Thursday, April 19, 2007

Richard Perle: Morally Assessing Iraq

Recently, I have been watching a series on PBS called “America at a Crossroads”, which concerns a range of topics such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism in the United States and Europe.

In last night’s episode, ‘neoconservative’ Richard Pearle was given an opportunity to present his case for continuing the conflict in Iraq and elsewhere. Today, I would like to comment on some of his arguments.

First, in principle, I agree with the basic moral standards that Pearle defended.

To many people, this would be taken as similar to claiming that I am a fan of Hitler – they hate Pearle so much. No amount of explanation would allow me to redeem myself. Still: here is my explanation.

The basic principle is that it is a good thing to promote change around the world so that people do not have to suffer under tyrannical and unjust governments. It is a bad thing to have millions of people suffering from poverty and oppression as virtual slaves to the leaders of some political regime. The world would be a better place if these situations did not exist.

My standard analogy for this type of case is to imagine somebody home at night trying to watch television when he hears screams coming from the parking lot. He goes to the window and sees somebody drag a screaming young girl into a dark alley. Annoyed, he shouts down, “Some of us are trying to watch television!” slams his window shut and goes back to the show.

The person who would ignore the suffering in Iraq, Darfur, and North Korea turns his back on millions of people whose one and only life is being destroyed by people seeking unearned power for themselves and their friends – becoming annoyed only when the violence becomes so loud that the victim becomes an annoyance. (Though, there are some who would stand at the window and watch, considering the images and sounds to be entertaining.)

These are the principles that I applied to the case of Iraq in 2002. I was in favor of devoting significant effort to removing Saddam Hussein from power because innocent people were suffering and they would never be able to get back what they lost. Hussein was an evil person. Bringing down an evil person is a good thing; and being the person to do so is heroic.

I was in favor of the first Gulf War. By standing up against this act of aggression, the United Nations was putting tyrants of the world on notice that, at the very least, we are going to require that their evil remain confined to their national borders. We are not going to let them conquer new lands. I think that Papa Bush did an excellent job of pulling together a global community to stand up to tyranny on a large scale.

Yes, some people supported the conflict for less noble reasons. However, the fact that there are some bad reasons for performing an act does not prove that there are no good reasons for performing the same act.

I was also in favor of Clinton’s actions regarding Kosovo. Protecting innocent people from slaughter and ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a good thing. Those who engineered that operation have a right to be proud of what they accomplished.

However, even though I favored the principle of eliminating tyranny, I was against Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I had two reasons for objecting to the invasion.

Reason 1: A Matter of Competence

By 2003, President Bush had already proved himself to be an arrogant, incompetent idiot, particularly in foreign affairs. His unilateral withdraw from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, the ending of talks with North Korea, and pulling out of Kyoto, were all major foreign policy blunders. It is important to note that I am not saying that Bush’s position on any of these treaties was a mistake. The fault was how he handled these events – making unilateral decisions that stunned and angered the rest of the world. My argument, back before September 11th, 2001, was that it was stupid to alienate the whole world. One of these days we may discover that we need friends, and it would be nice to have some friends when that day came.

The difference between a competent individual and an arrogant, incompetent idiot rests largely in one’s ability to anticipate what could go wrong and either prevent it or mitigate the harm done. Arrogant, incompetent idiots tend to think that they already know everything. Their idea of ‘reason’ is, ‘I believe it; therefore, it must be so. Now, go find the evidence I need to prove it.”

Reality is annoyingly unforgiving. It has no qualms against destroying life, health, and well-being when fools give it an opportunity to do so.

One example of Bush’s incompetence comes from the fact that any fool could see that Bush would be charged with attacking Iraq for the oil. Allowing the enemy to have this propaganda weapon meant that it would be easier for them to raise money and to recruit soldiers to fight the imperialist aggressor. In failing to deal with this issue, Bush made our country weaker, and our enemies stronger.

Bush could have easily demonstrated that he was taking the moral high ground by announcing, at the start of the war if not before, that Iraqi oil would be handled by an impartial unilateral commission and that the United States would not be a member. Certainly, some Muslims would still assert some sort of conspiracy. However, there would be a segment of the population who then would have been more sympathetic and supportive of the United States than they would have otherwise been.

Instead, the Bush Administration argued that the war would be cheap, because we could pay for the war by selling the oil – as if it was ours to sell.

Reason 2: A Matter of Principle

Bush’s invasion of Iraq was not only stupid, but it violated several basic moral principles, that also made the world a worse place in which to live.

There is a right to do violence against those who aggress against innocent people. However, given the destructive nature of violence, and the tendency for people to ‘rationalize’ evil by conceiving of it as good, it is a right that must be restrained by the institutions and principles of justice.

The right to self defense is not a right to kill anybody who might, possibly, some day in the future, perhaps be conceived of as trying to kill an innocent person. In arguing for the invasion of Iraq, Bush argued for a pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign state that posed no immediate threat to the United States. He argued that unfounded paranoia justified violence.

Imagine living in a community where the law stated that killing somebody was legal as long as the killer believed that the person he killed might be plotting some act of violence. If I suspected that you might enter somebody’s house and kill the occupant, I could enter your house and kill you. This is a society that is guaranteed to be drenched in blood. A world of nations governed by the principle that the mere suspicion of the possibility of wanting to attack somebody justified an attack, this is a recipe for unending war.

If you want to protect innocent people from harm, you need to uphold and defend those institutions and moral principles that are designed to inhibit violence. The moral prohibition> on pre-emptive violence is justified precisely because, with such a prohibition, we can reduce the number of people who get killed for little or no reason.

Another moral principle designed to preserve peace that the Bush Administration ripped to shreds and tossed aside says that, except in the case of immediate genuine self-defense, there is a moral duty to appeal to a neutral third party to judge the merits of the case.

The idea of a court system is not just some quaint style or fashion that people adopted for a time, like powdered wigs. It is a moral rule adopted precisely because the option is unrestrained acts of violence among people who think that they have been wronged by their neighbors. People have a bad habit of pretending that they have been wronged when they have not, and of thinking that the wrongs they inflict on others are justified. To avoid the unending bloodbath that this tendency can create, people long ago saw the wisdom of saying, “Take your case to the judge, and let him decide.”

It is better than living in a perpetual state of war.

In March, 2003, the United States was not under imminent threat. The case for ‘self-defense’ was largely the result of conveniently cherry-picking the evidence so as to construct an imaginary pretense for war. There was time for the United States to find and present its case to a neutral third party (NATO, for instance) to make sure that it actually had a case, and that it was not ‘filtering’ the evidence for convenience.

Ignoring this rule and allowing countries to take resolve their differences ‘on the street’ as it were is as stupid as creating a community where citizens can opt to avoid the courts and settle their differences on the streets through bloodshed.

What type of community do we want?

By ignoring these moral principles – by working to destroy freedoms and obligations any good person would fight to protect – the Bush Administration has made the world far, far worse than it would have otherwise been.


I admire the goal of getting rid of evil people so that the rest of us can live the one and only life we have. However, good intentions are not enough. Good plans are important. Good plans require an intelligent and competent agent – something Bush does not have. I did not favor the invasion of Iraq in practice because it was under incompetent leadership. However, I agree with Richard Pearle on one important matter; removing tyrants from power is a good thing.

I might not have favored an invasion of Iraq, even if there was somebody competent in government. This blog posting is not a defense of unrestrained violence. I argued that violence must be tempered by the application of a number of moral principles. Yet, even where violence is permissible to bring down a tyrant, what is permissible in a given situation, might still be stupid. If I wanted to travel to New York, it is permissible for me to walk there on my hands, but not necessarily wise.

But, then, this is why we need competent people making decisions. We need somebody with the moral character to know what is permissible, and the intellectual ability to know what is wise. We do not have such a person in power today.


The maiden said...

Very nice blog! I'm linking to you. Look forward to reading more!

Anonymous said...

I would say the morality of removing a tyrant from power is like the morality of any other change. You must judge by the consequences. It is not moral to replace a bad thing with a worse thing.
Replacing a tyrant who kills thousands with chaos abd civil war that kills tens of thousands is not a good thing.
Until there is some evidence that Iraq has turned into a better place for it's people, the war will continue to be an immoral adventure.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Part of what is correct in what you wrote is already captured in my post. As I said, the task needs to be accomplished by competent individuals. The purpose of those competent individuals is to avoid catastrophe.

However, I disagree with the assumption that it is the actual results of one's actions that determine their moral quality. The rightness or wrongness of an action is not determined by its effects. It is determined by whether there were good reasons to perform the action.

Consider the following case:

You are presented with a button. If you do not press the button, 100 million people will suffer from accute starvation; many of them will die. If you do press the button, there is a 99% chance that this 100 million people will obtain an abundance of food, but a 1% chance that another 50,000 people will be added to those who would die.

Is it immoral to press the button?

According to the "results" criteria, we cannot tell whether or not it is the right thing to do to press the button until after we press it. We have to press the button, and then wait for the roll of the dice to tell us if we are good or we are evil.

If I were to turn to me and say, "What should I do? Should I press the button or shouldn't I?" you would have to say that this is a nonsense question. "You have to push the button to discover if a good person would have pushed the button or not."

I will tell you that a good person would push the button, and hope for the best. If it turns out that, because of events no person could have foreseen, more harm was done than good, then this bad result was an accident. People are not morally responsible for accidents. They are responsible only for what they can foresee.

When you get in your car and go to work (assuming you do such a thing), there is a chance that some mechanical failure will result in a wreck that kills other people. Yet, if it is a true accident, then it makes no sense to say that you are an evil person, simply because others were harmed.

Now, I argue that Bush is an evil person. He violated important principles of justice in making his decision to attack Iraq. He was also reckless in forming his belief to attack Iraq. His actions are far different from those who have an unforeseen accident while driving a car. His actions are like that of a person who drives while drunk - doing things that no responsible person would do.

In fact, the drunk driver deserves condemnation even if, by luck, he happens to make it home without killing anybody. It was wrong for him to take the risk.

This is what allows us to condemn Bush's actions. It is not the fact that he produced these terrible effects. It is the fact that he acted irresponsibly in ways that created a risk of harm - a risk that has become all too real in this case.