The outcome has been a terrible waste of human life. I’ll discuss that, and how it happened, over the next couple of days, but in this post I want to look at one of the more general matters of principle.
Before the war, and since, there have been arguments about whether Iraq under Saddam in early 2003 was so awful as to make a military response justifiable on human rights grounds. It is said that he hadn’t started any wars in over a decade, and that he hadn’t slaughtered Kurds or Shias on a mass scale since similarly long ago.
True, he remained a brutal dictator, treating the people as a resource to be exploited, repressed, terrorised, tortured or killed. But, it’s suggested, this was only run-of-the-mill brutality: hardly bad enough to merit a war.
This was the view of Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, in 2004: “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention.” He bases this on the principle that:
“humanitarian intervention that occurs without the consent of the relevant government can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life. To state the obvious, war is dangerous. … Only large-scale murder… can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not… justify the extraordinary response of military force.”
Roth thinks that there were times in the past when humanitarian intervention would have been justified, but ‘better late than never’ isn’t reason enough to go to war. Prosecuting past crimes is important, but not worth risking lots of innocent lives for.
There is to my mind something grotesque about the notion that ‘only moderately murderous and not recently genocidal’ is an adequate character reference to legitimate a dictator’s survival in power. It offends decency to leave such a man as Saddam in power, it insults the memories of past victims, and it effectively abandons his imminent victims on the grounds that there probably won’t be too many of them.
And yet… there is some truth in what Roth says. My hatred of Saddam was down to the terrible harm he caused his people. Had he been just as personally evil but willing to restrain his cruelty for the sake of international approval (yes, it’s a stretch), then I’d have had much less against his rule. I cared that he was committing brutalities, not that he had a brutal personality.
Given this, any means of stopping his tyranny should have been judged in terms of how much harm it would cause to the people that it is intended to rescue. The idea, after all, is one of a humanitarian intervention, not a moralistic intervention.
Norm Geras, whose opinions on ‘post-9/11 matters’ I value and often share, thinks that arguments like Roth’s – demanding massive carnage before arms are taken up – are “lamentable”:
“Of course, bringing the perpetrators of terrible crimes to justice is a necessary and vital pursuit. It does not, however, stand in for the question of whether or not the regime whose thugs the perpetrators were is fit, morally and politically, to survive within the community of nations, fit to have its sovereignty respected…”
I certainly agree Saddam’s atrocities meant that he had long forfeited any right to be in power, that the moral legitimacy of his sovereignty over Iraq was zero – but that’s not necessarily the same as saying that violently removing him was better than leaving him.
Norm suggests broader criteria for justifying humanitarian intervention than Roth allows: first, in cases of current, recent or imminent genocide-scale massacres; or second, in cases where “even short of this, a state commits, supports or overlooks murders, tortures and other extreme brutalities such as to result in a regular flow of thousands upon thousands of victims”.
Someone such as Roth would reply that a war to deal with a case of the second type may well lead to even more than “thousand and thousands” of victims, and I’d take that as a potentially overriding concern. I appear to lean more towards consequentialism on this than Norm does. But, curiously (for me at least), I lean more that way than Roth does as well. He remarks that:
“the balance of considerations just before the war probably supported the assessment that Iraq would be better off if Saddam Hussein’s ruthless reign were ended. But that one factor, in light of the failure to meet the other criteria, does not make the intervention humanitarian.”
Roth has weighed the options; he has judged that war would probably leave Iraq better off; and then he has rejected the better option on grounds of principle. Here I have to disagree. For me, that balance of considerations made war a tolerable option. Now, as Roth rightly says, war is dangerous. But if it was expected that Iraq would be better off with regime change, then the regime’s existence was even worse than the likely horrors of war.
As a rough proposal for when humanitarian military intervention is justifiable, I’d suggest that if a regime is so brutal that leaving it in place can be reasonably expected to be even worse for the people than its overthrow (or a lesser armed intervention, as over Kosovo), then that is acceptable as an option. Of course, there may be other, more peaceful options that could work, and if so, they may be preferable. Also, there may be other reasons in support of a war that wouldn’t itself be of overall humanitarian benefit.
It’s worth noting that this proposal doesn’t constitute an absolute threshold, as the amount of harm likely to result from intervention will vary from case to case. As such, it gets round the criticism made by Thomas Cushman to the effect that if a threshold level of human rights abuse were set as a trigger to intervene, that would positively encourage tyrants to torture and kill, with effective impunity, at a level just below the threshold. My suggestion also touches on Norm’s concern, expressed last week in relation to Sudan, that legalistic arguments about the definition of genocide may be “in danger of serving as a barrier to action”.
Well. As regards the Iraq war, this is all pretty academic now. Things have become a terrible and bloody mess, which I’ll look at tomorrow.
(This is the second in a series of posts. See also the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth.)