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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building

Noah Feldman

2 2006
Volume 12, Number 2


Volume 12, Number 2

How Long Must Iraq Hell Last?

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building. By Noah Feldman. Princeton University Press, 2006 [2004]. 160 pgs.

Noah Feldman is without doubt a person of great intelligence. Still in his thirties, he is already a professor at New York University Law School, and he moves with ease throughout the literature of economics, political theory, and law. He tells us that on his military flight to Iraq, where he was to serve as "constitutional adviser to the American occupation authorities", he was "hastily trying to teach myself some Iraqi colloquial dialect."(p.1) Elsewhere, Feldman has written learnedly about Islamic and Jewish philosophy. But he here attempts a task beyond his considerable powers.

Feldman endeavors to show that America has a moral duty to continue its military occupation of Iraq. He does not say that the war itself was a good idea. Quite the contrary, the very fact that American forces have made a mess of things leads to their obligations to the Iraqis. If America troops departed, Iraq would probably fall into chaos and civil war. To prevent this dire outcome, America must guide the Iraqis to democracy. Fortunately, duty and interest coincide. If America fulfills its duty to the Iraqis, its own interests will be enhanced. A stable, democratic Iraq will reduce the terrorist threat to our country.

Our author is right that past actions can generate new moral obligations. I ordinarily have no duty to pay for your medical expenses; but if I have sent you to the hospital through my reckless driving, then I am liable. But the "moral obligation" he conjures up worsens the bad situation it is supposed to ameliorate.

Wisely, Feldman does not maintain that the American invasion of Iraq was justified. In fact, he presents, though he does not fully endorse, one of the best brief arguments against the war that I have seen, though it rests on a contestable premise. As he sees matters, terrorism poses the greatest current threat to America. Hostile states can be deterred through the threat of overwhelming force directed against them: during the Cold War, the nuclear arsenals of the two main powers ensured that no major war would break out.

With terrorists, the situation is different. Lacking a fixed territorial base, terrorist organizations do not fear a military response. The American invasion, by destroying a stable (albeit repressive) state, added to the terrorist threat: "Although supporters of the Iraq war who also purported to care about the war on terror tried to assimilate the two by claiming that Saddam supported international terror, the evidence for this claim was slight, perhaps even slighter than the evidence for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. . . Invading Iraq in 2003, defeating and then disbanding the Iraqi army, created in Iraq a weak state---or maybe no state at all---in lieu of the strong one that had existed. The invasion and its aftermath thereby inaugurated a rich, new potential breeding environment for terror."(p.13)

Here libertarian readers will at once interpose an objection. Should we not welcome the demise of a strong state, rather than mourn its passing? The objection misfires. The point is not whether Saddam’s regime is better or worse then whatever has replaced it. The issue is, rather, whether it is wise for the United States forcibly to overthrow a government if doing so will decrease America’s security. Surely this question answers itself.

As I have already hinted, Feldman does not give this argument his full support. He ascribes the argument to "foreign-policy realists" and advances against it an objection. Strong states may themselves be breeding grounds for terror. Only a stable democratic government, or at any rate a regime that enjoys popular support, offers safe protection against terrorism. The repression attendant on a dictatorial system may generate terrorist resistance of its own. Feldman’s point may be granted, but it does not suffice to turn aside the argument of the foreign-policy realists. Terrorists who have as their target a repressive government will not threaten the United States unless they think America is responsible for the hated regime. By avoiding intervention into troubled areas, America can largely escape what Feldman believes to be the greatest threat that we now face.

The war may have been unwise, but America now controls Iraq. What are we to do? If we, repenting the unwisdom of the invasion, immediately departed the scene, chaos would ensue: "Removing [American] security guarantees would mean something that would closely approximate anarchy---a product let me [Feldman] remind you, of our own choice to invade. Such a state would be much worse than Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terror---but far more important, it would spell disaster for the lives of ordinary Iraqis, tens of thousands of whom could die in riots or civil war."(p.50) Since terrorists in these circumstances would be likely to blame America for their country’s plight, they might act against us. Our interest in preventing terrorist attacks thus coincides with our moral duty not to abandon the Iraqis to chaos and death.

Feldman fails to provide a convincing argument that American withdrawal would lead to this result. In the current situation, various rival Iraqi groups---Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, etc. must deal with one another. Why would this change if there were no American troops present? Feldman assumes that American forces are holding the lid on an otherwise likely explosion of violence. Why assume this? Why would not the relevant groups negotiate mutually acceptable arrangements to share power?

Feldman himself cites Part I of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (The book is dedicated to the memory of Nozick.) If no state exists, will not the leading groups in a territory found protection agencies to defend themselves? These agencies will negotiate among themselves to handle conflicts. Nothing guarantees a stable and peaceful outcome, but why assume that a civil war will ensue?

It is in just this Nozickian process of forming protection agencies that Feldman sees the danger. "Forming such mutual protection associations requires overcoming the costs of collective action---quite literally, figuring out who will be willing to join and can be trusted to pull his weight. Time is of the essence. The skies are darkening, and everyone else is running around trying to form mutual protection associations, too." (p.74)

Since people need to act fast, they will tend to form bonds with those they expect from past behavior to act in a loyal, cohesive fashion. "Brand-new identities are a bad bet, because it is hard to know in advance how much loyalty they will generate. That leaves so called ‘traditional’ identities, which may be local, familial, ethnic, or denominational." (p.74)

So far, Feldman’s argument seems entirely plausible, but trouble soon begins. "In the absence of an external power capable of maintaining the balance, the protection agencies may end up in a civil war. . .The reason they have a chance of killing each other is that the uncertainty of who will dominate whom is so high. The possibility of reconciliation and common entrance into a newly constituted democratic state remains; but that, too, requires overcoming the very high costs of coordination---and that will be the next task of the nation builder." (p.75)

The false step in Feldman’s argument lies in plain sight. Why does he assume that each protection agency aims to dominate all its rivals? No doubt each agency would prefer to rule the others; but if each agency faces powerful competitors, will not a modus vivendi among the groups suggest itself?  Why would a power-sharing arrangement require high costs of coordination? Feldman does not tell us, and it hardly follows from difficulty of achieving dominance that less one-sided outcomes are also hard to achieve.

Though Feldman admires Nozick, he has not fully come to grips with his thought. He does not take seriously the possibility of social order without a conventional state. The unsupported assumption behind his argument that American military presence is needed to avert an Iraqi civil war emerges even more clearly here: "If U.S. troops were to leave precipitately, the state could disintegrate, just as it did in April 2003, after the fall of the old regime. The reason would be the extraordinary costs of coordination that must be overcome to produce a functioning state with the capacity to enforce its dictates and laws . . . Once the state has gone, rebuilding it is a lengthy and costly process."(p.47) Why does the state have to be rebuilt? Why will not an agreement between the leading protection agencies suffice for social order?

Oddly, Feldman himself comes close to the essential point in once passage, but he does not connect it to his argument for continued American presence. He suggests that "no power association in the country could reasonably believe that it alone would be able to govern the country and dominate everybody else."(p.47) He cites with obvious approval John C. Calhoun on the need to limit "exclusive interests" from assuming total control in a contested polity. Why do Iraqis need American tutelage to act on what they already know?

Suppose, though, that Feldman is right; an immediate American withdrawal would likely lead to a civil war, with disastrous consequences for the Iraqis. Would we then have a good argument for continued American control? I do not think so. What if the Iraqis did not wish us to remain? Would they not have the right to bear the risks of independence, without American dominance? Feldman offers no evidence that the Iraqis want to be subjected to American rule, until such time as their imperial lords and masters deem them fit for self-rule.

Feldman once more anticipates our objection. He shows himself well aware of the dangers of imperialist paternalism. "Wilsonianism had its crack in nation building in the Middle East in general, and Iraq in particular---and that approach was a spectacular failure. . .But as every Iraqi schoolchild knows, the British-backed  monarchy did not turn out to be a successful democracy. . . Haven’t we been down this road before?" (pp.30-31)

Nevertheless, Feldman persists in his hopes for a benevolent American occupation force that will act to make Iraq safe for democracy. He cannot free himself from worship of the state. "There are worse things than totalitarianism", he tells us, "as we have learned in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone, and we must make sure that Iraq does not head further in the anarchic direction." (p.28) His faith in the state is touching, but the policy he favors will lead to the deaths of many more Iraqis and Americans. Haven’t we killed enough?


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