When war causes us to suppress our deepest religious and moral convictions, we cave in to a “higher religion” called war. Yes, there is beauty in patriotism, in its unselfishness and love of country. But this beauty makes for what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “ethical paradox in patriotism”—a tendency to transmute individual unselfishness into national egoism. When this happens, the critical attitude of the individual is squelched, permitting the nation to use “power without moral constraint.”
In the 1950s, the CIA invented the term blowback as a marker for the ricochet effect of its covert actions. Since then the term has come to signify the backlash and other unintended consequences of intervening in foreign countries. For three years the U.S. has coped with a blowback nightmare in Iraq; now it is teetering on the edge of something even worse. Meanwhile the architects of the war still want to attack Iran and Syria, but find themselves enmeshed in the grim consequences of invading Iraq.
Yes, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. And yes, the rise of a stable, democratic Iraq would be a force for reform in the Middle East. But such benefits do not constitute a moral case for war. In the just war tradition, war is justifiable only as an emergency response undertaken in self-defense and as a last resort. Respect for the sovereignty of other states is a basic component of the international order. In other words, war is not an ordinary instrument for improving the world.