Don't get me wrong. I don't mean by the post title to indicate that after this there'll be nothing left to say about Iraq. And I certainly don't mean that I won't be saying any more on the matter myself. No such luck (anyone wishing me silent about it). So long as the anti-war crowd aren't moving on, neither am I. No, I mean only that a process of reflection has lately enabled me to settle conclusively in my own mind something about which I had previously been uncertain.
It began on Saturday, when I read a letter in the Guardian - the one here from Brian Hughes - which concluded thus:
In the light of further discoveries of execution victims' mass graves, could Mr Cook remind us of the moral case for non-intervention?The rhetorical intent, I would say, is to suggest that there wasn't a (persuasive) moral case for non-intervention; and this reminded me of a post by Oliver Kamm back in April, in which he ended by saying the following:
The supporters of war have a monopoly of morality on the subject. There is no reputable anti-war position.Now, this conclusion of Oliver's has, till now, given me some trouble. For I haven't seen what I consider to be a viable moral case made against the Iraq war. But at the same time I've encountered people who were against the war and who expressed their opposition to it in what seemed to me a morally creditable way. Up to now these two experiential 'facts' have just sat uneasily together in my mind and I've not had occasion to confront - or maybe I just haven't buckled down to confronting - the task of resolving that unsettled mental state of affairs. The Brian Hughes letter got me thinking again on the issue, I had a couple of train journeys shortly after reading it, and what with one thing and another I got there. Where I got was this.
There was no persuasive moral case against the Iraq war. There were creditable moral reasons for entertaining doubts about it; and some people have articulated such doubts in a creditable way; but this is something different from a compelling case that the war was wrong. Speaking from my own experience of the debates, both before and since the war the majority of those who opposed it, or at least the majority of its most vocal opponents, opposed it in anything but a creditable way.
Whatever subsidiary reasons could have been - and in fact were - given for the war to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime, the most powerful reason in its favour was a simple one: the regime had been responsible for, it was daily adding to, and for all that anyone could reasonably expect, it would go on for the forseeable future adding to, an immensity of pain and grief, killing, torture and mutilation. It's been said before, including by me, and so I won't labour the point too much here; but this was not merely an unpleasant tyranny amongst many others - it was one of the very worst of recent times, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on its hands, to say nothing of the lives torn and wrecked by it. Other things equal, there is no other moral option than to support the removal of such a regime if a removal is in the offing.
Other things, though, are of course rarely altogether equal, and nor were they in the case of Iraq. But in the scales against what I shall henceforth here refer to simply as this immensity (of pain and grief, killing, torture and mutilation), there needed to be put, for a persuasive moral case against the war, something rather substantial.
A lot of what was in fact put in the scales on the other side was either piffling from a moral point of view or well short of the kind of substance needed to match up to the moral weight of that immensity. Piffling was the question, 'Oh, so you'd be in favour of going to war against every dictatorship?'; and the warning, 'This will inflame the Arab street'; and the insensate brutalism to the effect that most of Saddam's victims were already dead; and the fact that the UN did not authorize the war (since the UN could have authorized it, so ensuring that the war had been authorized by it, and it should have authorized it if for no other reason than the immensity set out in the previous paragraph but one); and the fact that there were no WMD, or we didn't know for sure that there were any; and that George Bush isn't a good person; and that the regime might in due course be dispatched some other how. There may be those shocked that I should call these reasons piffling, but it's a comparative matter. That is how I judge them in relation to the thing - the moral immensity - on the other side of the scales. Not piffling, but still carrying insufficient weight against that immensity, were the arguments from the principle of national sovereignty and respect for international law. These are both important considerations, but as I have said before, the principle of national sovereignty has its limits, and the Saddam Hussein regime had long ago gone beyond them; and (essentially the same thing reformulated) if international law didn't permit the overthrow of the Baathist regime - which is a moot point - then in this respect international law needs to be shifted forward, something that happens partly by custom and the practice of states.
The sole convincing moral case against the war would have had to demonstrate, either for a certainty or else as being highly probable, that the consequences of a regime-change war by the coalition of the willing - a coalition that could, it should be noted, have been bigger but for the opposition to the war - must be a state of affairs even worse than the one the war was supposed to remedy. I submit that it is in the very nature of what I'm calling here the moral immensity that no one could have known this for a certainty or even a probability. Some, of course, did claim to know it - predicting a quagmire from day one or two, Stalingrad in Baghdad, an eruption of rage in the Arab world, and so forth. But the rapid discomfiture of all these predictions reveals just what kind of 'knowledge' this was. There were legitimate grounds for doubt, for worries that the regime-change project might come to grief. That has to be conceded by those of us who supported the liberation of Iraq. The view that the war was a risky enterprise and concerns over the extent of this risk reasonably held some people back from being willing to endorse it. But everything here depends on - or it is revealed by - the manner in which this view was and is articulated. Creditable was to state that for the reason of such and such doubts and worries over how the regime-change project might come to grief, the person whose statement this was could not bring herself to support the war. I know people who argued it like this, respecting the fact that there was a powerful moral argument the other way, the argument of those of us who estimated the risks as smaller than they did, and saw these risks outweighed by the barbarity that was the regime of Saddam Hussein. This was not the stance, however, of the generality of the war's opponents, it has to be said; who, entirely certain of their ground, clamorous, smug, anathematizing, have spoken from the beginning as though there were just no case on the other side, as if the moral enormity of Baathist Iraq was too inconsiderable to count for an argument worthy of respect; who have spoken about everything else they could think of, so as not to have to speak honestly and with due weight about that.
The house was on fire. No argument against trying to save the people in the house is worth a fig if it doesn't accept this fact honestly, and recognize that there is something considerable to be said for indeed trying to save these people.
There was no moral case against the Iraq war, though there were creditable moral reasons for having doubts about the moral case for it.
Note, finally, that many of the particular arguments here have been put by me briefly and assertively. This is because - with one exception - I have spelled them out at length before. The exception will be dealt with in the final post of my The argument over Iraq series. There is also one counter-argument to the case for regime change which I have not yet dealt with either here or anywhere else, and which I mean to address in that same post.