AS WE APPROACH FIVE YEARS since the liberation of Iraq, it still appears too soon to tell if it’s been a success or not. From a humanitarian intervention point of view, the tragedy of death and destruction brought on by the faulty decisions of the administration of George W. Bush must be balanced with the unjustifiable idea of allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power to continue terrorizing the Iraqi people. A difficult moral calculus by liberal hawks led to the decision that, despite whatever reasons the Bush administration put forth for going into Iraq, the opportunity to free the Iraqi people from decades of oppression was worth the risk.
The justification for such an endeavor can be drawn from Enlightenment values as well as common human decency. The dignity of the individual, the power of the life of the mind, and the creative potential of all of humanity are values that can and should be extended to all peoples. It was strange then that in the run up to the liberation, our movement, which embraces the sentiments expressed in “Humanism and Its Aspirations” (Humanist Manifesto III) to “long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences” could be so forcefully against an action that could help “free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community.”
Even the Left, which at one point in its history had embraced the idea of international solidarity and standing alongside oppressed masses, couldn’t seem to find anything righteous about trying to free twenty-five million fellow human beings from being ground up under the boot heels of a tyrannical dictator. It’s ironic that those on the Left would try to brand liberal hawks as simply another form of conservative or neo-con, considering it’s the Left that actually abandoned its own traditions. Why are the rights we cherish and enjoy in the West only worthy to be fought for in the West? The reluctance to extend such basic considerations as universal human rights to those living on foreign soil is disturbing. The tragedy of the Left is in its newfound unwillingness and inability to apply the idea of “justice for all,” to, well, all.
For some, Iraq may have been about oil, the so-called war on terror, or ways to project American power into the Middle East for generations to come. However, these weren’t the driving motivations for everyone. Not agreeing with the Bush administration about the reasons for liberation is not justification to refuse to support the action of liberation. For all of their faults, and whatever their motivations, the Bush administration decided to act in a way that could lead to a long term benefit for the Iraqi people. Very different reasoning can, in the end, support similar conclusions.
One undisputed conclusion is that under Hussein, the Iraqi people suffered for decades in ways that are anathema to Enlightenment values. Forced deportations, secret arrests without cause or justification, torture, political suppression, and murder were only the beginnings of what Hussein bestowed upon his people. These acts were perpetrated with the full authorization, knowledge, and power of the state. Whatever role the West may have played in these actions by supporting Hussein in the 1980s only increases the moral obligation we had to right a serious wrong.
Toppling Hussein, though, was only one step in the process. An overbearing, oppressive, and corrupt government that reached into all aspects of the life of the body politic can’t simply be removed without something put in its stead. If the United States was willing to overthrow Hussein, it must accept the corollary responsibility of helping to establish a new governing body that can turn Iraq toward a more positive, hopeful future. Some form of liberal democracy, enjoyed by so many of us who have never had the displeasure of living under a dictatorship, can help Iraqis work toward a society that can maximize individual happiness.
This, of course, isn’t easy. These past five years are only the beginning of a long hard slog that the United States must see through to the end. The horrendous numbers of deaths of Iraqi civilians and military forces can’t be ignored, but neither can the fact that had Iraq not been liberated, Hussein would have continued to kill and maim without reason or remorse. Ethnic and sectarian tensions were hardly nonexistent before 2003; they were simply kept under a tight lid and suppressed like so many other things. Had Hussein succeeded in provoking one of his neighbors, the United Sates may have found itself drawn into a regional conflict no matter what.
These hypothetical futures don’t justify a casual or dismissive attitude toward the violence that has engulfed Iraq. However, it would be a bit fanciful to assume that without U.S. intervention, Iraq would have been a violence-free haven in the Middle East these past few years. It’s also incorrect to say that the state of violence currently in Iraq is due to U.S. actions alone, and not because of any preexisting conditions created by the former regime.
The march toward some form of democratic governance will flow from neither the barrel of a gun nor the slot of a ballot box. The “changing of hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people toward a more democratic orientation after years of totalitarian dictatorship will be long and slow. Having recently returned from a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cape Verde—an archipelago that won its independence from Portugal in 1975—it became apparent to me that attempting to create change in the mindset of a people can be a bitterly difficult task to complete. Especially if you are a foreigner, entering into an unfamiliar society with the hope of doing development work, there are many pitfalls when trying to reach your goals. It can take a long time for even small changes to take hold.
But my time in Peace Corps also taught me the utter need to try to create that sort of change on a societal level. A nation and its citizens can become paralyzed when they are suffocated under corrupt and oppressive leaders. The brutality of mere survival creates a dysfunction that lies not far beneath the surface and can rush up and overwhelm a society. Acknowledging that the compliancy of an oppressed people shouldn’t be mistaken for contentment; we must not be afraid to work to help free people who are faced with these challenges. Abandoning peoples to their misery was perhaps considered an acceptable option in the past, but as our views of ethics and morality have evolved into a global consciousness, there can be no justification for inaction when we see our fellow humans suffering.
Since human suffering follows no timetable, neither should we. Working alongside Iraqis, clear benchmarks should be created for the conditions that would allow for a military withdrawal, but setting specific dates to draw down troops is not flexible enough to take into account events on the ground. For whatever reasons people may or may not have supported the liberation of Iraq, the simple fact is that we are there now, and we have the opportunity and obligation to fight alongside the Iraqi people for a better future.
Iraqis themselves appear slightly less ambivalent about a quick withdrawal than the American public. Polling done in September 2007 for a consortium of news organizations by D3 Systems showed 72 percent of those polled felt that the U.S. military was making the security situation worse in Iraq. However, 34 percent of the respondents also thought that the U.S. should remain until security is restored (compared to 47 percent who want the U.S. to leave immediately, and the rest wanting the U.S. to remain until even more stringent conditions are met).
Security problems have been exacerbated by both opportunistic jihadists and the series of missteps taken in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad. Though the connection was tenuous at best in the past, Iraq has now opened up into another front in the “war on terror.” The descent into chaos incited by foreign jihadists who spuriously claimed to be motivated by nationalist concerns is slowly being reversed as Iraqis begin to realize the true threat they represent. The fight for a democratic and stable Iraq has become, for better or worse, intertwined in the fight against a nihilistic belief system that stands against both the fruits of human knowledge and the depths of human dignity.
Dismissing the liberation of Iraq as a “war of choice” doesn’t mean that we can now simply choose to abandon the Iraqi people. Our shared humanity means that our futures are inexorably tied together. The dignity and hope we wish for ourselves and our children has no less of a right to flourish in a far off land than it does in our own backyard.