The war on terrorism began with moral clarity and a widely accepted road map for immediate action. For eighteen months there was strong international consensus on three issues: global condemnation of terrorist tactics, relentless pursuit of the al-Qaeda network, and the need for regime change in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. All of this changed on March 19, 2003, with the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom—a dramatic new turn in the new war.
In launching a campaign to disarm and liberate Iraq, the Bush administration crossed two thresholds, one strategic and the other diplomatic. Strategically, the administration delivered on its promise to act preemptively, in self-defense, against threats from weapons of mass destruction. Diplomatically, the United States demonstrated its willingness to act outside the will of the UN Security Council and in the face of considerable opposition. Some saw this as courageous leadership, others as short-sighted.
In the coming weeks and months, the war in Iraq will be judged by several criteria, most of which derive from just war principles. The stated intentions of President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and their coalition partners were ambitious. The military operation was waged not only as an act of self-defense (ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction) and as a means of halting aggression (deposing Saddam Hussein), but also with the express purpose of establishing a peaceful, democratic Iraq.
The costs and benefits of achieving these goals will be tallied not only in terms of dollars spent but also lives lost, and the effects on the coalition partners’ reputations. Short-term gains and losses will inevitably be weighed against long-term considerations and consequences—in particular, the success of the postwar effort to bring justice to Iraq.
Pre-war diplomacy and the early days of fighting demonstrated to the coalition the importance of occupying the moral high ground. Fierce discussion took place over concepts such as preemption, non-combatant immunity, and war crimes, as well as their policy implications. Any observer could see the real weight of ethical considerations in the decision-making process of the war planners and in public opinion.
The coalition partners also made unprecedented efforts to adhere to the principles that innocents cannot be targeted, human shields cannot be used, and all measures to spare human life must be taken wherever possible. They wielded military force with remarkable precision and concern for preserving the lives of Iraqi civilians. But even greater challenges lie ahead. To continue to occupy the moral high ground once the conflict has ended will require huge expenditures of political will and resources.
If all goes well, the task of re-building Iraq could mark the beginning of re-building the strong international consensus that launched the war on terrorism in the first place. War in Iraq was a disagreement over means, not ends. While the seriousness of that disagreement cannot be underestimated nor easily overcome, surely the common interest of fighting terrorism—along with the moral clarity that underpins that effort—has not disappeared. War in Iraq may ultimately prove a detour on the relatively straight path that is the war on terrorism, rather than a harbinger of further roadblocks.