Here’s a fair and important question, put by philosopher Chris Bertram:
Following Fallujah, I see that liberal and leftie bloggers who are pro-war (such as Oliver Kamm , SIAW and Norman Geras ) have been linking to a WSJ piece by Christopher Hitchens which argues that the disgusting behaviour of the Fallujah mob vindicates the decision to go to war. (If we hadn’t acted now, the whole of Iraq would have become like this, in time ….) I have to say that my reaction to their reaction is somewhat sceptical. If the people of Iraq are happy and peaceable (as claimed by some opinion pollsters) then this is supposed to vindicate the war; if they are rioting and murderous, then this also vindicates the war! One has to wonder whether there is any development in Iraq that Hitchens wouldn’t use as confirming evidence for his worldview and which wouldn’t then be cited in this way by pro-war bloggers! Perhaps the news of increased antagonism from a section of the Shia will make new demands on Hitchens’s ingenuity?
[Lest this post be taken as more hostile to the pro-war bloggers than intended, I’d add that it seems appropriate to ask of everyone who seems certain of the rightness of their position on the war, whether there are any developments that would lead them to say, “OK, I was wrong.” For instance, if there is a functioning and independent Iraqi democracy within two years, which lasts for at least a further five, then I think that ought to shake the convictions of hardened opponents. But I don’t think that’s likely.]
Of course I speak only for myself. There is no development that would cause me to conclude I was wrong to support war. It’s not that type of issue. Few people are consistent consequentialists (probably fewer than those, such as Osama bin Laden, who are consistent deontologists, unfortunately); though I consider the consequences of invasion to have been overwhelmingly good, both for Iraq and for the international order, I should still be a warmonger had they been substantially worse. We can make reasonable estimates about some immediate consequences of war (civilian and military deaths, but also the overthrow of despotism and the sudden interest of other tyrants in renouncing weapons of genocide); we cannot make accurate assessments of what would have happened if we had left Saddam Hussein in power, and we shall never be able to. On that counterfactual proposition, we can gain some additional and even important information, but nothing that is definitive or that alters the character of the argument.
Not finding stockpiles of WMD is additional but tangential information: it doesn’t enable us to judge the capability of a bellicose and irrational regime to threaten its neighbours and us with such weapons in future, including the near future. On that question, we just don’t know, because Saddam would not comply with what the United Nations Security Council required of him. We do know enough – and did before the war - about internationally-mandated inspections that we should be unwilling to rely on them in the case of recalcitrant regimes. Hans Blix, as head of the IAEA, notoriously failed to find evidence of Saddam’s nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s and described Iraq’s co-operation with the inspectors as ‘exemplary’. (Blame for North Korea’s having been able to embark undetected on extracting plutonium for use in weapons also rests with Blix, a man whose self-importance outstrips his abilities.)
Finding mass graves and torture chambers is additional information, for it extends our knowledge of the barbarity of Saddam’s regime. It’s also more important information than the absence of WMD stockpiles, for reasons I’ll return to.
The reason it was so important that we invade Iraq and topple Saddam was – just as Tony Blair said – weapons of mass destruction: not because Saddam had them, but because he didn’t have them (at least in the form in which they were strategically usable) and wanted them. By some margin the most facile argument of the anti-war campaigners – I heard it, unsurprisingly, from Shirley Williams, Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords – was that containment of Saddam worked, as containment of the Soviet Union had worked, and that we should continue to rely upon it. It was a disconcertingly myopic analogy. We had practised containment of the Soviet Union because we had no option but to do so: the USSR was a nuclear-armed power, and to confront it militarily was to run a very high risk of nuclear war. Containment of the Soviet Union was, moreover, a reasonably stable system because the Soviet leadership – while totalitarian and expansionist (witness its aggression by proxy that started the Korean War) – was nonetheless susceptible to traditional deterrence. We know that Saddam was not that type of minimally rational political agent, because he launched three aggressive wars in 16 years, each of which almost destroyed his regime. After September 11, it became urgent that the free world, which Islamist totalitarians wish to destroy, interdict the obvious route by which that aim could be realised. The obvious route was, of course, a regime with a demonstrated wish and ability to wage aggressive war, use weapons of genocide and support terrorism.
There is no information, even in principle, that we can obtain in order to judge whether our actions in insisting that Saddam comply with his international obligations or be overthrown have prevented that disaster. Nobody – probably not even Saddam – knows the answer to that question. We do know, however, that our enemies have declared war on us, and we have to respond not as agents of law but as wielders of the sword. As Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal puts it in an illuminating article comparing al-Qaeda and Hamas:
Denying that the war is a war has consequences—among them, reluctance to do what is necessary to win. A clever combatant knows that wars are won by many means (many of them nonmilitary) but that killing the other guy before he kills you is one of them. Is killing a Yassin or a bin Laden "extrajudicial"? Yes, but so is the war against militant Islamism. And our side didn't start it.
Our side didn’t start the war in Iraq either: Saddam did, when he annexed Kuwait in 1990 and then flouted the terms of the cease-fire agreement after his forces had been expelled from the country. Having now concluded that war, on our terms and not his, the US and UK governments have discharged their obligation to protect us from the most likely conduit for terror conducted with weapons of mass destruction. Even if Iraq fails to become a constitutional democracy, and even if – worse still - the barbarity at Fallujah becomes commonplace, that central case for war is unaffected. It’s for that reason that I conclude nothing will alter my view that the war was right.
My central argument for war is thus slightly different from that of other liberals or left-wingers (Michael Ignatieff, Independent columnist Johann Hari, political philosopher Norman Geras), who supported war primarily on grounds of removing a monstrous regime. But the character of the regime is still highly relevant to the question of what, if anything, would alter my judgement of the war. I have argued that this issue is not easily framed in consequentialist terms, and one of the reasons for this is that we can’t properly assess the consequences of allowing Saddam to remain in power. But there’s another reason. There are some issues in politics that are irreducible because they express our deepest values. There are probably people reading this (I hold this view myself) who are opposed to capital punishment and would continue to oppose it even if it could be reliably shown that the death penalty deterred potential murderers. I find the very idea of judicial execution an affront to liberal values – which is not to say it must always be avoided no matter what (it’s difficult to argue that the Nuremberg sentences were unjust, though in fact there is one case in which I think the death sentence ought not to have been carried out), but that there is an overwhelming presumption against it. If you don’t share that view, I can’t easily explain it or argue for it: it just seems to me an irreducible principle. On a much higher order of historical importance and potential suffering, a government in 1940 headed by Lord Halifax and aiming to settle with Nazi Germany in return for nominal sovereignty would have been the wrong course even if – as was believed by many observers at the time – military defeat under Churchill was all but certain.
Normally in political argument a comparison to Nazi Germany obscures more than it illuminates. But I choose it deliberately in this case because Saddam’s regime was modelled on both Hitler and Stalin. It is an apt comparison, but for the fact that Baathist Iraq did not imminently threaten us. (In my view the threat was not imminent but it was inevitable.) Deliberately allowing such a regime to remain in place when we had the power to remove it would have been to violate values that are axiomatic. Again, I can’t easily argue for them, they merely seem to me obvious and irreducible. That’s not to say it would be right to overthrow a bestial regime regardless of any other considerations, ever; there would, however, be an overwhelming presumption in favour of such action where it was possible to take it. This is why I say that the evidence of the mass graves is far more important than the non-appearance of WMD.
Consider again the analogy of containment of the Soviet Union. We had, as I say, no option (or at least no reputable option) other than this without a serious risk of nuclear war. But we did have an option other than containment in the case of Saddam Hussein. He didn’t have WMD in a form that could threaten us, and we therefore had the ability to overthrow him without undertaking excessive risks to ourselves, to the immense benefit of the people of Iraq and the entire region. To have failed to do that would have been morally wrong. I thus conclude, in answer to Chris’s question with a still stronger statement than I started with.
1. There is nothing that would alter my judgement that the war in Iraq was right.
2. The supporters of war have a monopoly of morality on the subject. There is no reputable anti-war position.