Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Three Reflections on the Ethics of U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq (9/22/05)

(1) In my view, the question before us dramatizes the contrast between personal or small-scale ethical choices and social-policy choices that turn largely on the prediction and evaluation of large-scale consequences.

In a similar spirit, I think that one's opinion about the ethics of withdrawal should not be a simple deduction from one's opinion about our decision to invade Iraq or about the way we have conducted the reconstruction. For example, you might have opposed the initial involvement-or the decision to disband the Iraqi army-but you still might think that immediate withdrawal would be catastrophic.

(2) My second point addresses the distinction between our ethical obligations to our soldiers (and their families/friends) and our obligations to Iraqis.

For our soldiers, a firm timetable for withdrawal would probably have good consequences that would express our duty to value their lives and limbs.

If we consider the welfare of Iraq, however, perhaps we are obligated to stay until the situation is more settled, at least to see if the new Constitution can move things tangibly toward peace, security, freedom, and prosperity.

If we committed ourselves to an immediate withdrawal, by contrast, we might precipitate a civil war that could embroil the entire region. Consider the words of Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, a key bin Laden ally in Iraq: if the insurgents can draw the Shiite "nation of heretics" into "the terrain of partisan war," the insurgents can then "tear the Sunnis away from their heedlessness".

(3) My final point concerns the problematic logic of the insurgency. The insurgents surely want the U.S. to leave, which counts as a well-defined objective. But the carnage they are perpetrating is accentuating the divide between Sunnis and Shiites in such a way that a U.S. withdrawal could unleash an orgy of violence and destruction. I really want to highlight the viciousness and fanaticism of the insurgency, which has wreaked its greatest havoc on Muslim civilians of Iraq, not on the "infidel" soldiers of America.

In the last six months, roughly four thousand people have been killed in Baghdad alone. The targets have included schools, post offices, hospitals, restaurants, funerals, shrines, and mosques. In this parade of monstrosities, let me highlight two recent attacks: the detonation of a fuel truck adjacent to a mosque and the slaughter of a hundred day-laborers lured to a van by the promise of work.

The fanaticism is particularly evident in the eagerness of the suicide bombers who are giving up their own lives to carry out such wicked deeds. If these actions cause us to turn and run, I fear that such tactics would become even more prevalent around the world (bin Laden's web postings in the 1990s emphasized the "disgraceful" American withdrawal from Beirut and Somalia that displayed our "impotence and weakness"). Along these lines, perhaps one could fault Spain for withdrawing its troops after the Madrid bombings.

In conclusion, I find it difficult to think about the ethics of withdrawal from Iraq without getting pulled into empirical predictions that are inherently speculative. I wish I could suggest a plausible "end game," and I am more than open to suggestions.


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