June 03, 2004


One of the reasons that I have posted so little the last few weeks is that I'm just plain tired of arguing about the Iraq war with everyone. Everyone I know is convinced that it is the most awful thing that has ever happened, that it is an unmitigated disaster, that every step is a mistep, every use of force excessive, every restrained response a retreat, every accusation true, every defense a lie.

I did not buy it when Afghanistan was a "quagmire", I did not buy it when our drive to Baghdad was "faltering", I did not buy it when we "retreated" from the disaster in Falluja, I did not buy it when Sadr had "widespread support" in the South. I do not buy that Iraq is or will be a failure. Some things have gone better than expected, others have gone worse. There have been bad choices, stubborness, insensitivity, poor planning, partisan favoritism, and, yes, even some criminal behavior. A critique based on execution and mistakes made I would and have listened to. A shrill scream for "peace" or to withdraw or to make it multilateral, I have no time for – particularly now with a new government selected and rebuilding work to be done.

But because I'm tired of the bickering, I have tried to do something more productive. I've started to volunteer and try to raise money for Spirit of America, a charity devoted to sending educational & medical supplies and sporting equipment to Iraqi and Afghan children as a gift of the United States. I blogged about them months ago when I bought 220 frisbees for Iraqi children. Now, I'm trying to do more. Don't be surprised if you hear from me, asking for donations, or to come to events, or just to help pack stuff to send. I encourage anyone who still reads this after all the activity to go to the site and donate or volunteer. Hopefully, this positive action can be something that I'll get no grief for and that everyone can get behind.

And I think the positive stuff will, perhaps, also re-energize me for the arguments that I'm as sick of shrinking from as I am of engaging in.

Posted by richard at June 3, 2004 07:57 PM

I know that in your mind I'm lumped in as one of the anti-war guys, but all I've ever said was this:

We need to make sure that the good we do outstrips the bad. That means calculating in the damage we've done to our relationships with European states, the credibility we've lost because of the "hide the ball" game the Administration has played in justifying what it's done, the opportunities we've created (and arguably encouraged, if you buy the agitprop that radical left-wing outlets like the New Yorker and NPR are selling — for disasters like Abu Ghraib.

You're right, of course: it's not fair to do the calculation now, when the positive results will likely be accruing in the long term. The fair thing to do would be to wait and see, and to reserve judgment. Who could quibble about a well-governed and largely secular Arab state that likes and appreciates the US and presents a bold counterpoint to the terror-generating regimes elsewhere? Only the freaky-deak Wahabbists would object to it: We've noted that wife-beating incidents are down in Iraq vis-a-vis the other Arab states. Let's get those numbers back up, people . . .

In recent weeks I've been using Just-in-casionally to springboard into the various Iraqi blogs. I was not disappointed to see that many of the people there are hopeful for their future and appreciative of American efforts to supplant the old regime and institute a democratic government. I don't celebrate the bad news. I saw an article the other day with the headline "Just Face It — Iraq is Vietnam." My first thought was not, as you might expect, "Right on!" but "BULLSHIT." The situations simply aren't comparable. Maybe eight years from now you could make the comparison, but it's way too early to say, and I don't see Vietnam at the end of Iraq's current trajectory.

I never shrilly screamed for peace, although I thought multilateralism was worth considering (even if you didn't have the time for it). I certainly would not accept that the principle of sovereignty should afford a dictator the right to continue to oppress his people. I remember being very critical of the long-term imposition of economic sanctions, which had the effect of heaping poverty and misery on top of the people who were already politically oppressed. At the macro-level and in the long term, it's probably better for the citizenry to spend ten days ducking while we kick the crap out of their country than to let them languish for years under economic sanctions in the hope that they'll overthrow their government someday. So screw "sovereignty."

But I'll be forever suspicious of the Administration's motives. We still don't have a clear idea of why we did this. Breach of UN Security Council resolutions? It's a stretch to say that Dubya's crew would ever sacrifice an American life to protect the integrity of international law (that's not a normative criticism, that's a descriptive statement I expect Bush would embrace — and since I'm not at all clear that international law exists, I'm hard-pressed to oppose him on that point).

Weapons of mass destruction? This theory would support an invasion of Iran and North Korea. Are we prepared to do that? If not, we have to establish why Iraq is different.

Terrorist ties? Well, you lay out the case above about forty times more comprehensively than Dick Cheney ever did with his "trust us" tour of the Sunday talk shows on this point. Thanks for that, because I did find it enlightening. But if those bullet points comprise the four corners of the Baath-al Qaeda connection, is the case really strong enough to distinguish Iraq from, say, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, and (again) Iran?

The "Saddam was a bad man" theory? I'll buy that, but given the scores of bad men running countries these days, you have to be ready to accept some measure of skepticism from the audience here (lots of bad men in Africa, too, there's just no oil there).

It might be fair to say that some combination of all this makes up the case for war. And the sumtotal of all those concerns (even counting those that ultimately proved completely fictitious) might well be enough to create a justification. But one more consideration to plot on the How the War Went balance sheet is what other "bubble countries" think they might be in for in future years. That is, have we made it entirely clear what will ex ante put you in a position to be attacked by the United States? Or at least clear enough to elicit the sort of responses we want from these at-risk countries? The Libya example says yes. To my mind, though, a lack of clarity and consistency in our foreign policy can be destabilizing: I worry about the "learned helplessness" effect that behavioralist psychologists observed in subjects exposed to randomly applied reward/punishment schemes. Depression usually followed.

I don't doubt that the Iraqis will come out ahead in the end, holding a strong and flourishing baby republic in their hands after perhaps a long and strenous birthing cycle. God bless 'em when they get it, because they deserve it.

I particularly liked Spirit of America's article about Afghan kids playing baseball in Afghanistan. That must really stick in the Taliban's craw. Maybe someday, twenty years from now, we'll be seeing some Kabul-born first baseman take the field in the major leagues.

All of this, of course, I meant as clarifying and conciliatory, but please feel free to take it as fighting words — just as I took your note that you're tired of arguing as an appropriate occasion for this lengthy response. If anything, our back-and-forths on this site demonstrate how hard it can be to forge the mutual understanding that is a precondition for peace — particularly when our ears are still ringing from the last exploded artillery shell.

Posted by: Brad A. at June 5, 2004 07:08 PM

Don't worry, I took it as clarifying and conciliatory. I obviously think that Iraq was justified for "some combination" of the reasons.

But that's a long post that I don't have in my right now.

Posted by: richard at June 6, 2004 12:53 PM

Maybe George W. can join you sending frisbees next January. Neocon's finally using their hearts where they might possibly do some good, since their "big" ideas coming from their brains have done considerable harm. I can't wait for the Democrats to put the costs of the war in context, like say, doubling the number of teachers in every school across America. What are the benefits of "liberating" Iraq again, Mr. Bush?

Posted by: Michael W. at June 7, 2004 09:44 PM

It's too early to tell the benefits of a free Iraq. It could take 5 years at least to see them. If for one think they will, in the end, be bigger than throwing the equivalent amount of money at a broken public school system.

The fucking impatience is what gets me. If you thought there were any circumstances under which it would be all neat and tidy by now, then you need to get your head examined, and I question your judgment.

What did Germany look like in 1946? How long did it take before we brought the troops home? How about Korea in 1954? And those troops? How long should it take to recover from 30 years of tyranny when a 20,000 strong terrorist network and 3 neighboring countries are willing to do everything to stop you?

But feel free to get some partisan shots in, by all means, rather than address the issues – that's apparently what the comments section is for around here.

Posted by: richard at June 7, 2004 10:19 PM

Actually, just felt bad about the last comment. Brad certainly tried to do more than score partisan points, and I appreciate that.

Posted by: richard at June 7, 2004 10:20 PM