On December 15, 2011, President Obama formally announced the end of the eight-and-a-half year Iraq war.  American troop presence in Iraq has dwindled to a fraction of its former strength:  In 2007, 170,000 Coalition troops occupied Iraq from 505 bases; in December, 2011, 4000 operated there from only two.  President Obama has also said he will not send any more troops to Iraq, even if the nation devolves into civil war; instead, America’s role will be limited to a political one, using diplomacy to resolve future conflicts.

Our war, then, is essentially over.  But whether war is over for Iraqis is a separate question, one with significant moral import for the United States.  Though American troops will be gone, Iraqis still face the specters of terrorism, government oppression, and civil war.  And because America started hostilities in 2003—whether justly or unjustly—it bears at least some responsibility to aid the nation it now leaves to its own devices.  Major religious bodies like the Catholic and Anglican Churches have yet to speak directly to this grave issue, one essential to America’s moral obligations to the Iraqi people.

What moral guidance, then, can we draw upon to evaluate this moment in contemporary history?  Shall we be overjoyed that a war is over, or shall we lament a moral failure?

For more on the situation in Iraq and a moral discussion of our withdrawal, please follow the jump.

Iraq Without Occupation

Upon our withdrawal, Iraq—a still tattered nation—descended into violence.  American occupation did not heal Iraq’s political, religious, and ethnic divisions.  Already, then, a political crisis has emerged, and hundreds are dying in renewed sectarian conflict.  Moreover, Iraq’s police and political apparatus has resorted to human rights violations like extracting confessions through torture; it has also paraded accused terrorists before TV cameras, arguably another human rights violation.  Adding to the turmoil, Iraqi infrastructure has not recovered and Iraq’s economy remains devastated.

Pope Benedict on the Invasion and Occupation

Pope Benedict XVI has always refused to condone American presence in Iraq.  In 2002, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger adamantly opposed invading Iraq without United Nations approval.  Likewise, in 2008, Benedict XVI denounced the war as a “bloodbath” and lamented innocent Iraqi civilians’ being forced to bear “the consequences of [the] war that provoked the violence in Iraq”—squarely placing moral responsibility for Iraq’s internal strife on the United States’ invasion.

But Benedict’s stance does not answer the question today:  Having invaded—justifiably or not—do we have a moral obligation to stay until we have finished the job of establishing a stable democracy without the brutality, oppression, and violence of Saddam Hussein’s regime?  See generally The White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 15 (2002) (outlining the Bush administration’s pre-war international objectives).  Can we, in good conscience, leave the Iraqis to clean up the chaos we may have failed sufficiently to resolve?

Three recent statements from the Vatican, the Anglican Church, and the USCCB articulate an ethical obligation to promote peace and protect human life, an ethic by which we can evaluate America’s withdrawal from Iraq.

Vatican, Canterbury, and USCCB Guidance

In Pope Benedict’s annual homily on the World Day of Peace (Jan. 1, 2012), he deplored societies’ tendency to subsume the needs of the broader community to parochial concerns.  See §§ 3–4.  Benedict emphasized patience and perseverance in promoting peace because doing so is an “essential task” no one can “shirk.”  See §§ 5–6.  On war, Benedict said,

Peace is not merely the absence of war, and it is not limited to maintaining a balance of powers between adversaries.  Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, . . . respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity.

§ 5.  Thus, we are morally obligated, Benedict said, never to yield “to false solutions which often seem the easiest way to overcome problems” of peace.  § 6.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, expressed a similar ethic in his Christmas Sermon (Dec. 25, 2011).  The Archbishop called for “unstinting generosity” and perseverance to protect human life.  Archbishop Williams challenged humanity to protect life even though doing so is never easy or comfortable:

[A]re you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control?  [Yet to] answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort.

He also appealed to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, finding in it an exhortation to solidarity, a command to humankind to serve others, and a duty never to succumb to blind self-interest.

Finally, in a statement issued earlier this year (Feb. 11, 2011), the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace (“OIJP”) expressly addressed Iraq, withdrawal, and withdrawal’s corresponding obligations.  The statement urged “full withdrawal at the earliest opportunity.”  But it also insisted that withdrawal be fully consistent with “responsible transition.”  The OIJP defined responsible transition as one

that aims to reduce further loss of life, address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the refugee crisis in the region, help rebuild the war-torn country, promote political reconciliation in Iraq, protect human rights and religious freedom, and engage international support, including Syria and Iran.  The USCCB urges strong action to protect Christians and other minorities.  Although the combat phase of U.S. engagement in Iraq has ended, the moral obligation of our nation toward the Iraqi people has not.

The Ethic of Peace and the Withdrawal from Iraq

From these three statements, we find an ethic applicable to American withdrawal.  The mere absence of a troop commitment does not mean that we have fulfilled our moral obligations to promote peace and safeguard human life.  Instead, it remains incumbent on America to protect those endangered by the hazards that our military action unleashed, hazards that may persist even after we abandon combat.

Part of our consideration must be whether we can even achieve such protection without a troop presence.  America, a nation whose resources—foremost human, but also financial and diplomatic—have been consumed during the invasion and occupation surely welcomes the relief of withdrawal.  Yet taking the “peaceful” route here—potentially at the expense of the Iraqi community—may be an impermissible abdication of our moral obligations.  Because we led Iraq into its present straits, appeal to war fatigue will not excuse prioritizing our national comfort at the expense of Iraqis’ rights to life, peace, and justice.


One wonders, in light of the rapid onset of violence and oppression that followed President Obama’s announcement, whether we have, indeed, met our moral obligation.  Time will tell:  It may be that peace was better served by bringing American troops home—for example, the current violence may be temporary, or ultimately less destructive than the violence occupation engendered.  Perhaps self-governance—with American diplomatic engagement and support—is the solution that the Iraqi people need.

Yet, it may also be that our presence in Iraq was essential to suppressing violence in a fragile nation, one in need of an armed power to quell its disputes.  Whatever the result, our moral obligations are clear: to promote peace tirelessly without placing our own well being—most pressingly, preserving the lives of American troops—above the Iraqi community’s equally legitimate rights to life and safety, rights that our choices in 2003 imperiled.  Weighing these competing interests cannot be easy; but, America’s moral obligation to do so is inescapable.

One thought on “Seeking Moral Guidance on the Iraq Withdrawal

  1. I still hoping we’re in transition phase here in Iraq, but the security gap left since 2003, is still not filled. Weakening Sunni leaders resulted in Iran involvement which caused and still causing much complications in both foreign and local politics.

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