2003 April 8

Reflections on "liberation"

Yes, boys and girls, it's time for another rambling essay attempting to make sense of my feelings about the war. It may or may not go anywhere. It may or may not be worth reading. But writing it all down helps me organize my thoughts, so what the hell.

I've just been watching CNN International (much more tolerable than any of the domestic news channels, including CNN Original), and in particular, a piece touring a Mukhabarat prison/torture facility with a group of Iraqis that included a former prisoner. And dammit, anything that shuts down places like that is a good thing. It was a putrid wound on our collective humanity -- cleanse it, incinerate it, cauterize it with purifying flame.

How can I possibly be against a war that will, at the least, do that? At heart, I suppose really I'm not.

Is this a galling about-face from my position of a couple weeks ago? Am I admitting that Rummy was right and I was wrong? Have I discovered I support Bush after all?

Well, yes, and no.

Yes, because I've never really been a proper pacifist. I supported the first Gulf War, and the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions, and Afghanistan, and basically I can believe this war is achieving something worthwhile. In a way, if I may be so egotistical, it's kind of an indictment of the Bush administration's approach to all of this that they managed to alienate someone like me so much as to make me oppose this project. I don't think I'm alone here.

On the other hand, no, because this moment of gathering triumph is an incredibly fragile thing. Thousands of people have died(1) -- a cost that will seem trivial if a peaceful, decent Iraq really rises out of this, but a criminal waste if it doesn't. It's not guaranteed -- it's worth remembering that once already in the past hundred years a foreign power (Britain) has already conquered Iraq, made some attempt to civilize it under an international mandate, and given it independence. And that this independent nation rapidly turned autocratic, underwent a series of coups, and ended up with Saddam Hussein. If that happens again, all of this destruction we're going through now is going to seem to have been pretty bitterly pointless.

And this is where Bush and I part company.


There's a common argument floating around that the humanitarian motive for this war is suspect because Iraq, as bad as it is, is hardly the worst cesspit of humanity -- look to places like the Congo for that. I've made this argument myself. The point of arguments like this turns on the idea that the hypocrisy on display indicates that the Bush administration really has ulterior motives, and thus isn't serious about reconstruction, and thus the reconstruction is unlikely to go well. The lack of attention being given to Afghanistan also tends to support this cynicism.

Arguments like this are now beside the point. Estimating likelihoods of success made sense before the war started, when there was still (at least in principle) a debate to be had about whether to start. The die is now cast; we can only measure the administration's success at living up to their promises. Let them prove they're not hypocrites -- there's no point in arguing about it any longer.


More seriously, we have the issue of unilateralism. It's in the reconstruction that we're going to see the price the United States has paid for the diplomatic clusterfuck that led up to this war. A new government is going to be installed in Iraq, and there is going to be a question of whether that government is perceived as a serious agency or a mere American puppet. A propaganda war is going to be fought on the subject, and I believe the opinions of the world community are going to be important in deciding that. The civilized democracies of Europe and the British Commonwealth have real credibility, even in places like the Middle East; if they backed up America, that would have moral weight, and if they don't, that's going to encourage all the Arab resentment. It's too bad the administration has spent the last year angering and alienating these countries.

Costs and benefits

One thing I've realized recently. If this all works, Iraq may benefit enormously. At worst, one hopes for at least five to ten years of decent, sanction-free rule may about balance out the current suffering resulting from the invasion.

On the other hand, the United States pays a number of prices. Encouragement of terrorism, diplomatic damage, and a minimum of $80B cash, just for starters.

In other words, stripping away all the ego and bluster, one could argue that what's going on here is the most powerful country in the world is doing on a non-trivial amount of damage to itself (and to the world order, it must be said) in order to benefit an oppressed people. Really.

I suppose I can't really oppose that.

I can, however, continue to hold a grudge about the way they've treated NATO, which, it seems inarguable, is one of the best and most valuable international institutions in existence.

(Note 1: Counting both armies and all civilians -- however much care the US and Britain have taken to minimize casualties, the basic fact is that these people wouldn't have died if there hadn't been a war, and that the party that started the war has to accept responsibility for that).

Post a comment
Yes   No   (like the Turing Test, but easier)

TrackBack Links
If you run a blog that supports TrackBack, you can link to this article with this TrackBack key.