A Humanitarian Assessment of the War in Iraq

Jul 7, 2009

"America has both a moral obligation and a responsibility for security that demands we confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis." - Barack Obama

Linking Ethical Considerations and Tactical Outcomes

With Afghanistan and Pakistan moving to the fore of American consciousness, Iraq continues to recede further.1 This diminished attention reflects the widespread perception that the war there has been a success—a tenuous one, to be sure, that is fraught with uncertainty, but a success. The United States having finally broken the back of the country's vicious insurgency, the argument proceeds, ordinary Iraqis are slowly starting to get on with their lives. Indeed, fair-minded observers should acknowledge the many areas in which the country's welfare has improved since 2003—Michael O'Hanlon's "Iraq Index" catalogues them in impressive detail.

Unfortunately, however, the loss of interest in Iraq belies its plight. Violence has indeed fallen dramatically—although many would argue that this phenomenon owes less to the U.S. troop surge of 2007 than to the purging of Sunnis by the (Shia-led) Iraqi government and Shia militias that climaxed at the surge's outset. Furthermore, stability gains have been concentrated in areas where that ethnic cleansing has been the most severe; chaos is still the norm in many areas, and hundreds of Iraqi civilians continue to be killed every month. Growing numbers of observers—for example, Kori Schake and Simon Tisdall—also contend that Iraq's security gains could be reversed. The June 20 suicide bombing of a Shia mosque near Kirkuk underscores that fear. Furthermore, the recently released "Failed States Index" (FSI), a joint effort of Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace, ranks Iraq as the sixth most unstable country in the world, behind Congo, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Somalia.

For argument's sake, however, let us concede the point that Iraq has largely been stabilized. Even then, it would be premature to declare the war in Iraq a success. The country's economic growth depends so critically on oil exports that, according to the FSI, "a fall in the price of oil could set back Iraq's recovery by years." In a June 18 article on the Iraqi government's controversial plan to transfer control of its major oil fields to foreign companies in an attempt to raise revenues, Patrick Cockburn reports that "80 per cent of [the Iraqi government's] revenues go to pay for salaries, food rations and recurrent costs," Another source of concern is Iraq's agricultural sector—accounting for approximately a tenth of the country's output—which has suffered greatly from two consecutive years of drought.

One could adduce many other examples of the challenges that Iraq will confront going forward. It is useful, however, to consider the 18 benchmarks that the U.S. government set forth to gauge progress in Iraq since they serve as a common reference point. Although discussion of them dropped considerably when the Bush administration released a report in May 2008 concluding that 15 of them had been achieved, a February 2009 assessment by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) gives reason to be cautious about that optimism.

One of the noteworthy features of the benchmarks is the degree to which they accord primacy to strategic considerations. Only one of them—"allocate and spend $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis"—addresses humanitarian challenges (about 63 percent of this sum has been spent, according to the CRS study).

This fact motivates my main premise: it is not only the case that one should not assess a war's success solely on the extent to which strategic objectives have been achieved—to discuss war without addressing its human consequences manifests a perplexing manner of detachment. It is also evident that, in the case of Iraq, one cannot do so. Given that one of the stated aims of the war was humanitarian—to rid the country of a brutal dictator and improve its welfare—it cannot objectively be declared a success if the country's population struggles to access basic goods and services.

This latter point is crucially important for those who wish to see ethics play a greater role in informing American foreign policy. We must illuminate the connection between ethical considerations and tactical outcomes if our perspective is to gain traction. It is regrettable that concern for the Iraqi people's welfare has to be framed in the context of advancing America's strategic interests, but calls to action that rely on emotional appeals have a poor track record.

Engaging ethical considerations also allows us to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing debate over metrics—metrics, that is, for gauging whether or not the war in Iraq has been a success. Proceeding from the advice that is given to every new doctor—"first, do no harm"—a simple way of assessing the war would be to compare present levels of various measures of Iraqis' welfare with their prewar levels, a task that I undertake partially in the next section.

Comparing Iraq's Present and Prewar Humanitarian Situations

The International Committee of the Red Cross concluded in a March 2008 report that

the humanitarian situation in most of the country [Iraq] remains among the most critical in the world…Despite limited improvements in security in some areas, armed violence is still having a disastrous impact…Millions of people have been forced to rely on insufficient supplies of poor-quality water as water and sewage systems suffer from a lack of maintenance and a shortage of engineers. Many families include people who have been forced by the conflict to flee their homes, leaving those left behind with the daily struggle of trying to make ends meet.

The situation of women is particularly distressing. Oxfam and Al-Amal Association interviewed 1,700 women in Baghdad, Basra, Tameem, Najaf, and Nineveh provinces starting in the summer of 2008, and reached the following conclusions:

  • "Security and safety are the top concerns of nearly 60 percent of women."
  • "More than 40 percent of respondents said their security situation worsened last year."
  • "55 percent had been victims of violence since 2003."
  • "Some 45 percent of women said their income was worse in 2008 than in 2007 and 2006."
  • "69 percent said access to water was worse or the same as in 2006 and 2007."
  • "80 percent said access to electricity was more difficult than or the same as in 2007."
  • "Nearly half of the women said access to quality health care was more difficult in 2008 compared with 2006 and 2007."
  • "40 percent of women with children reported that their sons and daughters were not attending school."
Consider, as well, these facts:

It is sad that this list can easily be extended.

Addressing Some Objections

There are at least three criticisms that one could raise against my argument, the first of which focuses on the motivation behind making it. It is often objected that presenting statistics like those above represents tacit (or, depending on the presenter, outright) whitewashing of Saddam's brutality: "Would you rather have left Saddam in power?" or "Are you arguing that Saddam's removal was bad for Iraq?" are two common formulations of this rejoinder. These questions present a stark, but misleading choice. In reality, there is no contradiction between claiming that Saddam's ouster was a humanitarian victory and claiming that Iraqis' postwar welfare has deteriorated sharply in many respects, because the war set in motion a complex substitution effect. It effectively eliminated two injustices—those of Saddam's brutality and United Nations-imposed sanctions—and replaced them with two new ones—those of a brutal insurgency and a devastated infrastructure.2

The second criticism involves causality. Much of the intellectual energy of the war's proponents has gone into divorcing the link between American intervention and the outbreak of the insurgency that has sown so much destruction in Iraq. The argument could be paraphrased as follows: "While the United States removed a brutal dictator and is trying to rebuild Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq is trying to foment chaos and destroy the country." Compounding the evasiveness of this reasoning is its objective fallacy; after all, the global intelligence establishment had determined that there was little, if any, evidence that al Qaeda existed in Iraq before the invasion, and had further concluded that invading Iraq would increase, not decrease, the likelihood of terrorism in the country. However, as is well-documented, many supporters of the war were quick to dismiss this concern.

The third criticism revolves around Iraqis' capacity to govern themselves. The claim that the United States has moral obligations to Iraq might be interpreted as a veiled statement in favor of the occupation's continuation or a patronizing suggestion that Iraqis are incapable of rebuilding their own country. It is neither. Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments against the decision to go to war in the first place was a critique of its assumption, or suggestion, that Iraqis could not build their country without American intervention. Now, however, that the United States has intervened, it is obliged, at the very minimum, to leave the country in its prewar condition.

The Absence of Ethical Considerations from the Current Debate

A fierce debate over American policy in Iraq has been occurring for some time. Now that the Obama administration has announced its plan to withdraw the majority of American troops by August 2010, the former debate over whether or not to exit has given way to one about the timeline of withdrawal and the form that America's postwar presence should take.

For all of their interest and intensity, however, these debates have excluded what would seem to be a self-evident point of contention: how best to repair the damage that Iraqis have suffered as a result of the war.

The occupation's supporters claim that Iraqis' humanitarian suffering would intensify if the United States were to withdraw. Notice, however, that it is an ancillary concern, not a primary one; an improvement in Iraqis' welfare is a hoped-for byproduct, not an intended result of America's campaign to achieve its strategic interests in Iraq. Those who are arguing in favor of a phased American withdrawal are in the right. They are wrong, however, to see it as an end in and of itself. Simply withdrawing is no less an evasion of responsibility.

The question is how to end the occupation, thereby respecting the overwhelming preference of Iraqis, while fulfilling our humanitarian obligations to them. Here, of course, there is ample room for debate. A simple set of steps would involve paying out reparations to Iraq that are equal in value to that of the damage that its infrastructure suffered during the war, and devising a policy for resettling Iraqi refugees in their home country or absorbing as many of them as possible into the United States. There are many other possibilities that one might consider. My point here is not to delineate and evaluate those options—it would be presumptuous of me to suggest that I could do so—but to ask why it is that this discussion is not occurring at the national level.

Intuition suggests a simple reason. One who objectively appraises the evidence would find it difficult, if not impossible to avoid concluding that Iraqis' humanitarian situation today is much worse than it was before the war. Although we may ignore that judgment and close the books on the war, the people of Iraq may not be so quick to do so.


1 Fareed Zakaria has been one of the few prominent journalists to note, let alone criticize this fact: "Once it became clear that Iraq was reasonably—just reasonably—stable and that U.S. casualties were low, Americans promptly lost interest in the war and the country." "Victory in Iraq," Newsweek, June 15, 2009. 2 Damaged infrastructure is really not "new," although the scale of it may be; Iraq's infrastructure, already dysfunctional under Saddam, deteriorated greatly as a result of the 1991 war and years of sanctions. By the time the 2003 war began, it was already in dire condition.

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