Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, October 30, 2006

THE NEW CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

Timothy Garton Ash is a member of the humane, generous-minded left. Famously, he wandered around Western Europe in 1989 enthusiastically reporting on the "velvet revolutions" that took place there. He is a British EU-phile who has sometimes written to promote a sort of pan-European nationalism.

Now he is voicing what is attempting to be a new conventional wisdom:

'They died in vain." Four words that are unbearable for the mother of a dead soldier and shaming for the politicians who sent them to their deaths. So our leaders say "they did not die in vain". But who now believes them?


The rhetorical question is a rather bullying tactic. Its subtext is "You can argue with me if you like, but for your own sake, please don't; you will be a fool at best and dishonest at worst. Really it's time to stop arguing about this and move on; you know you've lost, make the best of it." And I almost want to listen to that subtext, to be quiet in order to avoid being disdained. I can feel myself being turned into an isolated, bitter minority, erstwhile champion of a cause no one respects anymore.

But no! The anti-war side has not won the argument well enough for that. In fact, they haven't won it at all. In fact, they rarely even deign to offer any arguments: they merely point to the latest carnage as if the conclusions to be drawn from it were self-evident. Let me respond to the rhetorical question with a rhetorical question: What are the relevant measures, the data points, the indicators which would provide the basis for the judgment that the overthrow of what was probably the single most murderous dictatorship in the contemporary world was a mistake? On what basis could one justify such a view?

Unusually, Ash recognizes the successes of the war:

Yes, our troops removed a very nasty tyranny, to widespread initial rejoicing among the people of Iraq. For some Iraqis - especially Kurds and Shia - some things about their lives have got better. People who were in prison or in exile are now at home. Millions of Iraqis turned out to vote for political parties of their choice, despite intimidation. They have incomparably more free media than before and less reason to fear repression from the central state. A few have prospered. In places, the occupying powers have done major reconstruction work.


Uh, yeah. Pretty impressive achievements I'd say. Though of course some are left out. Iraqis have a democratic constitution. They have an elected government. And the "initial" rejoicing implies that the rejoicing was temporary, which is true of course (that's the nature of rejoicing-- you do it briefly, to celebrate something new; then you go back to normal life) but also that it was followed by regret, which is not true. The polls do not support the claim that Iraqis want to turn back the clock.

So what does Ash weigh against these notable successes?

[T]hat's about all one can say on the plus side; the minus list is so much longer... [T]he dimensions of our failure over more than 40 months of occupation are breathtaking. It starts with the most basic services. Despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, US government witnesses told the Senate foreign relations committee earlier this year that the performance of the Iraqi electricity, water, sewage and oil sectors is still below pre-invasion levels. The economy is worse in many respects than it was before.


The "in many respects" is revealing. No doubt; and the economy is also better "in many respects" than before the war. In particular, the most widely followed indicator of economic performance, GDP per capita, rose 50% in the first year, then mostly stalled, but is still much higher than before the war. About electricity, generators have sprouted up all over the country-- an interestingly libertarian alternative to the state-sponsored electricity monopolies that are the rule elsewhere.

Instead of going in fear of Saddam's secret police and torturers, people go in fear of gangs, militias, criminals and fanatics.


Which is worse? Maybe it's a close call. But I don't really think so. Systematic violence is more destructive of freedom than random violence, because systematic violence distorts and corrupts behavior. Random violence makes life far more uncertain; systematic violence picks off the best and bravest and makes everyone else hunker down and live a lie.

As one Iraqi recently commented: under Saddam we had a state, a bad state, but to have no state is even worse.


"As one Iraqi commented." Does that Iraqi represent the majority point of view? No. Any argument that the war was bad because it made Iraqis worse off needs a strong foundation in polling evidence. That evidence just isn't there. That means that claims of this kind should always be made in a speculative voice.

An intervention that was intended to make the world safer for democracy has made the world more dangerous for all democracies.


That's a big claim! What's the evidence?

The United States' own recently released National Intelligence Estimate confirmed that Iraq has become a "cause celebre" for terrorists. It has infuriated Muslims in our own countries, including the London bombers of July 7.


Not sufficient. No doubt Iraq is a cause celebre for terrorists, but it's quite likely that if Iraq hadn't taken place, they'd have some other cause celebre. That Islamic terrorists hate us is nothing new: remember 9/11? (What IS new is that fighting terror is a cause celebre for Iraqi democrats.) As for the London bombs, well, Turkey, Indonesia, and France didn't participate in the war, and they've all experienced Muslim violence, too. And again, remember 9/11. It was intended to be the signal that launched a global jihad against the West. How do we know it wouldn't have succeeded in stoking anger against the West, without the Iraq War? More fundamentally, what's your baseline? How much terror did you expect to occur after 9/11? More or less than what actually did occur? (I expected more.) Which needs explaining-- continuing terror, or the relatively small amount of it?

It has turned a militant, Islamist Iran into a regional winner, increasing the likelihood that it will try to develop nuclear weapons.


This is a funny argument. Niall Ferguson has argued that regime change was the right policy, but it should have been directed against Iran, not Iraq. At least I can understand that argument. But Ash opposes war with Iran; he even hopes that the one benefit of the Iraq War will be to teach the West that "we accept that this 'war' against terrorism, like the cold war, will never be won by military means." Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons before the Iraq War; we know Iran's drive for nukes is not a result of Iraq. That the Iraq War makes us less likely, in the short run, to overthrow Iran's regime, and thus stop them from getting nukes, I'll concede. But if we shouldn't invade Iran, then how would we stop them from getting nukes, with or without the Iraq War? Ash's allusion to the Cold War makes the point nicely: in the Cold War, we didn't stop the Soviets from getting nuclear weapons.

It has made the United States more unpopular around the world than at any time since reliable polling began and dramatically decreased the United States' capacity to get its way.


I'm less concerned with the United States' "capacity to get its way" than with whether or not we use that capacity for good or bad ends. In the 1990s, we had a lot of (apparent) power, and what did we do with it? Implemented sanctions against Saddam which left him in power but killed maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. If we have less power now, but we use more of it to help people, that's an improvement in my book. Anyway, what is "our way?" These are certainly better times for the world at large than the 1990s were. Democracy is more widespread; the economies of the developing world are booming; wars in Congo, Algeria, Yugoslavia, Mexico-Chiapas, and Chechnya have died down. We support freedom, democracy, peace, economic growth. We should want this to happen. Should we care whether it is happening because "the United States... is getting its way" or because someone else is getting their way? I don't see why.

Oh yes, and there's the cost. The Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the total, eventual costs of the Iraq war, "including the budgetary, social and macroeconomic costs, are likely to exceed $2 trillion" - that's $2,000,000,000,000. That would be $2,000 a head for each of the world's poorest billion people, who live (and die) on less than $1 a day.


Yes, but we can't just give that money to them, now can we? We've tried that, year after year, decade after decade, in dozens of countries. There's room for disagreement about the results, but certainly much of that money gets lost along the way, whether in paying bureaucrats or by creating perverse incentives. And ultimately, the worst-off people tend to live under evil governments, and there's not much you can do for them-- except remove the governments! Which now, thanks to Iraq, we know how to do, sort of.

It's not too soon to suggest that the American-British invasion and occupation of Iraq has proved to be the greatest strategic blunder of our time.


Well, yes it is. Or rather, it's not that it's too soon, it's that the evidence is much too ambiguous, and the counter-factual-- what would the world be like if Saddam Hussein were still in power?-- too unknown, indeed unknowable. The anti-war camp is trying to frame a new conventional wisdom. It is much too early for that, and the signs don't really point in the direction that the proponents of this conventional wisdom are trying to force us all to think.

One of the problems with the whole anti-war side in this war is that from the beginning, it has consisted of far too many quite different worldviews that tried to make common cause on this one issue. Many of these people could have made good arguments, but they tended to avoid it, for the sake of coalitional unity. The result of this was that cogently argued cases against the war were a rarity; far more often there were hollow slogans, superciliousness, arguments made against straw-men, efforts to create a pseudo-consensus. At the end of the day, the result is that the anti-war voices have failed to articulate a coherent counter-narrative. We're asked to believe, vaguely, "If we hadn't invaded Iraq, everything would be fine." Fine how? What is fine? Does it mean "like before?" Or what? Bush has become pretty muddle-headed and lost the plot of late, but from April 2003 right down to the present day he has never failed to meet the low standard of being more right than most of his critics.

3 Comments:

  • I am sad - frequently sad enough that I literally weep - to say that I no longer think we can help the Iraqis win through this debacle. I no longer know what we can do - suggestions of various kinds I would have had aplenty at late as midsummer, but now I am entirely at a loss. We waited too long to admit how badly things are going, and I can't easily imagine measures drastic enough to save the day. At least, I can't imagine we as a nation being willing to pay that price for a conflict that will always be egg on the face of our eagle.

    Is a civil war yet avoidable? Possibly, but I think it's up to luck more than wisdom, now. Do I support pulling out troops now? No, but our continued presence there may only be delaying what has become truly inevitable.

    I still hold out battered, frayed hope that this nightmare of low-grade civil war will yet drive Iraqis to embrace some moderate solution, but this is so much wishful handwaving: into this dark future I cannot peer.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:21 AM  

  • The Professor has been in denial for several years on Iraq, a denial
    which origin is in his assumption
    a priori of American goodness.Arrogance unnoticed by the
    arrogant is egregious.Ash is so much his superior it ain't funny.

    Let's instruct as to why: the 450.000-650,000 innocents killed far outweigh, per time occupied,Saddam's killing of Iraqis
    when extrapolated in proportion to Saddam's rule. The US becomes even more culpable when its complicity in Saddam's attack on Iran is figured in.

    Further all polls taken of Iraqis reveal, since 2004, consistently,
    dominant majority approval (now 64%) of attacks on US troops. The
    professors claims of "democracy" turn in on themselves, as, democratically the majority of Iraqis want US troops dead.

    Similarly, majority of polls of Iraqis, even those grateful the US removed Saddam, say in so many words,sometimes exactly,
    (agreeing with Saddam supporters of course) "but you really had no right to do it, thank you and get out."

    "Systematic violence" the arrogant Finn asserts "picks off the bravest and the best." Well, apart from the majority of professional Iraqi women claiming they had MORE rights under Saddam than at present or in the new governments proposed governance...1.the reality is, the "bravest" might have been in some instances Baathists; government opposition (if you stayed out of
    anti-government activity, Saddam left you alone)does not necessarily equate with either "bravest" (among them members of the Baathist Republican Guard) or "best" (very subjective.)

    And "random violence", in anarchy especially, also distorts and corrupts behavior arguably more than systematic violence, Finn hopes you don't notice.

    Quotes from the MSM shows the
    native Iraqi nostalgic for some ORDER,naturally,even Saddams former opponents,but Finn prefers anarchy-and Iraq is rated unstable in 16 of 18 provinces.

    As for Iran getting nukes,he assumes its wrong, but doesn't express belief it is wrong for Israel to possess nukes or suggest disarming Israel in this respect.

    Finally world terrorist ranks increase
    due to the Iraq war but Finny finds it "quite likely" that another "cause celebre" would have caused equal growth.

    Sorry, Finn, it is quite UNLIKELY anything less than an invasion of an unthreatening Arab country on the part of Israeli-dominated America (see Mearsheimer and Walt)would have led to such an increase with ominous implications for the future. One has already been hinted at by Richard Haas,who says the US has lost much of its influence in the Middle East as a result and is likely to lose MOST of it. And he, rather than the starry-eyed Finn, is in the corner of REALITY.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:16 PM  

  • Maybe those suggestions would still work, if undertaken immediately, before the sectarian war becomes any more entrenched and irrevocable. Say to the world "This has proven to be more than we can handle, but we have learned our lesson and are willing to make serious concessions to avoid disaster for Iraqis. We are willing to sacrifice our pride as well as our blood and treasure to bring success for those whose fate we took on our shoulders." Simultaneously, honestly assess the expendatures necessary to press for victory on all fronts simultaneously. Calling up more of our own troops is probably impossible now, but how about offering to attach some of our most experienced elements and loan some of our battle-tested equipment to nations willing to contribute their forces under more generous terms than we have offered so far?

    There may be other, better options than these. Whatever the case, there are - and have been all along - many unexplored alternatives to letting under-strength, under-funded, under-trained, over-exhausted US and UK soldiers struggle to figure out how to do it by themselves.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:19 PM  

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