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.
That alignment becomes possible if we recognize that America's obligation is not to Iraq but to Iraqis. As a nation-state, Iraq – awash with sectarian violence and lacking legitimate institutions – can hardly be said to exist. We owe Iraq nothing.
In contrast, we owe the Iraqis whose lives we have blighted quite a lot. We should repay that debt much as we (partially at least) repaid our debt to the people of South Vietnam after 1975: by offering them sanctuary. In the decade after the fall of Saigon, some half-million Vietnamese refugees settled in the United States. Here, they found what they were unable to find in their own country: safety, liberty, and the opportunity for a decent life. It was the least we could do.
The least we can do for Iraqis today is to extend a similar invitation.
At various times, the Bush administration has described US strategy in Iraq this way: As they stand up, we will stand down. At present, a more apt formulation is this one: As we depart, they can come along. To Iraqis seeking to escape the brutality and chaos that we have helped create, the "golden door" into the New World should open. Call it Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
How many Iraqis will accept this invitation is impossible to say. In all probability, they will number in the millions. Accommodating this influx will be an expensive proposition, not least of all because we will have to identify and deny entry to radicals or other potential mischiefmakers. Yet given that the war currently costs $2 billion a week along with 100 or so American deaths each month, Operation Iraqi Freedom II might turn out to be a bargain – it will permit us to cut our losses while doing right by Iraqis and right by American soldiers.
Getting out of Iraq with clean hands is not in the cards. Yet getting out has become an imperative. By tending seriously to the moral issues involved, we may yet end this disastrous war while salvaging some semblance of honor.
• Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is editor of "The Long War: A New History of US National Security Policy Since World War II."