Royal-appointed Moral Theologist, Nigel Biggar – on Iraq war’s morality

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    14th March 2010


    (I know. Apologies.)

    NIGEL BIGGAR: ‘The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war has run about half its course. Judging by the dominant reaction of the British press, its sole function is to prove what we all know to be true: that the invasion was immoral and Tony Blair is to blame. The surfeit of moral certainty among the commentators is suspect; the zealous clarity of their moral waters needs muddying.’

    The words “we all know to be true” should leap off the page at you, as they do at me. I suppose I should be flattered since I have been throwing the ‘WE ALL KNOW’ phrase back in the faces of the WE ALL KNOW-ers for months, years even. Not that they’ve noticed. They all know, y’see.

    Thanks to John Rentoul for the pointer to this article‘Don’t be so sure invading Iraq was immoral’

    It’s a pity it’s in the FT, as for some reason best known to itself, the Financial Times doesn’t like others cutting and pasting. Hope they don’t mind if while I add my own thoughts I select a few snippets, as has Mr Rentoul. (I’ll try to select differently.)

    The article is by Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.

    Now, THAT to me is significant. Not, for this moral and pastoral theologian, the easy –“count the dead bodies” –  of pacifist Christian churchmen who often have trouble defending their own religion far less their country. Think such as the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

    It is surely co-incidental that Professor Biggar’s alma mater, Oxford University, is also that of Tony Blair. [Although I expect some Blair hater to come up with “Ah-HAH! Old mates” proof shortly.]


    In his argument that there is worse than the worst in the Iraq aftermath Professor Biggar uses the language of Tony Blair. Without using the same words he poses the “ask the 2010 question” as put by Blair at Chilcot.

    BLAIR, at Chilcot Inquiry, 29th January 2010: Sometimes it is important not to ask the “March 2003 question” but the “2010 question”, said Mr Blair, arguing that if Saddam had been left in power the UK and its allies would have “lost our nerve” to act.

    This ‘2010 question’ was, of course damned by many as an “unknown unknown” in the Rumsfeld sense –

    Rumsfeld, February 2002:  ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

    Clumsy as it was, Rumsfeld’s words had plenty of truth in them. Those unknown unknowns are where political decision-making enters.

    Tony Blair said at Chilcot that the Iraq invasion was  “a decision” not a conspiracy or a deceit. The deceptive conspiracy theorist wouldn’t know how to make a political decision if their country’s future depended on it.

    Blair’s words on a “decision” at Chilcot were damned by those with as much regard for Tony Blair as they have for Rumsfeld. They’ve ‘decided’. Wrongly, of course.  These naysayers are fully paid-up members of the WE ALL KNOW club. Membership criteria? Ignorance.

    BIGGAR: ‘The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

    No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people. Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than consistently irresponsible?


    ‘Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.’

    It is true that it is hard to prove a negative. But the idea that anything positive would have come out of leaving Saddam Hussein and his two murdering sons in place in Iraq OR that their continued unhindered rule would have resulted in today’s truly democratic elections is clearly knowable. It wouldn’t have. Saddam had thirty years to deliver that. He didn’t.


    As well as the legality or otherwise and the WMD question, Biggar also looked at the civilian death toll issue (my bolding below.)

    ‘As proof of the Iraq invasion’s wickedness, critics invoke the civilian death toll, soberly reckoned at 100,000-150,000. But Europe’s liberation from Nazi domination cost the lives of 70,000 French civilians and 500,000 German ones through bombing; and, whereas this was the direct responsibility of the British and Americans, most Iraqi civilians were killed by foreign or native insurgents. Yes, the occupying powers were obliged to maintain law and order, and failed initially. But the insurgents were obliged not to send suicide bombers into crowded market places, and they have failed persistently.’

    The oft-used proportionality issue is refuted, as it should and must be (my bolding):

    ‘Arguments about a war’s disproportion are often intractable. If one assumes the Iraq war was unjust, then no civilian deaths were worth it. Yet in affirming the justice of the war against Hitler we imply it was worth the deaths of 30m civilians. The loss of 150,000 civilians therefore does not, of itself, make the Iraq war unjust. The invasion would be harder to defend were the country’s new regime to fail. But that has not happened yet, and those critics who care more for Iraqis than they hate the former US and UK leaders George W. Bush and Mr Blair will hope it never does.’


    The highlighted words in the last sentence above interest me. It throws into sharp relief the TRUTH, as ‘the knowers’ like to describe their version. In my humble opinion, those critics do NOT care for Iraqis. They have NEVER cared for Iraqis. The assumption that they do or ever did is false.  Leaving aside the small number of Quakers and genuine pacificists the critics only care for traducing Tony Blair, the west, America, George Bush or any British government.  For confirmation of their lack of care for Iraqis , research how much work such ‘carers’ did against Saddam’s regime for the previous 30 years before his removal. NONE.

    Their ‘care’ is not for Iraqis or for the cause of peace, and it never was. This prospective is false, like the flags these people fly.


    If they did care, have cared and do care, I challenge the critics once again to inform with evidence just how much caring for Iraqis they did when they were being slaughtered by Saddam’s henchmen over a thirty year period.

    I take great exception to the dishonesty in their accusing Blair of having blood on his hands as they bellow “war criminal” from their own cupped blood-soaked hands.


    However, even if we grant that the invasion was illegal, we still have to grapple with the fact that so was Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which is now widely regarded as legitimate. The implication? That legality is not the final word.

    Current international law is morally problematic. It denies the right of states to use military force unilaterally except in self-defence, while reserving the enforcement of international law for the United Nations Security Council, whose capacity to act is hamstrung by the right of veto in the service of national interests.
    Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

    And a reminder for the conspiracy theorists on Kelly:

    Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

    Article here: Don’t be so sure invading Iraq was immoral

    By Nigel Biggar. [The writer is regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book on the ethics of war]

    See – Regius Professorship of Moral and Pastoral Theology  – Nigel Biggar (By Royal appointment)

    Background: ‘Her Majesty the Queen has appointed NIGEL JOHN BIGGAR, AM PH.D Chicago, MA Oxf, Master of Christian Studies, Regent College, Vancouver, Professor of Theology and Ethics, School of Religions and Theology, University of Dublin and Fellow, Trinity College, Dublin, and Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, to the Regius Professorship of Moral and Pastoral Theology with effect from 1 October 2007.

    Professor Biggar will be a Canon of Christ Church.’

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    2 Responses to “Royal-appointed Moral Theologist, Nigel Biggar – on Iraq war’s morality”

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