Kant and Mill in Baghdad

In justifying their war against Iraq, the Bush administration and its supporters based their case primarily on the threat to the United States posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and ties with al-Qaeda. But to date, American and British troops have found no signs of a chemical-, biological- or, more importantly, a nuclear-weapons program and have uncovered only low-level ties to al-Qaeda. And even if they subsequently find a few canisters of mustard gas, or railway tickets from Kandahar to Baghdad, it would hardly confirm America's claims that Saddam Hussein's regime posed a threat to the United States. On the contrary, the absence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), in particular nuclear weapons, combined with the ease with which the United States rolled over the Iraqi army, strengthens the claims of administration critics that Hussein's regime could have been contained without going to war.

It also looks increasingly implausible that the Bush administration simply made an error of judgment in pressing its case against Iraq. Prior to the war, the United States failed to produce compelling evidence of Iraqi WMD or ties to al-Qaeda. According to United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix, the evidence that the United States gave him of Iraq's WMD was "pretty pathetic." The Pentagon was also prepared for a short and easy war. That suggests that by the time of the invasion, the Bush administration was primarily concerned with advancing a geopolitical strategy in the region rather than defending Americans against future attack. In all likelihood, George W. Bush lied to the public about the dangers posed by Iraq.

Indeed, since the war's end, the administration and its supporters have changed their argument for the invasion. They now contend that even if the United States has not eliminated a looming WMD threat, it has eliminated a heinous regime. Wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "Bush doesn't owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons (even if it turns out that the White House hyped this issue). It is clear that in ending Saddam's tyranny, a huge human engine for mass destruction has been broken." But Friedman and other supporters gloss over the thorny moral issues raised by the invasion. Can the morality of our actions -- whether as individuals or nations -- be judged simply by the eventual results? Isn't this an instance of the ends justifying the means?

The question of whether the war was justified can best be understood as a conflict between the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and those of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians. Kant argued that in order to be morally justifiable, actions had to be universalizable -- susceptible to becoming universal laws applicable to any individuals. If it is right for A to steal from B, then it will have to be right for B to steal from A, or C from D. Kant's categorical imperative assumes a moral universe of equal beings, all of whom would be subject to the same rights and prohibitions. In making moral choices, Kant contended, human beings treat one another as "ends in themselves." By contrast, the utilitarians, in their most basic form, argued that moral decisions must be judged according to whether they maximize happiness.

Kant and the utilitarians were not trying to say what should be moral but to describe the underlying logic by which we justify our actions. In this respect, each philosophy had its limitations. For instance, a utilitarian could conceivably justify enslaving another human being if it turned out to contribute to the overall sum of human happiness. A Kantian might justify pacifism as universalizable even when his country was threatened with extinction. Ultimately the two principles of moral decision making act as limits on each other: Both must be present in some form for an action to be morally justified. Decisions must respect rights, and they must not make things intolerably worse.

Kant's and the utilitarians' principles were designed to explain how individuals, not nations, justify their actions. But they also helped to explain, and to influence, how nations legitimated international actions. In the 19th century, advanced capitalist countries justified their imperial conquests on utilitarian grounds, claiming to be bringing civilization and prosperity to the backward countries of Asia and Africa. (Karl Marx would credit bourgeois imperialism with drawing "even the most barbarous nations into civilization.") But the rise of modern imperialism, and of rivalries between the imperial powers, led to violent nationalist rebellions and two world wars in which millions perished. These sad events prompted a fundamental reappraisal of international morality.

After World War II -- in the Nuremberg trials and the formation of the United Nations -- the world's countries embraced a Kantian approach to international relations based upon the recognition of nations as equal sovereign persons (regardless of their size or stage of economic development) with inalienable rights. The UN Charter forbade the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state" except if "an armed attack occurs." Similarly, the Nuremberg tribunal stated that "to initiate a war of aggression … is the supreme international crime." Utilitarianism was present, too, but in a supporting role: the UN charter assumed that by granting them inalienable rights, the world's nations would help remove a major cause of war.

In the decades after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union appeared to violate these principles in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia -- but in the name of defending themselves against one another. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, however, the world seemed ripe for the application of Kantian principles to international relations. UN support for the Gulf War was a textbook case: The world's nations were coming to the defense of a small nation invaded and taken over by a larger, more powerful neighbor. NATO intervention in the Balkans, and particularly in Kosovo, was open to debate but could be justified as the defense of a nation and a people against Serbian aggression without aiming to overthrow and replace the Serbian regime itself. The U.S. and British protection of the Kurds was justifiable along similar lines. And the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after September 11 was an act of national self-defense.

But the Bush administration, perhaps emboldened by its success in Afghanistan, proceeded to defy the post-World War II principles of international law. Last June, Bush announced a new doctrine of preemptive (really preventive) war against merely potential adversaries. That was meant to justify an invasion of Iraq. Even if this doctrine is seen as a legitimate nuclear-age extension of self-defense, however, the invasion does not seem justified. The United States would have had to demonstrate that the Iraqis had not merely a few chemical weapons (which had failed to deter Iran in the 1980s war) but a burgeoning nuclear program. But no such programs came to light during the inspections or the war. By Kantian standards, the war was aggression without justifiable cause.

Administration officials have tried to justify the war ex post facto entirely on utilitarian grounds -- that is, that the war will lead to the democratization or modernization of the Arab region. These arguments echo those of 19th- and early 20th-century imperialists, and indeed some neoconservatives, including Max Boot and Stanley Kurtz, have argued candidly for a return to imperialism. They have replaced the older promise of civilization with that of democracy or of modernization. The Bush administration, fearful of criticism from abroad, has steered clear of explicitly advocating imperialism, but it uses the same utilitarian logic in advancing its aims that European and American proponents of empire used a century ago.

The defenders of a new American imperialism insist that today's America will avoid the pitfalls of the older model. They argue that the United States is an inherently moral nation that will not commit the injustices perpetrated by past imperial aspirants. True, American history, like French and English, is filled with moments of greatness -- but also of ignominy, from the Indian wars to the slave trade to the brutal suppression of the Filipino rebels to the Christmas bombing of Hanoi. To put ourselves above the law of nations is to encourage our own tendencies, as well as those of other countries, toward lawlessness.

Defenders of the administration also argue that the United States, unlike imperial Britain or Wilhelm II's Germany, has no serious military rivals and can therefore do what it wants without encouraging a future world war. That may be true -- for now. But an arrogant America, strutting across the world stage and invading countries it deems to be merely future adversaries, can incite reprisals and can, over the decades, provoke genuine rivalry. And these rivals will hardly be bound to honor the very rules of international behavior that the United States has already spurned. In its victory over Iraq, the United States can imagine it is instilling democratic principles in the Arab world, but it is also undermining principles designed to protect the world's nations from an even worse fate than autocracy: the ravages of war and the humiliation of conquest.

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