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What are America’s Obligations to Iraq after an Unjust War?


[1] A recent development in the just war tradition has been to identify a third stage of war: the time after hostilities cease. The requirements of justice do not stop at the moment of a ceasefire, but continue through activities such as repatriation of captured soldiers, war crimes trials, and reparations. Such obligations have long been recognized in international law. However, in recent years, just war theorists have begun fleshing out these minimal legal obligations into a more robust category of justice after war (jus post bellum), to stand along side the just decision (jus ad bellum) and just conduct (jus in bello) criteria. This development is bringing to fruition what has been implicit in just war theory. Since the goal of a just war is to restore a political condition of peace and justice, and since allowing a just war is always a mournful concession to the reality of injustice, a country that wins a war has post-bellum obligations to advance the common good within the losing nation and among the community of nations. It has the moral duty to make up for the damage it has caused, even if it was justified in causing that damage. (Note that the idea of a "just" war is not that war is a good in itself, but that it is justified in exceptional circumstances.)

[2] Regardless of the initial justification for the invasion of Iraq, jus post bellum obligations required the United States to stabilize the society, to rebuild the country's infrastructure and economy, and to help Iraq establish a legitimate and stable government. One of my fears before the war was that the Bush administration would achieve a military quick victory then drop Iraq like a hot potato. George Bush and Tony Blair get some credit for accepting the long-term obligations and financial responsibilities created by their decision to invade Iraq.  But so much has gone wrong since March 2003 that the U.S.'s obligations to Iraq have to be reassessed. At this point, it seems impossible to fulfill our obligations toward Iraq perfectly. By staying, we contribute to the chaos of insurgency in that country. By withdrawing, we will likely precipitate further chaos in the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

[3] Given that the invasion was ethically unjustified (so I would now argue, using just war criteria-see "Rethinking the Iraq War," in JLE, March 2006), the United States made it much more difficult to carry out its post-war obligations. Whatever credibility the U.S. initially gained by removing Saddam Hussein from power, it more than eroded it by failing to substantiate its claims about Iraq's weapons programs and by a number of dubious post-war actions. In addition, the Bush administration poorly managed the crucial early occupation phase. Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco, says in an interview on "In Iraq, there was a tiny minority of American soldiers early on who understood how to win the occupation. These generally were civil affairs officers and other Special Forces types. But their wisdom often was disregarded. 'What you are seeing here is an unconventional war being fought conventionally,' one Special Forces lieutenant colonel glumly commented one day in Baghdad." For such reasons, we have little political legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqi citizens and of nations in the region. And the period has passed in which a substantial troop presence operating on the advice of civil affairs officers could have made a difference.

[4] We are now at a point where we have almost no chance to stabilize Iraq with our current model of military presence even if we stayed in Iraq for dozens of years. The surge was too little, too late. Not only has a civil war fired up that we have no way of resolving, but we ourselves are an ongoing target of insurgency, a presence casting the Iraqi government in an illegitimate light, and a sore spot with regional partners. In other words, we probably would help Iraq more by reducing our military presence significantly.

[5] There are better and worse reasons for changing our current tack. A wrong reason to leave is that we are angry at the Bush administration about the flimsy and reckless reasons for an unjust invasion. A wrong reason to get out is simply because it is causing us a military and financial sacrifice and that we are tired of "babysitting a civil war"-a phrase sometimes heard from the political left. A wrong reason to stay is that this occupation is "taking the fight to the enemy" and they we are somehow safer now-claims often heard on the political right. We are not safer, and Iraqis are certainly not safer. Ethically legitimate arguments for staying or redeploying have to be based on what would lead to a more just and more stable outcome. It is not unreasonable for the American population to have mixed motives at this point. Yes, we should keep our troops from more pointless suffering. But we should keep our minds focused on the goal of collective security-for Iraq, the Middle East, and ourselves-and our hearts guided by humanitarian motives. This is no time to leave. But it is high time to redeploy.

[6] I think "redeploying" is not-or at least should not be used as-a euphemism for "withdrawing." I am saying that, on just war grounds, we should not end our presence in Iraq but dramatically reconfigure it, with a substantial shift away from the current military paradigm. There are no simple fixes to constitute this new policy direction. Yet better wisdom lies in taking heed of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group and career diplomats who have been warning us about these problems for some time and who had a more pragmatic understanding of the risks from the start. It would make sense to move troops to areas where are they are welcome and where they can aid reconstruction efforts, such as in the Kurdish north. Troops should be moved to the borders of Iraq to protect other countries and to stanch the oozing of external terrorists into Iraq. All the diplomatic stops should be pulled out, including with Syria and Iran-as Colin Powell himself has recently recommended. But it is probably only by drawing down our presence that we can get regional partners more involved in stabilizing Iraq. We cannot put much hope in their stepping up, but we still have to try harder than we have been. Finally, we have an obligation to take in as many Iraqi citizens who are fleeing persecution and horror in Iraq as we can. Having thrown the country into chaos, we have a humanitarian obligation to take refugees into our own country.

[7] Things will stay bad and maybe even get worse in Iraq before they get better. The most difficult ethical choice to face is a dilemma in which evils will occur no matter what you do. It is painful to contemplate that the U.S. bears much responsibility for putting itself into this dilemma. But no one can wash his or her hands of the problem. Even those citizens who were vociferously against the war from the start are members of a political community that is now embroiled in a terrible political dilemma. We have to do our best to help our country do right by Iraq. We have to stay informed and be unwilling to accept simplistic answers from our politicians. The better of the bad options will keep changing as events unfold. But for now, I say, this is no time to leave, but it is high time to redeploy.

© August 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 8