Let justice not misguided morality prevail

Paul Nicholas Anderson assesses the morality of the war

March 1, 2003
9 min read

When Tony Blair made the ‘moral’ or ‘humanitarian’ case for war at the local government conference in Glasgow, he spoke of the ‘inhumanity of leaving Saddam Hussein in power.’ The prime minister argued that even if there are 500,000 people marching against a possible war with Iraq ‘that is less than the number of people whose deaths Saddam has been responsible for.’ The question of Saddam Hussein’s inhumanity is, perhaps, beyond doubt, but such details do not mean that we should leave the morality of Blair’s shifting strategy unquestioned.

In his reference to morality, Mr Blair was speaking in broadly utilitarian terms. Utilitarianism justifies an action if that action leads to an outcome of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or a decrease in pain for the greatest number and, on this view, invasion is better than no invasion if the invaders’ kills are fewer than those that would be killed by Saddam’s regime.

But such a balancing betrays a need for precision. What is the number of Iraqi civilian deaths beyond which an invasion would become immoral? Has Mr Blair included in his Iraqi cost-benefit analysis, for instance, the possible terrorist-caused deaths in the UK as a result of predictable Islamic outrage at an act of aggression by the UK-US military alliance against what is already considered a broken country?

The main problem with this line of reasoning is that its employment has long been considered politically imprudent for making decisions of gravity such as the one Mr Blair faces. This is because the argument excludes all but two options and so cannot realistically reflect the complexity of the situation. As many individuals reason, and as governments of Germany, France and Russia insist, there are more than simply the options of war or inactivity. The line of reasoning is useful, however, in adding weight to the general aim of persuasion once a decision has already been made.

A consequence of framing the debate in terms of war and inactivity means that the moral onus is now placed on those resisting war. For example, Blair’s morally repugnant riposte at Glasgow to the millions protesting is that the call for peace will be ‘paid in blood’, as if, perversely, resistance to war amounted to indifference to Iraqi suffering. Instead, the onus should be on those who reject Hans Blix’s calculated judgement that the UN inspections, though not unproblematic, are working, and that Iraq has conceded to many of the UN’s demands. It should be asked of Mr Blair just how moral is it to force upon the Iraqis (and on us) the military option when diplomatic procedures are nowhere near exhausted.

The narrow utilitarian argument which the prime minister continues to pursue is a natural consequence of the equally ill-thought out post-September 11 assertion by President Bush that ‘you are either for us or against us.’ This attitude betrays a deep inability to handle moral complexity. Whilst there are few who do not feel the enormous tragedy of the Jihad attack and would not wish the perpetrators to be brought to justice, there are just as few who are not dismayed at America’s apparent lack of reflection upon what it is that it must be doing to have ever warranted such an attack. To acknowledge this moral ambivalence requires those authorities in favour of war to abandon a knee-jerk rationale and ask themselves two questions.

Two questions

First, how are military intervention and a consequent slaughter of innocent civilians ethically superior to the actions of Saddam’s regime? The apparent willingness to engage in the killing of large numbers of wholly innocent people reduces Blair and Bush to the same moral status as Saddam. The pretence to the moral high-ground on the basis that fewer deaths would ensue from an invasion than from inactivity is, in non-triage situations where other options are available, as absurd as it is morally bankrupt.

Secondly, they must ask themselves how their planned action makes future terrorism less likely. The longer this point is glossed over, the greater the importance to seek an explanation from them as to just how moral it is to jeopardise this country’s collective security by, on the face of it, a means par excellence of recruiting for bin Laden, for reasons that have failed to convince the UN, not to mention the majority in this country.

A possible answer to both points involves returning, in a sense, to the question of why it is that prosperous countries, in particular America, are the target of terrorist attacks. Indeed, is it coincidence that America, whose wealth is founded on the impoverishment of other peoples and their environments, has been targeted? Most people and peoples detest nothing more than being made isolated, worthless and powerless. The gathering global realisation post-September 11 is that some of this anger is now being channelled into major acts of international terrorism and that all national boundaries are vulnerable. If a country’s prosperity is derived in such a way as to generate such hatred, then, as America is witnessing, that wealth will create enemies it cannot defeat.

The response to this predicament so far has been to act in such a way that hatred of terrorism in the UK become more likely. The logical and, it increasingly appears, the only safe means of ensuring internal security, is to create wealth in a manner that does not undermine itself, that is, in a manner that enhances or at least protects minimum human rights and liberties everywhere and for everyone it involves. If terrorism originates from the denial of basic rights and liberties that wealth accumulation can cause, then respect for rights and liberties becomes the best means of countering terrorism.

Blair’s mistake is to frame the moral issue in terms of war and inactivity with the number of civilian deaths as the arbiter. With greater perspective, the moral issue is the trade-off between our wealth generation and others’ economic, political, ecological and psychological impoverishment, with the degree of respect shown to those involved in the production of this wealth the chief guarantor of mutual security.

Rights and liberties

The defining feature about rights, such as that to life, is that they are absolute. They are justified not as the utilitarian would have it, by way of their tendency to promote overall happiness, but because such rights are a good in themselves. This means that a single person’s life has absolute value and cannot be traded off against, say, the security of the majority, particularly when other avenues have not been exhausted. To do so would be deeply immoral. This, it would appear, is Blair’s position. Since not all avenues have been exhausted his willingness to sanction civilian deaths is clearly immoral.

For the expansion of minimum rights and liberties to be effective, world powers, who set themselves above the law, have to be reduced to the same moral and legal footing as the rest of us. This means in Iraq’s case indicting Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. While this would not be easy to achieve, the difficulty of this move should never be an argument for the prevention of international justice from prevailing over war. Indeed, overturning impunity happened to Pinochet, is happening to Milosevic, is likely to happen to Sharon (by Belgium) and may happen to Kissinger (for authorising the mass murders which brought Pinochet to power in Chile). Trying Saddam rather than bombing Iraq clearly offers a stronger moral case than war since it avoids risking further bloodshed and trauma to innocent Iraqi people. Were international resolve to go into creating a precedent for upholding such justice, rather than pre-emptive strikes on grounds of an unproven threat to self-defence, an immeasurable amount of good would be done for world peace and the rights of the individual.

So why doesn’t Blair pursue this legitimate and easily justifiable means of bringing dictators and world criminals to justice? Perhaps some of the reasons turn, to its shame, on the US administration’s steadfast refusal to support the instruments of international justice. More than any other country the US has refused to heed UN’s rulings not in its favour. Further reasons rest with Blair and Straw who, to their shame, agreed late last year to US demands to disable the International Criminal Court which their government helped to draft. The Court facilitated the House of Lords historic ruling in the Pinochet case that International Law can hold despots to account. Blair’s assent to US demands means that, among other things, any US citizen suspected of war crimes will not have to face charges in this country. Precisely how one can undermine a legitimate, effective and humane means of bringing mass murderers to justice, place one’s allies above justice, and then condemn those who seek a peaceful resolution as being complicit with the present tyranny’s brutality, in order to force through a war option made more plausible by the denial of international justice, while claiming to be answering to a morality that supersedes global dissent, simply beggars belief.

No doubt international justice is denied for (at least) two reasons. If Saddam were on trial, the US would not be able to seize Iraq’s oil reserves; these would instead transfer to the remaining government of Iraq. Secondly, the trial of Saddam for, inter alia, state terrorism would set an unacceptable precedent to the authorities in favour, it seems, of the suppression of international justice. Accusations from the White House that the supporters and suppliers of terrorists are to be regarded as terrorists themselves is contradictory, since on those grounds, there would appear to be good reason to indict the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Margaret Thatcher for supplying Saddam with weapons of mass destruction in the 1980s (whose use at Halabja Thatcher denied in the British parliament) which the dictator used in wilful and largely foreseeable acts of terrorism, as defined in the US code and in US army manuals, on the Iranians and on his own people.

Those who deny international justice for their own perceived gain, however, may soon become an endangered species. We are entering a time when the need for internal security may become so dire that political leaders prefer to relinquish international policies that make threats to our security more likely and to extend to those involved in the generation of our wealth minimum rights and liberties. September 11 forces on us the ironic and belated realisation that self-interest (survival) means, today, egalitarianism. The expansion of minimum basic rights and liberties and the equalisation of the legal standing of governments offers the safest, most moral and, increasingly, the only means of avoiding threats to mutual security.


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