Can an Invasion of Iraq Be Justified Ethically?

David L. Perry, Ph.D.

Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 19 August 2002.

In recent months, the President and other members of his administration have openly declared their desire and intent to achieve "regime change" in Iraq. And since previous methods of ousting Saddam Hussein--economic sanctions and coups d'etat--have obviously failed, the President is seriously considering even more dramatic options, including full-scale military invasion. How should we evaluate that proposal? There are a number of important ethical questions that we must address before waging war:

1) Does the President have legitimate authority to invade Iraq?

Constitutionally the President is commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces, but Congress has the sole authority to declare war. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress granted the President extensive authority to punish their sponsors and prevent further attacks. That's why the Bush Administration has tried to tie the 9/11 protagonists to Iraqi intelligence agents: if Saddam Hussein could be shown to have supported the 9/11 plot, then Bush might justify invading Iraq under his existing congressional anti-terror mandate. But so far there's not enough evidence to indicate Iraqi sponsorship.

Presidents have some constitutional leeway in using limited military force when there isn't time to obtain congressional consent. But Iraq doesn't seem to pose an imminent threat to the U.S. (or any other country, for that matter), so the President can't credibly claim that there isn't enough time for him to consult legislators before invading. Many members of Congress have in fact demanded that the President obtain their explicit consent for an invasion of Iraq. Even Republican congressman Dick Armey has warned against an "unprovoked" U.S. attack that would "violate international law" and undermine support for broader U.S. goals.

But if Congress were to bless a Bush invasion, there are wider concerns about its legitimacy in the minds of Iraq's neighbors and U.S. allies. Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vehemently opposed it, apparently fearing the chaos that might ensue from a power vacuum in Baghdad. Invasion is not much more popular in Europe, either. The U.S. garnered strong international support for its military responses to Iraq in 1990-1991 and against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan post-9/11. But it risks widespread international condemnation now if it invades Iraq without explicit approval from the UN Security Council.

2) Is there a sufficiently weighty moral reason ("just cause") to invade?

The primary concern about Iraq today is its possession, development and proliferation of "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). Saddam Hussein has used chemical weapons against Iranian troops and his own Kurdish population, and has threatened to use them against Israel. He also possesses biological weapons, and is actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons. He was obligated under the 1991 agreement ending the Gulf War to permit UN inspections and to dismantle all WMD. But he defied the inspectors for years, and since 1998 has refused to allow them to enter the country.

Another major worry is Iraq's sponsorship and training of terrorists. Of course, other countries like Syria and Iran do that as well, yet they haven't been the object of U.S. invasion threats. But the prospect of Saddam Hussein arming terrorists with WMD puts him in another league entirely. He must be stopped.

3) Given the destruction that an invasion could produce, are its means morally proportionate to its objectives? Or is there an option better than war?

Since the Gulf War, the U.S. has substantially improved the accuracy of its "smart" weapons as well as the coordination of those weapons with spotters on the ground. In theory this ought to reduce significantly the number of innocent Iraqi civilians who would be killed or maimed in a U.S. invasion, though it's also contingent on the quality of intelligence our troops obtain about what is and is not a military target. (In Afghanistan, that intelligence has sometimes been tragically flawed.)

Iraq's military forces, though sizeable, are considerably diminished and fragmented from their peak strength in 1980-1990. Western military experts have little doubt that Iraq would lose in a major military confrontation with the U.S. today. However, Saddam Hussein apparently learned from the Gulf War not to expose his troops and equipment to destruction in the open desert, and has announced plans to concentrate his defenses on Iraq's major cities. He anticipates that urban warfare will allow him to inflict great losses among U.S. troops, as well as generate outrage against the U.S. from the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The human cost of a battle for Baghdad could well be extensive, and would inflame millions of Arabs and Muslims if film of Iraqi civilian casualties were to air on satellite TV (as it surely would). This would also throw an enormous wrench into the beleaguered effort to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine, and possibly induce further terrorist attacks against the U.S. by Muslim fundamentalists.

Moreover, although Saddam Hussein has not actively sought martyrdom, in the event that he came to believe that he was about to be killed in battle, he might begin using missiles or artillery shells tipped with chemical or even biological weapons, thinking that he had little more to lose. Thus an invasion might end up producing the very outcome that it was intended to prevent, the Iraqi use of WMD.

At the other end of the spectrum of U.S. options, it seems clear that continuing the status quo of sanctions and no-fly zones will not persuade Saddam Hussein to dismantle his WMD programs, let alone to step down and permit free elections! Although the present policy has successfully contained some of his ambitions, the sanctions pose real hardships on the Iraqi people. On the other hand, unilaterally ending the sanctions would simply reward his intransigence and enable him to escalate his military buildup.

But perhaps there is better option than the present standoff or the proposed invasion.

As previously mentioned, Iraq has refused since 1998 to allow UN officials to inspect its WMD facilities, even though it is obligated to do so under the 1991 armistice. However, the U.S. could begin again to insert WMD inspectors into Iraq, but this time with enough military support (rapid-deployment troops, attack helicopters, high-level fighter-bomber escorts) to deter the Iraqis from molesting them. Saddam Hussein would only be able to resist those inspections by attacking U.S. forces, which would risk all-out war. UN inspectors would have the clout to go wherever needed to destroy Iraq's WMD facilities and materials.

This option--with limited objectives and short of full-scale invasion--would permit the Iraqi people to avoid being victimized again by war. The downside is that Iraq may remain mired in dictatorship for many more years unless its people can succeed in deposing Saddam Hussein themselves, which is sadly an unlikely prospect given the strength of his security apparatus.

This brings us back to the invasion option. If Saddam Hussein's forces could be completely defeated with few losses in civilian lives--a big "if"--then Iraq would be in a position for the first time in many decades to achieve political democratization, respect for civil liberties, and sustained economic prosperity. Iraq's people might well consider those goals worth the price of being invaded.

David Perry teaches Ethics and Warfare at Santa Clara University.