No Exit from Iraq?

Matthew A. Shadle

From 2003 until the beginning of this year, the Bush administration and many of its supporters allowed ideological preconceptions to cloud their perception of the reality on the ground in Iraq. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment, in response to the looting and chaos after the fall of Saddam Hussein, that “democracy is messy” was symptomatic of this tendency. Convinced that once Hussein was toppled Iraqi democracy would bloom easily, the United States failed to deploy enough troops to maintain postwar security, and this failure has helped to make the ongoing insurgency possible.

Since President Bush signed on to the new “surge” strategy of General David Petraeus in January, it has been primarily opponents of the war whose preconceptions have blinded them to the reality in Iraq. Democratic Senator Harry Reid, for example, declared the surge a failure even before the increase in troop levels had been completed. In January, the Senate unanimously approved General Petraeus as head of U.S. forces in Iraq—even opponents of the war praised him for his intelligence and integrity—but in the days leading up to his report to Congress in September, some antiwar activists resorted to calling Petraeus a liar. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois accused him of “carefully manipulating the statistics.”

Petraeus’s congressional testimony on September 10 and 11 made it clear that the surge is working. Far from presenting manipulated statistics, Petraeus gave compelling evidence that the United States is achieving many of its military goals in Iraq. The number of civilian deaths is down since the surge began, and there are fewer sectarian killings. The capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) have been greatly diminished, while some outlying provinces and some parts of Baghdad are achieving new levels of security.

In the wake of Petraeus’s report, the debate about what to do in Iraq reveals a truth that is often overlooked: Thinking about the morality of war is never as simple as applying moral criteria to an undisputed set of facts. Our perception of the facts is itself shaped by various preconceptions about how the world works. Moral reasoning about war therefore requires a constant reexamination of our preconceptions, a constant willingness to account for facts that challenge settled views. Many opponents of current American efforts in Iraq cannot bring themselves to imagine that anything good could come of a war launched on false premises. They are misled by their failure to distinguish between the morality of the initial invasion of Iraq, and the morality of current reconstruction and counterinsurgency efforts.

Many Catholic critics of the original war have recognized that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and the subsequent democratization and counterinsurgency effort are morally distinct. Both Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger were strong opponents of the original war, but after the invasion both emphasized the responsibility of the United States to help Iraq establish a just and secure society. The U.S. bishops have also claimed that “as the principal occupying power in Iraq, the United States now has responsibility for sustained, long-term efforts to help the Iraqi people build a stable, pluralistic, democratic, and prosperous Iraq.” The bishops argued that such efforts must include the provision of security.

Opponents of the war, however, have not always acknowledged this distinction. For example, in the April 30 issue of America, Robert W. McElroy argues that just-war analysis should be applied not only at the beginning but throughout the course of a war (“Why We Must Withdraw from Iraq”). He then concludes that a continued American military presence in Iraq does not meet the just-war criteria and that withdrawal is therefore the only moral option. McElroy rehearses the various rationales for the invasion of Iraq: the country’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein’s mistreatment of his own people, the need for democratization in the Middle East. He argues that according to contemporary Catholic just-war thinking none of these was a sufficient justification for the war.

But by considering democratization only as an after-the-fact excuse for the invasion, McElroy blurs the distinction between the war and the reconstruction. For we are no longer at war with Iraq for the purpose of democratization; rather, we are now engaged in the actual process of democratization, assisting the new state of Iraq that we helped put in place. It is now the insurgents, not the coalition troops, who are the aggressors, and the United States has the moral obligation to help the fledgling Iraqi state defend itself against them.

The failure to distinguish between the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent reconstruction and counterinsurgency efforts has also distorted perceptions of Iraq’s role in the global struggle against Islamic terrorism. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, remnants of the Baath Party and other Sunni nationalist groups who sought to reestablish dominance over the Shiite majority began an insurgency against U.S. forces. They were joined by Iraqi and foreign jihadi groups-including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s AQI. These groups wanted to establish Islamic law in Iraq; some of them also wanted to turn the country into a terrorist base.

At first, the Sunni nationalists had an uneasy relationship with the jihadis. When in 2004 the coalition forces began to have some military success against the insurgency, many Sunnis sought a place in the newly formed government. But in late 2005 AQI and other Sunni groups that hoped to unite all Sunnis into a single force established the Mujahideen Shura Council, and later, the Islamic State of Iraq. AQI also targeted Shiites in an effort to provoke a sectarian civil war. One of the most spectacular and important of these attacks against the Shiites was the February 2006 bombing of the Askariya mosque in the city of Samarra. In response, the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, began killing Sunnis indiscriminately and attacking their mosques. This in turn led to another round of retaliation, as many Sunnis turned to AQI for support.

The existence of AQI has served as a rationale for the continued presence of American troops in Iraq, because it suggests that Iraq is a “central front in the war on terror.” But some critics have questioned the importance of AQI’s connections with the broader Al Qaeda network. They point out that only a small number of AQI’s members are from outside Iraq—the majority are Iraqi Sunnis—so, it is said, while the AQI may use the cachet of Al Qaeda’s name as it pursues its own local sectarian interests, it poses no immediate terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.

The evidence simply does not support this position. The U.S. military has intercepted several communications between the leadership of Al Qaeda and that of AQI, and Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri has made it clear that he considers the conflict in Iraq to be the central component of Al Qaeda’s struggle against America and its allies. The leadership of AQI is primarily foreign, and the Islamic State of Iraq was established in part to disguise that fact: it was presented as proof that AQI was part of a broader Iraqi-led movement. But it was later discovered that the Iraqi “emir” of the Islamic State championed by AQI, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was not even a real person. In truth, there is no contradiction between the local, sectarian interests of AQI and its connection to a broader international terrorist network. Among Arab Muslims, religious identity and tribal identity are primary, and the two are hard to separate. A continued American military presence in Iraq might be morally justifiable even without AQI’s connection to international terrorism, because we are also there to protect Iraq’s fragile democratic government from the threat of civil war. But it is also true that a sudden departure of U.S. troops from Iraq would likely have the effect of strengthening Al Qaeda.

According to the counterinsurgency strategy of General Petraeus, after U.S. soldiers defeat insurgents in a particular area, they stay in that area to provide security and to forge alliances with local leaders. Insurgent groups drew much of their popular support from our earlier failure to provide this kind of long-term security. If U.S. and Iraqi forces can curb the violence that has paralyzed so much of the country, then support for the insurgency will begin to dry up. The strategy of Petraeus’s predecessor, General George Casey, focused not on providing security but rather on training the Iraqi military so that U.S. soldiers could begin to withdraw. The U.S. military did make successful strikes against insurgents in places such as Fallujah, but it withdrew too quickly, allowing insurgents to regroup. This pattern has been derisively described as “the whack-a-mole strategy.” By failing to provide security, the U.S. military undermined General Casey’s main project; the Iraqi military had trouble recruiting because volunteers faced attacks from militias, and the Iraqi government was never powerful enough to establish the rule of law.

Some politicians, including major presidential candidates, have called for the redeployment of American forces to relatively safe locations such as Kurdistan and Kuwait, where we can focus on training the Iraqi military and carrying out strikes against AQI. Such a move to the periphery of Iraq would be a return to General Casey’s failed strategy of premature withdrawal. It would give AQI and other insurgent groups the benefit of distance. The only way to curb the violence in Iraq is to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy such as General Petraeus’s. This strategy is now the best, most moral option for us in Iraq, as even those who opposed the invasion should be able to acknowledge.

Andrew J. Bacevich


There’s no doubt about it: A nation that embarks on a morally problematic war incurs stiff obligations. The war begun in March 2003 when the United States needlessly and recklessly chose to invade Iraq offers a case in point. On that score Matthew Shadle and I are in full agreement. But to suggest that the only way to acquit those obligations is to go on fighting constitutes a failure of moral imagination.

There may be realms of human endeavor where sheer persistence transforms a dumb idea into a good one. War, however, is not among them. Bad wars don’t become good wars simply by hanging in there. In fact, persevering in a misguided war almost always makes things worse, both politically and morally. Iraq is one such war.

Shadle chides those who favor a withdrawal from Iraq for allowing “ideological preconceptions to cloud their perception” of reality. Although he never explains exactly what this troublesome ideology is, he uses its putative existence as a device to imply that critics of the war are out of touch. They are unable to see things the way they really are.

In fact, Shadle’s own analysis depends on ideological preconceptions, all of them radically at odds with reality. The principal function of his ideology is to make things tidy, thereby obviating any requirement for serious moral analysis. From this point of view, everything about Iraq is actually quite simple. Apparently referring to the United States as a whole, Shadle writes that “we are now engaged in the actual process of democratization.” In addition, we are helping “the fledgling Iraqi state defend itself” against “aggressors.” Based on the interception of “several communications,” Shadle is certain that Iraq has become “the central component of Al Qaeda’s struggle against America and its allies.” This alone is enough to give moral sanction to the war. Yet “we are also there to protect Iraq’s fragile democratic government from the threat of civil war.”

In truth, unless one takes seriously the stray bits of Wilsonian rhetoric that still creep into President George W. Bush’s speeches, the United States has long since suspended its efforts to democratize Iraq. Certainly General David Petraeus, whom Shadle extravagantly admires, does not see that as his mission. Furthermore, to claim that the United States is helping the Iraqi government defend itself against “aggressors” overlooks the extent to which the government itself is infiltrated by, or in league with, the perpetrators of violence. Indeed, even to refer to an Iraqi “state” or an Iraqi “government” is to engage in sleight of hand. Neither one really exists in any meaningful sense. To suggest that the United States is trying to protect Iraq from civil war overlooks the fact that the civil war commenced some time ago. As far as the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq is concerned, the United States has no obligation to fight on ground that suits its adversaries. It is folly to do so. Common sense, fully consistent with moral reasoning, says that we should fight on our own terms.

But then, it is not “we” who are fighting, and it is not “we” who are in Iraq. Rather, 160,000 U.S. troops along with several thousand other government employees are there. Many of the soldiers currently serving in Iraq are back for their second, third, or even fourth combat tours. “We,” that is, have assigned to a tiny fragment of our overall population the burden of discharging whatever moral responsibility the nation as a whole has accrued in Iraq. The vast majority of Americans have opted out of the war, preferring instead to go about their daily lives as if the war did not exist. In practical terms, we have never cared a fig about Iraq; the exertions of our military sustain the pretense that we really do. The inevitable consequence of continuing the war is to perpetuate this odious arrangement. To insist that the United States acquit its moral obligation to Iraq by sending someone else’s son or daughter to fight there is to perpetrate a grave injustice at home under the guise of correcting one far away from home.

The following principle should apply: If the nation has a debt, then the nation as a whole ought to pay it. How might we implement this principle? Answering that question requires that we think carefully about to whom the debt is owed. The United States owes Iraq nothing. Its obligations to the Iraqi people are considerable. Specifically, the U.S. debt is to those who have suffered physical harm and been made destitute, who have lost their homes and livelihood, and who have been forced to flee. Shadle believes that the best way to repay our debt to these unfortunates is to continue the very war that has been the source of their misery. That’s one approach. But here are some alternatives, predicated on first ending direct U.S. military involvement in Iraq so as to free up resources currently being consumed by the war itself.

One possibility is to provide the wherewithal to care for the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled that country since the U.S. invasion. Most of these Iraqis now reside in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt, nations ill equipped to provide food and shelter, clean water and adequate medical care, jobs and education. For affluent America to foot the bill for the refugees would make for a nice down payment on our moral debt.

A second possibility is to provide sanctuary in the United States for those refugees and for those Iraqis who have supported U.S. forces or worked for U.S. government agencies in Iraq. Permanent residence in the United States will mean safety and the opportunity for a new life, a wonderful way to meet our moral obligations and fully consistent with American tradition. We should open our doors and our communities to Iraq’s huddled masses.

A third option is to take the money the Bush administration is currently spending on the war and use it instead to make Iraq whole, if and when the violence there eventually subsides. Currently, the war costs American taxpayers $4 billion per week. Let’s earmark three years’ worth of war spending—that’s roughly $600 billion—for the reconstruction and repair of Iraq’s infrastructure. By rebuilding schools and hospitals, road and bridges, towns and villages, such a “Marshall Plan” for Iraq would go far toward making amends to those who have suffered as a consequence of the war.

Along the way, the U.S. government might want to issue a public apology for having collaborated with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and for having abandoned the Kurds and Shiites who rose up against him in 1991 at our behest. We should offer affected Shiites monetary compensation--there are ample precedents for such action. To compensate the Kurds, we might support their ambitions to create a fully independent Kurdistan, offering security guarantees to ensure that these oft-abused and frequently betrayed people will be allowed to live in peace.

I am aware of the responses that these proposals will elicit. Arabs won’t easily assimilate. The United States is not a Muslim country. Islamic radicals will sneak in with innocent refugees, thereby posing a security threat. Turkey won’t tolerate an independent Kurdish state and we don’t want to anger the Turks. Above all, of course, there’s this: We can’t afford that kind of money.

Somehow, of course, the money to fund a continuation of the war is easily found. Which makes the crucial point: “We” care about moral consequences that derive from U.S. policy only as long as addressing them doesn’t require us to make any sacrifice, shoulder any burden, or assume any risk.

If addressing the nation’s moral obligation entails something other than sending someone else’s kid to fight a misbegotten war, then we are not especially interested. That’s the dirty little secret embedded in the argument of those who say we should continue on our current course.

About the Author

Matthew A. Shadle is instructor of religious studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.