HI-01-03 Was the Iraq War a "Humanitarian" Intervention?

This is lesson three of six on humanitarian intervention.

Here are links to the other five:
Introducing Humanitarian Intervention:
Lesson 01-01, Lesson 01-02

Intervention: From Theories to Cases:
Lesson 02-01

Changing Norms of Sovereignty and Intervention:

Lesson 03-01, Lesson 03-02, Lesson 03-03


This lesson takes the form of a classroom debate to reenact a heated discussion that took place in the pages of Ethics & International Affairs in 2005 between the international lawyer, Fernando Tesón, and the international political theorist, Terry Nardin. At issue was whether the 2003 Iraq war could be interpreted and justified as a humanitarian intervention.

Tesón reasons that since the war, or "intervention," was for the purpose of ending tyranny—and thus had humanitarian intent, even if not a humanitarian motive—the "humanitarian" label and justification applies. Nadin counters that this rationale for the Iraq war entails "significant revision" of the traditional—and, in his view, preferable—doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Nardin notes, for instance, that the level of state violence in Iraq was not sufficiently high to generate a just cause for intervention. Nardin dubs Tesón a "humanitarian imperialist."

Students should be prepared in advance to defend either side of the debate, but will be called on to take one side only, with the class divided randomly into "Team Tesón" and "Team Nardin." Instructors will determine the manner in which, and the degree to which, the debate should be structured.

Students are encouraged to use material from earlier in the course to help build the case for or against the Iraq intervention. They are also encouraged to draw on the additional assigned reading from Jeff McMahan and from Richard Miller, who also provides a critique of Tesón.

Finally, students are encouraged to reflect not only on how the different arguments brought to the table by Tesón and Nardin offer different ways of reading the Iraq war itself, but also on how the arguments might stand for different images of international society, and therefore of the place of humanitarian intervention within it. These and other potentially valuable considerations can be added to the discussion in a post-debate debriefing in the event that they do not come up in the course of student discussion.


Familiarity with the views of Nardin and Tesón regarding U.S. intervention in Iraq.


A. In-Class Activities
Do: Debate whether the 2003 Iraq war could be interpreted and justified as a humanitarian intervention.

B. Assignments to Be Completed in Advance (0-2+ hours)
Fernando Tesón, "Ending Tyranny in Iraq," Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005)

Terry Nardin, "Humanitarian Imperialism: Response to 'Ending Tyranny in Iraq,'" Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005)

Fernando Tesón, "Of Tyrants and Empires: Reply to Terry Nardin," Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005)

Jeff McMahan, "Unjust War in Iraq," The Pelican Record 41, no. 5 (2004)

Richard B. Miller, "Justifications of the Iraq War Examined," Ethics & International Affairs 22, no. 1 (2008)


Neta C. Crawford, Judith L. Herman, Robert Jay Lifton, Catherine Lutz, and Howard Zinn, "The Real 'Surge' of 2007: Non-combatant Death in Iraq and Afghanistan," Carnegie Council (January 22, 2008)

Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005)

Kenneth Roth, "War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention," World Report (2004)