The Ethical Quandaries Deepen in Iraq

Ethicist Daryl Koehn reflects on the issues now facing America, given that WMDs haven't been found and that chaos is growing

By Thane Peterson

A year ago, I interviewed Daryl Koehn, a professional ethicist, about the war in Iraq. The idea was to find an objective scholar who had thought deeply about the war and could talk about its ethical pros and cons without having any ax to grind. Koehn, director of The Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, filled the bill (see BW Online, 4/29/03, "Was the Iraq War Moral?"). She has studied ethics at the University of Chicago and Oxford and holds a PhD in the subject (as well as an MBA) from Northwestern University. She also recently finished writing a book about the concept of evil.

Some of what Koehn said a year ago now seems quite prescient. Notably, she predicted that if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the Bush Administration's justifications for the war would shift. She posited that the new rationalizations would be less powerful under so-called "just-war theory" -- which holds that defensive wars in response to an attack or imminent threat are more justified than other wars -- and the Administration would have "credibility problems."

Now that U.S. forces have been occupying Iraq for a year, I decided to get an updated assessment of the situation from Koehn. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: Given what we now know, is this a just war?


To argue that it's a just war, you have to argue that it's a just cause. And now that we haven't found the weapons of mass destruction, the argument has [changed to say] that the real goal of the war is to turn Iraq into a sort of pole star for democracy in the Arab firmament. I don't see that happening very easily because I don't think that you can just give people democracy.

What it takes to establish democracy is a very deep and interesting issue. I would say that you have to have a willingness to abide by process, and I don't know that there has ever been that kind of willingness inculcated in sitting institutions in Iraq. You have to have a willingness to live with not getting everything you want. I don't think we see that in Iraq. You have to have moderate expectations.

I worry that Iraqis are a little like lottery winners in America, who have often told themselves that if only they could win the lottery, everything would be all right. Then fate calls their bluff, and they're not happy, [but] they haven't developed any other potential, possibilities, or options. I'm worried that perhaps people in Iraq are similar in that they've had their wish granted -- they're rid of Saddam Hussein -- but they haven't done any contingency planning.

Q: Given the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is an apology due the American people from the President and his Administration?


I don't think they need to apologize. In lieu of an apology we need more truth-telling [from the Bush Administration] -- and part of the truth would be to admit that the Administration isn't composed of gods. It's composed of human beings who [apparently] made mistakes in their interpretation of intelligence...and acted on the basis of that intelligence.

Q: The Democrats voted to give President Bush a great deal of latitude in dealing with terrorism, and now they're carping at him. Is that ethical behavior?


I don't think that ethics requires that people never change their minds. On the contrary, we're allowed to change our minds and develop reservations. It's the mark of practical wisdom to continue to think things through.... But I do think members of Congress didn't ask as many questions as they should have before they voted to give President Bush [sweeping] war powers.

Q: What about the U.S.'s obligations to Iraq at this point? The situation looks pretty chaotic. Would it be ethical to hand over power on June 30 as the President is talking about doing?


The question of what we should be doing now is very difficult. First of all, we should be very honest about what the situation is. I don't like this language of us "transferring sovereignty." Sovereignty means recognized authority, which usually means legitimate authority.

No sovereignty has been established in Iraq, so there is no sovereignty to transfer. We've got to be clear on that point. [Otherwise], it sounds as if we established legitimacy there and handed it over -- and then if the Iraqis fail, they're to blame. That's a very misleading way to think of things.

Q: What would be the most ethical approach to dealing with the war?


I really wish we would have a very big vetting of that issue because I don't know enough to judge. I would be open to being persuaded by people as to what the right thing to do is. I'm very concerned that we'll start a civil war among the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.

There seems to be a tacit assumption that we've got to keep Iraq intact. But my understanding of Iraqi history is that Iraq as we know it is largely a kind of colonial invention. I don't know that it would be the end of the world if there were different sectors for the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. I'd like to have a more thorough debate about whether or not Iraq needs to stay in its current form.

I also wouldn't rule out the possibility of a military draft coming back in again. It's pretty clear that we don't have enough men and women in our army to fight the kind of wars that our leaders think we might be called upon to fight.

Q: I gather that you agree with me that it's unfair that such a relatively small number of military people have to bear the brunt of the effort?


I do think it's unfair. The ancient Greeks, for example, had a requirement that every free Greek male had to fight in every battle. The idea was that if you're going to have the privilege of citizenship, you have duties that go along with that. Now, many people want to have the privileges of citizenship without the duties.

Q: And what do you think should be done with Saddam Hussein?


I don't know which crimes he should be charged with. We have to hear more from the Iraqi victims [to know]. For me, maybe the more difficult questions is, "Tried by whom?" Given that there's no sovereignty established in Iraq, who's going to be the legitimate sovereign authority? If Americans do it, we risk looking like an oppressor. It would be better if the people of Iraq did it, but will they have the mechanism?

Q: How do we best get out of this mess?


I would like to have more public discussion of what we need to do to stabilize things and create a situation where some good can come out of the chaos. This is a very dangerous moment. What really worries me is that this war is growing in part out of fear among Iraqis who sense the growing chaos and don't see a way out themselves.

The chaos is being fostered in many cases by fanatics, and I don't know what it will take to satisfy fanatics.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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