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April 1, 2003

civility in time of war

[Written when the war appeared to be going very badly for the US, at least according to the pundits on TV. ...]

Passions are running high over the war, as they should. Invading Iraq may turn out to be a disastrous decision leading to massive suffering and death in the Middle East and permanent damage to our own republic. Yet it is important not to let the passionate seriousness of the issue ruin our national political culture. Perhaps we ought to keep these points in mind:

  1. Democracy is about disagreement, and it is not unusual for our differences to be of enormous moral significance. Matters of life and death often divide participants in democratic political life. In such cases, it is necessary both to fight passionately for what one believes and to preserve the political system within which we settle all our debates. Our domestic political opponents are in a permanent relationship with us, almost like a marriage with no possibility of divorce. If the level of animosity gets too high, the damage can be serious.
  2. The decision to invade Iraq may turn out to have been wise or exceptionally foolhardy, but it was a judgment-call. Weighing all the relevant factors—risks and potential benefits to ourselves, the Iraqis, the region, our relationships with allies, and the international system—it was possible to reach a range of conclusions. Perhaps those who had access to classified information should have predicted the first week of war better than they did. But at least on the basis of public information, one could make a case for the invasion ten days ago. I did not think the case was persuasive, but it was not lunatic.
  3. The war is not a ploy to make money for George Bush, Dick Cheney, or their friends in the oil industry. These men already have plenty of money and myriad opportunities to get much richer after they leave the government. I am certain that they are concerned with one self-interested goal (as well, perhaps, as altruistic ends). Their selfish goal is to be perceived as doing a good job running the country, both in the short-term, to help them get re-elected, and in the long-term, to make themselves into American heros. If the war turns out badly in the end, but the US energy industry makes some profits on Iraqi oil, this will not be in Bush and Cheney's self-interest, nor will they see it as a good outcome. The war may be about oil and economics, but only in the sense that cheap oil is good for the whole US economy (which means that we are all morally implicated). The effect on oil companies is not a major consideration for Bush and Cheney.
  4. Pacifists will say that they knew the war would be disastrous. I don't think they knew that—nor indeed do we know today what the final outcome will be. Knowledge is justified true belief. Strong anti-war activists may have had a true belief, but it wasn't justified. I remember having dinner with some conservative men who were certain that Bill Clinton was committing adultery while president. Their whole view of liberalism told them that this must be the case. When the Monica Lewinsky story broke, it turned out that they were correct. But that doesn't mean that they knew anything about Clinton's marriage. They just applied an ideological schema that gave them the right answer in this particular case. When this happens, it's important to remain modest and recognize that one is not necessarily wiser than anyone else.
  5. We have a responsibility to think about the future, not merely assess blame for past decisions. The anti-war movement faces a tough question: What to do now? Even if the war was a terrible mistake, it seems to me that an armistice would be morally and practically disastrous. It's easy to criticize, but our real civic duty is to come up with a range of worthy policies that could be adopted today or tomorrow. I can see only one policy that makes sense, which is to seek the unconditional surrender of the Iraqi government. But I would welcome and admire sensible alternatives.
  6. April 1, 2003 12:00 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


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