With great efficiency and military skill, the United States won an unjust war in Iraq. Then, with poor planning and inept management, the administration put at risk a just peace. Given this shoddy scorecard, should the United States simply withdraw from a place it never should have invaded?
Just war theorists are used to inquiring into the justice of a war's cause (jus ad bellum) and its conduct (jus in bello). Now we must probe the jus post bellum: What obligations does the occupier have and when are they discharged?
St. Augustine, one of the founding figures of the just war tradition, helped us understand that peace is not simply the absence of conflict. This understanding suggests that America's work is only half done -- if that. The invasion has created a moral obligation for the victors to maintain a measure of social order, while reestablishing the government and institutions of the defeated nation. The moral imperative during the occupation is Iraqi well-being, not American interests.
Accordingly, the United States and its allies must not depart until basic social institutions are in place or until it is clear that occupying forces are either unwanted or unable to contribute to the creation of those institutions. For those Americans eager for their country to get out of Iraq, it is tempting to argue that the U.S. presence is the cause of the insurgency and that withdrawal is already ethically proper. But that is only half correct: The insurgents will oppose any non-Sunni-dominated government, and the present Iraqi security forces are still unable to maintain order.
The United States should do all it can to see that a political regime, with the approval of a majority of Iraqis, assumes sovereign authority promptly. The January elections gave the next government a healthy chance at legitimacy, but the United States must still ensure the stability of the new government. When an independent and representative government of Iraq assumes power and tells the United States to leave, it should withdraw speedily. If it asks foreign forces to continue their presence or provide other forms of assistance, the United States must be open to the request. An unjust war must not become an excuse for leaving behind an unjust peace.