Costly conflict

When we associate a year with a nation, the people of that nation have usually had little to celebrate. Think only of Hungary 1956, Cambodia 1975 and Rwanda 1994. This has been the year of Iraq. Faithfulness to the people of Iraq urges us to look back on the war and its aftermath and come to some judgment.

Controversy continues about whether the war was morally justified. The debate is politically important in the United States and in Europe because it affects the future shape of international relations. It has understandably been marginal in Australia. For it is now clear that Australia assisted the invasion of Iraq only because the United States asked us to. Moral considerations were irrelevant in Australian participation in the invasion of Iraq, and they have been irrelevant in Australia’s withdrawing support from its rebuilding.

The continuing debate about the morality of the war can be summarised under the familiar criteria of just war theory, according to which a war can be just only if it is fought for a just cause, if it is waged with legitimate authority, if that cause cannot be achieved by other means, if the harm caused by war is not
disproportionate to the good achieved, and if the war will achieve its goals.

It’s clear that the real cause of the war was the opportunity offered by concern about terrorism to remove a relatively weak and absolutely odious ruler, in the hope of giving a new political shape to the Middle East. Arguments about weapons of mass destruction were shaped for persuasion and not to reflect reality. Protagonists of the war have consequently based their moral argument on the right to overthrow a murderous regime. The case for waging an aggressive war to overthrow a savage tyrant is arguable, but is morally plausible only if the other criteria of a justifiable war are strictly met.

The legitimacy of the war remains the most contentious area of debate, because it affects the legitimacy of the United States occupation. Most nations have taken the view, strongly represented by church teaching, that to be legitimate, any aggressive military action must be undertaken under the auspices of the international community. The invasion of Iraq failed this test, and was accompanied by the alarming doctrine that the United States may intervene militarily whenever its interests are at stake. This doctrine is morally indefensible, and it has poisoned attempts to broaden responsibility for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Advocates of the war have asked their opponents whether the goals that inspired the war could otherwise have been achieved. They can appeal plausibly to the immediate removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But if the war was fought for broader goals, such as the eradication of weapons of mass destruction or the remaking of the Middle East, the claim that they could not have been achieved in other ways is hollow. The evidence suggests that the war has made these goals harder, not easier, to achieve.

Before nations go to war, the most difficult moral challenge is to weigh the good to be achieved against the harm that it may cause. Those opposed to war are tempted to exaggerate the harm that will come from it. So, in the case of Iraq some critics of the war predicted apocalyptic consequences—prolonged combat, collapse of the world economy, uprisings in other nations. That these things didn’t happen and that the war was quickly over seemed to argue that the war was justified. But as the goal of the war is stated more modestly and as we can take a longer view of its consequences, the gap becomes wider between the achievements of the war and its harmful consequences. The damage to the social fabric and the collapse of much infrastructure have become evident. It is also clear that the war has made more difficult any solidarity between the Arab and Western worlds, and the creation of a world inimical to terrorism. This is a heavy price to pay for the removal of Saddam Hussein.

In the light of all this, we can say that this war has succeeded only in the most limited terms. It has failed to benefit most Iraqis, and the doctrine that it has engendered, that war may be waged when it is in a powerful nation’s interests, is catastrophic.

Two conclusions impose themselves. It is vital that the international community through the United Nations should be given responsibility for restoring legitimate government in Iraq. It is also vital that United Nations structures be strengthened so that aggressive military action can be undertaken only with considered consent of that body, and not as a result of the pressure of the most powerful nations and their acolytes. 

Andrew Hamilton sj



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