Moral Dilemmas of U.S. Policy Toward Iraq

Feb 15, 2001

In August 1990 President George Bush declared that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait “would not stand.” Although U.S.–led forces did roll back Iraqi troops, U.S. policy since then has failed to articulate or achieve any clear objectives. Sanctions, war, coercive diplomacy, strategic bombing, no-fly zones, the arming of opposition groups—each of these tactics has been tried in turn, but with little progress. The current Bush administration also seems uncertain about which steps to take next. Secretary of State Colin Powell supports “smart sanctions” that tighten controls on the flow of arms and money, and advocates easing sanctions that affect ordinary Iraqis. Conservatives in Congress, along with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, propose a more aggressive policy of arming the Iraqi opposition in the hope of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.1

A series of complex moral dilemmas underlie these policy options. Two of the more controversial ones being debated in the Bush administration are sanctions and regime change, raising such questions as: What is the status of a policy that seeks to accomplish a moral good by punishing a recalcitrant member of the international community, but that also devastates Iraqi society? Should the international legal norm of sovereignty triumph even in the case of a dictator as heinous as Saddam Hussein? Why has the U.S. government sought to arm opposition groups rather than seeking to assassinate the Iraqi leader clandestinely? Wouldn’t the latter policy result in less social chaos and provide hope for Iraq and the region?

While such questions may get asked in the White House, few foreign and defense policy principals pause to reflect on the ethical assumptions underlying policy decisions. When it comes to issues such as imposing sanctions, pursuing assassination, overthrowing regimes, and waging war, the moral questions may be the most important ones. Elucidating the moral dimensions of the various policy options may help us to evaluate them.


The U.S. government’s first response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was to impose economic sanctions. Turning to the United Nations, President Bush aggressively pushed a policy designed to punish the Iraqi regime. On August 6, 1990, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 661, which created a basket of sanctions and embargoes that many believed was the best way to punish Iraq without resorting to war.

Others, however, viewed sanctions as a prelude to war. Patrick Clawson argued in 1993 that “sanctions may be best thought of as a means of signaling an aggressor that war will come unless he reverses course, and as an immediate step to take while forces are marshaled for war.”2 Sanctions are, from this perspective, part of the process by which punishment becomes progressively more coercive, giving the violator plenty of time to reverse the unlawful action.

An analysis of U.S. policy toward Iraq from August 1990 to January 1991 seems to support this position. From August through September, the Bush administration argued that sanctions needed time to work. Sometime in October or early November, however, policymakers in Washington appeared to adopt the position that war was the only way to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Sanctions took on a different meaning after the allied coalition forced Iraq to abandon Kuwait. Resolution 687, passed in April 1991 and still in effect today, laid out a set of conditions that Iraq would be required to fulfill in order to have the sanctions lifted. Thus, sanctions moved from being a policy focused on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to a policy designed either to punish or to contain Iraq. An examination of the resolution’s conditions suggests that both policy ends are in play. Creating a compensation fund through which the Iraqi government is forced to pay persons affected by the war indicates that the objective is to punish Iraq. But forcing Iraq to abandon its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs implies that the goal is containment.

The fact that both policy objectives underlie the sanctions regime has created confusion and raised questions about the moral justification for continuing them. Punishment is a moral concept, and forcing Iraq to “pay” for its crime makes sense on a moral level. Containing the military power of Iraq, on the other hand, has less moral justification. All states have militaries, and all states seek to increase the potential destructive power of those militaries. The fact that Iraq has used its military power against another state (and against its own citizens) does not necessarily lead to a conclusion on moral grounds that it should be forced to abandon its weapons. Rather, containing Iraq is a strategic action that will advance the interests of the surrounding states in the region. It may contribute to peace—a moral good— but other states will continue to have arms and continue to use them. In some sense, leaving Iraq defenseless in the region might be seen as a moral harm.

An even more vexing moral dilemma raised by the continued use of sanctions is the suffering they impose on the people of Iraq. This issue has become a key point of debate between those supporting and those opposing the sanctions regime. Joy Gordon has argued that sanctions violate a number of different ethical tenets, from Kantian admonitions against using persons as means to utilitarian concerns about suffering.3 Albert Pierce has argued that economic sanctions raise questions within the framework of the just war theory, especially in terms of the jus in bello criteria.4

Proponents of sanctions have sought to rebut these charges. According to George Lopez, sanctions can be targeted to avoid causing much of the suffering they have so far created.5 Lopez presented a preview of the “smart sanctions” project that he and David Cortwright have developed at the Carnegie Council’s recent workshop, “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Ten Years after the Gulf War.” The suggestions of the project report, which is being presented at the United Nations, include focusing on arms embargoes rather than restricting trade; preserving and strengthening financial controls; and improving efforts to verify and monitor the activities of the regime.6

If implemented, these suggestions would certainly alleviate some of the hardship felt by Iraqi citizens and would punish the Iraqi leadership more severely. At the same time, they cannot respond completely to a deeper moral question: Is the purpose of sanctions to punish, to contain, or to remove the Iraqi regime? Other policy options put these dilemmas into a starker light.

Regime Change

At the Council’s Middle East workshop, participants were asked to consider the issue of regime change. Patrick Clawson began by evaluating U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the chaos in Afghanistan today weakens this case, Clawson averred (echoing an argument made by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars that the U.S. policy of supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet Union could be justified on moral grounds: Because the Soviets had invaded a sovereign state, responding with armed support had a moral justification.

In the case of Iraq, Clawson argued that the United States acted more as a cheerleader than as a fomenter of actual change. Especially after the March 1991 uprisings in the south of Iraq, the U.S. government provided little material support to the rebels. Many claim that this failure on the part of the United States was a dereliction of duty, particularly in light of President Bush’s comments, which implied that the U.S. would support such uprisings.

Against these claims, however, one could argue that the international mandate that structured U.S. actions in Iraq did not include overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. The moral norm of sovereignty, even after a state has been defeated in a war, seems to have prevailed in this case.

The United States is now in the process of providing support for the Iraqi opposition. Centered mostly in the United Kingdom, the Iraqi National Congress and other groups have been soliciting U.S. support since 1996, when Iraqi security forces decimated a large U.S. intelligence presence in northern Iraq.7 In October 1998 Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which authorized more than $100 million in aid to the Iraqi opposition. Although it did not fully endorse the legislation, the Clinton administration did sign it into law, and some of the funds have been released.

Does the United States have any moral justification for supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government? According to international legal norms, it does not. Although Saddam Hussein is a dictator whose actions have done little to help either the region or his own citizens, sovereignty is designed to protect weaker states from the power of stronger ones. Moreover, the record of U.S. attempts to encourage regime change in other states has been a miserable failure. One case in which such support worked—Iran in 1956—came back to haunt the United States when the 1979 revolutionaries used that support to exacerbate hostility toward the U.S.

Proponents of regime change maintain that Saddam Hussein and those surrounding him are violating the human rights of Iraqi citizens and threatening the region. Rather than contain him, as the early Clinton administration sought to do, some argue that the more moral option is to remove him. As the policy of supporting opposition forces does not seem to be working, some observers—particularly in academia—have begun to recommend more forceful options.


The morally difficult question of assassination was also raised at the Council’s Middle East workshop. Steven David of Johns Hopkins University explored the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) policy of assassination in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Though David did not necessarily support the IDF policy, he did raise a number of provocative questions.

The IDF uses a judicial process to identify those it will target, and it makes its actions public—a rarity when it comes to the practice of assassination. The legality and openness of the policy, David noted, mean that it would not necessarily be subject to the same moral disapproval as a covert policy would.

Nevertheless, the moral status of assassination is unclear. Ward Thomas has argued that the norm against assassination developed not necessarily because it was seen as a moral wrong, but because of political developments in the international system.8 As states became sovereign entities that waged war against one another—as opposed to individual princes fighting—the norm against killing leaders slowly found more acceptance among the great powers. Thus, the norm against assassination developed not only because of the inherently immoral nature of killing, but primarily because the great powers in the system saw it as in their interest to prevent it.

What does this mean for U.S. policy toward Iraq? U.S. law prohibits assassination, and it is unlikely that any presidential administration would seek to have such a rule overturned. At the same time, U.S. strategic bombing often appears to be a cover for attempted assassination. Indeed, in the case of the 1986 bombing of Libya, many believe that the United States targeted the Libyan leader himself, a belief that is sustained by the fact that Moammar Qaddafi’s home was bombed and one of his children killed. In its bombing raids on Iraq, the United States has also actively sought out targets where Saddam Hussein may be located.

Is it morally preferable to continue to drop large amounts of ordnance on Iraq in an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein rather than to send an assassin to do the same thing? Wouldn’t the latter policy better prevent loss of human life? And, if the aim is to kill Saddam Hussein, why does the United States continue to hide that policy behind the bombing campaign? Although the norm against assassination remains strong, perhaps it is being undermined by U.S. actions in Iraq.

Use of Force

Another policy option that the United States has used in Iraq is military force. The first use of force was Operation Desert Storm, a war in the classical sense of the term. Its multilateral character, both in the authorization and operational stages, made this action less an American than an international one.

Since then, however, the United States has undertaken a number of military actions against Iraq that have not been approved by the international community. In 1993 President Bill Clinton bombed Iraq in retaliation for an assassination attempt against former president Bush. From 1993 through 1998, the United States engaged in a series of bombing raids in an attempt to enforce the no-fly zones that had been imposed in the north and south of Iraq.

In December 1998 the United States undertook its most sustained bombing raids since the Gulf War. The U.S. government justified Operation Desert Fox as a response to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to allow weapons inspectors unfettered access to Iraqi weapons sites. In a Defense Department statement, Secretary of Defense William Cohen explained that the mission was an attempt to “degrade Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program . . . and his ability to militarily threaten the security of this strategically important Persian Gulf region.”9

Such a rationale for this massive bombing campaign could be pure power politics—that is, the need to force a troublesome member of a particular region to acquiesce to the most powerful state in the world. Some have argued that the bombing campaign can be justified morally as an attempt by the United States to enforce international law, since the weapons inspections had been authorized by international law.10 If international law reflects shared norms in the system, then the U.S. campaign to enforce that law could have a moral support.

But the fact that the United States has continued to push the goal line beyond simple compliance with weapons inspections to the removal from power of Saddam Hussein makes it less probable that the bombing campaigns can be justified on moral grounds. Indeed, the fact that the goals of U.S. policy have never been clearly articulated makes many of the policy options raised here morally dubious. One of the most important aspects of ethical reasoning is clarity concerning ends. In the case of U.S. policy toward Iraq, it is precisely the confusion over those ends that results in so many unanswered questions. Does the United States want to eliminate Iraq as a viable member of the international community or reintegrate it into international society? If the former, does that mean dividing Iraq into a Kurdish north and Arab south? If the latter, can the United States accept Saddam Hussein as a leader even if his policies are distasteful to Americans and others in the region?

Debates about the morality of foreign policy often end up being debates about the morality of particular means: Are assassination, regime change, and the use of force justifiable? The questions raised here are partly about means; yet, ultimately, basic questions of ends are what need to be answered. If the Bush administration clarifies what its ultimate goals are in the case of Iraq, the choice of a morally justifiable policy may be easier. Until that time, questions about the moral bases of U.S. foreign policy in the region will continue to confound scholars and policymakers alike.


1. Jane Perlez, “Washington Memo: Divergent Voices Heard in Bush Foreign Policy,” New York Times, March 12, 2001. [Back]

2. Patrick Clawson, “Sanctions as Punishment, Enforcement, and Prelude to Further Action,” Ethics & International Affairs 7 (1993), p. 17. [Back]

3. Joy Gordon, “A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 123–42. [Back]

4. Albert Pierce, “Just War Principles and Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 10 (1996), pp. 99–114. [Back]

5. George Lopez, “More Ethical Than Not: Sanctions as Surgical Tools,” Ethics & International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 143–48. [Back]

6. David Cortright, Alistair Millar, and George Lopez, Smart Sanctions: Restructuring UN Policy in Iraq (Policy Brief Series, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, 2001). [Back]

7. R. Jeffrey Smith and David B. Ottaway, “Anti-Saddam Effort Cost CIA $100 Million,” International Herald Tribune, Paris Edition, September 16, 1996. [Back]

8. Ward Thomas, “Norms and Security: The Case of International Assassination,” International Security 25, no. 1 (2000), pp. 105–33. [Back]

9. Department of Defense News Briefing, Dec. 19, 1998, 6:55 PM (EST); available at [Back]

10. See, for example, Richard Butler, The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the Crisis of Global Security (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2000). [Back]

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