PERFIDY: William Saletan argues we didn’t screw over the Shi’a in 1991. Why? Because the UN resolutions, notably 661, that set the objectives for the war, set limited objectives and did not authorize intervention into internal Iraqi politics. For Saletin, this somehow translated into an explicit promise to allow Saddam to kill Shia if he pleased after the war:

In view of that understanding, Bush had no business promising to send troops into Iraq to assist a Shiite uprising. And in fact, he didn’t. Three weeks into the war, Bush observed, “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and then comply with the United Nations resolutions.” That was a fact and a suggestion, no less true or wise than an equivalent remark about the Cuban or Serbian people. But it wasn’t a promise. We couldn’t promise the Shiites we would enter Iraq, since we had already promised our coalition partners we wouldn’t.

We made a deal. The deal was to limit the mission. Without that deal, we wouldn’t have gotten U.N. support or possibly even an adjacent staging ground. You can’t praise Bush in one breath for assembling that coalition and fault him in the next for not “going to Baghdad.” You can’t accuse the United States of treachery for staying out of the 1991 uprisings. And you can’t say we’d have more credibility now if we’d gone in then.

Credibility doesn’t come from doing what seems, on second thought, a nobler thing. It comes from doing what you said you’d do. Last time, we said we’d stop at the Iraqi border, and we did. This time, we said we’d finish off Saddam, and we will. Believe it.

Well, the last sentence is correct. But the rest of the logic is just, well, strained.

Clearly, in context of a war against Saddam Hussein with 600,000-odd US military personnel in the theater, it was a reasonable leap of logic to presume Bush would help back an uprising. While there is merit to the argument we should have stayed out of Baghdad given our initial promise to do so, one would think that outweighed by a second promise upon which thousands reasonably risked their lives relying upon. Perhaps that second promise should not have been made given the first. It was. Sometimes, breaking a promise is permissible when the circumstances that one based it on have changed. They had: We had encouraged an uprising against our enemy and then our enemy, predictably, acted to brutually supress those uprisings. At that point, our moral obligation to defend the weak overrode our moral obligation to mind our own business.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PB says:

    “At that point, our moral obligation to defend the weak overrode our moral obligation to mind our own business.”

    Is this the key element to be satisfied in a ‘humanitarian interventionist’ policy? And if so, does this justify us to, at any point, resume and complete our “obligation[s]” of the past?