23 July 2004 - Friday

Iraq: Hindsight is my major

Two days ago, after several weeks of docility, I suddenly felt the urge to comment on the Iraq war again. After scribbling down a few thoughts before class Tuesday morning, I decided that I had achieved a state of intellectual nirvana sufficient to risk a reexamination of the rationale for war.

For those who do not know, I opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq. I did so in full certainty that Saddam was brutalizing his own people and possessed weapons of mass destruction. I did so for reasons that seemed to me as entirely consistent with conservative ideology.

Now that sovereignty has been delivered to representatives of the Iraqi people, perhaps I can comment on the war without being accused of jeopardizing the American mission in Iraq. In any case, I realize that I write in hindsight; that is my intention. I would like to bring together what I said before the invasion and what I have seen since. Most (although not all) of the arguments I am about to make were made by me before the war began. I want to demonstrate that they still apply. I will attempt to address (not exhaustively, but persuasively) arguments based on the existence of WMD, the reactions of other hostile regimes, the danger from stateless terrorists, and the defense of human rights. I will try to base my case on premises that most conservatives already accept or can accept easily.

My argument begins by making a distinction between the goals, methods, and vulnerabilities of Saddam and Usama bin Laden. The "war on terror," after all, is based on a recognition that international terrorism is now mostly stateless. We generally did not speak of being at war with Afghanistan, because Afghanistan was more of a battleground or stronghold in a larger conflict than it was an active adversary. Nation-states, unlike Al Qaeda, are stationary; their governments, unlike Bin Laden, have a lot to lose. Ironically, the more corrupt and selfish a dictator is, the easier he may be to deter. Saddam was not in much danger from internal forces, but he was extremely vulnerable to retaliation for any external aggression he could have attempted. For this reason, although Saddam sponsored terrorism, after 1993 he sponsored mostly regional terrorism (including terrorism against one of our enemies) and did so to a lesser extent than Iran and Syria. Iran, by the way, is alleged by Washington to be closer to having nuclear arms than Iraq was when we attacked. I think therefore that the offensive against Saddam, although not entirely groundless, was given improperly high priority. Furthermore, I think that a policy of continued deterrence would have been a much wiser choice in the long run.

If Saddam had suddenly gone suicidal and decided to attack the United States, he would probably have considered 900 American dead, 6,000 wounded, and $120 billion in damage a significant yield. Certainly the USA would have. Yet Saddam did not attack us, for obvious reasons (13 carrier battle groups' worth). The United States initiated a war nonetheless, and has sustained roughly that level of casualty and economic cost so far. And while conservatives are correct to say that American losses have been slight by the standards of the twentieth century, they are perhaps forgetting that Saddam was not in a good position to wage twentieth-century warfare. Whatever Saddam's WMD capabilities were, the American deterrent was literally a thousand times more powerful.

Speaking of WMD, of course, it might be wise for conservatives to stop insisting that weapons stockpiles ever existed inside of Iraq. If these nasty things existed and still exist, then somebody knows where they are. Possibly they are no longer inside of Iraq, since insurgents (with one pathetic exception) have not attempted to use them against the Coalition. Whether these agents are now under the control of other governments or are on the black market or worse, the American invasion has utterly failed in its mission to prevent proliferation. Before, these weapons were allegedly under the control of a man who could easily be held responsible for their use; now the demons play hide-the-thimble with them. (Note that UNMOVIC has reported the discovery of Iraqi materiel, although not WMD, in Jordan and the Netherlands.)

Despite this, conservatives point to some positive developments in other Muslim nations. Libya, in particular, seems very eager to cooperate with America now. The United States has demonstrated who is boss, it seems. There are three flaws in this assessment, however. First, Libya was cooperating with the West even before 11 September 2001. An initial outlay of violence by the Reagan administration was followed by years of international sanctions; as early as 1999, Qadhafi was turning over some of his citizens for trial on terrorism charges and severing ties with Abu Nidal and more radical Palestinian groups. Qadhafi had nothing to gain by attacking the West again, but he had quite a lot to gain through cooperation and cooperate he has, one step at a time. Second, such states and their authoritarian regimes are largely the threat of 15 years ago, not of today. Most of them stand to lose if radicals have their way. They are no longer agents operating under the protection of Cold War bipolarity, or jockeying for spoils in the aftermath of the USSR's collapse. Since the world combined against Saddam's aggression in 1991, America has had far more to fear from chaos (Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan) than from dictatorship. This leads to the third problem. American policy is not very consistent. From the perspective of a "war on terror," it seems obvious that several other nations are greater threats. Iran and Sudan are particularly troublesome (both, by the way, are ruled by radical religious councils, unlike Iraq). Among our allies, Pakistan (a nuclear power) has failed to root out support for Al Qaeda even in its own government. Saudi Arabia, although conservative and friendly to the USA, is a repressive autocracy with interesting ties to the Wahhabi movement; American support for the Saudi government and similar regimes is apparently one of the greatest factors polarizing resentment against the United States, even as the Saudis entertain ideas repugnant to the democratic world.

Consistency is also lacking in the humanitarian case for war. Certainly Saddam was a threat to his own people. But mass graves are hardly more common in Iraq than in North Korea or Sudan. In fact, the plight of the Iraqis barely figured at all into the legal case for invasion, with good reason. No one whines about international encroachments upon national sovereignty more than do American conservatives. (For that matter, it always seemed odd that those who so vehemently approve of the use of hard measures by the state of Israel, would so readily subordinate national military capabilities to UNSC resolutions. But wait, you say Iraq was only subject to UN oversight because it had invaded another nation. Of course, say I and Israel is only in trouble because it has occupied the land of its neighbors.) In any case, because no international legal framework exists for humanitarian regime change, the presence of human rights abuses does not amount to a legal case for war.

Here is another problem with a conservative appeal to human rights as a justification of invasion. Most conservatives believe not only that abortion is morally wrong, but also that it is wrong because it is a form of murder. If this is so, then the US Supreme Court is responsible for about 40 million murders over a span of 31 years. This is a far greater number than Saddam ever dreamed of killing. Suppose that a democratic but predominately Muslim regime, one that opposed abortion, were to invade the United States in order to end this slaughter. Would American conservatives fight on the side of our government? Of course they would! Virtually all opponents of abortion firmly condemn any use of violence to end it. Why? Because law and civilization must be preserved. Due process matters. (In addition, it is correctly argued that violent measures would be counterproductive.) The mere fact that evil is being committed does not necessarily validate any given measure for its suppression. One need not deny the reality that Saddam committed numerous atrocities (nor even deny that he possessed WMD, as I pointed out three paragraphs ago) in order to question the methodology employed against him by the Bush administration.

All of these flaws in the case for invasion come together to scuttle the Bush administration's policy of preventive warfare. The effectiveness of deterrence is well established; on that basis, the US survived 45 years of cold war with a much more powerful (and WMD-capable) enemy than Saddam. Our failure to secure Saddam's weapons even with Iraq under occupation exposes another problem with the logic of invasion; as long as we knew who had the weapons, we knew whom to hold responsible if they were used. People with something to lose can be persuaded not to use weapons, but pity he who must try to track down every last weapon in order to prevent an anonymous individual from using it. The resulting need for stability, this requirement that we strengthen the authority of states and preserve the regularity of their relations with each other, makes the subsequent chaos in Iraq an acute danger to our interests. This need also means that it is unwise to have nations invading each other for humanitarian reasons; unless a very firm legal framework can be developed, such intrusions are based solely on the sensibilities of the most powerful (tempered by their own national interests, which may not be amenable to the rights of others) and thus undermine the rule of law.

| Posted by Wilson at 17:02 Central | TrackBack
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