I was channel-hopping and came across Chris Matthews on CNN's "Hardball" asking a question that went roughly like, "We said we were going to attack Iraq because they were harboring terrorists. We now know that they weren't. We said we were going to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that they didn't. Given all that, isn't it time to admit we made a mistake?"
The guest, a youngish looking fellow with a British accent, replied, "We deposed a brutal totalitarian regime. Surely that was the right thing to do."
To which I reply:
Well ... no.
Getting rid of Saddam was a good outcome. But the ends do not justify the means. One might judge the death of pedophile priest John Geoghan at the hands of fellow prison inmate Joseph Druce to be a good outcome. Or one might judge the death of a abortion doctor to be a good outcome (and a shocking number of people do). That does not make killing abortion doctors and pedophile priests the right thing to do.
If liberating countries living under brutal totalitarian regimes were the right thing to do, then liberating North Korea would be the right thing to do. Liberating Liberia would have been the right thing to do. And one could make a case for Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the elephant in the living room, China.
Bringing down brutal totalitarian regimes is indeed the right thing to do, just as punishing pedophile priests is the right thing to do, and reducing the number of abortions is the right thing to do. But how you do it matters. Summary execution of priests and doctors and even political leaders is never morally justifiable except in cases of imminent danger. That is why the fact that there were no terrorists or WOMD found in Iraq matters. Those were what ostensibly provided the moral justification for attacking Iraq. Without proof that there was in fact an imminent danger our attack on Iraq cannot be morally justified no matter how good the outcome eventually turns out to be.