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August 21, 2007

The Trouble with Moral Clarity

So I'll be the 38th blogger to weigh in on Brian Baird's "change of heart" concerning Iraq.  Since voting for a bill containing a timetable for troop withdrawal, he's visited Iraq and decided he can no longer support such an idea.  Truth be told, of course, his heart didn't have to go far; he was reluctant to vote for the withdrawal amendment in the first place.  He didn't like it, and after visiting Iraq and seeing the changes (progress?  I don't know) brought about in the situation after the "surge", decided he just couldn't do it again.  Baird's view on things?

"We have a moral responsibility to try to help these people whose lives we have impacted."


"It seems to me the threat of withdrawal is not such a clean instrument and may be counter-productive."

Something of a "we broke it, we bought it" view, one I've argued against, but not entirely unreasonable.  It's important to remember that Baird voted against the war in Iraq and would do so again today, but his view is that we have to deal with the situation as it is right now.  The interesting part of what he says, though, is his suggestion that we have a moral responsibility to the people of Iraq.

Much is made about moral responsibility regarding Iraq - many on the left view it as a moral imperative that we get out of Iraq immediately or as close to it as possible, while many on the right view it as equally morally necessary that we stay and "finish the job".  Both see themselves having moral clarity and the other side lacking moral standing altogether.  But is that true? 

Where do we all stand on Iraq?  All rhetoric aside, are the bulk of people that far apart?  Is Brian Baird that far out of touch with morality, with his constituents, with Americans?  Are we?  I think if you strip away the rhetoric, you'll find that, aside from cranks on both sides who advocate extreme solutions, right and left aren't arguing over goals as much as methods, and while that's a heated discussion, ultimately the morality of the discussion is inherently vague. 

  • A moral case can be made that we have brought physical, emotional and financial ruin on Iraq, and must correct this abhorrent situation before we move ourselves out of their world (let's call this the Baird imperative for today).
  • Another moral case can be made that we have brought physical, emotional and financial ruin on Iraq, and must correct this by moving ourselves out of their world (let's call this the...Postman imperative, for lack of a better term).
  • A case can be made that there are horrible people in Iraq just waiting to pounce, first on Iraqis, then on us, as soon as we leave, and therefore we must stay and pacify them (Lieberman imperative).
  • A case can be made that there are horrible people doing horrible things in Iraq and we have to leave quickly so the Iraqis can roust these troublemakers out on their own (I'll call this the Shue imperative, although it doesn't map directly to Mr. Shue's own stance.  His vocal advocacy deserves its own imperative).
  • And a case can be made, popularly in our own Northwest, that we have a moral need to get our own children, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, out of Iraq and prevent further loss of American life (we'll call this the Sheehan imperative).

These are, of course, simplified and do not include variants and combinations, but I think this is a good outline of the root mainstream belief structures about Iraq in American discourse today.  I do not include end-of-the-spectrum ideas intentionally. 

Each of these cases has polls, proof points, Iraqi and American voices, troops on the ground, and logical strength behind them.  Each has moral weight, and each provides its own moral clarity.  The nature of such things is such that there exists a ready-made blockage to any other idea.  I see a moral issue. I have moral clarity on that issue.  If you disagree on any point, you are wrong, and therefore immoral.  There is no need to debate an immoral person.  And that, my soon to be leaving angry comments readers, is the trouble with moral clarity.

We cannot change Baird's mind, nor he ours, for each stands in moral opposition despite each wanting to get our troops out and see a stable, safe, self-governing Iraq.  Many will, I'm sure, condemn his moral failure and support of the Bush ideas for Iraq (indeed, at the Slog, a commenter has already pondered where Baird intends to find "more people to sign up to be Darth Cheney's Imperial Stormtroopers", as though this were Baird's hope or plan). War supporters will trumpet Baird's moral conversion and the imminent collapse of Democratic unity on the issue.  But what will not happen, in the house down the street or any Congressional meeting room, is a meeting to discuss what can and should really be done. 

Originally, the argument on Iraq was "Go or Don't Go".  It became "Stay or Leave", and now that "Stay" has lost, the argument should be "When do we Leave".  Unfortunately, moral clarity has intruded, and we waste time claiming that Baird wants permanent occupation, or Kucinich wants to abandon our troops, or someone else wants to abandon Iraqis...all nonsense, all ultimately irrelevant, and all distracting from any possible solution. 

We must drop this moral clarity and seek answers.  Moral clarity has led too many politicians to find the answers they've wanted - Republicans (and Joe L) visit Iraq and find progress, troops who embrace the mission, high morale, while Democrats visit Iraq and find chaos, death, danger and troops lost in hopelessness.  Pre-screened audiences and carefully designed routes provide cover.  But why are we lost in these one-answer mazes?  Why do we spend tax dollars on these Iraqi campaign ads?  Would it not be more fruitful to bring John Murtha and Brian Baird and Lieberman and John Thune together in Iraq to meet with all manner of troops?  To simply listen to their feedback?  To meet with Iraqis in secure neighborhoods, as well as those not secure?  Sunnis and Shias? 

But this won't happen, because we've lost our way.  We're blinded by our moral clarity, unable to seek further answers or ask better questions, and in the chokehold of the madmen in charge, run by their own moral clarity which drags us all down with them.  I'm sick of moral clarity.  I want questions and doubt.  We don't know what will happen when we leave Iraq; we don't know if we're better off staying or leaving.  We don't know if it's making us safer or not.  And we can't admit we don't know because we no longer doubt, we no longer question, and we no longer talk. 

I disagree with Brian Baird, based on what knowledge and understanding of the situation I have.  But I have to listen to him because I don't know the answer.  Until our leaders - Republican and Democrat - take that one small step back and decide that they don't know the answer, they'll just keep asking the wrong questions, and these short-term Congressional battles will continue to resolve nothing, letting the very real war continue with lethal results and no way out.  Our moral clarity is creating a moral vacuum around Iraq, and in the end may be the biggest moral failure of all.

Posted by switzerblog on August 21, 2007 at 04:06 PM in Iraq | Permalink


Great post, Switzer. You've delved into the jungle where things are not always clear.

I don't have a problem with Baird's sense of morality about our responsibility to the Iraqi people. I simply see a different result when the same set of precepts is applied, ie. the "we broke it, we have to fix it" theory. As I commented on Postman's blog, I respect Baird's right to his viewpoint. My problem with his recent turnaround is that he claims to now fully trust the reports he's getting from the Bush administration -- that
sends up a red flag for me. I have to question how he can possibly trust anything coming out of this administration when all evidence points to it being the most dishonest, secretive and corrupt administration we've seen in our lifetimes. ESPECIALLY when it comes to Iraq. I think Baird owes us an explanation on this point. As we wind out of the August recess (where Bush is continuing his underhanded tactics of squeezing through rules while he thinks no one is looking) and head into *the magical month of September* when Petraeus will do his puppet show in support of the report written, not by him as promised but, by the White House itself, we should be asking Baird some questions about his trust of the Bushies and his certainty that the "surge" is working.

He doesn't get a free pass on this one from me.

Posted by: shoephone | Aug 21, 2007 7:24:37 PM

thanks, shoephone! I noticed his trust in the Administration's reports, and that annoys me as well. I decided not to mention it just because it's a bit of a sideline to the post. No doubt, Baird doesn't deserve a free pass (not least because, according to him, this really isn't much of a turnaround).

Posted by: switzerblog | Aug 21, 2007 9:55:35 PM

I would agree Switzer with much of the content in your post and appreciate your calm tone.
My opinion is that the Bush admin has intentionally created what they hope is a low point in the conflict and they have in part done so by playing straight with the facts for a short period of time. With the surge in full swing, things I expect are a little better. As one rushes up I-5 and sees three cars pulled over does one not slow down for a few miles? Still, we cannot have a detachment on every corner or saturate every area indefinitely, so even Brian must understand that things as they are, are only temporary. And when things do erode the administration will only step up the lies in order to prop up public perception.
I think what we will see between now and the election is the Bush admin doing everything it can to prop things up and I expect the militants in Iraq will attempt an Iran/Carter like climate as the election nears.
If this speculation is even close, where does it leave Brian? Well, I think he has a sound moral basis for his position and like you, I do not agree with the choice he seams to have made. Still, I am torn between wanting this thing over with All of our military home or redeployed and the fact that we can no longer effect a total pull out prior to the election and allow enough time for the factions living in Iraq to settle out. As a result, I feel a move toward total pull out well under way by the election will only deliver the election to another neocon who will only move us back in as we suffer through the hard images of the mess we have created.

This said, I think the next elected president if a D and even perhaps if an R will begin our pull out immediately and will do so with the help of time before the next election and a greatly renewed international cooperation and respect. As little as we may like it, politics is a factor and getting out such that we have a chance to see some healing and stability over there will take some time. And when the time comes for real action under new leadership, we will be better off with Brian Baird that the likes of Linda Smith who used to represent his district.

Posted by: Particle Man | Aug 22, 2007 10:45:02 AM

So true, Switzerblog.

Posted by: Noemie Maxwell | Aug 23, 2007 3:00:06 PM

I'm in his district, and he's a very likable guy with very reasonable policies on most domestic issues, but I can't abide his stance on this issue. You may know that this is his normal position; he was prevailed upon to vote for withdrawal deadlines last Spring, presumably by party pressure.

Upshot is that I will be trying to find a progressive opponent for him in the primary. There will likely be only the one issue, and, as you say, we have to allow him the possibility that his stance is genuine. So it should be a relatively calm campaign.

Posted by: paul spencer | Aug 23, 2007 8:58:31 PM

No, both sides are not equally at fault, and no, this isn't a complicated moral situation. The Iraqis want us gone because we keep killing them. We need to stop that because murder and occupation is wrong. Republican officials, and yes, Brian Baird, are bad people who want us to keep killing them. It's really that simple.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Aug 23, 2007 11:42:20 PM

I agree with Matt. There are no equal division of blame here. This war is a GOP-manufactured humanity blender on frappe'. Any reasonable person would -should- be dead set against it and doing anything and everything to get our people out of there.

Giving Baird cover because he's a nice guy won't fly any more. That's the kind of crap people have said about Bush, Limbaugh and Rove.

"But, in person, they're so likable."

Baird betrayed us. Betrayal. As in stab in the back. We should be working to get rid of him with the same fervor that we're showing against Deputy Dawg Reichert.

Nice guy? I could care less if he were Mother Theresa's little brother. As a Democrat he should be working his ass off to bring our troops home NOW!

If he's so nice, let him get a job as a school crossing guard. As a congressman, he's just another apologist for Bush.

Posted by: David Aquarius | Aug 24, 2007 1:41:54 AM

I disagree with Baird, but I appreciate that this post appreciates the complexities of the issue.

I was against the war before it happened, and have favored immediate withdrawal ever since. That said, we do have a responsibility to make things better where we can. Unlike Baird, I don't think delaying a military withdrawal helps. Iraq does not need any more military "solutions." What's needed are political solutions, which can occur while we engage in a phased military withdrawal and thereafter. There is no political leverage gained by having our troops in Iraq, so there's no reason to keep them there.

The Postman imperative realizes the need to withdraw militarily, but ignores the fact that we can do positive things to affect the political solution. My "Cascadian imperative" would merge the two views: we must do something, but it must be entirely political. This is also consistent with the Sheehan imperative that wants to protect American troops. So those three views can be synthesized by advocating a political solution without a military component.

The Lieberman imperative acknowledges that bad people are ready to pounce, which is true, but it ignores that those bad people are in a position to pounce because of our policy, that many of them are already pouncing, and that whenever we leave, they'll pounce. Dealing with them means finding a political solution within Iraq and the region. Part of that solution is the Shue imperative: without our military in the way, there are fewer distractions to keep Iraqis from taking out the small number of foreign fighters and terrorists. However, thanks to ethnic and political divisions within Iraq, it's likely that score-settling will not be limited to attacking foreign fighters and terrorists, but will extend to a further explosion in intercommunal violence. Which again, brings us back to the need for a political solution.

So what's the political solution? We need to limit the possibility for violence between different groups of Iraqis. We need to keep the greater region from entering a larger war as other regional powers fight over the power vaccum in Iraq. We need to rebuild the damage caused to Iraq over nearly three decades of war and sanctions. Finally, we need political stability so that these other goals can be achieved.

What do we not need? US military bases. Corporate profiteering during the rebuilding. Non-Iraqi control of oil resources. A division of Iraq that encourages further ethnic violence. A military build-up in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the region in a misguided attempt to either gain US advantage or create a balance of military terror.

So this suggests a course of action:

1. An immediate, phased withdrawal of US troops and a dismantling of all US military bases including the so-called "embassies."
2. US backing for a regional peace conference organized by the UN and designed to balance the interests of Iraq and its neighbors to prevent a wider war. No topic should be off-limits, including nuclear weapons, the Palestinian question, the rights of minorities, and regional resource issues around oil and water.
3. An end to profiteering by foreign corporations, replaced by a UN-monitored, Iraqi-controlled reconstruction financed by the United States.
4. Iraqi control of its oil resources, with the US backing off from making suggestions about what that looks like.
5. Iraqi federalism at the provincial, not ethnic level. For this to work, there probably has to be sharing of oil revenue at the central level, the provinces, and to individual Iraqis. The hard part is backing federalism without the US telling the Iraqis what to do with its oil or government. This is probably a good role for the UN to take in consultation with the Iraqi government and its neighbors. The idea is to give every Iraqi a stake in the country's stability at the individual, regional, and national level.

The guy I'd want to see lead the US effort on the peace talks is Bill Richardson, as the next Secretary of State.

Posted by: Cascadian | Aug 24, 2007 1:20:52 PM

Baird's position seems to be moral and we should fix it the problem we created. However the position meets the check point of reality in the very practical problem that we can't fix it. To do the job, we would have to put in at least a million well trained, arabic speaking troops and almost the same number of honest doctors engineers water quality specialist and an honest administration and we have neither the wherewithall or the will to do such a thing, given that even such a huge committment would face overwhelming odds in creating a peaceful Iraq. So until Baird comes up with a realistic scheme to creat a peoceful Iraq, his morality is checked by practicality.

Posted by: rainstan | Aug 24, 2007 8:31:22 PM

rainstan, nice points - I didn't delve into some of the 'reality-based' issues, but you're exactly right. One of the reasons I also disagree with Baird is that I don't see a military solution. It seems to just be piling pain on pain.

And to Matt Stoller, I do not suggest both sides are equally at fault. What I do suggest is wrong is an inability to hear any solutions other than our own (no matter what side we're coming from) because we've decided it's a simple situation. I disagree with you wholeheartedly about it being simple. There is nothing simple about this. The question to be answered is, which terrible decision is the right one. If we leave and the feared slaughter truly begins, making the current problems pale in comparison, will we have done the right thing? You and I certainly want the same thing (withdrawal), but I don't see a black and white "right" answer. Goodness and light will not be visited upon us nor the Iraqis by our departure, nor by our staying. To suggest there is an easy or simple answer is just as wrongheaded and dangerous as anything rabid war supporters would foist on us.

Posted by: switzerblog | Aug 24, 2007 8:55:08 PM

Cascadian, I like your Cascadian imperative. I think some have assumed I side with Baird by writing this post, but my goal was really to produce some deeper thinking like yours. Thanks for sharing a thoughtful perspective.

Posted by: switzerblog | Aug 24, 2007 9:25:08 PM

What makes Baird's position so hard to gag down is his previous position. He voted against the war. At a townhall meeting last January, without any prompting, he said he was for defunding. That he now is against any kind of timeline doesn't make sense. There has to be some sinister back story here.

Posted by: artisan | Aug 24, 2007 10:43:51 PM

Is Baird ready to start a draft? Actually, if his position was that we need to help Iraq no matter what the cost, he would have been in favor of it three years ago, when we needed to raise the half-million man army experts feel is necessary to pacify the place. Even then, are we really helping, or just putting a lid on the place, like Tito did in Yugoslavia?

I felt the way Baird does, and still do. The difference is that I don't see any way we can help with the military we now have. I'm also not sure that, at this point, there is any solution at all that can be implemented by the military. There is certainly none that can be implemented by them alone, and I don't see any other force or agency that can help under the current circumstances. Not a single expert on the Middle East, and not a single government employee, has come up with a plausible-sounding plan for Iraq that involves us. That's why I think it's time to get out. We have become the bad guys there, and as long as we are the bad guys, our opinions and guidance mean nothing. Without the ability to persuade, we're left with only force as an option, and I don't think many Americans want to go there. We've already done the destroying the village in order to save it thing, thank you very much.

I disagree profoundly that moral clarity isn't useful. We could have used more moral clarity when we caused this mess in the first place, for instance. Unfortunately, morality needs to be employed in the service of a useful course of action. There don't appear to be any in Iraq that involve our military. If the situation in Iraq is going to be sorted out, it looks like Iraqis will have to do that themselves.

Posted by: Cujo359 | Aug 25, 2007 11:34:54 AM

My earlier comments were a bit angry, a tad shrill and thus, were inconsequential.
The war belongs to the Democrats. It's a going away present from Bush, Rove and Cheney. It's Bush's bastard child and he's perfectly willing (and able) to abandon it on our doorstep. I think this is a given. There's very little we can do to end this war before we give Bush the heave-ho in Jan. 2009.
Perhaps, if spines start to grow like weeds in Congress, there may be some draw down of troops, but I don't see that happening before the election.
I've read everything folks have written here and agree with much of it. But what I can't forgive Baird for is, not only participating in the administration's Dog and Pony Show in Iraq, but coming back a convert. Maybe we should have warned him not to drink anything offered by a Bush official. (the vessel with the pestle is the brew that is true!)
That's why I reacted the way I did and why I said those things. Getting us out of Iraq is going to be painful, expensive, shameful, and the only option this country has.
The GOP doesn't want us out. Al Qaida doesn't want us out. The worthless Iraqi government, the Taliban, the Neo-cons, all want us to stay in Iraq for many more years.
Why should we listen to these people?

Posted by: David Aquarius | Aug 26, 2007 5:48:57 PM

David, I meant to reply to your earlier comments, but no worries. If people didn't have passion, we really wouldn't get anywhere at all. I expected some anger, given the subject matter and my approach to it. As long as there's some dialogue happening (and I'm glad it started), it's "mission accomplished" as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: switzerblog | Aug 27, 2007 11:21:34 AM

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