Beware of sweeping moral judgments on the Iraq war — pro or con — based solely on new findings of weapons of mass destruction. It's not so simple.
Yesterday Republican members of Congress called a press conference to read portions of a Defense Department intelligence unit report.
Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania read the following statement.
“We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons… Since 2003, coalition forces have recovered approximately 500 weapons munitions which contain degraded mustard or sarin nerve agent”.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, continued:
“This says weapons have been discovered, more weapons exist and they state that Iraq was not a WMD-free zone, that there are continuing threats from the materials that are or may still be in Iraq”
To some this will sound like a slam-dunk justification of President Bush's and Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq in March of 2003.
A senior Defense Department official, however, made the following clarifications:
• These findings do not reflect a WMD capacity that was built up after 1991.
• These are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had.
• These are not the WMDs for which this country went to war.
This new information allows us to make important distinctions. Here's one: The moral value of a decision is not determined by its consequences.
Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum talk as if the president's moral justification, in relation to Iraq, will be determined sometime in the future. If Iraq eventually becomes peaceful, the president will have made a good (just) decision and if, on the other hand, the country spins out of control into a full-blown civil war, he will be smitten by God. That's not the way morality works. While we have a responsibility to weigh carefully the possible consequences of our actions before proceeding, our actions are justified by obedience to a well-formed conscience (note carefully the term “well-formed”) in the moment of decision.
In other words, we can make a morally just decision that turns out very badly, and we can make an immoral decision that turns out good results.
In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq we all took sides. That's what thinking people do. We tried to sift through both hard news and politics to decipher what would justify or rule out military force. We listened to the president and his advisers. We listened to the international community. Then we each applied our moral principles about war and peace to the information at hand. Good people came to different conclusions.
During those months we questioned whether Saddam Hussein posed a sufficiently grave and imminent threat to our nation or our indefensible allies. We asked if we had exhausted every other peaceful option. We wondered if there was a high probability for attaining the stated short- and long-term objectives of peace and democracy.
Here are some of the conclusions I came to during those months of deliberation:
• President Bush, his administration, and allies based their argument for war primarily on the claim of an imminent and grave threat from Saddam Hussein to our country and our indefensible allies. They implied America's action was not aggression, but rather an act of legitimate self-defense, given the unique nature of terrorism, including its unpredictability.
• In my opinion, they did not prove to the general public the threat was of this nature. The evidence they showed was incomplete, by the administration's own admission.
• Without this proof, I could not see a justification for military action in that moment. Saddam Hussein certainly had bad intentions, had the capacity to inflict harm on our allies, but it was unclear whether his capacity to inflict grave harm on our country or allies was imminent (soon to happen) and thereby justify a full-scale invasion. Even considering the nature of terrorist threats, we had to prove there was something so serious in the works it could only be stopped in that moment and that way.
• I was keenly aware, however, that the administration may have been withholding some of its evidence about the nature of the threat for national security purposes. With this in mind, I suspended any sweeping public judgments. It is the ethicist's role to outline principles for action, but it is the politician's responsibility to act. When we elect a president and a congress, we give them access to more information than anyone else and ask them to make some decisions for us, based on their best judgment.
Some of you will be jumping out of your seats at this point. That's okay.
Another distinction must be made.
Whether the decision to enter Iraq in March of 2003 was a good one has little to do with the good work our soldiers are doing right now. Those who say we should leave now because we should never have entered in the first place are acting out of emotion or for political gain, but certainly not based on sound principle. Packing up and leaving from one day to the next, as some are requesting, would be an irresponsible and selfish act of cowardice on the part of the allied forces. Our present objectives of providing stability, freedom, and democracy to the region are good ones. They will take a very long time to achieve.
The new findings of weapons of mass destruction can teach us many things. We now know more about Saddam's diabolic regime. We question again the efficiency of the many years of United Nations' weapon inspections.
But what they can't give is a slam-dunk justification of the invasion of Iraq.
Remember, the eventual good or bad consequences of our decisions don't determine the moral value of the choice itself. That's just the way it goes.
God bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. Looking forward to your reactions!
Write to Father Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.