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On Norman Geras and the proposition that "there was no persuasive moral case against the Iraq war" (Leiter)

Moving to front from June 5; some links are now fixed.

NOTE:  I started writing this quite some time ago, but the prospect of my impending summer blogging hiatus inspired me to finish it.  Professor Geras, sadly, continues to shill for war.  More importantly, the argument of his discussed here is symptomatic of a kind of childish moral reasoning that seems to have taken hold of some otherwise intelligent people who still purport to be on the "left," and who, shall we say, "ought to know better."


No doubt the right-wing war mongers in the blogosphere will be clucking about this latest embarrassing display by a man who claims to be on the left offering apologetics for the criminal and immoral invasion of Iraq. (We've seen this before, sadly.) But let's look at the quality of argument on behalf of Professor Geras's breathtaking proposition that "there was no persuasive moral case against the Iraq war." (And do, when you have a moment, contrast Professor Geras's reasoning in support of this conclusion with Professor McMahan's, well, creditable moral case against the Iraq war; nothing Professor Geras says even touches these arguments.)

Here is the crux of Professor Geras's moral reasoning:

Whatever subsidiary reasons could have been - and in fact were - given for the war to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime, the most powerful reason in its favour was a simple one: the regime had been responsible for, it was daily adding to, and for all that anyone could reasonably expect, it would go on for the forseeable future adding to, an immensity of pain and grief, killing, torture and mutilation. It's been said before, including by me, and so I won't labour the point too much here; but this was not merely an unpleasant tyranny amongst many others - it was one of the very worst of recent times, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on its hands, to say nothing of the lives torn and wrecked by it. Other things equal, there is no other moral option than to support the removal of such a regime if a removal is in the offing.

Is the principle "brutal regimes should be removed by force" morally defensible? It appears that the morally relevant consideration on offer is the protection of human life, and that the calculation is a consequentialist one, assumptions I am happy to grant. (That--as I imagine Professor Geras would agree--the Bush Administration was not motivated by the protection of human life would only be relevant if it was somehow connected to morally relevant consequences--about which more in a moment.)  So we can restate the fundamental moral principle here as follows: one ought to act so as to maximize the protection of human life and minimize the destruction of human life. And perhaps we should broaden the desireable consequence here from the mere protection of human life, to something like the protection of human well-being, so that the quality of life also matters. That this is Professor Geras's view is suggested by these additional remarks of his:

The sole convincing moral case against the war would have had to demonstrate, either for a certainty or else as being highly probable, that the consequences of a regime-change war by the coalition of the willing - a coalition that could, it should be noted, have been bigger but for the opposition to the war - must be a state of affairs even worse than the one the war was supposed to remedy.

Of course, the converse holds as well: namely, that the moral case for the war has to demonstrate, "either for a certainty or else as being highly probable, that the consequences of a regime-change war...must be a state of affairs" better than the current one. There is, unfortunately, not even the pretense of such a demonstration; indeed, the need for it is elided by childish analogies:

The house was on fire. No argument against trying to save the people in the house is worth a fig if it doesn't accept this fact honestly, and recognize that there is something considerable to be said for indeed trying to save these people.

When a house is on fire, though, dousing the house with enough water is guaranteed to put out the fire: of that, we can be certain (ceteris paribus, e.g., unless it is a grease fire). The question here is whether one can be certain, or even think it highly probable, that an invasion led by the United States will produce a better state of affairs (meaning maximizing the protection of human well-being, and minimizing the loss of life etc.) than the status quo--the status quo not being the Saddam regime that was capable of killing and maiming hundreds of thousands back when it was a U.S. client in the 1980s, but the decimated heinous regime whose capacity for the imposition of misery and death was dramatically less by 2003.  (Those with Kantian intuitions are probably getting nervous about the crassness of the way this tallying of corpses is being done, but I am granting to Professor Geras his consequentialist starting point, and the crassness is unavoidable. But before Professor Geras makes absurd pronouncements like there is no "creditable moral case" against the Iraq war, it might have occurred to him that some moral people think about moral questions deontologically.) 

Surely someone serious about this question--whether "one can be certain, or even think it highly probable, that an invasion led by the United States will produce a better state of affairs"--would have to factor in that (1) since the U.S. did not offer--until late in the day--humanitarian rationales for the war, but instead offered a(n admittedly absurd) rationale of (anticipatory) "self-defense," and, (2) since the actual motives for actions can be useful predictors of their likely consequences, especially in cases like this where the consequences are at least partially within the control of hte agent (i.e., a country that starts a war for humanitarian reasons might be expected to be concerned to produce humanitarian outcomes, whereas a country that launched a war for self-serving reasons is far more likely to be indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophes produced by the war and thus unmotivated to prevent them), then (3) it is surely "highly probable" that military action under these circumstances will not achieve humanitarian objectives given the inevitable human carnage, and social and economic disruption, that is attendant upon a military invasion of the scale and scope carried out by the U.S.

Of course, this argument already understates the sheer improbabilitiy of humanitarian consequences, since the most plausible account of U.S. motives for invading Iraq--fairly obvious beforehand, and noted by many different observers since--makes clear that concern for humanitarian results had nothing to do with this war of aggression.  Indeed, think about it for just one moment:  given the almost perfect multi-decade track record of the United States--including many individual members of its current Administration!--of staunch support around the globe for brutal oligarchies and tyrannies (including the Iraqi one during its worst crimes against the Kurds) whenever it was economically or strategically advantageous to do so, is it really at all credible to suppose that a war of aggression by the U.S. would have humantiarian consequences? 

To put this differently:  could Professor Geras really believe that it was "highly probable" that the inevitable human carnage, and socio-economic disruption, that results from war would be offset by humanitarian consequences when the instigator of the war neither professed concern for such consequences nor, on any credible account, had any interest in such consequences?   

If humanitarian consequences were an unlikely consequence of war, especially since it was launched by political leaders with no credible interest in such consequences, anti-humanitarian consequences were close to a certainty:  it is, after all, in the nature of war.  This was surely predictable in advance, and has been borne out by the parade of horribles with which every sentient person is now familiar.  Most of that was also surely "highly probable" in advance, and certainly far more probable than Professor Geras's Panglossian scenario. 

And yet this parade of horribles--the predictable carnage and socio-economic destruction attendant upon war--does not even include other consequences that someone serious about moral reasoning would have had to consider when contemplating the war of aggression against Iraq:  for example, the likelihood of civil war; the possibility that one out of three Iraqi children would end up malnourished; the situation of Iraqi women; the risk of civilian massacres and random killings of civilians by the invading forces (all events that were "highly probable," as Professor Geras would say, given the history, which should be familiar); and so on.

What is missing from Professor Geras's cavalier cheer-leading for wars of aggression is any sense of what actually happens in war, though the reminders are now everywhere.

And all this still does not touch upon further possibilities relevant to a serious consequentialist calculation, such as the damage to the already feeble international rule of law resulting from the illegal invasion, or the risk (and human consequences) of subsequent military actions against other nations by an emboldened American superpower--or other nations emulating U.S. conduct, were America to be successful in getting away with this war of aggression.

For argument's sake, let us suppose that--as incredible as it seems--the consequentialist argument could be sustained in support of the conclusion that brutal regimes should be removed by force. But who should remove them? (It goes without saying, I assume, that the fact that a particular state of affairs would be morally desireable does not impose on everyone the same obligation to bring it about.) Professor Geras? His children? Me? My children? What of the fact that those who "volunteered" for military service acted on the basis of an implicit promise that their lives would be endangered only when the security of the nation was at risk, not simply to promote human well-being across the globe? 

I suppose if there were even the slightest indication that Professor Geras had thought through any of the preceding, it would be possible to credit his reasoning as being serious. As it is, his basic claim--that the war was justified because the Hussein regime was heinous--is not a bit of moral reasoning, it is childish, but dangerous, posturing.

The American war of aggression against Iraq will surely be remembered as one of the great crimes at the dawn of the 21st century, one whose potentially catastrophic consequences for Iraq, for the Middle East, and for the world are likely to play out for decades to come.  It is hardly surprising that with the relentless beat of the war drums by the propaganda mills of the right that a large segment of the U.S. population should have thought the war justified.  It is more surprising that those who profess to have committed themselves to the life of the mind, individuals with the leisure to gather real information and evaluate and analyze it, should be so catastrophically and sanctimoniously wrong on such a simple issue, one on which there had been a fairly robust global consensus since the horrors of WWII:  wars of aggression are not justified.

A colleague in Britain called my attention some time ago to this article by Professor Geras in which, writing about others, he may have, tragically, anticipated his own transformation from a man and scholar of the left to an apologist for war crimes:

Times change and people change. Their ideas change; develop, progress—and regress. There can be gradual change within a more or less stable intellectual framework. And there can also be sharper breaks, mutations of outlook in which one thing is renounced and another embraced. But each person has to take his leave or make her peace, as the case may be, in a way conformable to his or her own sense of dignity.

Sometimes making peace with oneself, though, isn't good enough.