Monday, May 30, 2005
NYU law professor Noah Feldman has an excellent and provocative review, in the current issue of The New Republic, of two recent books on torture and Abu Ghraib. For me, Feldman's arguments about the importance of "American moral example" to the effort to bring democracy to the Middle East are particularly important because he is not (and was not) a Dean-esque war opponent, nor does he regard the democratization project as a disingenous or imperialistic ploy. (See his "What We Owe Iraq" (Princeton 2004) and "After Jihad" (2003)).
In his review, Feldman explores the "norm of international law" that "all sides are reciprocally obligated to treat prisoners of war and civilians under occupation humanely," the process and arguments by which lawyers in the Administration came to the conclusion (which Feldman does not endorse) that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the possible connections between this process and these arguments, on the one hand, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, on the other, and -- most important -- the inescapably moral content of the case for the reciprocity principle, and the rule of law in the context of war. He concludes:
This harm cannot be undone, and it is part of a broader set of harms that are still happening to Iraqis as a result of the way the United States has conducted its invasion and its occupation. We Americans are under a heavy duty to put an end to those harms by producing security in Iraq so that the democratically elected government can actually govern. The clock is ticking. The benefit to Iraqis of a stable government and freedom from Saddam's yoke will be very great, but it cannot outweigh every possible burden that they could ultimately suffer. The more Iraqis die, the longer insecurity reigns, the harder it will become to justify the invasion on the ground that it left the Iraqi people substantially better off than they would have been under Saddam.
It is a painful if occasionally obscure truth that the rightness or wrongness of our actions is sometimes decided by their consequences. That is why Aristotle raised the possibility that one could not judge a man entirely happy while he still lived: his children's fate would bear on how well he had constructed his life. We do not yet know whether the removal of Saddam--not generally, but in the way it concretely occurred--will have been justified. But we need not sit idly by and watch to see how it comes out. We are under a continuing and heavy duty to try to get things right--by following the rules that we have set, providing security and stability where little now exists, and treating others the way we wish to be treated ourselves. Those who believe that democracy can be established by American force in the absence of American moral example are deluding themselves, and Iraq, and us.