Sunday, June 25, 2006

Derbyshire and Iraq (and Iggy et al.)

A week or so back, there was a really good piece on Crooked Timber that I hadn't caught until recently discussing Iraq war opponents and Iraq war supporters.

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.
I know I harp on the point made in the last paragraph a lot, but it still deserves to be made: whereas 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.

This is the main reason I have trouble with Ignatieff supporters' talking points on Iraq; because they keep claiming (like most of the "liberal hawks" that supported the war) that the war wasn't fought in the way that they wanted. The question is, did they honestly expect that it would? The architects of the war were Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, for God's sake... who in their right mind would think that that trio would care in the slightest about the necessary pre-conditions to build a reasonably liberal and representative democracy in the middle east? They certainly hadn't demonstrated any such competence, nor were they making any plans that demonstrated it. Far from it, they seemed to be living in a fantasy world--one that too many American policymakers seem to live in--where every fight is WWII, and every opponent is Germany and Japan. The whole enterprise was doomed, and one's fantasies about a "perfect war" that were deviated from don't change that.

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