Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Iraq: phantom counterfactuals (A response to Juan Cole)

Dear Prof. Cole,

I follow your daily "Thoughts on the Mideast" on your website with great interest, since your commentary is almost always intelligent, interesting, and well informed. I may not always agree with your conclusions, but even when I don't, I generally find your judgments to be uncommonly thoughtful and perceptive.

However, every once in a while you say things that leave me perplexed--or even incredulous. For example, today you remarked:
You know what? If Bush had put off the war 45 days, he could have gotten a majority of the Security Council to approve the war. And, if he had put it off until September, he might well have gotten the French and Germans and Russians aboard.
I really can't imagine why you believe this to be the case, but at all events it is not at all self-evident. In fact, this analysis is almost certainly wrong.

By February, the French and Germans had made it clear that they were never going to support serious action against Saddam Hussein & his regime (and the same was probably true of the Russians). The French and Russians, who had colluded for years with the Ba'ath regime to undermine the "containment" system (which is a major reason why containment had become unsustainable, and was approaching a condition of terminal disintegration) were pursuing a fairly open strategy of stringing out delays until they could somehow get Saddam Hussein off the hook. And this was a more than plausible strategy (as Saddam explained in his Al Usbu interview back in 2002). For the US (and for the Blair government, as well as the American-aligned Arab regimes), the political, diplomatic, strategic, and economic costs of maintaining this limbo situation indefinitely would have become insupportable. And far from reducing opposition to war, continued delay would only have allowed its momentum to build further.

As it turned out, the war against Saddam Hussein was a relatively "unilateral" US operation (which was a result that Tony Blair was, quite commendably, trying to avoid). There was a political and diplomatic debacle, with a lot of blame spread all around. And, as you correctly point out, many of the consequences have been pretty awful, and may get worse. But it is unrealistic to imagine that there was some easy and cost-free alternative available. Realistically, by the spring of 2003 the alternative to military action would almost certainly have been the success of the Franco-Iraqi strategy of delay, yielding a victory for Saddam Hussein and the collapse of containment, and this would have been a lot more catastrophic (for Iraqis, and for the rest of us).

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Another recent comment of yours (on July 12, 2003) resonated quite strongly with me:
I couldn't bring myself to be against the war because I warmly welcomed the removal of the genocidal Saddam Hussein. But the smallness of the troop force sent in and the clumsy and disastrous way the Defense Department has handled the post-war period has outraged me [....]
That hits the nail on the head, I think.