The Dawning of a Liberal Apologetics for Iraq

Upon reading Thomas Friedman’s March 10, 2010 New York Times Op-Ed, “It’s Up to Iraqis Now. Good Luck,” I felt compelled to try to make some sense for myself of this timely example of the dawning of a liberal apologetics for Iraq. Presently, America struggles with the paroxysm and travesty of Iraq, while liberal apologetics cleanse the way to the future. Not long ago, many contended over the “lessons of Vietnam.” What will be the lessons of Iraq?

I want to place the disingenuousness, pretentious prose, wishful thinking, and future threat that is Friedman’s article, in a larger theoretical framework. I am concerned, as Friedman is, with how one can “justify the costs” of hundreds of thousands of lost innocent lives; devastation of antiquities, industry, and infrastructure; eruption of a psychosis reaching across generations and well in to time; and the creation of a moral desert of hatred and hopelessness.

Although Friedman allows that “historians will sort that out,” he clearly writes that, putting it antiseptically, the “costs,” might yet be justified through achievement of appropriate levels of democracy and development. So, I want to understand this reasoning, not just on its own, but also as part of the wider world of moralizing on the subject inside and outside of government. I also want to say, absolutely, that I disagree with Friedman. The American invasion, occupation, and destruction of Iraq, and current efforts to mold its future, are not and will never be justified by any future states of democracy and development in Iraq. Perhaps there is a consolation in the impossibility of justifying the American invasion for those who are interested in the workings of justificatory practices generally, since it is only because some things cannot be justified, that some other things can be justified. It seems to me that it is also the case that things will get better or worse in Iraq, with or without any justification of American actions at all.

Friedman commits two grave errors. First, he comes very close to imagining that American military intervention was the only path to democracy and development for Iraq. Friedman might disagree with the protagonists of the Bush regime about tactics, but the decision to use some modicum of military force seems to have been necessitated by the idea that non-military interventions were thought to be much less certain and less effective. Friedman writes that “freedom” and “decent government” for Iraqis is not guaranteed, but “is no longer unattainable” thanks to the “incredible opportunity to remake Iraq” provided by Americans to Iraqis. Apparently, any guarantee of a brighter future than Saddam’s regime was unobtainable prior to 2003? But this is to assume a grandiose position of infallibility and an omnipotent capacity for prediction.

Second, on empirical grounds, Friedman overstates the case about misery under Saddam. He holds out the possibility that some future Iraqis will one day attribute their better lives, “whatever the cost” of the past, to the sacrifices of today’s dead. One day, “freedom and decent government” may be given “to people who had none.” But, prior to 2003, the vast majority of Iraqis could walk the streets without dodging bullets and bombs, without experiencing life as a target of revenge killing or religious disagreement, without being swept up in American security operations or being collaterally damaged by them, etc. Further, even under pressures of sanctions, the lights were on, water flowed, most kids went to school, most people had jobs, and the economic future of the country was advantaged by the capacity to generate future revenue based on oil. Surely these are, at least minimal, attributes of “freedom” and “decent government.” So, Friedman is not just guilty of assuming infallibility, but also of bifurcated thinking. For this is the way the world was, “there is no X” and “ the only way to bring about X is through Y.”

I want to frame and evaluate the question in a way that owes much to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s analysis of the commission of evil by governments in his essay “Ruthlessness in Public Life” (published in Nagel, Mortal Questions, 1979). Nagel explores the logical and practical relationships between “public morality” and “private morality” and discusses the production of “ruthlessness” in this light. Here, I summarize the practical aspects of this relationship and identify the pattern of moralizing which often accompanies great public violence. I shall equate the “harms” perpetrated on Iraq and Iraqis with “ruthlessness.” So, the question becomes, how do public actors come to cause ruthlessness, and how is it dealt with morally before and after the fact? It is clear to me that both the American action in Iraq, and Friedman’s apology of it, fit a discernable and repeatable pattern describing the turns and tribulations of morality in politics and government.

Although only some private and public actors are capable of criminal inhumanity, the public actors who are inclined to use officially sanctioned violence against others have a pass unavailable to their counterparts in the mafia, on boards of corrupt corporations, and on the inhospitable street corners of blighted American cities. Public actors are insulated from certain species of moral constraints and responses by virtue of the peculiarities of role-related responsibility, the limitation of responsibility to national publics or the national interest, the impersonality and impartiality of public office, the outcome-orientation of their decisional logic, and the specialization of tasks. None of this provides a guarantee that ruthlessness necessarily will be decided upon, let alone, justified, but it does protect the office holder from various legal and moral liabilities and criticism. It should also be noted, though, that the utilitarian decisional logic most commonly used by policy makers is easily employed by those seeking to find ways of justifying the “evil” inherent in the means adopted toward some “good” end or, perhaps, that which is accompanied as a mixed result with that “good.” Utilitarians scale up anticipated good against anticipated evil and choose the greater good or lesser evil outcomes. As a practical matter, utilitarianism recognizes that no one lives in a perfect world devoid of evil. Evil can be minimized but not eliminated.

In what ways are public actors protected against certain moral liabilities? First, we should understand that the role requirements of public actors and the logic of utilitarianism, can be seen to rest on moral and rational (efficiency) grounds of their own. In moral terms, there is an element of democratic legitimacy to consider. Public actors are agents or representatives of publics, and as such are oriented to think in terms of treating the collective, the aggregate, or the majority, rather than the individual. In line with this, the impersonality and impartiality of office preclude agents from favoring any particular individual – including servicing their own self-interests. Public actors also perform specified tasks according to specified rules. The structuring of tasks and the use of rules promotes both a sense of fairness and efficiency. Further, utilitarian outcomes are easily thought of in terms of aggregations (e.g., GDP, trade flows, new investments, total voter participation, numbers of democratic transitions of power) so that, theoretically, the various means under consideration can be assessed precisely according to addition to or subtraction from the aggregate sum. Two protections result from the above: 1) the impersonal and impartial application of rules protects actors from certain kinds of moral criticism relating especially to charges of favoritism and unfairness; 2) the division of labor and the systematic use of rules provide actors with opportunities to redirect responsibility up or down the chain of command and away from their own position, and to claim the defense of just following orders.

But what is the relationship between utilitarian logic and the actual production of evil? The potential for ruthlessness is inherent in three aspects of this logic. First, the interests and good of individuals and groups existing outside of national publics may be discounted. For example, the actions and interests of other countries might get in the way of “our way of life.” Second, the pragmatism of this logic readily accepts the possibility, even the likelihood, of evil (being used as a means or being produced as a mixed result with the good) and the possibility that majorities may be made better off than minorities. Third, the preference for acceptable outcomes may trump principled assessments of particular actions taken toward the outcomes. This last point is especially problematic when actions involve things like murdering innocent people.

So far, we have assumed that public actors operate strictly according to the public morality and the logic of utilitarianism. But that is not the case in reality. Public actors, as humans, often consider the business of government from the standpoints of their own private moralities too. Private moralities travel variously upon the vehicles of philosophy of history, religious conviction and belief, and ideology. Personal views about the possibility of progress in history, or the active presence or absence of God’s will in human affairs, or the rationality or irrationality of human nature may supplement or careen sideways into the dictates of the public morality of utilitarianism. For example, according to public morality, one might see that one country’s invasion of another country serves the national interest, and happens also to manifest the “birth pangs of history.” But, I suspect that not all public actors, who find themselves having to justify ruthlessness, permit private morality to infect the logic of national interest. For example, there may be a variety of American Exceptionalist who will not cheat the system, who unreservedly places all death and destruction wrought by their adopted means into the service of interests in power, and who may be, ironically, the most honest broker in the system.

Obviously, the decisions and outcomes of public morality invite reactions from private moralities sourced outside of government. Again, private actors may either support or object to public policy according to the promptings of their own moralities, and there may be disagreements about process or principles, actions or outcomes, means or ends, etc. Some of those private actors who support government policy may be thought of as belonging to the phalanx of official “soft power,” thus blurring some of the lines between the public and the private and enlarging the field of those desiring “to win hearts and minds” as opposed to brutalizing bodies. This is one purpose of Friedman’s article, I believe.

To summarize, there is a discernable pattern of moralizing which partly describes the ways in which big powers, like the US, decide when and how to employ large-scale violence against others. Decisions in government, for the most part, are made according to the logic of utilitarianism. Often, painful means are thought to be necessary for bringing about a better end. For example, layoffs get justified in relation to building leaner, meaner companies and more competitive playing fields. Lives of Americans and non-Americans alike are considered to be expendable in the service of ordering and reordering societies according to the national interest and the values of “freedom” and “democracy.” In turn, this public morality comes to be reinforced or challenged by the private moralities of actors inside and outside of government. The current debate about the lessons of Iraq, as the earlier debate about the “lessons of Vietnam,” shall be undertaken in earnest, and is an integral part of the practice of moralizing about public power and ruthlessness discussed here.

Those in government who have supported the American adventure in Iraq are inclined to want to find utility and worth in the vast expenditure of lives and lucre. There’s more than a suggestion of this in Friedman’s article. It looks as if one of the “lessons of Iraq” might be in the way it vindicates the wider “US project” in the region. Friedman, disingenuously in my view, uses the example of “an Iraqi expatriate mother, voting in Michigan, holding up her son to let him stuff her ballot into the box” as evidence of electoral and democratic success inside Iraq. The possibility of success, then, is used in a taunt to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. “How are you feeling today?” blusters Friedman. Perhaps Ahmadinejad would find democracy Iraqi-style disconcerting? But, it is the means, apparently justified, that have brought about Iraqi elections, that are terrorizing, no doubt, to Iran’s leaders and, unfortunately, to its people.

MICHAEL P. BRADLEY a professor of philosophy and political science at Blackburn College in Illinois. He can be reached at:



Michael P. Bradley teach political science and philosophy at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.