Was the invasion of Iraq moral?
[This is the second and final part of “Justifying War: A Conversation with Nigel Biggar.” Catch up with Part One.]
MRB: One of your longest chapters is your argument that the war in Iraq was justified. It is meticulously researched, and not only in the moral and philosophical literature but also in the geopolitical. It’s a highly controversial position to take, as many would say there’s no question this war was unjustified. What’s your case in a nutshell?
NB: I’ll try and be as succinct as an answer to a very complicated question can be. Most people reckon the 2003 invasion of Iraq to have been immoral for four reasons: Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction; Bush and Blair lied to us; the Coalition was woefully unprepared for the task of national reconstruction; and the consequences have been disastrous.
First of all, let me concede what should be conceded. Washington’s claim of a causal connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 was groundless and false, and the Blair government should have acted to correct the press’s misperception that the claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45-minutes related to strategic (rather than tactical) weapons. Washington did lie; London failed to clarify an important and politically useful misunderstanding. Still, this alone doesn’t tell us whether the invasion was justified or not. It’s probable that President Roosevelt lied twice to the American people in the course of trying to persuade them to get directly involved in Britain’s war against Hitler. While the president’s conduct may be reprehensible, it doesn’t establish that America’s entry into the war was wrong.
As regards nation-rebuilding, the Coalition was indeed woefully under-prepared, and it made some fateful mistakes in the early days of the occupation. All this is morally reprehensible. Nevertheless, the Coalition did not walk away from its mistakes, but strove to correct them by maintaining a substantial military commitment for seven years, thus making a crucial contribution to Iraq’s stabilization. That was morally commendable.
Have the consequences been disastrous? If the word “disaster” implies unmitigated evil — and I think it does — then the results of the invasion have not been disastrous; they’ve been mixed. On the one hand, the level of terrorist violence has remained far too high (although the blame for that lies first and foremost with the terrorists), the integrity of the country remains fragile (although managed disintegration might not be such a bad thing), sectarian mistrust continues to bedevil peaceful politics, and Iranian influence is greater than (some in) the West would like it to be. On the other hand, Iraq is no longer a military threat to its neighbors, it is no longer intent on developing nuclear weapons, children are no longer dying in their thousands from the regime’s political manipulation of economic sanctions, power has been peacefully transferred by democratic process, the Kurds are thriving, and the domestic oil industry is booming. The results of the 2003 invasion are mixed, not simply disastrous.
But surely, you might well be thinking, the bottom line is that we went to war to rid the world of the threat of Iraq’s use of WMD, and then it turned out that no such weapons existed. What more needs to be said? The invasion was launched on a premise that proved to be completely false. This is indeed the crucial point, but I think it’s more complicated. The problem of Iraq’s use of WMD already in its possession was not in fact the only reason for invading. There was also the problem of Iraq’s sustained intent to acquire such weapons, especially nuclear ones. There is good reason to doubt that further attempts at containment would have succeeded in preventing that. And even David Kelly, the British expert on biological weapons who tragically committed suicide in July 2003, was convinced that only regime-change would end Iraq’s nuclear threat for good.
What’s more, the problem was not merely the use and development of WMD, but their use and development by a regime with this record and of this character. The issue of WMD and the issue of the atrocious nature of the regime are connected. If Iraq had been like Sweden, we wouldn’t have dreamed of invading. As it was, Saddam Hussein’s regime had been responsible for the killing of 4-500,000 of its own citizens in the fifteen years before the invasion. It was an atrocious kind of regime that the West would not have tolerated for a moment among its own members. According to Christian just war reasoning, this fact alone — quite apart from the threat of WMD — is sufficient just cause for military intervention aiming at regime-change.
Ah, I hear you saying, but that wasn’t the reason given us by Bush and Blair for invading. Well, actually, it was among the reasons — and in Tony Blair’s various apologias for the invasion it was a prominent one. For sure, the WMD reason was way out there in front, but largely because that was the only one around which a case could be made in terms permitted by current international law. But post-1945 international law and Christian just war theory don’t always see eye to eye.
In sum, my view of the invasion of Iraq is that of the articulate leader of a group of young Iraqi professionals, who visited me in Oxford in 2011. When I asked them bluntly, “Should the invasion have happened?”, without blinking one replied, “It was good that it happened. It could have been done better. And it isn’t over”.
MRB: Some of the criteria for just war might be considered too subjective. Who is to decide whether all options have been exhausted, whether the intended response is proportionate, and whether there is a prospect for success? Military history seems to show us that something “unintended” always comes out of the “intended response,” and that the “prospect of success” is going to be viewed favorably by the one entering the war. Why should we imagine that this time things will be different?
NB: All criteria are “subjective” in the sense that they are susceptible of various interpretations. Still, we have ways of telling a good interpretation from a bad one — the solidity of the grounds of the premises, the rigor of the argument, the strength of the evidence, etc. However, I entirely agree that the prudential criteria of just war — especially proportionality and the prospect of success — are the least strict of them. That is why I think that more weight should be placed on those criteria that don’t require the “guesstimation” of consequences. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, I think that it’s much easier to judge the justice of the cause(s), the rightness of the intention(s), and the legitimacy of the authority than whether or not the costs “outweighed” the benefits. Nevertheless, with regard to going to war — as with regard to doing all sorts of things — it makes sense to consider as carefully as possible how likely it is that what you propose to do will actually achieve what you intend, and whether it’ll be “worth” it. It remains true, however, that this consideration is as necessary as precision in its conclusion is impossible. When all is said and done — and carefully thought and talked through — we must take risks; and sometimes risks taken in good faith and with due consideration turn bad.
MRB: Kantian ethics deems self-interest an immoral motive, and most popular opinion follows the same line. If a nation launches a war, we want to examine what motives might lurk behind the decision: natural resources and financial advantage, regional foothold, etc. But you don’t view national interest as an immoral motive, and in fact you suggest that it should form part of the decision-making process to go to war.
NB: As a Christian I believe that the material and temporal world that God created is good. At least, that’s what the book of Genesis tells us. What that means is that we have a duty to take care of all God’s creatures. Since we too are God’s creatures, it follows that we have a duty to take care of ourselves. After all, if God loves us, ought we not to love what God loves? Jesus appears to have thought so, when he told as that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. There is, therefore, such a thing as legitimate self-interest. If there weren’t, then it would be illegitimate to care whether or not we overcome sin, are united with God, and come to enjoy eternal life. Even Jesus urged us to consider whether gaining the world and losing our soul really would profit us. Self-interest only becomes selfish when it is pursued immoderately or unjustly.
As with individuals, so with nations. Sometimes a nation has a legitimate interest in, say, achieving greater independence or securing water supply or even reliable oil and gas supply. It might have a just claim to them. Further, sometimes a nation’s self-interest is not private, but corporate or public. Thus Britain had a legitimate interest in preventing the destabilization of the Balkans by Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999 — but it did so with the rest of Europe, not to mention Turkey. Of course, this is not to say that national self-interest is always legitimate. Britain had no business sending gunboats into Canton in the mid-nineteenth century in the interest of expanding the opium trade; and Germany had no business invading eastern Europe and France in the interest of establishing a continental hegemony in 1939-40. National self-interest need not be morally unjustified, but sometimes it can be. Therefore, its mere presence among the motives for going to war does not prove that war’s injustice.
MRB: You mention that in order for a war to be justified, the injustice being committed must be intolerably grave. Has that line been crossed in Syria, or would you say the British Parliament and President Obama made the right decision to say no to war?
NB: It appears that Syria’s disarmament of WMD is proceeding, which is very good. That it was achieved through diplomacy rather than war is even better. Nevertheless, it is notable that the diplomacy did not burst into life until US warships were stationed in the eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes the serious threat of war is necessary to get parties to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, however, the bloody civil war continues. How should we read it, morally? Under Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, the Syrian regime was populated largely by members of the Alawite minority, was dominated by the military and security forces, and secured and enriched itself through the patronage of business. The regime was also fiercely repressive of dissent, holding that it alone stood between peaceful order and anarchy — anarchy of the kind that would ensue, they argued, if Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood were ever to get their hands on the levers of power. Upon Hafiz al-Assad’s death and his son’s election to the presidency in 2000, there was some hope that Bashar would pioneer both economic and political reform, and indeed he gave some early signals that these hopes would be met.
However, when in 2011 symptoms of the Arab Spring began to blossom in Syria, the regime reflexively reverted to its customary, repressive mode. In the first week of March 2011, ten children in Deraa, aged between nine and fifteen, wrote an anti-regime slogan (probably more anti-corruption than pro-democracy) on the wall of their school. For this misdemeanor the Syrian authorities had them arrested, sent to Damascus, interrogated, and apparently even tortured. On March 15 a few hundred protesters, many of them relatives of the detained children, began protesting in downtown Deraa. Their ranks swelled to several thousand. Syrian security forces, attempting to disperse the crowd, opened fire and killed four people. The next day the crowd ballooned to about 20,000. According to reports, on March 23 security forces killed at least fifteen civilians and wounded hundreds of others. President Assad subsequently refused to punish the governor of Deraa, his cousin.
What this narrative shows is that the Syrian rebellion was originally an act of nonviolent protest against arbitrary and ruthless state coercion. Only when it became clear that the state was unrepentant, and that its very center was prepared to own the arbitrary repression by refusing to repudiate it, did peaceful protest develop into armed rebellion. Assad’s refusal to dismiss the governor of Deraa, and his blaming the unrest on external interference, meant that the arrest of the Deraa children became an icon of the decades of arbitrary oppression. It also made it clear that this oppression was essential, not accidental, to the regime. Since March 2011, of course, the regime has confirmed the indiscriminate ruthlessness of its determination to crush opposition through its use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus on August 21, 2013, and possibly on several earlier occasions.
Given this history, it seems to me that the launching of armed uprising in Syria did have just cause, both as an act of self-defence against grave, systemic, and persistent injustice, and as part of a demand for sufficient political change. It was also a last resort, developing only after hopes for a negotiated solution has been dashed. But does it have political legitimacy? The Syrian case presses us to deepen and complicate our understanding of what such legitimacy means. On the one hand, the armed rebellion can rightly claim to be serving the common good of all those on the wrong side of the ruthless Baathist state. It is the necessary self-defense of a gravely oppressed group. In that limited sense, it is a responsible public undertaking, rather than an irresponsible private one.
On the other hand, the rebels cannot claim to represent all of the Syrian people, or even a majority of them. By presenting itself as the protector of minorities against repressive Sunni Muslim rule, the Assad regime has secured at least a 20–30 percent loyal support base; and when loyal Sunnis from the business class and Sufi Muslims are added, loyalists probably account for close to half the Syrian population. Additionally, the rebels cannot claim to offer a coherent alternative to the Assad regime and Baathist state, since the opposition movement is riven with political, if not military, disagreement. What is more, the proportion of jihadist elements in the movement appears to be rising, which means that an increasing number of rebels are now quite as ruthless and indiscriminate in their means as the Assad regime, and their political ends quite as repressive.
Does this mean that, according to just war reasoning, the Syrian rebellion is unjust? I do not think so. The rebellion retains the basic form of a corporate act of last defence by a gravely oppressed part of the population. While it is possible that the ruthless means and repressive aims of some of its members could infect the whole of the opposition movement so as to make it morally indistinguishable from the regime, it is not clear that this has yet happened. Until it does, the rebellion will remain basically just in its cause and last resort, and predominantly just in its intention and means.
Nevertheless, as of October 2013, no party in the Syrian civil war has overall political legitimacy in terms of the social fact of popular support. If the rebellion is to achieve more than partial legitimacy, it will have to transcend its own political quarrels, marginalize the jihadists, and offer a political plan acceptable to the vast majority of Syrians. But if this is to work, it would require the regime and its supporters to become persuaded that military victory over the rebellion is beyond reach and that political compromise is the only way forward. And unless Russian and Iranian diplomatic pressure can achieve it, such persuasion might require a more even balance of military forces — and therefore increased Arab and Western support of the non-jihadist rebels.