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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What Do We Owe the Iraqis?


Event Recap

The Boisi Center marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq with a major panel discussion on March 18 about what obligations—if any—Americans now have to the Iraqi people.

Leading off the panel was distinguished just war theorist Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Secretary of Social Services in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Hehir began with a vigorous claim that because the United States chose to invade Iraq, rather than being forced by necessity to do so, it created for itself a number of moral and legal obligations. He surveyed various perspectives on how we could best discharge those duties (staying for the long term, leaving immediately, reducing our military presence, etc.), and closed with several general recommendations. American military presence should continue, he argued, only as long as it takes to raise an international force to replace it; we are responsible for maintaining a basic level of security for the Iraqi people in the meantime. Hehir also noted that the U.S. cannot effectively run both security and rebuilding efforts at the same time, so we should continue to fund the rebuilding effort but allow others to direct and manage it.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor of history and international relations at Boston University, followed Hehir with an argument from the realist tradition. Bacevich said the U.S. government properly has obligations only to its own citizens, not the Iraqi people as such. The American president’s moral obligations\ in this context are thus simple: if our involvement in Iraq benefits Americans, we should stay; it if does not, we should leave. Because this war has been “a disaster”—it was unnecessary and misguided from the outset, he argued— that has cost Americans dearly, the president is morally obliged to end the American military presence in Iraq. Bacevich noted that the U.S. does, however, have moral obligations to individual Iraqis directly harmed by the invasion and occupation. To acquit ourselves of these responsibilities, the U.S. should bear the cost of refugee camps that now shelter, feed, and provide medical care for thousands of displaced Iraqis in Jordan and Syria; it should admit large numbers of Iraqi refugees into the U.S.; and it should continue to fund the reconstruction of Iraqi schools, roads, hospitals and other infrastructure. However, Bacevich ended his remarks by saying he doubts these obligations to individual Iraqis will ever be met.

The final panelist was Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J., a member of the Boston College philosophy department. McNellis noted that the current American military presence in Iraq is in many ways a continuation of the first Gulf War. The fact that Saddam Hussein failed to abide by the terms of his 1991 surrender led to a dozen years of ineffectual UN sanctions and ultimately supplied the just cause for our current military operations. But more importantly, said McNellis, in failing to support the attempted Iraqi coup that President George H.W. Bush had personally encouraged, the U.S. directly contributed to the deaths of many thousands of Iraqis killed by Saddam in retribution. Our moral obligation to the Iraqi people derives from this failure to come to their aid, he argued, and the present military engagement must remain long enough to establish conditions of justice there. If we do not do it now, despite the many challenges and the unfortunate (though temporary) loss of Iraqi sovereignty, the results will be catastrophic for Iraq and the entire region.

After these thought-provoking opening remarks, Alan Wolfe moderated a robust discussion among the students and faculty who packed the lecture hall.