These latter questions raise concerns about the attainability of the morally justified ends. Senator McCain has declared that the failure to continue the quest would be immoral. Is he right? What judgments one reaches affects judgments about the morality of continuing or terminating the war effort—the subject of the next entry.