The Buzz

Iraq and Moral Imagination

Assessing the slew of commentary that has accompanied the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War’s outbreak, Marc Lynch observes that something important is missing—the voices of the Iraqis themselves:

Here's one surprising detail about the flood of retrospectives: They have almost exclusively been written by Americans, talking about Americans, for Americans.

He elaborates:

The New Republic got eight writers to comment on the anniversary, none Iraqi. Foreign Affairs put out a very good retrospective of its coverage of Iraq with 11 articles and 25 contributors, none Iraqi. The New York Times managed to find one, out of six roundtable contributors. And to show that there's no house bias here, the otherwise fascinating roundtable overseen by my Foreign Policy boss invited 20 significant participants in the war to talk about its lessons -- and didn't include a single Iraqi.

Lynch’s piece is well worth reading in full. As he goes on to point out, the failure to take Iraqi perspectives into account has real consequences. On a moral level, “The American filter tends to minimize the human costs and existential realities of military occupation and a brutal, nasty war.” And it leads to strategic mistakes as well—for example, in the failure to anticipate the insurgency, in drawing some of the wrong lessons from the surge and the Anbar Awakening, and in exaggerating the effects of America’s eventual withdrawal.

Yet, contra Lynch, the fact that Iraqis have been missing from the conversation isn’t really “surprising” at all. The tendency to approach international affairs from a purely American perspective, and to believe that everything that happens around the world is really about us, is pervasive in our foreign-policy discourse. The whole episode is a great example of the widespread lack of what Robert Wright has called “moral imagination,” which he defines as “seeing things as they're seen from the perspective of someone in circumstances very different from your own.”

Wright’s call for greater moral imagination in our public commentary is not a starry-eyed appeal for global harmony through dialogue. Rather, it’s a simple reminder that it becomes much harder to formulate policies toward other nations when, at a basic level, you can’t comprehend the perspective of their people or leaders. Needless to say, this problem is compounded when, ten years after launching a war against a country, the voices of that country are totally absent from the public conversation about what lessons ought to be learned from the war.