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Moral stakes of exiting Iraq

As the war debate increasingly turns to withdrawal, all sides cite moral obligations.

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Americans like to think of themselves as a moral people, a champion for good in the world. And so it comes as no surprise, in the blistering debate over the Iraq war, that all sides are invoking morality to buttress their position.

In his speech Monday urging Americans to stay the course in Iraq, Vice President Cheney invoked the "moral courage" of the nation to overcome the dangers that threaten civilization. Earlier, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, the one-time hawk and new darling of the antiwar movement, cited his moral obligation to speak for the troops in his stunning call for the rapid withdrawal of US forces.

Yet despite all the heated rhetoric and animosity among the different camps, there exists a common thread: a sense of responsibility over what conditions the US-led coalition leaves behind when its troops inevitably depart.

"What all of us can agree on here in the US is that we have an ethical obligation regarding the notion of doing more good than harm and not to leave before the society is restored to at least some kind of peace and order," says John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

The manner and pacing of a withdrawal can take many forms, he adds, "but it certainly does not mean simply leaving and allowing the low-grade civil war to erupt into a full-blown one."

The moral underpinnings of the start of the war also remain under hot debate, as war opponents and proponents verbally duke it out over how the Bush administration used prewar intelligence.

The inability of US forces to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has undercut the principal rationale for invading, as did the inability to prove that Iraq was a central player in supporting global terrorism, leaving war supporters to press the democracy argument: that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who had to be removed, allowing Iraq to become a laboratory for Middle Eastern-style democracy.

To some analysts, the evaporation of the chief justifications for war means that the war needs a fresh start, of sorts.

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