Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Should Bush pull out of Iraq to restore his popularity? The Wall Street Journal cites some interesting statistics suggesting that Iraq is driving the decline in his popularity:

The survey of 1,005 adults, conducted March 10-13, shows that a congressional candidate favoring withdrawal of all U.S. troops within a year would gain favor by a 50%-35%, while one who advocates staying "as long as necessary" would lose favor by 43%-39%. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points.

What makes those attitudes especially frustrating for Mr. Bush's party is that the poll shows resilience for the president on issues that Iraq has shoved into the background. Nine in 10 Americans back Mr. Bush's efforts against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, two-thirds approve his stance on the recently passed USA Patriot Act, and majorities express support for his Supreme Court appointments, Medicare prescription drug benefit and warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency.

Moreover, Americans have hardly embraced Democrats as an alternative. Eight months before Election Day, the Democratic Party draws positive ratings from just 32% of Americans, while 37% have a negative view of Mr. Bush's political adversaries. That's nearly as weak as the Republican Party's 34% positive rating and 43% negative one. Among political independents, negative views of the Democratic Party outweigh positive views by 38%-22%.

On domestic policy, I think there's an argument-- from the point of view of principle, not just political self-interest-- for following the polls, except when moral side-constraints come into play (for example, political leaders should always defend free speech, or habeas corpus, regardless of public opinion). Bill Clinton was a preference-aggregating president who did what the polls said was popular. It led him reasonably well on domestic policy, because all the interested parties are also voters and/or campaign donors.

On foreign policy, I generally think that politicians should follow their consciences and not the polls. Why? First because the interested parties are mostly foreigners whose voices are not included in polls; second because moral side-constraints come into play more frequently; but third because whereas the public, collectively, has very good information about domestic policy issues, they have poor information about foreign policy-- usually.

In the case of Iraq, however, the public has good information about Iraq at least in the sense that they follow the issue closely. Of course, the picture of Iraq portrayed by journalists is heavily slanted towards the negative and is flawed by bias and lack of perspective, but those are weaknesses of all public discourse. Also, America's investment in Iraq is higher and so Americans have a right to a greater say there. So in this case public opinion should have more of a say than in most foreign policy decisions. Americans have a right to say what their tax dollars should be spent on. And while, hierarchically, the US army obeys Bush, morally, it ultimately serves (mostly) the American people (though I think our soldiers, to their credit, also serve many ideals loftier than the mere national interest; but this remains secondary). For Bush to defy the will of the American people for a sustained period of time smacks of usurpation.

When the war began, it was backed by large majorities. Bush thought that overthrowing Saddam was the right thing to do-- I agree-- but also, there was no conflict, then, between his conscience and the duties of his office as a democratic leader. Toppling Saddam was the will of both the Iraqi and the American people. Today, it's still the will of the Iraqi people that the Americans stay, but that's no longer the will of the American people.

Opinions on Iraq may be divided between those which are based on a consideration of the counter-factual-- what Iraq is like now compared to what it would be like if Saddam were still in power-- and those (the vast majority) who don't. The opinions of the latter are junk, with no value whatsoever. Reams and reams of very self-assured editorial space argues, in effect, "The situation in Iraq is BAD!!!!!" as if there were alternative scenarios under which Iraq would be as peaceful and prosperous as Connecticut and it's Bush's fault that it's not. The subtext of this argument is that if we hadn't invaded Iraq, the Iraqi people would still be suffering, but we wouldn't know about it, and so we wouldn't feel sympathy and the resulting sense of responsibility. These people wish they could go on using Saddam's tyranny as a blindfold, protecting them from the uncomfortable knowledge of how many of their fellow men live. One of the most disturbing aspects of the Iraq War is how many pundits turned out to be so uncritical and opportunist as to succumb to this line of reasoning.

Commentators who consider the counter-factual, who compare Iraq to what it was and would have been, generally come from the right and are Iraq War supporters, but while I find the opinion that the Iraqi people would be better off with Saddam in power than they are now hard to defend, those who believe this in good conscience deserve respect.

In any case, the American people have a point. There's only one superpower, and the opportunity cost of devoting so much of the superpower's attention and resources to one medium-sized Middle Eastern country is high. Three years ago, there was only one Iraq: one murderous totalitarian regime that was defying UN resolutions and that could be overthrown with limited loss of life, while advancing the war on terror. Now there are many Iraqs: many countries with weak states and sectarian divisions, under-developed and threatened by terror. Iraq's uniqueness comes from its being a test case for democratic transformation, a symbol: but one must be wary of fighting for symbols.

To stage a withdrawal from Iraq now would require almost as much courage as it took to stage the initial invasion. The consequences of withdrawal for the Iraqi people could be grim, and certainly worse than if we stay, but on net we will be benefactors to Iraq regardless of what happens in the future. And the consequences for the world if the superpower allows itself to be seriously weakened-- if the center ceases to hold-- could be much worse.

That's what my head says. But my heart can't bear to see America turn its back on Iraq the Model and his democracy-loving compatriots. Hmm. I don't know...


  • Near-term withdrawal would be a disaster. There are plausible and possibly correct arguments for setting a timeline for withdrawal (on the scale of years, not months) but Murtha-style rapid redeployment would almost certainly be a disaster for everyone. We cannot afford a civil war in Iraq. Iraq's connection with terrorism before the war was tenuous at best (at least compared to its neighbors) but it is intimately linked now. Widespread sectional strife in Iraq would provide a sorely-needed replacement for the loss of Afghanistan as a chaotic safe-haven and training ground. Further, once there are no Americans or unified Iraqi "puppets" to target, then they are once again free to target the West with their new expertise and resources.

    No, rapid withdrawal at this point is neither a moral nor pragmatic option.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:45 PM  

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