Friday, September 05, 2003

Holy moly. It IS the longest and most rambling post I've ever written.

At long last, the next installment of the sporadic online debate (more like a conversation) between PragueBlog's Steve Hercher and I about Iraq. You can call this "Two Expat American Liberals Talk About the War" because that's pretty much all it is. It's a pretty amorphous debate, if indeed that's what it is, because the last time we had a back-and-forth was nearly a month ago, and quite a lot has happened in a month. So if you're joining this conversation in the middle, here's a recap.

To start with, Steve has been a solid supporter of the war from the beginning. I've been more skeptical, or at least conflicted. In the run-up to war, I spent plenty of time arguing with people, especially my Czech friends, that going to war to unseat Saddam Hussein would have overall positive consequences, and was therefore a good thing. I supported Bush's saber-rattling policy, and if you favor a saber-rattling policy, you run the risk that you'll eventually have to use that saber, if only to preserve your own credibility.

Yet when Bush decided to launch the war without the cover of a single international organization, I suddenly turned against it -- a position I firmly stand behind today, not that it makes a whit of difference. I admit I have some trouble explaining my change of heart, if that's what it was. Although I believed in the morality of the war, I thought it was wrong to do it "alone," which in practice is a code word for UN approval. (As a firm believer in NATO, I would have supported a NATO-led war without UN approval, like Kosovo. On that note, see this speech by Wesley Clark, who announces his POTUS candidacy on or about Sept 19. We'd have had the same problems with the pesky French and Germans, so it makes little difference.)

Steve wrote: "In conscience, I can't accept any scenario in which the absolute moral justification for the removal of the regime isn't admitted as a first principle." Yes, I agree. A bit of honest moral arithmetic shows that the regime had to go. Saddam was not just any evil potentate, but probably the worst of them all, and if you deny that, as many on the anti-war left have, then you simply haven't done your homework and there's no point in arguing. On a moral level, I believe this war was just, and I see how many would want to leave it at that. If it's right, unfurrow thy brow and just do it! If the French or whoever else doesn't agree, screw them!

Then again, as an absolute moral principle, O.J. Simpson should be in jail and Robert Mugabe should be dead, yet I wouldn't support a vigilante lynch mob going after O.J., nor would I suggest that the CIA assassinate Mugabe.

[Belch] Where was I?

Oh yes, our last exchange. I cited this Slate article by Fred Kaplan touching on the finer points of nation building, an area which, to say the least, is not George Bush's forte. I made a pessimistic prediction that Bush would high-tail it out of Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein is killed or captured, and that civil war would ensue. To put it another way, I predicted that we'd leave Iraq in worse shape than that in which we'd found it, an ignoble retreat from the grand plans for a redesign of Mid-East politics that formed, in part, the noble justification for this war.

The title of Fred Kaplan's article refered to "the former Bushie who knew Iraq would go to pot." You responded correctly by pointing out:

Well, it hasn't gone to pot - yet. Remember a week or two ago all the blog posts about all the good news and progress in Iraq that is (almost deliberately) not being reported. It's WAY too soon to make any judgments on the success or failure of the post war period in Iraq. The received wisdom among the war's opponents just a few months after its end that it's going badly or has already failed smacks more than a little bit of being a wish. "I told you so" arguments are diluted a bit anyway by the aim of the arguer to cover him or herself in glory.
I might ask, one month later: Has Iraq gone to pot yet? It's a facetious question, and forgive me if it's comes across as snide or "I told you so." But since our last exchange, bad has gone to worse (the Jordanian embassy bombing, which took place the day after the above-quoted message) to much, much worse (the UN bombing) to looking pretty awful indeed (Hakim's assassination). No, Iraq has not gone to pot. As Fareed Zakaria put it: "It might already be too late to achieve a great success in Iraq. But it is not too late to avoid a humiliating failure."

This exchange began because I defended Josh Marshall's dog-after-a-car pursuance of the 16 words in the State of the Union. I still think it's right to harp on that. Here's why: First, many of us weren't absolutely certain that going to war was the right thing. There were pros and cons on both sides, and reasonable people fell both ways. For some, the bullshit about Iraq having a nuclear weapons program (along with WMD in general and ties to Al Qaeda) tipped the scales. And if the government's to have any sort of accountability to the public, it can't fudge something of that magnitude. (I, for one, assumed that Iraq's 12,000,000-page December declaration was total bunk, based on what the administration said; and at the time, I was quite convinced by Colin Powell's UN presentation. Now I'm not so sure on the former, and I feel like a total sucker on the latter.)

Second, it's a classic example of the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity issuing from the White House. (If you haven't already, check out this piece at the Daily Howler. The author rips the Washington Monthly's "Mendacity Index" as "puerile," "embassassing" and "fatuous" -- but then goes on to list all the lies the liberal media has allowed, and continues to allow, Bush to get away with.)

Finally -- and most importantly -- the misstated evidence of WMD truly gets to the heart about what's wrong with Bush & Co.'s approach to the war: Ideology always seems to trump fact. They believe their own propaganda, again and again and again.

You are correct about the galling tendency among the anti-war left to say "I told you so." You're also right that some of the negative reporting from Iraq has had a certain wishful-thinking quality to it. That's bad. But the responses of the hawks have been at least equally infuriating. There has been a tendency on the part of most hawks to discount any and all evidence of profound miscalculations on the part of the U.S. as the bitter grumbling of the anti-war liberal media. ("You say that war's going badly? Yeah well you would say the war's going badly so shut up.") I think that's even worse, because the stakes are higher than a simple game of "told ya."

Saying that Iraq has not gone to pot "yet" sort of begs the question: At what point can we say that it has gone to pot? At any point? From a humanitarian point of view, I don't see how the removal of Saddam Hussein is enough, by itself, to justify the war if we don't see if we don't see tangible and widespread evidence of improvement (or at least reasonably expected future improvement) in the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Right now, on day-to-day, week-to-week level, we've made life in Iraq much worse. The goal hasn't been reached. There's been no "Mission Accomplished." We haven't succeeded yet, and in fact, it seems we're doing quite badly, the ongoing denial of the administration notwithstanding. Things are certainly going much worse than we (or at least I) expected.

That's the question for the hawks now: At one point would you admit that the war's going badly? When Don Rumsfeld says so? Never? Sometimes I get the feeling that even if Rummy himself were to come right out and say we're in quagmire, many would accuse him of going wobbly. (I can just imagine it: "Are things going badly? Yes. Are we in a quagmire? Gosh, you could say that." Not bloody likely.)

It reminds me of that screed I wrote a long time ago about the blogosphere's flood of media criticism. If you're too selective about which news your trust based on the slant of the source, sooner or later you're bound to get something royally wrong. And Bush did. Indeed, in this regard Bush is the perfect president for the blogging era. He believes what he wants to believe, regardless of what's happening on CNN, because hell, he gets all the news he needs from MyDefenseSecretary.com.

So.... All that said, it would be nice if at this point everybody just threw away their hawk and dove hats and just focused on the problems at hand. Openly and realistically. That seems to be happening, thankfully, by sheer force of necessity. The turning point was probably the UN bombing. In my post one month ago, I was way off on at least one thing. I wrote, "So who's going to stand up and demand we send more troops to Iraq? A Republican? A Democrat? Try nobody. It's the politically unsayable." Try again. Today, just about every sensible person, right and left, is calling for more troops in Iraq. By "sensible people" I don't include Donald Rumsfeld, Imam Moqtada Sadr or Hakim's fundamentalist followers. (Can anybody explain to me why Rumsfeld, he of such pathetic company, is still in charge of the Pentagon? It's not like the armed forces pay him much attention anymore.)

Today, there's the important question of the UN and the Iraqi administration. First of all, anybody who doesn't expect France and Germany to tell us to take our resolution and shove it -- or who expects the Indian government to risk the wrath of a billion angry voters, most of whom want nothing to do with Iraq, by lending the US a hand -- has a rather tenuous understanding of human nature.

But beyond that, I think giving more control to the UN -- that is, more political control than Bush currently has in mind -- is actually a good idea.

That's a big change of heart. After Saddam fell, I argued (not on this blog, unfortunately) that the UN should not get involved in Iraqi's physical and political reconstruction. The UN is a bureaucracy, I said; the UN means slow-moving committees and debates and resolution with four-digit numbers and long acronyms that nobody can ever remember. What Iraq needs is immediate action, I said; they need the power and water turned back on, and they need security re-established, and they need it immediately, and only the United States Army and a U.S.-led civilian administration is in a position to do that.

Um, that was in what, April? Sorry to be so impatient, but I'm ready to give the UN a go at it. If the Security Council backs a multinational, U.S.-led security force with a UN political administration (much as described by David Ignatius, for instance), I'll be impressed if it can achieve anything remotely close to Bosnia-style stability. I'd even call it success. I don't think it's too early to say the administration is pursuing a failed policy in post-war Iraq; indeed, it's becoming increasingly dangerous not to own up to it. To Bush & Co., I believe Dee Snider of Twisted Sister said it pretty well: "If that's your best, your best won't do."


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