Monday, March 21, 2005

Iraq: still not worth it

I recently had a pro-war friend write me the following email:

I just got through reading a Charles Krauthammer article that has been making the rounds on the right side of the blowhardsphere. It's a good example of triumphal about current goings on in the ME. To those on the right, occurrences in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, etc etc. are all positive and are all a direct result of Iraq. Ridiculous. To those on the left, these occurrences are all meaningless and have absolutely nothing to do with Iraq even if they were important. Just as ridiculous.

There is only one intellectually honest position: The importance of current movements in the ME is currently unknown. More importantly, causation by the invasion of Iraq is unknown. Period.If you want to be only slightly intellectually dishonest, you can go out on a limb and say that Iraq had some salutary causative effect, but just how much is unknown. I think this is reasonable. It's hard to imagine the protests in Lebanon being quite so big as they were without the elections in Iraq, for instance, but there are also currents and undercurrents there that are totally separate. There is a continuum between full causation and no causation, and the only thing you can say is that the answer is somewhere in the grey area, in a range that we cannot know...

I am not interested in assigning "credit". I am interested in delineating the boundaries of truth. None of it is my credit nor my fault, so I have no stake in the outcome.... I guess you can say that the burden of proof is on the right to claim a causality on the Iraq war. But then again, so much more has happened in the politics of the ME since that war than in the long period of time before it that ascribing it all to chance is just as ridiculous. This, then is your epistemological position: "Sure all these things happened immediately after the Iraq war, but that's just a coincidence!" You must see that this, as well, is hardly convincing. All I am advocating is reserving judgment in view of a dearth of facts.

Even if my friend poses as being interested merely in establishing "truth" rather than assigning political credit, it is either naive or disingenuous not to realize that the question of causality and the question of political credit/blame are inextricably bound up with each other.

Consider first what has become the Right's Exhibit A in trying to show that the Bush Doctrine is achieving its alleged goal of spreading liberty and freedom: Lebanon. I'll happily concede that the way things are unfolding in Lebanon has been shaped by the elections in Iraq. People on the streets of Beirut say that the Iraqi elections were an inspiration, so presumably that's so -- even if everyone also agrees that those elections were but one variable among many informing the political mood in Beirut. In fact, most Lebanese seem to consider the Ukrainian example a more inspiring case than the Iraqi one. (And please, don't make me laugh by claiming that Iraq War II is responsible for what has happened in Ukraine.)

Second, even if one gives Iraq War II and subsequent Iraqi elections total and exclusive causal credit for what's happening in Lebanon (which, last I checked, was a horrific political murder, a bunch of street demonstrations, and Syrian withdrawal into the Bekaa highlands -- good news, to be sure, but let's not get overexcited), the political progress in Lebanon alone scarcely makes Iraq War II worth it. Yet it is precisely this that the partisan right is suggesting.

Third, I am unconvinced that the positive things couldn't have been achieved in ways that would have been far less costly to the U.S. and the Iraqis in terms of blood, treasure, and prestige. For example, since the late 1970s the U.S. has been giving the Egyptians billions in aid annually. Don't you think that (the threat of) withholding that aid might have convinced old Hosni to make the same (very minor, it must again be emphasized) movement toward holding real elections? (Such an approach might actually have saved the U.S. money, instead of costing us $250b and counting.) Might have been worthing giving a shot, no? Hell, it might still be worth giving a shot.

Fourth, whatever causal role Iraq War II may have had in whatever good news is emanating from the Middle East today, it's hard to argue that the sum of the political motion is unambiguously positive. Libya? No move toward democratization there, just a corrupt oil deal. Iran? By all reports the hardliners are in firmer control than before the Iraq War II, and sporting a more defiant military stance. Saudi? Give me a break. And how about Algeria, Yemen, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Dubai, or Pakistan? In sum, it's not clear that we have much to celebrate: as you go down the list of countries in the region as a whole, instead of cherry-picking the good news stories du jour, the direction of movement is hardly clear.

Finally, what's happening in all these countries seems to me almost entirely beside the moral point. The first and overwhelming case on which you have to judge the morality of Iraq War II is on how things are going in Iraq itself. No one can reasonably dispute that. Though things in Iraq seem to be going a bit better of late, if you read Juan Cole's blog, which summarizes the daily reports on the mayhem still reigning there, it's difficult to make the case that things are better for the average Iraqi than they were under late-Saddam, and it's certainly impossible to say that the situation is actually good for the Iraqi people.

(Just to focus on the American experience in Iraq, do you realize that US Embassy employees are forbidden to travel by land the ten miles to Baghdad airport because it is so dangerous, and have to be helicoptered in and out of the capital? Mission Accomplished!)

In fact, as everyone knows, the ongoing security disaster in Iraq is the overwhelming story of Iraq War II aftermath. Which is precisely why the defenders of the war are trying to change the subject by focusing on what's happening elsewhere, outside Iraq. This is a somewhat desperate move, in my view, but it is being abetted by the fact that media are suffering from Iraq fatigue. Just how many times can you lead with a story about a police station in Baghdad getting blown up? By the fiftieth time this happens, it's not "news" any more.

It's just the daily reality we have wrought in Iraq.


Bill Barnes said...


Your friend starts out making an excellent point, and then, rather than stopping when he/she is ahead, throws it all away and opens the door to your devastating response. Lets get a little more epistemological: Consistent with your friend's initial goiod point, one simply cannot say "so much more has happened in the politics of the ME since that war than in the long period of time before it..," or "all these things happened immediately after the Iraq war..." This reeks of reification. Lots of "things" have been "happening" all the time, before, during and after each phase of the war (which is on-going, not over, so there's no "after" yet). (Your friend must not be a historian, one damn thing after another-wise.) At this point in time we do not have anything like the perspective that would allow us to dentify "things" and when they "happen," much less to distinguish between "things" that turn out to have major causal force and "things" that are more dependant variables.
As for Krauthammer, he's truly a national treasure. Here's Atrios' comment on the piece your friend cites:

Projection Much?

Jesse brings us Krauthammer's latest.

Those who claimed, with great certainty, that Arabs are an exception to the human tendency toward freedom, that they live in a stunted and distorted culture that makes them love their chains -- and that the notion the United States could help trigger a democratic revolution by militarily deposing their oppressors was a fantasy -- have been proved wrong.

About which Jesse writes, "I think the claim's been made often enough that someone, somewhere, should have a quote which in some way proves it."

I will step up to the challenge! This was written in the Washington Post on October 14, 1993:

But Russia is hardly the only place where we will have to make fateful choices between authoritarians and totalitarians. We face the same question in the Arab world, where Islamic fundamentalist forces are pressing their campaign against the moderate regimes of Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia.

In the case of Egypt, the question is becoming acute. President Hosni Mubarak is in the midst of a desperate campaign against Islamic extremists adept at terror and committed to a Khomeini-like Islamic state. The fall of Egypt, linchpin of the Middle East, would be an international calamity second only to the fall of Russia, linchpin of Eurasia. Mubarak is no doubt asking us, "Do you support me in my war against the fundamentalists?" Our answer has to be: Given the alternative -- yes.

In Algeria last year, Islamic fundamentalists may well have won a democratic election but were denied power and indeed outlawed by the military. In the face of the military's usurpation, the United States was silent, a silence correctly interpreted as tacit support.

Are we not violating the very tenets of democracy that are supposed to be the moral core of American foreign policy? No. Because democracy does not mean one man, one vote, one time. In the German elections of 1932 and 1933, the Nazis won more votes than any other party. We know what they did with the power thus won. Totalitarians are perfectly capable of achieving power through democracy, then destroying it.

Moreover, democracy does not just mean elections. It also means constitutionalism -- the limitation of state power -- in political life, and tolerance and pluralism in civic life. Yeltsin and Mubarak are clearly more committed to such values than those who would overthrow them. That is why it would be not just expedient but right to support undemocratic measures undertaken to avert a far more anti-democratic outcome. Democracy is not a suicide pact.

by none other than.... Charles Krauthammer!

-Atrios 9:27 AM

Anonymous said...

Your friend starts out making an excellent point, and then, rather than stopping when he/she is ahead, throws it all away and opens the door to your devastating response.That's because in the latter portion of the email (a completely different email, actually), I was just making a devil's advocate argument, which unfortunately doesn't come through when taken out of context.

And, although Nils states that "it is either naive or disingenuous not to realize that the question of causality and the question of political credit/blame are inextricably bound up with each other", surely we can agree that it is possible, if we care to, to look at causality without regard to political haymaking. We are, after all, not politicians, just intellectually curious commenters trying to see what we can see.

Nils trained as an historian, so I would assume that he is at least somewhat interested in analysis of current historical events apart from how those affect partisan arguments, but perhaps I was wrong. Thus, in this post my incredibly banal and basically undeniable point becomes fodder for more left-right point-scoring.

Finally, I don't think that supporters of the war are trying to "change the subject" because they know they are failing. I think most of them quite honestly believe that Iraq will be a resounding vindication of their views.

purpleprose said...

Just wanted to respond to Anonymous on two fronts. First, I think it's actually pretty difficult to separate political/moral judgments from any historical assessments of any sort, including assessments of causality, even for things that happened a long time ago. Historians even now still bickers over the causes of the French Revolution, and the battlelines in that historiographic battle map with stunning precision to contemporary political demarcations.

This true despite the fact that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was undoubtedly correct when he stated, in response to a question about what he made of the French Revolution, that "It’s too soon to tell."

It's been two centuries since the French revolution, but only two since the U.S. invaded Iraq. As of today, political judgment is all we have. Too bad our political leaders lacked any.