October 4, 2006

Iraq Revisited

I've been reading and commenting on a remarkable blog maintained by one Daniel Larison, of all things a graduate student in Byzantine studies at Chicago. He's astoundingly prolific, a good writer, quite erudite, and his opinions emerge from no cookie-cutter I'm familiar with.

Larison's some a kind of paleo-conservative, but an unusal kind. Among other things, he is strongly opposed--on principle--to the Iraq war and to interventionism generally.

He posted here on Daniel Linker's vanishing blog, and then turns to Victor Davis Hanson, whom I defended in a comment. Larison also went into a long riff on what he regards as inconsistent latecoming opposition to the Iraq war based upon things like Administration incompetence, rather than a fundamental disagreement about the underlying rationale for the war. It's a long post, so I'll follow fair use and just supply an excerpt:
When people say that so-and-so was on the wrong side of history, this invariably means that he was on the losing side of a war or a revolution, and when they say “wrong” side they usually mean it very much in terms of moral judgement. This is what it means 95% of the time it is used. Likewise, when your ideas are allegedly consigned to the “dustbin of history,” it is almost always because you lost a war. Wars, in this view of history, prove the supremacy and value of some ideas over others. This is simply untrue, but it does help explain why people who believe this–or at least talk as if they believe this–are perfectly happy to endorse wars for ideological causes, because they are already convinced that winning wars will vindicate and “prove” their ideas right. Incidentally, that is why there are so many on the left and nominal right emphasising incompetence as the central flaw of the administration. While real, dissident conservatives have stressed the evils of the administration’s ideological tunnel vision, incompetence has been the buzzword for all of the former war supporters who have since seen the light. The script goes something like this: intervening militarily to democratise rogue states and enforce nonproliferation regimes is more or less a good solution, but this crowd has simply screwed it up too badly. There are also those who are zealous war supporters but who focus on administration incompetence as a way of exculpating the ideas tied to the war–democratisation, interventionism, preemption, etc.–from the judgement that they think defeat in war imposes on whether ideas are sound or not. Four out of five times these days when you find a born-again war opponent, he will cite his support for the principle of doing what we did in Iraq but will also lament the poor execution. This is rather like the wisdom of the man who says, “If only I had been allowed to drive the car off the cliff, we wouldn’t have crashed.”
It seems to me, first of all, that incompetence is a legitimate reason to reverse ground on the war. In determining whether a war is just, one consideration is the likelihood of success. It is morally more questionable to kill and be killed on fool's errand than where success to a just purpose is likely.

So if one such as I who supported the war (warily) at first had known that there was either no planning or bungled planning for the aftermath, and how ignorant the US government was about Iraq, the conclusion would be that achieving the desired result was unlikely, and accordingly that the war would be neither just nor wise. This strikes me as a legitimate set of second thoughts.

Larison, however, would go deeper. He is opposed to the use of force to effect changes like democratization, which I take it he believes both wrong and ineffective. I suspect he is one who opposes foreign entanglements generally. Perhaps, like me, he thinks our entry into World War I was a tragic error.

I sympathize with this view. I have always thought Woodrow Wilson a liar (he campaigned in 1916 as one who had avoided war, even while planning to enter it), and with the slogan of "making the world safe for democracy" unleashed genies that have still not reentered the bottle. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, I saw no reason for keeping NATO, let alone expanding it, and would have brought our troops home from Europe, and considering how unwelcome they now seem to be, from places like Korea.

This orientation, which I share with Larison to some extent, does not exhaust the issue. After the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, it became clear that there was a jihadi movement sheltered in Afghanistan. When the Taliban government of that country refused to expel or turn over Al Qa'ida, there was a legitimate casus belli. The jihadi movement, however, had echoes throughout the Muslim world and had been proven to constitute a danger.

Given that American soil had been attacked, we had reason to assess where else danger of attack lurked in the Muslim world. Iraq fit into a suspect category. Not only was Saddam an unusually bloody tyrant, he had attacked a neighbor, used chemical weapons on his own people, engaged in a protracted war with a another neighbor (Iran) and in the past was known to have developed chemical weapons and attempted to develop nuclear weapons. Although Iraq was an artificial creation, it had an educated middle class. The idea that Saddam could be deposed and a régime might emerge that would be a catalyst for change in the Middle East, although fraught with risks, had some strategic appeal, and if Saddam really had WMD, a successful assault had additional justification. Although an alliance between Saddam and Al Qa'ida seemed improbable, Saddam had harbored terrorists such as Abu Nidal, and had every reason to be hostile to the United States.

All of this made me guardedly favorable to the war, in spite of my genrally skeptical view of armed utopianism and foreign entanglements not motivated by a global threat such as communism.

What few knew was that although régime change was on the lips of the war advocates, it was not thought out in the war plans. In fact, if Thomas Ricks's Fiasco is credited, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld actively discouraged such planning.

That, combined with the hyping of an Iraqi WMD program that turned out to have been abandoned, and the tenuous nature of the evidence of cooperation between Saddam and Al Qa'ida, left the only remaining justification for the invasion--the incredible brutality of Saddam's régime--weakened by the war planners' failure to answer question "What do we do now (that we've taken Baghdad)?"

Moving forward to October 2006, what is the answer to the question, "Now that we are in Iraq, what do we do next?" I haven't heard very good answers to that question from anyone.

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