George Bush’s announcement of extra troops for Iraq is significant not for its announcements of actions, but for its official admission that Iraq is a horrible mess. See the official US government PDF for details. The scariest bit is the official admission that the Coalition cannot sensibly move responsibility for counterinsurgency to Iraq’s official army and police. The Iraqi government’s role has officially shifted to devising the strategy, though no-one really believes that. Latest statements on the Iraqi forces’ readiness hints that a full transfer of counterinsurgency responsibility is years away.
Before Christmas, Bush declared: “I don’t think the American people are ready to lose yet”. The latest announcement seems little more than a way of killing time, combatants and civilians until Americans are ready to lose.
So what’s the best way forward? I can’t think of one. Bush will send more troops, yet hardly anyone thinks another 20,000 troops will secure Baghdad. The Iraq Study Group made a bunch of suggestions that have already failed (“stand down as the Iraqis stand up”) or which Bush won’t brook (engage with Iran and Syria). The International Crisis Group has the most credible outline of a strategy, but it involves even greater changes to the US approach (example: “halting blind sweeps that endanger civilians, antagonise the population and have had limited effect on the insurgency”).
And yet the alternative – declare victory and go home – does seem to violate a serious ethical standard of responsibility, once summed up by Colin Powell for an unhearing George W. Bush as “you broke it, you own it”.
This, it seems to me, is the ultimate moral point in Iraq. If you invade a nation pre-emptively, causing an unavoidable spike in death and suffering, you create a heavy responsibility to create a better future for the nation you invade. You have to make good on that promise. The same applies in some measure even when you come to the aid of a beseiged incumbent government, particularly if that government has a weak claim to represent its people. The West made good on its promise in Korea, and probably even in Kosovo, but failed to do so convincingly in Vietnam. (And it’s teetering in Afghanistan.)
Success doesn’t excuse breaches of international law (e.g. in Iraq) and failure doesn’t automatically damn an attempt to save a country from an even worse fate (such as Vietnam’s fall into communism). But the end result certainly counts for something in the moral calculus. The use-your-military conservatives in the US and Australia sense this moral point, which is why they’ve so aggressively opposed every suggestion over the past three years that Iraq and Afghanistan are going badly.
That’s the moral calculus. The political calculus is different. Losing wars is bad for your poll ratings. But the poltical and moral calculus are linked. As Iraq’s failure grows, the war becomes less morally defensible, and hence less even popular. Losing is bad; losing after you did the wrong thing is worse. That’s how the politics seems to be playing out in the US.
In Australia, at least to date, the political calculus has been different. So far most Australians don’t seem to have grappled with this nation’s co-responsibility for our failure to deliver on the promise of a better future in Iraq. As Rex Ringschott has pointed out in his 9 January Troppo post, Alexander Downer wants to talk about holding the line and making sure that “insurgents and terrorists are not victorious in Iraq”. Morally this is an unserious approach. Politically, Downer has been getting away with it.
Yet I find it hard to believe that Australia could contribute 2000 troops to screw up a pre-emptive attack on another nation, without its national government taking a public opinion pasting at some point. Australians have a tendency not to pay too much heed to foreign issues, but we are hardly amoral. At some point soon, Iraq is going to start looming larger in the national conversation.