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.
"To me, the only hope now is to recast the moral foundation of the invasion by getting a combination of Arab governments and a number of Western and Asian states involved - perhaps through some sort of international conference," says Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy captain and former Pentagon strategist. "Iraqis need to think that the foundation of the entire enterprise has been reset."
Indeed, Iraqis themselves are growing increasingly determined to end the occupation. A poll conducted in August for the Iraqi Defense Ministry and leaked to the British media suggests that 82 percent of Iraqis are "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops in their country; less than 1 percent of respondents said US- led troops had improved security there.
On Monday, at a conference in Cairo sponsored by the Arab League, Iraq's political factions called for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops. The measure was seen as an important symbolic step, particularly as Shiites reached out to Sunnis on the eve of the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
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.
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.
• 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.