Iraq Wasn’t About Policy, It Was About Ethics

Iraq Wasn’t About Policy, It Was About Ethics

by Joe Miller, The Century Foundation

Ten years ago today, the United States invaded Iraq, kicking off what is variously known as the Iraq War and the Second Gulf War.

The policy blogosphere has spent much of the past week engaging in public mea culpas from those who supported the war back in 2003, and some gloating from those who spoke out it against it at the time.

I have two small things I’d like to add to the conversation.

I got it right.

Okay, so I’m not beyond a bit of gloating. Back in 2004, I published an article arguing that the war in Iraq was illegal and that military officers were morally obligated to refuse to go. I argued that officers are morally accountable for decisions about whether they fight, and not just about how they fight, and that the Bush Doctrine’s embrace of pre-emptive war was both unjust and illegal.

That argument was not particularly well received when I first began articulating it in March, 2003. West Point cadets do not take kindly to the suggestion that they have a moral obligation to refuse direct orders, even when that suggestion is coming from the philosopher charged with teaching their just war theory course. Neither do their commanding officers, some of whom contacted me to “express concerns” about our class discussions.

My argument did not turn on the question of whether Iraq actually possessed any weapons of mass destruction, though my skepticism on that front turned out to be justified. Too many others were taken in by a combination of flimsy evidence and jingoism. My friend and colleague paid dearly for our collective gullibility, as did thousands of others with equally valuable, unique and wonderful lives.

Look through the very many Iraq retrospectives, and you’ll see all kinds of conversations about lessons to be learned:

—Why we all were taken in by nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

—How our eagerness to exact revenge on someone for 9/11 led us to war with the wrong people.

—Why we fell for the crazy belief that Gen. Petraeus and COIN could make military occupation work.

—How failing to prepare for the peace hopelessly poisoned the well for post-invasion success.

The lists of “Why We Fell For It” and “What We Learned” all miss one simple truth.

The Second Gulf War was an unjust war.

Wars are truly terrible things. Philosophers and theologians have argued about when a nation is justified in going to war ever since Augustine first wrote about the topic in the early days of the 5th century. As you might expect from a question that philosophers and theologians are allowed to get their hands on, there’s some disagreement. But there is pretty broad agreement on one basic principle.

Wars are justified when they are in self-defense.

That means you have to be under attack. Or you have to be coming to the aid of someone else who is under attack. Iraq didn’t attack anyone. Iraq wasn’t really even capable of attacking anyone, but even if they had been, they had not actually done so. That made our invasion of Iraq unjust.

Had Iraq possessed WMDs, the war would still have been unjust.

Had we planned adequately for the peace,the war would still have been unjust.

Had counter-insurgency (COIN) and Gen. David Petraeus rescued the occupation and turned Iraq around,the war would still have been unjust.

Had the occupation turned Iraq into a shining example of a wealthy liberal democracy, the war would still have been unjust.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to talking about progressive policy. But today, just for a moment, I want to recognize that the real lesson of Iraq isn’t about policy at all. It’s about ethics.

We chose to wage an unjust war. As a nation, we have to learn to live with that fact.

And we have to mourn those who won’t get that chance.

Joe Miller is the Director of Digital Communications for The Century Foundation. From 2001–2003, he was an assistant professor of philosophy at the United States Military Academy, where he taught classes in ethics, just war theory, and logic. He holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia.


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