Towards A Good Samaritan World

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


One liberal anti-war columnist, Mark Brown of the Chicago Sun-Times, considers changing his mind after last week’s elections. What if Bush was right all along? he asks, and concludes that:

If it turns out Bush was right all along, this is going to require some serious penance.

Maybe I'd have to vote Republican in 2008.

Keep in mind that word: “penance.” We’re likely to hear more of it. Here Dennis Prager demands that the left “apologize to the people of Iraq.” Debra Saunders notes the silence from the anti-war left since the elections. Who has the heart to be a skeptic now? Well, Kerry did, and he’s being mocked all over the blogosphere for it. (Mickey Kaus notes: “Kerry is pathetic, but is he that pathetic?”) Meanwhile, past war-disdainers like Josh Marshall are mostly just silent about it, concentrating on Social Security reform instead. John Schrock at the Jujisui-Generis blog blasts Tim Cavanaugh of Reason magazine’s skeptical response to the elections. The article is gratifying to hawks inasmuch as Cavanaugh writes that “The hawks have been winning the argument over the rightness of the Iraq war all along.” Behind that striking concession there is plenty of sore-loserish grumbling: the hawks are accused of “corny speechifying” and “mawkish elegies,” and while Cavanaugh predicts that the hawks will win the debate in the end, he argues—well, not quite argues, doves have rarely risen to the level of argument for some time now, but implies, suggests, whatever—that that victory will have little to do with really being right. Schrock highlights this passage:

The groundwork for validating the Iraq war is already well in place, and in a few years the case will be embarrassingly easy to make: That wasn't so bad, was it—a few thousand dead to subdue a land mass larger than Vietnam?

Schrock fires back: “I could use many words to describe the 'land mass' of Iraq on Sunday. Subdued would not be one of them.” Yes, but let me add that Cavanaugh has expressed, in one sentence, both a cogent retort to reams of anti-war hysteria about the costs of the war, and a grotesque but perfect example of “moral equivalence.”

Now "moral equivalence" is a term of abuse frequently encountered in the right-wing press, but it’s worth being explicit about what it means and what’s wrong with it. Moral equivalence might be defined as assuming moral equivalence between us and them, but when you put it that way, it sounds like a good thing. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves to the same standards we hold others to? Yes, and that’s why the discourse of moral equivalence is so insidious: it bears a superficial kinship to Kant’s categorical imperative, Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” Jesus’s Golden Rule, John Rawls’ “curtain of ignorance,” and the other devices moralists use to exhort us to substitute judging others with introspection. The problem is in defining the same standards: what is it that makes the situation the same? It's the glossing over of relevant differences that makes moral equivalence invalid.

“Subdued.” No, we did not subdue the Iraqis. Saddam subdued them. We freed them. Saddam used force to rule them; we used force to let them rule themselves. Our invasion of Iraq is not morally equivalent to, say, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, because freedom and democracy are not morally equivalent to communist tyranny. The Czechoslovaks would have rejected communism if they could. Iraqis are embracing democracy because they can. Cavanaugh’s invalid—but its very invalidity makes it seem clever somehow!—use of the word “subdued” here abolishes these oh-so-important differences. Freedom is slavery is the subtext of Cavanaugh’s rhetoric of moral equivalence. Not that Cavanaugh is aware of that. Up against a wall, scrambling to retain some dignity, he doesn't really how his rhetorical stunts are corrupting him.

The other key passage in the Cavanaugh article is:

The real surprise is how even the war skeptics seem to have no counternarrative to put up against the story of a Miracle In Mosul.

Cavanaugh thinks the doves should have (as Schock puts it) “seen that a sweeping electoral success was inevitable, and [been ready] to prebut with a snappy "counternarrative." But the counter-narratives have been failing for a long time, and they were never very good. There were the paranoid conspiracy-theory counter-narratives, such as Chomsky’s rants, and blood-for-oil. There was the multiculturalist Arabs-like-dictatorship counter-narrative. There was the this-isn’t-in-America’s-national-interest counter-narrative; the Bush-lied-people-died counter-narrative; the “illegal war” counter-narrative. The Vietnam-quagmire narrative, which my fellow patriot-blogger Hamilton rebuts here and Christopher Hitchens demolishes here, was practically the thesis of the Democrats’ presidential campaign this year. So there are plenty to choose from, but are they any good? Bush lied, people died? Well, no, it’s pretty clear he didn’t lie, and even if he did it wouldn’t necessarily invalidate the war; and the point that people died is willfully naïve unless you’re a Gandhian pacifist, for the rest of us accept that sometimes a cause is worth some lives. Blood for oil? Did we want to raise the price of oil (for Bush’s oil-industry buddies) or lower it (for oil consumers)? Since the price of oil has been high since the war, does that represent a failure of our war objectives? And is the motive even relevant? If oil companies sponsored a war only for profit which had the side-effect of liberating millions of people, shouldn’t we celebrate that anyway?

Fahrenheit 9-11 was the most high-profile attempt to frame a counter-narrative. The funny thing was, though, for all the hype, it didn’t try all that hard to construct and follow through with a coherent master-counter-narrative. There were a lot of conspiracy theories, pointing this way and that, but they were usually only half-developed, and despite Moore’s skills as a storyteller, I came away from it just confused about what he was alleging.

Some counter-narratives were refuted by the vote. It’s now clear that Arabs-like-dictatorship-because-of-their-culture is a bunch of huey. The “imperialism” charge has also lost much of its force. I was amused to read from a Middle Eastern commentator:

For the United States and Britain, whose troops invaded and occupied Iraq, these elections may ascertain the Arab proverb: Witchcraft can turn against its sorcerer. It is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that an Iraqi government somewhere down this road to democracy will ask the United States to leave.

Hehe. I guess it’s harmless that this reporter misunderstands the United States and our war aims so much as to think that this would be a bad thing. Of course it would be a great victory. Meanwhile, other counter-narratives have just as much force as they ever did. The claim that the Iraq war was not in America’s national interest has not been invalidated by the Iraq vote. But whatever heartless curmudgeons are unmoved by the Iraq vote know that there’s not much use trying to convince people of their point of view. Heck, blood-for-oil could still be valid, as far as it goes: maybe the oil companies figured a democratic government would make for better business conditions. So what? An illegal war? Maybe, but it's an illegal war that has done a lot of wonderfully good things, so the war's illegality discredits the law and not the war. War critics have plenty to say. But none of it is an adequate answer to the colossal fact of a fallen totalitarian regime and the joy of a people embracing freedom. Most of their arguing, or rather—for generally it doesn’t deserve to be dignified with that word—their posturing was (is; or will we hear from them again?) based on pretending not to see that. And that’s why Bush’s simple “The world’s a better place without Saddam Hussein” was enough to refute them all.

Is it just me, or are the supporters of (leaving) Saddam (in power) becoming an echo of past generations of free-country fellow-travellers of totalitarianism? Many intellectuals in the 1930s, some of them well-respected then, some of them well-respected even now, expressed sympathy for fascism and Nazism. Even more intellectuals, from the 1917 revolution through the 1960s and beyond, supported communism, first the Soviets and later Mao and the Vietcong. Only a couple of years ago did historian Eric Hobsbawm recant from his lifelong support for Stalinist communism. What do such writers and intellectuals do when there is a sea-change and their past views become an embarrassment? Well, they keep somewhat quiet about them. Sometimes they recant, or they offer crypto-recantations, or they re-interpret their past, or they just move on and hope their former views don’t become too crippling a liability. Reading Fred Kaplan piece “Birth of a Nation?” in Slate, you might not guess how fiercely critical he had been of Bush and the war in the past. I’m not saying Kaplan needs to recant: just that the change in tone is notable. Not the first or the last, I predict. Meanwhile, I can’t catalog or give sufficient praise to all the eloquence that has poured from the pro-war stalwarts, from Jonah Goldberg to David Brooks. They don't gloat that they supported the liberation; instead, they just pay their respects to the new Iraq, and let a subtext of we are all neocons now seep in.

As the old doves begin to retreat, the hawks are moving ahead. A brilliant post at Belmont Club shows how closely a recent Newsweek article tracked his own history of the insurgency (one piece of the revisionist history is being written: the insurgency owes much to the diplomatic process, which gave Saddam time to prepare a guerrilla resistance, thus the “rush to war” charge, which was always transparently idiotic, turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth) and adds that:

The strategic center of gravity of the American thrust into the Middle East was not Iraq the geographical entity, as so many have I believe, mistakenly put it, but the Iraqis. The war aim was access to an alliance with an unlimited pool of Arabic speakers, not a puddle of oil in the ground. The return of Iraqi security and intelligence forces will be a nightmare for regional dictators in the short term; but the advent of even a quasi-democratic Iraqi state will, without exaggeration, be their death-knell.

There is a story about a lion who catches a mouse. The mouse pleads for his life, promising that he’ll do anything he can to help the lion in future if the lion sets him free. The lion disdains the mouse’s offer of help—“I’m so strong and you are so small, how could you ever help me?” he asks—but he takes pity on the mouse and frees him. Later, the lion is trapped in a hunter’s net. The mouse finds him there and, repaying his debt, gnaws through the cords so that the lion can go free. I’ve sometimes made the same argument about Iraq—that they may help us in the future if we help them now—but I never really meant it. I was just saying it because I thought it would be good for Iraqi self-esteem if the argument started circulating. But wow. If Wretchard is right, and I second Roger Simon in considering him one of the most penetrating analysts of world affairs writing today, the story of the lion and the mouse may prove relevant to Iraq quicker than I thought.

Anyway, while Schrock thinks that Cavanaugh is charging the hawks of being in bad faith, it seems to me he is almost admitting to a certain amount of bad faith on his own part. Why should doves have to look for counter-narratives? Can’t they just tell us what they think? Some war critics have insisted that the Bush administration was in bad faith, that WMDs, ties to terror and democracy in the Middle East can’t have been the real reason for the war, and have asked: Why are we really in Iraq? Now that the Bush administration has followed through with its promise to carry out elections, now that Iraqis are embracing “the brave new world we thrust upon them” (as Mark Brown put it), it’s time to turn the question around. You have opposed the war. You have given us reasons, but they are not persuasive, and when events invalidate your reasons, you do not recant. Now we hear you musing aloud about what counter-narratives to use next. But, counter-narratives aside, what are your real reasons for opposing the war?

I think the Old Testament contains a hint, in the story of Jonah. Jonah was told to prophesy to the Ninevites, refused, claiming to be afraid that the Ninevites would kill him, caught a ship to Spain, caused a storm, was thrown overboard, and spent three days in the belly of a whale, which made him famous. That’s the part everyone knows. People might also remember that when the whale spat Jonah up on the land, he went to Nineveh after all, and preached, and the people repented in sackcloth and ashes. But that’s not the end of the story. Jonah was angry that the Ninevites listened to him and repented. He complained to the Lord. Jonah was a Jew, and the Jews were supposed to be the Chosen People. Now, with the Ninevites repenting, there was competition. The Jews would lose their privileged place. Jonah wanted to keep God’s word for the Jews alone—that was the real reason that he didn’t want to preach to the Ninevites in the first place. And I think many Iraq war opponents are like that. Why should we want Arabs to be free? Why should we want the Iraqi economy to grow? Right now, we’re the Chosen People, the richest, the freest, the strongest. We can sit at the UN table with a special legitimacy because we are free and democratic. The more democracies there are, the less privileged Americans will be by comparison, the less special legitimacy we will have. Would we really rather live in a world full of free republics, where we were just one of 200+? Saddam was useful in that way: wicked and illegitimate, he had little hope of taking from us that most critical resource, the moral high ground. The Arabs have higher birthrates than we do. As time passes, there will be many more of them, and only a few more of us. They will wax and we will wane. If they are democratic, too, will they eclipse us?

Long live the free Iraq.


  • Counter Narrative: Mission Accomplished.

    By Blogger TheJew, at 2:15 PM  

  • Bush got slammed for the "Mission Accomplished" appearance on the aircraft carrier even by some hawks, and now it's generally considered a gaffe. Personally I disagree. They had accomplished a mission. Our war objective was to remove Saddam's regime, and Saddam's regime was gone. That is, first of all, the reason why all the talk of Vietnam and of losing the war is so silly: we already won the war. Bush was right. The original mission was accomplished.

    As far as I'm concerned, the war consisted of two missions, regime change and nation-building, which overlapped, of course, but which are conceptually separable. They are tied together by the Pottery Barn Rule: "If you broke it, you own it." But the Pottery Barn Rule is a fallacy. We didn't break it, particularly not by the invasion. It was a hell-hole long before that.

    We could have pulled all our forces out of Iraq by the end of 2003 and we would still have won the war. Alternatively, we could have pulled our soldiers back to bases and remained aloof. One idea I've been toying with is that we should have disavowed all nation-building and even tried to preserve the Baathist power structure as much as possible at first. We would have failed, and a revolution would have welled up from underneath, and we would get some bad PR for cooperating with nasty old Baathists, and we would end up getting chased out by resurgent Iraqi democrats.

    Anyway, I supported both the regime change and the nation-building missions, but the former much more strongly and less ambiguously than the latter. And I don't think Mission 1 gave us any moral obligation to engage in Mission 2. The corollary of this argument is that when Bush got on the aircraft carrier under the "Mission Accomplished" banner, he was perfectly right.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 2:36 PM  

  • Lancelot,

    Well said. "Corruption" is exactly the correct word to use.

    As for spreading democracy, of course we must. Either various forms of democracies will prove fruitful and multiply, or various forms of tyrannies will. If it's a choice between sitting at the table as one of many or standing almost alone against a massing of dictators, who in their right mind would prefer such a lonely throne?

    And as for losing our claim to having a moral high ground because we are a rare democracy, that is nonsensical. If you sit on your butt while others suffer, you don't have the moral high ground. One can be as gravely serious as one likes at the Auschwitz memorial ceremony, but that aura of virture does not survive the publication of a report announcing that there is no genocide in Sudan.

    We MAY restore our standing by our willingness to bleed on the ground in the cause of freeing a dictator who truly was a threat to us with as little damage as possible to his subjects. We could NEVER stand as anything but a hypocrite if we had completely left Iraq, and thereby abandoned those in the the north and the south to their fates. We could not, after 9/11, remain in the status quo. The world would not support it - the containment scheme for Iraq had been under extreme attack before then.

    The democracies of common law and the newly liberated Eastern bloc rose to the cause. We may be headed down, but Poland and others are headed up. There will always be an island of freedom as long as there are people willing to fight for it. There may come a time when the people of Iraq remember Poland, and say no to some encroachment of the East. We don't know what we have done, because the future belongs to the Iraqis. We only know what we have not done, and that is to repeat the errors of the late 1930s.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 5:09 PM  

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