Saturday, October 21, 2006

Contra Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg has a welcome article on National Review Online this week. The essence is that he admits that the Iraq War was a mistake but goes on to qualify his current misgivings about it. In general - I agree with him, but not on the crucial point.

I say the article is "welcome" because it airs some dirty laundry amongst us war supporters that, in my opinion, very much needs airing. That is: the main reason we are unable to admit we were wrong is because the anti-war movement is so galling. Galling to such an extreme that it's truly painful to have to say anything that might please them in public.

Goldberg writes:


... the antiwar types aren’t really pacifists. They favor military intervention when it comes to stopping genocide in Darfur or starvation in Somalia or doing whatever that was President Clinton did in Haiti. In other words, their objection isn’t to war per se. It’s to wars that advance U.S. interests (or, allegedly, President Bush’s or Israel’s or ExxonMobil’s interests). I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side.


Hear, hear! I downright despise the anti-war crowd, and for precisely this reason. In general, as a Libertarian, I favor non-intervention in the affairs of other countries. Ideally, I am opposed to any US troop presence on foreign soil. In reality, of course, this has become impossible, and so I only oppose our current deployments if they are part of an overall package of withdrawal from the world. If we're going to stop interfering (and I do think we should), I need to know that we're going to consistently not interfere. If we are going to interfere, however, we should only ever do it to promote US interests. I can't think of a more morally repugnant use of US military power than to use it for things that either don't directly benefit us or are likely to benefit people we don't like. People enlist in the US military to defend the US. I do not believe that we can justify risking their lives or safety or spending tax-payer dollars on purely humanitarian missions, or on missions that are for the good of the UN alone. Like every other nation in the world, the US' first and last responsibility is to its own people. And so to the extent that Goldberg is right about the anti-war crowd only opposing wars that benefit the US in some way, they are perverse.

Goldberg continues:


But that’s no excuse. Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003.


And I agree with this as well. It's shameful to let one's emotions cloud his judgement on such important issues, but that is precisely what lots of us have done. We're annoyed with the anti-war crowd to such a degree that we let it get in the way of facing US policy squarely and giving it the honest treatment that it merits. It is in this sense that I think this "dirty laundry" needs to be aired: we should admit to ourselves that this is what we've been doing as a first step to not repeating the mistake in the future.


I do think that Congress (including Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, and John Murtha) was right to vote for the war given what was known — or what was believed to have been known — in 2003. And the claims from Democrats who voted for the war that they were lied to strikes me as nothing more than cowardly buck-passing.


Here I think Goldberg is giving in a bit too easily. It's definitely indisputable that Democrats claiming that they were lied to is cowardly buck-passing. They had the means to double-check the claims - or else declare themselves unsatisfied with the evidence with which they were presented. Granted, it was perhaps not politically expedient to do so - but that is the basis for calling them cowards. For what is a coward but a person who does what's comfortable as opposed to what's right?

Where I think Goldberg is giving in too easily is in saying "what was believed to have been known." In fact, we had good prima facie evidence that Saddam was running a clandestine weapons program at the time - namely that he refused to continue even with inspections that he had allowed in the past. What he did was present the UN with an unreadable bundle of approximately 40,000 pages of documentation about any and everything that would not conclusively show that he had dismantled his program. I do not think the US needs to wring its hands in guilt over the invasion of a country that behaved as though it had the weapons we accused it of having. Saddam could easily have averted catastrophe by not fitting the profile. I don't even think this would have meant a loss of face for him: he could plausibly have claimed, to the Arab world, to have been skillfully manipulating the western press.

The overall point here is correct: by the most obvious criterion, the war was a mistake. Saddam didn't have the WMDs after all. But the burden of proof - by treaty agreement and UN Security Council Resolutions which he had agreed to follow - was on Saddam. I don't think the US should apologize for his failure to meet it.


Washington’s more important intelligence failure lay in underestimating what would be required to rebuild and restore post-Hussein Iraq.


Indeed. And I still don't understand this. Supposedly, Bush's team is more capable at these things than pretty much any president's team since WWII. And indeed, I think lots of this Administration's foreign policy has been nothing short of brilliant strategically. I'm an especially big fan of the way they've been handling North Korea (and I do think they've been handling it). So what gives with the total lack of sensitivity to the political situation in Iraq? We have more than enough defectors to tell us the truth - and Rumsfeld himself supposedly knows a lot about Iraq. I just don't get it. I can't help feeling that this is the result of an attempt to run a war on the cheap - and that's unforgiveable if true.


According to the goofy parameters of the current debate, I’m now supposed to call for withdrawing from Iraq. If it was a mistake to go in, we should get out, some argue. But this is unpersuasive.


Again, right. And I think the peacenik crowd really gives itself away on this point. If they really cared about the Iraqis, as they claim, then the last thing they should want is the US abandoning them to their fate after having destabilized their political situation.


I think we should ask the Iraqis to vote on whether U.S. troops should stay.

Polling suggests that they want us to go. But polling absent consequences is a form of protest. With accountability, minds may change and appreciation for the U.S. presence might grow.


Morality demands we do this, probably. And I do agree that with real consequences the results of the poll might come out differently. South Korea is exactly like this. They give a good anti-American rant about being "occupied" when things are calm - but once the US starts threatening to pull out, they sing a very different tune. One of the more satisfying political spectacles I have ever witnessed was ROK President Noh Moo Hyun's 540 degree about-face when Rumsfeld started talking about pulling the bombers back. He'd campaigned on an anti-American platform, suddenly the spineless bastard loved everything about us.

There is, however, one problem with Goldberg's plan - and that gets back to my point about the US only doing what's in its interest. The only thing worse than fighting a war that was a mistake is fighting a war that was a mistake and getting nothing out of it. It's not that I don't care about the suffering of ordinary Iraqis under the Hussein regime. I do. But I don't think that it's appropriate to form foreign policy around "doing good," for several reasons. The main one is given above: soldiers are real people, and we should not ask them to sacrifice for goals that do not benefit their loved ones if we can help it. But there are others. "Liberated" people have an annoying tendency not to recognize that they have been liberated, for example. Anyone who wants an anger adrenaline rush need only go to South Korea to see what I mean. The current generation of South Koreans mostly deserve to die in a horrible fire. Ordinary Americans suffered and died for their freedom (from what has to be one of the worst regimes in history), and all they can do is complain about a non-existent "occupation," and that only because it's "cool" to be nationalist. Disgusting country.

So what is it that I'm not satisfied with if we have to remove our troops at the Iraqis' request?

That has to do with my personal rationale for the war. As I said, liberating the Iraqis from Hussein is certainly a good thing to have done, but I can only ever call it a side-effect, a bonus. It can never, for me, be the justification for a war. What justified the war, for me, was the need to get close to Iran without basing our troops in Saudi Arabia. What justified the war, for me, was the need to create a stable Arab democracy in the region as an example to the others. What causes Islamism is the general decrepitude of living conditions in the Middle East. Middle Eastern nations are among the most corrupt in the world, and they are all miserable failures. What the Islamic world needs is a thriving democracy, one where people can put their energies into opening shops and factories rather than waging holy war on the rest of the world. We are not at war with Iraq specifically - we are at war with the whole region. We are at war with the culture that demands that it prove its greatness to Allah by demolishing the beautiful and humanitarian civilization we've built in the West. Now, granting the Iraqis the right to throw us out might achieve this latter goal - we just don't know. But if they do indeed throw us out we'll have missed out on the most important goal: that of getting bases for our troops along Iran's border.

Iran is run by a criminal, Islamofascist regime bent on the destruction of the US, the spread of its ideology throughout the globe, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons to achieve this goal. It's difficult to imagine that we won't need to bomb them someday. For obvious logistic reasons, it would be easiest to do that from Iraq. Syria is probably less of the threat - but it doesn't hurt to keep on eye on them as well. Again, Iraq is in ideal location from which to do so.

Invading Iraq was a brilliant move from this point of view. We needed a labrat to prove to the Middle East that it too could have modern, prosperous nations, and we also needed an outpost from which to launch possible future police actions against Iran and Syria. Iraq just so happened to be the best-educated, most secular nation in Arabia - the one where democracy is most likely to take hold. It was also nicely suited geographically to the second goal. And as a cherry on top, its leader was being appropriately uncooperative. The Bush Administration saw an opportunity and took it.

It's a damn shame the gamble doesn't seem to be paying off. But I think it's too early to give up and go home. There's too much at stake at this point to do that.

So yes, I see where Goldberg is coming from, and his reasoning is not wrong. It's just that...well, I think the purpose of this war never actually had anything to do with WMDs. We have yet to achieve our actual purpose, and I think, if possible, we should stay until we do.

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