Excerpt: Rethinking Iraq


Many anti-war activists support one simple plan for Iraq: bring the troops home. There's been very little discussion of the fallout of such a strategy on the grounds that the very fact of removing the U.S. presence from Iraq would be an improvement per se. In other words, proponents argue, whatever the consequences -- for Iraqis, the Middle East, or anti-terrorism -- the situation could only be better than what we have now. Before long, however, supporters of immediate withdrawal find themselves on difficult moral ground. Bill Maher, for example, is wont to argue that it's presumptuous to assume that Arabs want democracy or freedom.

Others offer a more nuanced argument for withdrawal and believe that that the only moral position is to let Iraqis decide their own fate. As Jonathan Schell argues:
Let there be as orderly a transition as possible, accompanied by as much aid, foreign assistance and general sweetness and light as can be mustered, but the endpoint, complete withdrawal, should be announced in advance, so that everyone in Iraq -- from the beheaders and other murderers, to legitimate resisters, to any true democrats who may be on the scene -- can know that the responsibility for their country's future is shifting to their shoulders. The outcome, though not in all honesty likely to be pretty, will at any rate be the best one possible. If the people of Iraq slip back into dictatorship, it will be their dictatorship. If they choose civil war, it will be their civil war. And if by some happy miracle they choose democracy, it will be their democracy -- the only kind worth having.

Underlying each of these arguments -- including Schell's -- is the assumption that a U.S.-led plan for a viable democracy in Iraq is simply not possible. As a result, we find ourselves advocating for one set of values at home -- equality, freedom, and economic security -- while jettisoning them in the name of advocating a lesser evil in Iraq. So where Bush talks of Iraqis' rights to a better future -- however self-servingly -- we speak only of our rights to the same. Bring our soldiers home so that our sons and daughters can be safe; our communities can prosper; our lives will be more secure. These are all sane and reasonable positions, but they lack moral force. We repeatedly take the president to task for lying about his plan to bring freedom and security to Iraq, but we refuse to advocate for policies that would force him to do so.

The other troubling aspect of the get-the-hell-out position is the glaring absence of any sense of moral responsibility. We can't simply turn our backs on the millions of Iraqis who lack basic necessities like water, electricity, food, or medical care just because many of us didn't vote for the man who caused their suffering. Is it moral for us to leave them to die in the crossfire of a violent civil war, fueled by extremists that we created? Chaos creates a political vacuum that is almost always filled by the power-hungry and the ruthless. So what will a Taliban-style regime in Iraq mean for Iraqi women? What effects will it have on the rest of the Middle East, which is already a tinderbox waiting for the careless spark of instability? Will an unstable Iraq really improve hopes for a genuine and just peace in the Middle East? These are not questions that we can afford to shrug off in the heat of anti-war rhetoric. Taken together, they constitute a giant question mark about the connection between our politics and our values.

The first order of business for the anti-war movement, therefore, must be to recover its moral footing by becoming a pro-democracy movement. We must take the president at his word and force him to deliver on the promise of freedom. We were right in claiming that no good could come of invading Iraq. But being right doesn't excuse us from the obligation of doing right by the Iraqi people. We can and should call both for an end to the occupation and for a brighter future for Iraq.

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