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"Our War, Our Duty"--An Op-Ed by Dean Anthony T. Kronman


(This essay originally appeared in the Thursday, October 2, 2003, edition of the Wall Street Journal.)

Our War, Our Duty
By Anthony T. Kronman, Dean and Edward J. Phelps Professor of Law

The Iraqi people will soon embark on an historic venture -- the writing of a new constitution and the establishment of a democratic government based upon it. Two weeks ago, in Bahrain, I met with a group of Iraqis to discuss some of the challenges that lie ahead for them. The group included lawyers, judges, teachers, and civic leaders. Many had never traveled outside their country before and all, in one way or another, were victims of Saddam's regime. We spoke about the difficulties the Iraqis face as they prepare to create a new constitutional regime. How will those participating in the drafting of the new constitution be selected? Should Iraq adopt a federal system and, if so, how will provincial and central powers be balanced? Can a state that guarantees the religious freedom of its citizens also embrace Islam as its "official" religion? How should the crimes of the past be addressed -- through prosecution and punishment or amnesty and forgiveness?

I was impressed with the sophistication and seriousness of the Iraqis I met. But what impressed me most was a comment a young woman made to me during a coffee break. We were discussing the principle of the separation of powers. She said, "I know the separation of powers is a good thing, but to work it requires habits of cooperation and compromise that we do not now possess. For more than 30 years, we have lived in a dictatorship. We have all had to look out for ourselves. We lack the political habits we will need for our new constitution to work. I do not doubt that the constitution will be a beautiful thing. But can it succeed before we learn the habits of self-government?"

She paused, and continued. "My worst fear," she said, "is that America will lose patience with us before we learn those habits. Will America say, 'The Iraqis are incapable of democracy and deserve whatever dictator they get'? Will America abandon us before we have learned to live with each other and our new constitution?"

Will we? The decision to go to war was perhaps mistaken. But we are now in Iraq, and, whatever one thinks about the wisdom of the decision to go to war, the question of whether we should remain is a different one.

In the common law, there is no duty to rescue a drowning man. But once one has undertaken a rescue, and gone beyond a certain point, the law imposes a duty to continue. America had no duty to come to the rescue of the Iraqi people. Others, perhaps, had as high a claim on our attention. The Iraqis are not the only suffering and oppressed people in the world. But we made our decision, and our rescue effort is now well beyond the point where a duty to continue arises.

In part, this is for practical reasons. To break off before the Iraqis have acquired the habits of self-government -- and not just a new constitution on paper -- would create greater risks of instability in the region and an even larger threat to our national security. But in part it is for moral reasons, too. We have assumed a responsibility for the fate of the Iraqis which we are no longer free to ignore, or to treat as something less serious than it is. We have assumed a historic responsibility and must meet it with the steadiness and patience it requires.

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Let us not follow the counsel of the French, who urge a quick transfer of power and a speedy exit. Let us reject the logic of those domestic critics who say, The war was wrong, therefore we must leave as soon as possible. The rightness or wrongness of the war and of the foreign policy that inspired it are debatable issues. They will, quite properly, be at the center of the presidential campaign that is about to begin. But let the candidates of both parties agree that we must stay in Iraq until democracy is secure, on the ground and not just on paper -- whatever the costs, and however long it takes.

This shouldn't be a partisan position. It makes practical sense. More importantly, it is now the only responsible thing to do.

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Mr. Kronman is dean of the Yale Law School.