I’ve said before that I’ve nothing new to say about the crime the Bush administration perpetrated in Iraq. Other than the necessary repetition, few have. I take that back. My guest today on Barely a Blog is Tibor Machan, who has come up with this philosophically acute principle: “Believing something that’s unjustified to believe doesn’t count as a reason for acting on the belief.”
Machan is RC Hoiles Professor of business ethics & free enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
IRAQI WAR BLUES
By Tibor Machan
It is blues because it’s such a torment—to most Americans, to those who have died—and to a lot of families who have lost members—in this war, and to the supporters because they can’t advance a convincing reason to stay the course.
President George W. Bush may have wanted to hit Iraq even before 9/11 and his reason may well have been that he thought Saddam Hussein did hide some weapons of mass destruction. I have no idea whether Bush was honest but even if he was, it’s no excuse because believing that WMD were hidden in Iraq doesn’t appear to have been justified. Believing something that’s unjustified to believe doesn’t count as a reason for acting on the belief. Say you irrationally believe your spouse is cheating on you and so you decided to meet out punishment. It’s no excuse to say, “But I believed you were cheating on me— even if you did but in fact had no reason to.
Did Bush have good reasons, compelling ones, to think Iraq had WMD? There seems to be no support for this view anywhere now. So then attacking Iraq, while not anything most reasonable people could be too upset about so far as Saddam Hussein is concerned, doesn’t appear to have been justified.
How does this bear on the current debate as to whether the war in Iraq is “a war of choice”? Yes, this seems to be a big deal now—was the war necessary or did Bush decide to wage it as a matter of preference, something he didn’t need to do? Some—for example Republican pundit Morton Kondracke of weekend TV news program “The Beltway Boys”—think that since Bush believed there were WMD in Iraq, the war was not one of choice but of necessity. But this is the kind of justification I sketched above for punishing one’s spouse because one honestly but irrationally thinks one has been betrayed. Even if Bush honestly thought Iraq had WMD, if that belief was ill founded, as it evidently was, the war could be considered a war of choice. There was no objective necessity for it.
Mind you, most of Bush’s critics from among the liberal Democrats have no good case against him either. They haven’t ever objected to preemptive public policies that intrude on innocent people, let alone those under serious if mistaken suspicion. Just consider as a perfect current example how eagerly former VP Al Gore is urging his various precautionary measures—ones that would intrude on millions of us without any regard for civil liberties and due process—because he feels we face big risks from environmental hazards (global warming, climate change, what have you). Gore and his supporters, who complain about Bush’s preemptive war policies because they were preemptive, are hypocrites.
Only those who consistently uphold what we might dub the George Washington doctrine about getting America militarily entangled have a case against Bush & Co. These folks believe that free countries may only go to war when there is a justified and dependable belief that the country is under attack or about to be attacked. The emphasis here is on justified and dependable. Forcibly intervening in other people’s lives is only justifiable when these other people are mounting or about to mount an attack. A war is just, in other words, only when it is defensive.
George W. Bush’s war against Iraq was never defensive, not because he may not have believed the country needs defending from WMD, but because his and his administration’s beliefs about Iraq’s WMD were unjustified, ill founded. Nothing in the meantime, since the war commenced, has changed this fact. Not that there was nothing at all murky about Saddam Hussein and WMD. Yes there was, what with all that hide-and-seek involving the United Nations’ team of inspectors. But war is too big a deal, military, and indeed any other kind of aggression is too big a deal, to start in a murky situation.
Bush, of course, is no consistent follower of the George Washington doctrine. Nor are most of his liberal Democratic critics. So their quarrel about the war in Iraq is mostly incoherent. The only part that has some bona fide relevance concerns the issue of how long to keep American troops in Iraq now that the American military is there.