Blanket withdrawal is not a solution in Iraq

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Blanket withdrawal is not a solution in Iraq
by Tiziana Dearing

Given the lead-up to the war, that collective impatience is understandable. We committed our blood and resources based on two ideas: that Iraq was a grave threat because of weapons of mass destruction, and that it was an incubator for international terrorism. We were willing to suffer whatever it took on those grounds.

But those grounds were false. We’re actually fighting a war to establish a Middle Eastern democracy. A laudable goal, but one the nation probably wouldn’t have signed up for at the same cost.

There are three reasons, though, why we must not just throw up our hands and walk away. First, as citizens in this democracy, we ultimately made the war decision. Any legitimate arguments to the contrary fell apart when we re-elected the administration who took us there. We can’t complain now that we want out because we didn’t sign up for the war. We did.

Second, we are beholden to a principle called “non-combatant immunity,” which is encoded in international law and foreign policy norms. It obliges us to put the physical welfare of non-fighting Iraqi civilians – and there are plenty of them – above that of our own soldiers. Unilaterally pulling out now exposes those citizens to a chaos we helped create…

     

Our obligation to protect them doesn’t last forever, but it’s hard to believe it can be fulfilled in three years, especially given that the pile of Iraqi bodies is tens of thousands high, even by conservative estimates.

Third, since early in the 20th century, legitimate warfare has required a “probability of success.” In other words, nations cannot launch futile wars; they must have a chance of winning.

We never had an honest conversation here at home about what it would take to succeed before we launched our offensive. Public rhetoric focused on being cheered as liberators, but the quiet voices of the informed always said it would be a long, hard slog – one arguably made longer and harder by fatal errors such as undersupplying our troops and dismissing the entire Iraqi army.

We can take it up with our president that we didn’t really know what it would cost us to achieve our mission. In fact, that we didn’t argues more strongly for the need to talk frankly now about what we can achieve, how we’ll know when we have achieved it, and what it will take to get there. Staying the course for the course’s sake isn’t moral, either. That conversation is a necessary context within which to have any reasonable discussion about how to pull back or pull our troops out.

In truth, most of the quality debate going on these days isn’t between “stay the course,” and “cut and run.” Instead, it focuses on how much to pull back, how far and when. To have that discussion, we also need to consider how the moral framework of war might cut the other way.

In international norms, “proportionality” is the companion to non-combatant immunity. The principle essentially states that your force has to be proportionate to the ends you are trying to achieve. The more civilians get killed, the more disproportionate the means begin to look. (See “we have to kill them to save them” from the Vietnam War.) We could reach a point in Iraq where American soldiers have to kill so many to stay safe that our means are no longer proportionate. Some would argue we are there now.

“Legitimate authority” to make war is also encoded in international law. As Iraq struggles through elections and becomes – we hope – increasingly democratic, its elected leaders may decide they don’t want as much, or any, American troop presence. If that day comes, we have an obligation to respect those wishes, and negotiate a reasonable withdrawal.

Finally, once we have had the badly needed national conversation about what success is and how we’ll recognize it, we have to be prepared for the possibility that we can’t succeed. Following some kind of sunk cost model where we send more troops to die because so many already have died – as the president suggested in his Veterans Day speech – is morally unacceptable, too.

This war is stunningly complicated. Its solutions will be too. As we struggle to keep up with the debate and decide what we should demand of our leaders, it’s important that we refuse to accept black-and-white arguments, but also keep our moral wits about us.

Given the lead-up to the war, that collective impatience is understandable. We committed our blood and resources based on two ideas: that Iraq was a grave threat because of weapons of mass destruction, and that it was an incubator for international terrorism. We were willing to suffer whatever it took on those grounds.

But those grounds were false. We’re actually fighting a war to establish a Middle Eastern democracy. A laudable goal, but one the nation probably wouldn’t have signed up for at the same cost.

There are three reasons, though, why we must not just throw up our hands and walk away. First, as citizens in this democracy, we ultimately made the war decision. Any legitimate arguments to the contrary fell apart when we re-elected the administration who took us there. We can’t complain now that we want out because we didn’t sign up for the war. We did.

Second, we are beholden to a principle called “non-combatant immunity,” which is encoded in international law and foreign policy norms. It obliges us to put the physical welfare of non-fighting Iraqi civilians – and there are plenty of them – above that of our own soldiers. Unilaterally pulling out now exposes those citizens to a chaos we helped create. Our obligation to protect them doesn’t last forever, but it’s hard to believe it can be fulfilled in three years, especially given that the pile of Iraqi bodies is tens of thousands high, even by conservative estimates.

Third, since early in the 20th century, legitimate warfare has required a “probability of success.” In other words, nations cannot launch futile wars; they must have a chance of winning.

We never had an honest conversation here at home about what it would take to succeed before we launched our offensive. Public rhetoric focused on being cheered as liberators, but the quiet voices of the informed always said it would be a long, hard slog – one arguably made longer and harder by fatal errors such as undersupplying our troops and dismissing the entire Iraqi army.

We can take it up with our president that we didn’t really know what it would cost us to achieve our mission. In fact, that we didn’t argues more strongly for the need to talk frankly now about what we can achieve, how we’ll know when we have achieved it, and what it will take to get there. Staying the course for the course’s sake isn’t moral, either. That conversation is a necessary context within which to have any reasonable discussion about how to pull back or pull our troops out.

In truth, most of the quality debate going on these days isn’t between “stay the course,” and “cut and run.” Instead, it focuses on how much to pull back, how far and when. To have that discussion, we also need to consider how the moral framework of war might cut the other way.

In international norms, “proportionality” is the companion to non-combatant immunity. The principle essentially states that your force has to be proportionate to the ends you are trying to achieve. The more civilians get killed, the more disproportionate the means begin to look. (See “we have to kill them to save them” from the Vietnam War.) We could reach a point in Iraq where American soldiers have to kill so many to stay safe that our means are no longer proportionate. Some would argue we are there now.

“Legitimate authority” to make war is also encoded in international law. As Iraq struggles through elections and becomes – we hope – increasingly democratic, its elected leaders may decide they don’t want as much, or any, American troop presence. If that day comes, we have an obligation to respect those wishes, and negotiate a reasonable withdrawal.

Finally, once we have had the badly needed national conversation about what success is and how we’ll recognize it, we have to be prepared for the possibility that we can’t succeed. Following some kind of sunk cost model where we send more troops to die because so many already have died – as the president suggested in his Veterans Day speech – is morally unacceptable, too.

This war is stunningly complicated. Its solutions will be too. As we struggle to keep up with the debate and decide what we should demand of our leaders, it’s important that we refuse to accept black-and-white arguments, but also keep our moral wits about us.

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