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What America owes the Iraqis

Offering sanctuary is a good start.

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Americans, wrote Robert Kagan and William Kristol in September 2004, "have a profound moral obligation to the Iraqi people." In this one instance, the two well-known neoconservatives got it exactly right. Today we confront the question of how best to acquit that obligation.

For the war's supporters, even as their numbers dwindle, the answer remains self-evident: our moral obligation requires us to persevere until peace is restored and justice guaranteed for all Iraqis. To withdraw prematurely would be tantamount to betrayal. Morally speaking, we have no alternative but to persist. For those keen to stay the course in Iraq, moral reasoning and policy preferences neatly coincide.

For the war's opponents, the issue is more complicated. Those complications include a growing awareness that however great the US responsibility for the situation in Iraq, that responsibility is not one that Americans collectively are shouldering. Instead, "we" have off-loaded our responsibility onto the backs of a relative handful of US troops, many currently serving their second or third combat tour.

While a few bear the burden of the nation's horrific moral obligation, the many carry on as if the Iraq war did not exist. Day by day, as the fighting drags on, "we" are accruing an ever-increasing moral debt not only to the Iraqis whose lives we have upended but also to the soldiers acting as our agents in this enterprise.

How, if at all, can the US discharge its obligations not only to the people of Iraq but to our own soldiers as well?

For the war's supporters, confident that that the "surge" is working, the answer is clear: fight on, winning the victory that Iraqis and the troops both deserve.

For those opposing the war, it's not so easy. However much they may want out of Iraq, few are willing simply to disregard the moral quagmire into which the nation has waded. Leaving Iraqis in the lurch certainly qualifies as problematic. Yet for those who see the war as wrong or ill-advised or merely lost, continuing to send American soldiers to fight and die in such a cause is equally untenable.

A morally acceptable approach to closing down the war will resolve this conundrum, ending the conflict in a way that keeps faith with ordinary Iraqis and with our own troops. In short, the war's opponents must align their moral concerns, which are complex, with their seemingly straightforward policy prescription.


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