An Unjust War?

Norm Geras, who, like me, despised the Saddam regime and feels no need to apologize for wanting it removed, is nonetheless forced to a brutal provisional conclusion: this war has failed. That does not mean that we should pull out (allthough some may reasonably infer that). It does mean that the reasons many of us backed this war have been utterly undermined in the last three years:

Had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed and the numbers now daily dying, with the country (more than three years down the line) on the very threshold of civil war if not already across that threshold, I would not have felt able to support the war and I would not have supported it.

Measured, in other words, against the hopes of what it might lead to and the likelihoods as I assessed them, the war has failed. Had I foreseen a failure of this magnitude, I would have withheld my support. Even then, I would not have been able to bring myself to oppose the war. As I have said two or three times before, nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside.

That's where I am too. Before the war, I argued for it along just war grounds: that the risk of inaction was greater than action, that the continuance of sanctions was an immoral burden on the Iraqi people, that we would conduct the war aiming to minimize casualties, and would assume responsibility for the security situation as soon as we toppled Saddam. But we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that the risks of inaction were far less than we were told; we know, after Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, Bagram and all the other torture sites, that in the conduct of the war, the Bush administration has wrecked America's moral high ground; we know that our refusal to provide security for Iraqis has led to the deaths of more innocents than even under Saddam. We may not be the ones killing civilians. But we are responsible for the situation in which such killings can occur with impunity. Those of us who supported this war cannot wash our hands of the blood of tens of thousands of innocents it has now claimed. Our intentions may have been good. But we misjudged this administration. And we misjudged the extent of the collapse of Iraqi civil society in the 1990s.

That changes the moral equation. I stand by my good-faith belief that ridding the world of Saddam's tyranny was a great and important thing. I even stand by my naive but sincere faith in the Bush administration in 2002. But I was wrong, as events have proven. And the human carnage in Iraq today, taking place because the U.S. refused to provide order after the invasion, renders the justice of the war deeply compromised. A war that was not, it turns out, the last resort; a war that has authorized torture; a war that has led to a civilian casualty rate of around 7,000 a month; a war that has unleashed far more terrorism than it has stifled: whatever else this is, it is not the just war some of us once supported. It is in another category now.

That does not mean our moral responsibility is to abandon Iraq even further. It may require the opposite. But it does mean that we have witnessed a moral failure on an epic scale. I cannot see how voters with consciences can reward those who let it happen.