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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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Unidentified Pentagon officials say tentative plans call for 3 of the 18 US combat brigades to leave Iraq early next year, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

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Some observers suggest that the moral questions raised by how the war started have little bearing on the strategic rationale for staying in Iraq. "One could argue there was a moral imperative to get rid of Saddam, because he's a murderous thug," says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who also notes that the administration worked hard to make a legal case for going into Iraq.

"The strategic rationale really doesn't have much to do with why we went in to begin with, because that's washed away," he continues. "The strategic rationale now is we can't leave, because all hell would break loose, which would redound to our disadvantage strategically. There's a certain element of truth to that."

So the moral case for ridding the world of a thug - a central argument in the run-up to war - gets trumped in the event that the US leaves behind something worse, he concludes.

The issue of prisoner treatment, which exploded into global consciousness with stories of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantán- amo, and Afghanistan, brought the issue of morality in warfare front and center - and did lasting damage to the US image around the world.

Under the "just war" doctrine, a centuries-old religious framework for judging the validity of the decision to go to war and the subsequent conduct, the US, some analysts say, failed miserably on the tenet covering "noncombatant immunity" - that is, protecting the lives of civilians and surrendered soldiers.

"We seem fairly callously to have violated human rights and noncombatant immunity," says Professor Arquilla. "Our ethical way ahead lies in recapturing some of that moral high ground."

The effort by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona to enact legislation that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners in US custody, passed by the Senate last month 90-9, seeks to do that. President Bush's threat to veto the measure and an effort by Vice President Dick Cheney to exempt CIA employees have fueled debate over whether there are legitimate uses of torture in fighting a global war on terror.

Some Americans say it is legitimate - even moral - to use such tactics after 9/11. Clearly, this debate will linger for years.

Tenets of 'just war' theory

• Cause must be just, often limited to self-defense or to redress injury. Scholars dispute whether preemptive or preventive war can be a just cause.

• Public declaration by a lawful authority.

• No ulterior motives. War must be pursued with right intention - justice - not self-aggrandizement or vengeance.

• Reasonable probability of success.

• More good done than harm.

• Use of force only as last resort.

• Avoid harming noncombatants.

• Proportionality - use of the least destructive force possible.

• Intention to restore a just peace.