Friday, March 12, 2010

On the Question of the Morality of the Iraq War

Don’t be so sure invading Iraq was immoral

By Nigel Biggar Published: March 10 2010 22:09 Last updated: March 10 2010 22:09

...The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war has run about half its course. Judging by the dominant reaction of the British press, its sole function is to prove what we all know to be true: that the invasion was immoral and Tony Blair is to blame. The surfeit of moral certainty among the commentators is suspect; the zealous clarity of their moral waters needs muddying.

For sure, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was morally flawed.

The US administration’s motivation was hubristic and preparation for postwar reconstruction was woefully inadequate. Yet most just wars are flawed. Take the war against Nazi Germany. The RAF’s indiscriminate bombing of German cities was largely driven by “Bomber” Harris’s vengeful hatred. While the destruction of Hitler’s hegemony was very good, the entrenchment of Stalin’s was very bad.

Any complex human enterprise will involve moral flaws. What needs determining is whether and how these undermine its justice as a whole. As proof of the Iraq invasion’s wickedness, critics invoke the civilian death toll, soberly reckoned at 100,000-150,000. But Europe’s liberation from Nazi domination cost the lives of 70,000 French civilians and 500,000 German ones through bombing; and, whereas this was the direct responsibility of the British and Americans, most Iraqi civilians were killed by foreign or native insurgents. Yes, the occupying powers were obliged to maintain law and order, and failed initially. But the insurgents were obliged not to send suicide bombers into crowded market places, and they have failed persistently.

Arguments about a war’s disproportion are often intractable.

If one assumes the Iraq war was unjust, then no civilian deaths were worth it. Yet in affirming the justice of the war against Hitler we imply it was worth the deaths of 30m civilians. The loss of 150,000 civilians therefore does not, of itself, make the Iraq war unjust. The invasion would be harder to defend were the country’s new regime to fail. But that has not happened yet, and those critics who care more for Iraqis than they hate the former US and UK leaders George W. Bush and Mr Blair will hope it never does.

If determining the Iraq war’s proportionality is difficult, maybe determining its legality is easier. It would seem so, given the assurance with which some lawyers have damned it before Chilcot. But such condemnations can only be opinions, since international law can be variously interpreted. However, even if we grant that the invasion was illegal, we still have to grapple with the fact that so was Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which is now widely regarded as legitimate. The implication? That legality is not the final word.

Current international law is morally problematic. It denies the right of states to use military force unilaterally except in self-defence, while reserving the enforcement of international law for the United Nations Security Council, whose capacity to act is hamstrung by the right of veto in the service of national interests.

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil. No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people.

Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than consistently irresponsible?

Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

We now know this reasonable supposition was mistaken and that the problem was less urgent than it appeared. But it was still urgent. Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit...

The writer is regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book on the ethics of war

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