Saturday, October 22, 2005

Rosenfeld & Yglesias, "The Incompetence Dodge" (American Prospect)

To: Sam Rosenfeld & Matthew Yglesias

Hi Sam & Matt,

This is a quick reaction to your American Prospect piece, "The Incompetence Dodge," whose message is summarized as follows:
The liberal hawks now say the idea of the war wasn’t bad, just its execution. This saves face -- and serves a more dangerous function.
I found your discussion interesting and intelligent, as one would expect, and I think many of your critical points are on-target or at least plausible. I still disagree with a number of other points you make, but I will leave those alone for the moment.

Instead, I'd like to focus on the core issue that I think your piece (like similar pieces in the same genre) largely evades.  You are now convinced, in retrospect, that going to war in 2003 was not just a bad idea, but an irretrievably bad idea.  OK.  But what do you think would have been a better policy, back in 2002-2003, for dealing with the very real problems posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq? It's not enough to point out that the war has had terrible consequences--for Iraqis, for us, and for others.  Can you identify and defend a realistically available, morally acceptable, politically workable alternative course of action whose likely and predictable consequences would have been less disastrous than the ones we've actually seen so far?  If you can't, or if you don't see any need to try, then I'm afraid you don't have an entirely serious argument, since you've simply dodged the crucial question.

=>  In case that last point doesn't strike you as compelling, let me explain more fully.

There were a lot of bad, dishonest, misleading, and/or disingenuous arguments both for and against the 2003 Iraq war. Let's leave those to one side, too (proving that the US, French, Russian, & other governments were dishonest, cynical, and misleading is like shooting fish in a barrel), and just focus on the substantive issues.

From the multiple strands of pro-war arguments, I always felt most sympathetic to the outlook of the "progressive," humanitarian, pro-democratic camp that you attack in your piece, and I make no apologies for this sympathy. However, my own decisive reasons for supporting military action (while recognizing that there were some serious and plausible reasons for feeling very uneasy about it) were always more negative than positive. That is, I did not support the war because I expected rosy outcomes. Instead, I became (and remain) convinced that the war was necessary and justified primarily because I became (and remain) convinced that, by the end of the 1990s, all the realistically (as opposed to wishfully) available alternative options led almost certainly to politically catastrophic and morally appalling consequences.

The key point was that, by the end of the 1990s, the whole sanctions-&-containment system cobbled together in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War was becoming increasingly unsustainable (politically, diplomatically, and also morally), not least because it had been systematically and deliberately undermined by a range of governments acting in loose collusion with the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, and by 2000 or so it was on the verge of terminal disintegration. The perceived economic & political interests of a number of key states, reinforced by a massively successful propaganda campaign which convinced large sectors of public opinion across the world that US-imposed sanctions were starving Iraqi babies, all pushed in that direction. (How many opponents of war in 2002-2003 had previously been urging a policy of tightening up sanctions and continuing them indefinitely?)

The announced intention of the US government to take military action, backed up by sending over a hundred thousand troops to the Middle East, made a certain number of these governments willing to go through the motions of reconstituting containment, forcing Saddam to accept one more round of weapons inspections, and so on. However, when Saddam Hussein once again failed to comply with the terms of UNSC Resolution 1441 (as confirmed by Hans Blix), the governments of France, Germany, & Russia made it clear that they were not going to support military action under any circumstances.

At all events, as Saddam Hussein helpfully pointed out in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al Usbu in the fall of 2002, he had been through this game several times before during the 1990s, and he felt quite unfazed. If he and his foreign supporters could simply stonewall and delay long enough, international political opposition to the war would reach a crescendo, and the fragile coalition against him would fall apart.
No doubt, time is working for us. We have to buy some more time, and the American-British coalition will disintegrate because of internal reasons and because of the pressure of public opinion in the American and British street.
But Saddam Hussein's remarks in this particular interview (whose authenticity I can't confirm) are just icing on the cake. If we put together various other statements of Saddam's with the pattern of his tactics in previous confrontations during the 1990s, his analysis of the situation in the period leading up to the war is clear enough. Saddam was well aware that the US couldn't simply leave all those troops sitting around in Kuwait indefinitely. And the moment those troops had to be withdrawn, the pressure was off. If he played for time a while, the financial and political costs of maintaining the US/British military buildup would become exorbitant, the Iraqi summer would arrive and make military action impracticable, the political will to continue the confrontation would "disintegrate," and in the end his supporters on the UN Security Council would once again get him off the hook, forcing the US into one more humiliating backdown & troop withdrawal. Once the troops were withdrawn, he could go back to ignoring all those UNSC resolutions. However, this time the US had staked so much, and had pushed allied governments in the Arab world so close to the edge, that they'd never be able to mount a credible threat of this sort again.

This was actually a pretty sophisticated and perceptive analysis on Saddam's part, and it makes clear the basic logic of the Franco-Russian-Iraqi strategy of delay & deferral. Of course, as often happened, Saddam Hussein did miscalculate significantly in some respects. But what's clear is that, by the middle of 2002, there were really only two realistically available outcomes--military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein & his regime, or a victory for Saddam Hussein & his foreign backers. The latter would have been a prelude to the final disintegration of the sanctions-&-containment system, a disintegration which in practical terms would have been irreversible. In realistic terms (and I mean realistic, not "realist"), those were the genuine options--in my possibly fallible but firm opinion--and any serious discussion of the issues surrounding the 2003 Iraq war has to begin by facing up to this reality.

Now, some people might argue that the collapse of containment would have been no big deal, or at least that the consequences couldn't possibly have been as bad as the consequences of military action that we've actually seen. I believe that's wrong. Most of the discussion of Saddam Hussein's missing "weapons of mass destruction" have had a certain irrelevance and unreality from the start. The size of his existing stockpiles was never the key question. Most informed analysts (including all the major intelligence services), however much they disagreed on details, generally agreed that Saddam Hussein had active nuclear, biological, & chemical weapons programs. (It was German intelligence, not the CIA, that said in 2001 that Saddam was probably about 3 years away from getting nuclear weapons.) It turned out they were all wrong, and the whole thing was a fantastically successful bluff on Saddam's part--though the only reason we know this is precisely that the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was overthrown--but, fundamentally, so what? This was just a matter of timing. Once containment had collapsed and Saddam Hussein was out of the box, he would have been ready and eager to resume his NBC weapons programs. (Scott Ritter, for example, explained this all quite cogently in 1998, before he experienced his strange conversion over Iraq.) It would no doubt have taken Saddam Hussein a while to get a nuclear weapon, and perhaps some stroke of luck in the meantime might have prevented this, but otherwise it was just a matter of time. In the medium term, given everything we know about the nature and history of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime and Saddam Hussein's own history and inclinations, one could expect renewed military adventurism, another of his catastrophic miscalculations, and a bigger and more destructive war down the line.

In the relatively short run, one predictable and almost certain consequence of the collapse of containment would have been another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan--which, it is quite safe to predict, no one would have lifted a finger to stop. Perhaps I have some kind of strange psychological quirk, since the genocidal mass murder of ethnic minorities seems to upset me more than it does some other people, but I think the prevention of this genocidal bloodbath has to be seen as one argument (among others) in favor of taking serious action against Saddam Hussein & his regime. You cite the astonishing argument by Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch to the effect that once a government is able to finish a bout of genocide without being stopped, it should basically be allowed to get away scot-free. This argument has been effectively demolished on both legal and moral grounds by Juan Cole and others.

(To borrow the ultra-legalistic discourse employed by a lot of opponents of the war, Saddam Hussein was in the position of a convicted serial murderer who was conditionally free on parole, or a repeated wife-beater constrained by the terms of an injunction. If such a person repeatedly violates the terms of his parole and/or the injunction, it is not necessary to wait until he actually commits murder yet again. And let us not forget, by the way, that Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Marsh Arabs in the early 1990s, which a number of people argue met the technical legal definition of genocide, and which no one lifted a finger to stop, occurred after the passage of UNSC Resolution 688 that directed him to stop slaughtering civilians.) But even leaving that aside, intervening while genocide is actually taking place or "avenging past slaughter" are not the only options, since there is also the option of preventing a fully predictable genocidal bloodbath before it happens.

And so on. I don't want to leave the impression that these are the only likely and predictable catastrophic consequences that would have followed the imminent collapse of the sanctions-&-containment system, but it would take a while to lay them all out in details, and those will do to suggest the key background considerations.

I waited all through the debates of 2002-2003 for opponents of the war to offer any half-way honest and plausible alternative to military action that took these realities seriously, and that offered a plausible likelihood of preventing the consequences I've just outlined. I never heard anyone offer any such proposal that struck me as even remotely realistic or convincing--which is part of the reason I decided that, on balance, the war was necessary and justified.

=> But all this is just background. The key issue that your piece evades, it seems to me, is this. Political judgment requires making choices between a range of realistically available options, based in large part on an assessment of the likely consequences of different courses of action. Your piece argues, in effect, that many of the negative consequences of the decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein & his regime in 2003 were readily predictable and, in fact, highly likely. OK, let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're right.

That's not enough. The relevant comparison has to be with the likely consequences of other possible courses of action available at the time (including inaction). So, to reiterate, what do you think would have been a superior alternative back in 2002-2003? Can you identify and defend a realistically available, morally acceptable, politically workable alternative course of action whose likely and predictable consequences would have been less disastrous than the ones we've actually seen so far?

This is not a rhetorical question, by the way. If you or anyone else could (hypothetically) present such an alternative scenario that I found at all plausible & convincing, then I might be forced to reconsider whether my support for the war (trepidations and all) was actually intelligent or justifiable. In the absence of such an account, then it seems to me--rightly or wrongly--that your discussion fundamentally begs the question.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub