Where Do the Angels Reside 3: The Morality of Getting Out of Iraq

The most difficult, yet consequential, moral question to ask about Iraq is the moral dimension of leaving that country. Within the presidential debate surrounding Iraq war policy, the major point of disagreement is often stated implicitly in moral terms: is it right (moral) to exit the country soon? or is it better to remain in the country and to ease its transition to some better condition? The bottom line of any moral argument has to be: what U.S. action serves the greater betterment of the Iraqis?

This is not only the most consequential question, it is also the most difficult to answer, for two reasons. The first is that the conditions that need betterment in Iraq are largely our fault. Granted that some Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein, most of the current suffering is the direct result of the American invasion and is suffering that would not have occurred had we not invaded and occupied the country. Under Saddam Hussein, for instance, there was electricity and it was safe to walk the streets at night. The moral question is thus burdened with the recognition that whatever the United States does in the future is partly to repair suffering we have caused. It is hard to argue this does not create some moral imperative behind future American action. Colin Powell was right: we did break Iraq, and the question now is whether it would be immoral not to try to fix what we have broken.

The second difficulty is that it is impossible to know for certain which course of action–leaving or staying–will alleviate the suffering we have created. John McCain says it would be immoral not to stay and ease the burden; Senators Obama and Clinton argue that only the Iraqis themselves can solve their problems and that the sooner the U.S. departs, the sooner the process will begin (and that the process will be accelerated by the U.S. departure). One of these assessments is closer to correct than the other one. Unfortunately, there is no way to know definitively which is more correct in advance of the action.

The morally correct solution to Iraq thus boils down to what assessment will best relieve Iraqi suffering. Providing a better life for Iraqis and their country was the implicit moral basis for invading and has been the moral rationale for occupying the country. As noted in the previous entries, both these arguments in application are arguably flawed, a judgment that can be made because they have produced outcomes that can be judged: the invasion was a good or bad idea, and the occupation has been successful or has been botched. Each has moral implications that can be judged on the record.

The moral basis for judgment surrounding when and how to leave is easy to define: what action will provide a better life for Iraq. The problem is there is no record on which to assess what is the “right” course of action. What makes the moral problem all the knottier is that the wrong decision–one that leaves Iraqis worse off–will be hard to reverse. If staying produces bad results, time is lost. If leaving is wrong (and is irreversible in that the U.S. will almost certainly not return once it has left), then the result cannot be changed. One course is right and moral in its effects, and the other is not. The problem is: which is which?


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