Let’s look this thing in the eye once and for all.
As the Iraq war continues into its second year, the Bush Administration’s reasons for being there are more indefensible than ever. Prewar claims regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction have all proved to be wrong; the number of terrorists in Iraq has increased rather than decreased; more American troops were killed in April than were lost during the entire invasion phase of the war; the systemic and barbarous abuse of Iraqi detainees contradicts the most basic values the Administration claimed it would bring to Iraq; and the uprisings in Falluja and at least half a dozen other cities portend a nationwide insurgency by both Sunnis and Shiites against the US presence. Yet the latest polls–including one conducted after the revelations about the torture of Iraqi prisoners–show that about half of Americans remain convinced that the war was morally justified. President Bush, in a speech on March 19 marking the first anniversary of the conflict, articulated a moral defense of the war that has been repeated many times: “No one can argue that the Iraqi people would be better off” with Saddam Hussein’s regime “back in the palaces.” Even those who opposed the war have, up to now, found the President’s moral argument difficult to answer. The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, in a speech to this year’s session of the World Social Forum in Bombay, lamented how “plenty of antiwar activists have retreated in confusion since the capture of Saddam Hussein. Isn’t the world better off without Saddam Hussein? they ask timidly” [see Roy, “The New American Century,” February 9].
The problem opponents of the war have had in responding to President Bush’s claim of moral legitimacy, as University of California linguistics professor George Lakoff suggests, is that they have addressed the moral issue in the terms the President has framed it rather than reframing the issue in their own moral terms. Talking about the world, or at least Iraq, being “better off” avoids confronting the civilian carnage caused by the war. As the late Robert Nozick cautioned in his classic work on the moral basis of freedom, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, we should be wary of talking about the overall good of society or of a particular country. There is no social entity called Iraq that benefited from some self-sacrifice it suffered for its own greater good, like a patient who voluntarily endures some pain to be better off than before. There were only individual human beings living in Iraq before the war, with their individual lives. Sacrificing the lives of some of them for the benefit of others killed them and benefited the others. Nothing more. Each of those Iraqis killed in the war was a separate person, and the unfinished life each of them lost was the only life he or she had, or would ever have. They clearly are not better off now that Saddam is gone from power.