The Ethics of the American Invasion of Iraq
The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 is certainly one of the more controversial foreign policy initiatives of the 21st century.The general facts surrounding this event are clear: on the 20th day of May 2003, the United States, with support from Great Britain and a host of other western nations, invaded Iraq in response to intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction.Up until May 1, 2003, these forces fought to successfully topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and to usher in a new era for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi nation.
However, these facts were not the main source of tension that this military imperative created; instead, the ethical implications behind the invasion and the debates concerning the reasons for entering the war are what have sparked protest, of which most notably has been the record-breaking anti-war rally in Rome one month before the invasion.
Unfortunately the debate is too often discussed in terms of consequences alone.
On one side the pro-war supporters have cited the need to protect America from further attacks, to stave off nuclear holocaust and to remove a maniacal dictator from power, while on the other side anti-war protesters have argued that the invasion costs far too many innocent American as well as Iraqi lives. Of course, in our ethical discourse we cannot ignore consequences, but along with consequences we must also consider principles. Therefore, in this essay, I will look at the ethics of the American invasion of Iraq through the lens of Kantian ethics.
I will begin with a discussion of Kant’s theory and move from this to argue against the invasion based on Kant’s first maxim of the categorical imperative. Kant’s ethical theory is deontological in that it does not focus primarily on consequences, but first and foremost on principles. These principles he forms from practical human reason and the moral principle that he names the categorical imperative. In its two forms this imperative offers a universal ethic that all rational human beings in all ages and from all cultural backgrounds should be able to recognize.
The first maxim deals with the universalizing of human behaviour: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law” (Kant,  1948, p. 421). The purpose of this maxim is simple in that it forces the moral agent to take his or her actions as implying a universal code. For example, if a moral agent is considering telling a lie because it will prove beneficial to him or her in that situation, he or she must consider that if all other moral agents told lies in the same situations then any society based on a basic level of trust and truth would inevitably collapse.
One person’s ethic universalized would destroy an entire social structure. In other words, Kant challenges the ethical person not to make an exception of him or herself. The second maxim deals with the way in which other human beings are to relate to other human beings. Kant states, “treat humanity…never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an ends” (Kant,  1948, p. 429). People should always be treated as the final goal of our moral actions and not merely the way in which we realize other personal agendas.
Although both of these maxims may lend important ethical insights to a discussion on the invasion in Iraq, the first maxim offers a far more concrete model in which to discuss the invasion and therefore we apply it alone. There are many criticisms against the invasion into Iraq, but I will focus on three specific criticisms: insufficient evidence for the invasion, going beyond the United Nations, and the use of military force over diplomacy. Firstly, as admitted by the C. I. A in 2005 and verified by the invasion itself, the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a weak—or even false—reason for going to war.
It seems, therefore, that the U. S. was simply taking far too drastic steps without proper research. If we were to universalize this practice, the world would be faced with a terrible increase in violence and war. Not only would enemies attack one another on good suspicions, but even allies would be lead to attack one another based on the weak suspicion that each country may have bad intentions toward the other. This type of global policy is not acceptable for a single nation, and this is made perfectly clear in the fact that it cannot be responsibly universalized.
Secondly, the U. S. went above the recommendations of the U. N. and acted out of line with the U. N. ’s policy. In this respect, according to the definition of Kofi Annan and the U. N. Security Council, the invasion of Iraq was technically illegal. If we again apply Kant’s universalizing maxim to the U. S. ’s behavior we have another strong criticism of the invasion. The U. N. was expressly created by the consent of most of the countries of the world as a sovereign power that would be allowed to resolved global conflict between nations.
As Thomas Hobbes points out in his Leviathan, any individual or group that submits to a sovereign has the responsibility to accept the judgments of that power. The U. S. , in its flagrant disregard of the U. N. ’s policy, clearly did not respect the power of the sovereign and in this way set a dangerous precedent for unilateral military action. If the entire world were to universalize this ethic there would remain no authority in the world and all nations would return to the brutal Hobbesian state of nature. Lastly, the U. S.
’s decision to invade made a clear statement that military action is preferable to the diplomatic option. For any civilized society, war must always be the last option, if it is to be used at all. Many supporters of the invasion may claim that the Bush administration had no other option, but it is clear that the administration did not do nearly as much diplomacy as it could have. Other nations should have been included in the process and negotiations should have been more controlled within the influence of the U. N. If we universalize the U. S.
’s action to go to war before pushing for diplomacy, the diplomatic option in the world would collapse. In this sense, there would be little hope of peaceful solutions to inter-national conflicts, but instead a future of pre-empted strikes and quick invasions. If this would indeed become the case, the world would need far more than Kantian ethics to save it from its inevitable decline. References Hobbes, Thomas (2006). Leviathan. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated. Kant, Immanuel (1948). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (H. J. Paton, Trans. ). London: Hutchinson.
(Original work published 1785, and published in a collection in 1903; page references to this edition). Kant, Immanuel (1836). The Metaphysics of Ethics. (John William Semple, Trans. ). Edinburgh: Thomas Clark. (Original work published 1785). Paton, Herbert James. (1971). The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant’s Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Ross, Dennis. (2008). Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Steel, Jonathan. (2008). Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq. Berkeley: Counterpoint.