There is a Case for Staying the Course

I marched on the streets of Melbourne to express my opposition to the war and Australia’s involvement in it. From the trumped-up and ultimately fictitious casus belli, the predicted unpreparedness of the invading forces to win the peace and the incompetent and corrupt reconstruction process, the war’s prosecution has fulfilled – indeed exceeded – every gloom-and-doom prediction of the nay-sayers.

Being able to acknowledge mistakes is a sign of good character and a necessity for decision-makers charged with the making of policy into the future. Yet it is hard to quibble with the assessment of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman that the Bush Administration has an “infallibility complex” and a “Captain Queeg-like inability” to own up its own leadership failures in Iraq.

Yet, despite my belief we should never have gone to war, and my agreement that a fulsome apology for past errors from the war’s leaders is long overdue, I am not convinced that withdrawing our troops – now or according to a pre-set timeline – is the right thing to do. Anti-war politicians and commentators suggest that the failure of the Coalition of the Willing to avoid the war in the first place and to prosecute it competently and honestly once involved, provides ground for us withdraw from Iraq, immediately or in the near future. But I think the opposite may be true: that it is precisely because the Coalition has made such a mess in Iraq that we may be obliged to stay.

The thinking behind this conclusion is not revolutionary. Say the fire brigade arrives at your house and despite a complete lack of evidence of any fire, sprays water everywhere, causing serious damage to building and furnishings. You would expect the brigade to accept responsibility for doing whatever you nominated as necessary to put things to right (drag carpets into the sun, pay to replace the sofa). You would expect this even if the entire mess had been caused by their mistakenly coming to your door rather than the burning house down the street, or the lack of wisdom or experience that saw them let loose despite not seeing any flames. Columnist Thomas Friedman calls this the pottery store rule of causal obligation: you break it, you own it.

Iraq Body Count estimates that a minimum of 56,102 Iraqi civilians has been killed by the war in Iraq. According to press reports, child malnutrition has doubled since the invasion, reaching levels in poor African countries. Bagdad residents suffer 70% unemployment, receive less than 6 hours a day of electricity and mostly live with sewage and without potable water. Precipitous declines in household incomes since the war mean that half the country’s people now live below the poverty line.

Today’s Iraq is indeed broken, and good arguments can be made that this is in substantial part a consequence of the war and the Coalition’s failings when it came to the hard work of “winning the peace”.

Despite this, it is the rare politician who takes account of our obligations to the Iraqis for the mess we’ve made in propounding their proposed solution to the crisis. Instead, the case for surging, super-surging, downscaling or withdrawing is largely made with reference to the demands of protecting US prestige, fostering national or world security or avoiding further troop losses. Many commentators, well aware of appalling moral breaches in the conduct of the war (ranging from the ritual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison to the construction by contractors with strong links to the Bush administration of key building projects that leak human sewage through the walls) have adopted a similarly self-referential line.

None of this is to say that American and Australian politicians and commentators – not to mention the American and Australian peoples – should not be concerned with the well-being of our troops, and the security of our nations. We have obligations in this regard, too. Rather, it is simply to note that it is unseemly to debate our future involvement in conflict-ridden Iraq without reference to responsibilities generated by our past decisions and their negative consequences for Iraq’s civilian population.

How best to fulfil these obligations? Some might say a Coalition withdrawal is the only way. The Bush administration has been so corrupt and incompetent in its prosecution of the war and peace that the best response to the resulting plight of Iraqis is to clear out of the way. Alternatively, it could be argued that the only way for the US and Australia to get it right in Iraq is to commit to doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes to at least leave things – income levels, child health, sanitation and security – as we found them (sans the dictator of course, which could be our way of saying “sorry” for all the intervening inconvenience and suffering).

It is this sort of debate that I think we should be having. One about precisely what strategies will best enable us to meet our obligations to our troops, ourselves and the civilians of Iraq. But first, we need to get the moral foundations right.

Publication history

Why we must stay the course  The Age