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May 1, 2007

American responsibility for the Iraqi civil war

Last week I posted what could be called a "conciliatory narrative" about Iraq (avoiding calling it either a "fiasco" or a "defeat.") Over at Philosophy, et cetera, someone who writes as Dr. Pretorius replied:

The sentence "That conflict is morally our responsibility, because we might have been able to prevent it" [from my blog] is almost certainly false. In, say, Darfur we might have been able to prevent some of the atrocities, and we may or may not be responsible for that. In this case, though, it is morally our responsibility because we caused it, not because we failed to prevent it.

Saying this, or saying that "A civil war then broke out," is just a cop out - the civil war didn't just break out (as if it was a matter of bad luck). It was caused by, oh, the speedy overthrowing of a stable dictatorship without any significant planning for what to do afterwards.

I don't want to evade or downplay US responsibility for the war in Iraq. I think it's our fault. However, the philosophical issues are complicated. First, it's problematic to draw a sharp distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. As an exercise in comparing the two, consider our passivity during the Rwanda genocide versus our (alleged) killing of civilians during yesterday's fighting in western Afghanistan. The number killed in the Rwanda genocide was much larger, and our motives were worse. Yet we directly and intentionally hurt no one in Rwanda, whereas it was American guns that fired yesterday in Herat. I think we did much worse in the Rwanda case.

Then there is the complexity of assigning moral responsibility when an event has many preconditions. Perhaps J. L. Mackie's idea of an INUS condition applies to the Iraqi civil war. Our invasion was an insufficient condition, because the violence required not only our intervention, but also deliberate killings by various Iraqi factions. Our invasion was an unnecessary condition, because the civil war could have started another way, e.g., if Saddam had died of cancer or by an assassin's hand. The invasion was nevertheless a necessary condition of a sufficient condition because Iraqi factions could not have killed each other without our invasion, and once Saddam was overthrown, a civil war was basically inevitable.

That means, it seems to me, that we have complete responsibility for the civil war, and yet Iraqi factions who kill one another also have complete responsibility for it. Moral responsibility is not like a pizza, such that if you get two more slices, I get two fewer. It's more like a virus: you and I can both have it 100%. Which is about where we stand in Iraq.

May 1, 2007 1:36 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


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