The Dartmouth Observer

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by Listed on BlogShares

Tuesday, July 11, 2006
The War in Iraq: The Imperialism of Fools

Karl Marx, I think, once retorted that anti-semitism was the socialism of fools. Anti-semitism, within the specific political and cultural landscape in Europe, provided an easy outlet and scapegoat to the working classes attempting to cope with their desperate existence. The working classes, however, were not alone in their falling for the malaise of anti-semitism; the political elites also found it increasingly difficult to weather the storms of nationalist consolidations and the perils of predatory international capitalism. Anti-semitism provided a convenient, low-threatening entity around which political discourse and activity coalesce, ultimately obscuring the real dynamics of oppression and distracting movements for much-needed social change and reform.

After September 11 and the overthrow of the Taliban, the debate on the war in Iraq demonstrated that imperialism is the new socialism of fools. Issues of wealth redistribution, a ballooning national deficit, and the increasing absence of a presidential domestic policy (due to the narrow Democrat take-over of the United States Senate after Jim Jeffords (Vt) became an independent) all began became obscured once the war drums for the opening of a second war front began to sound. I opposed this second call for war (having only tepidly supported a war in Afghanistan) and began to break ranks with the conservative movement as a result. Unfortunately, due to the ineptitude of the Bush Administration, I find myself in the thankless position of now supporting a war I argue against earlier.

I. That the Iraq War Was A Bad Idea
Due to an extended blogging holiday, I was not able to comment on John Derbyshire's (much needed) soul searching concerning the war in Iraq. In his introductory comments, the standard-bearer of conservative moral 'clarity', having continually argued straight-facedly against the dignity of gays and lesbians and their claims to equality under the law, retreats into the shadowy postmodern defense of linguistic 'ambiguity':
[My] friends ask me, as they do on average about once a week, whether I feel embarrassed at having supported the Iraq war. “Define ‘war,’” is the thing I want to say. I don’t say it, of course, exactly because it sounds like an irritating 11-year-old, but it’s really the essence of the matter. Did I support the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Yes I did. Do I support the continuing effort to get civil society going in Iraq? No I don’t, and haven’t for over two years. So do I support the war? Well... define “war.”

Derbyshire, for all his hedging, however, asks the one question which everyone is thinking but the administration (while Bush remains in office) and the Democrat party (for fear of looking 'soft' on defense) can never afford to say:
[The United States is] stuck there in that wretched place with no way out that would not involve massive loss of geostrategic face. Getting on for 3,000 of our troops have been killed, and close to 20,000 maimed. We’ve spent untold billions of dollars. For what?

Since the Iraq war was obviously a gross blunder, is it time for those of us who cheered on the war to offer some kind of apology? Here we are—we, the United States—in our fourth year of occupying that sinkhole, and it looks pretty much like the third year, or the second. Will the eighth year of our occupation, or our twelfth, look any better? I know people who will say yes, but I no longer know any who will say it with real conviction. It’s a tough thing, to admit you were wrong. It’s way tough if you’re a big-name pundit with a reputation to preserve. For those of us down at the bottom of the pundit pecking order, the stakes aren’t so high. I, at any rate, am willing to eat some crow and say: I wish I had never given any support to this fool war.

I am spared major embarrassment not only by the slightness of my own reputation, as by the fact that while I supported the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the regime, I never thought much of the nation-building exercise that followed. It took me a while to figure out that the administration actually believed all the guff about “establishing democracy in the Middle East,” but once it had sunk in, and the party enthusiasms of the 2004 election season had subsided, I was calling for withdrawal. (The first time I gave over a column to it was, I think, in mid-September of 2004.) I wish I had done so earlier. And, yes, I’ll admit, I wish I hadn’t supported the invasion in the first place.

Though soul-searching at the National Review is an uncommon rarity, I am loathe to indulge in their (quiet) admission of defeat. However, any drop of wisdom and perspective Derbyshire might have had in being force to admit error, quickly evaporates in the face of his enduring commitment to imperialism without consequences.
I don’t, in fact, give a fig about the Iraqis. I am happy to leave barbarians alone to practice their unspeakable folkways, so long as they do not bother civilized peoples. When they do bother us, though, I want them smacked down with great ferocity... I worry a lot that the civilized world, of which this nation is faute de mieux the leader, has sunk into an enervated lassitude, a condition in which it is unwilling to act against threatening, or just annoying, barbarians... Back in mid-2002 I feared that we had no will to attack Iraq, though I said I wanted us to. I really feared that we had no will, no guts, to chastise our enemies the way I wanted them chastised—not with U.N. resolutions, but with bombs, tanks, and artillery shells. When events proved me wrong, I was delighted. (I felt the same delight when Margaret Thatcher, Whom God Preserve, went to war over the Falkland Islands in 1982.) Now we must act, we really must act, against Iran; but we can’t, because of Iraq...The rubble-and-out approach was not one that this administration, or perhaps any administration in the present state of our culture, would be willing to pursue. The universalist dogmas that rule unchallenged in our media and educational institutions have fixed their grip on our foreign policy, too. When the Founders of our nation said “all men” they had in mind Christian Anglo-Saxon men. Our leaders, though, want to bring the whole world under the scope of those grand Lockeian principles.
Derbyshire's honesty is exceeded only by his brash, relentless, and inexplicable stupidity. The Iraqis, barbarians in his language, are to be punished because Saddam Hussein (whose government, I might add, was installed by the CIA in the 1950s) was either "threatening, or just annoying"? What kind of justification for war is that? Regardless of whether one gives a "fig leaf" for the Iraqi people and their "mysterious barbaric ways", at what point did "bombs, tanks, and artillery shells" become the tools of statecraft? Problem: Lesser nations run by "thugs" rejecting our 'free trade agreements'; less consider that category 'annoying' and just order an assassination. Saudi prince pointing out Western hypocrisy? Tanks and bombs. Venezuela concerned about protections for American farm subsidies? That's a threat: NUKE! I can't even begin to formulate a coherent response to Derbyshire's endorsement of genocide as statecraft, it's so unfathomably evil. With no overtly racist redistributive, religiously exclusive, or homophobic legislation to support, Derbyshire evinces his aggression against and contempt for cosmopolitan claims of justice in his no-holds barred militaristic foreign policy prescriptions.

The problem, from his point of view, seems that the Administration actually believes that it can spread democracy to a bunch of non-white (Muslim: gasp!) heathens by releasing them into their freedom (in the Rousseauan sense). The problem actually is, in fact, that the Administration believes that political institutions and discourses can be spread by force and in conditions of war. I, however, would be either a fool or a liar to expect that much wisdom and engagement with reality from Derbyshire, who, after all, has his reputation to protect. (Let's put aside the open call to bigotry in his historically accurate, but damnable reading of 'Lockean' principles.) Imperialism is the new socialism of fools, a playground for the pundits of diminished intellect and for scions of lesser houses.

II. Why Opposing the War (in 2002/3) Was the Right Course of Action

Crooked Timber's situating of the pro-war and anti-war arguments in light of present conditions hits the nail on the head. (I do not agree with the last setence of the entry so I have not quoted it.)
In the leadup to the Iraq war, many different arguments were presented for and against going to war, and many different predictions were made about the likely consequences of war. People supported war for a range of reasons, some of which were logically inconsistent, and the same was true of people who opposed war. Many people made many predictions, many of which turned out to be wrong. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry here.

Among the supporters of war were people like Derbyshire, who wanted to reduce large parts of Iraq for rubble as revenge for the September 11 attacks (the absence of any proof of a direct link being, for many, part of the attraction), believers in the WMD threat who wanted to destroy the WMD threat and leave, militarists like Rumsfeld who wanted to use Iraq as a testing ground and permanent base for a new era of American military dominance, rightwing ideologues who expected to transform Iraq into a bastion of free-market economics and support for Israel, ruled by some pliant type like Chalabi, and “decent” leftists who who saw the invasion as a step towards a secular democracy that would bring the Iraqi left to power. While some of these groups might perhaps have reached a satisfactory accommodation, assuming a military victory, they could not all do so.

Of course, the opponents of war were a similarly disparate group, including isolationists and international realists who regarded it as an unproductive use of US state power, a large group (including most on the moderate left) who thought that the human costs of war would outweigh any benefits, opponents of a unilateral war carried out without UN support, advocates of national sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs and those opposed to any military action by the US.

The crucial difference is that, while the opponents of war might have disagreed violently about their reasons for their position, these disagreements made no fundamental difference to the policy that they supported. In debates over wars of choice, peace is the status quo, and is a fairly unambiguous concept. (Perhaps not totally unambiguous – if the inspections had been allowed to continue and nothing had been found, differences would no doubt have emerged about what to do next, but peace leaves options like this open whereas war forecloses them).

By contrast, the supporters of the war were giving their support to very different kinds of war and assuming that their own preferred version would be the one that took place. But if they were honest with themselves (as Derbyshire has been, at least retrospectively) they should have looked at their allies and realised that there was no warrant for this assumption. Instead, they committed themselves to war with a whole series of implicit conditions. Many of them, in recanting, have blamed the Bush Administration for not delivering the kind of war they supported, or for mishandling the war in various ways that reflect entirely different assumptions and objectives. But, they had no reason to expect anything different.

The same asymmetry arises in predictions about the war. Opponents of the war variously predicted a military defeat for the US, a long and costly occupation, tens of thousands of civilian casualties, millions of refugees, the emergence of a new dictatorship, civil war on religious and ethnic lines, a stimulus to terrorism and so on. Supporters of the war derided all of these predictions and projected a variety of rosy scenarios including a quick military victory, roses and sweets showered on the liberating troops, and so on. Apart from the initial victory, not many of the optimistic predictions have panned out, but, as war supporters have pointed out, plenty of the anti-war predictions have failed too.

But this is the wrong test, and presumes a symmetry that isn’t there. War is doing harm, and only under very special conditions can it produce enough good to outweigh this. This is the point of what used to be called the Powell doctrine which allowed for discretionary use of force only with near certainty of success at low cost, clear and easily achieved objectives and a well-defined exit strategy.

Looking at the list of antiwar predictions, the realisation of any one of them would be enough to make war the wrong choice. As it is, several of them have been validated, and even some of those that seemed falsified, like the millions of refugees are now coming to pass.

Whatever the intentions of those who start them, most wars end up ruinous to both sides and even more to the people and land being fought over. The Iraq war has been no exception.

Demosthenes provides the take-home point.
[W]hereas opponents merely needed to show that the war was a bad idea, supporters needed to show not only that the war was a good idea, but that it would be fought in the way--and for the reasons--that they advocated. Of course, they didn't do anything of the sort- they just projected onto Bush and Rumsfeld's little adventure everything they wanted their fantasy war to be.

If you supported the decision to go to war, now is the time to start apologizing. And if you are feeling particularly magnanimous, you could also admit that I was correct all along.