February 11, 2003


BACK IN FORCE: So, after a long pause in blogging-- how about 1300 words on Iraq? To keep the pro- and anti-war halves of the blogosphere from becoming merely competing echo chambers, N.Z. Bear and the gang at Stand Down have coordinated a cross-blog debate on the Iraq war. The anti-war side discussed questions for pro-war bloggers on Stand Down; the pro-war side discussed questions for anti-war bloggers on The Truth Laid Bear. Now the questions-- five for each side-- have been collected, and it's response time. My responses are below. Enjoy...

1. Attacking Iraq has been publicly called a "pre-emption" of a threat from Saddam Hussein's regime, whose sins include launching regional wars of aggression. Do you think there is a clear and reliable difference between pre-emptive and aggressive warfare, and if so, what is it?
I’m not sure I accept what I take to be the implicit premise of the question-- that an “aggressive” war is by definition undesirable. If the dichotomy is simply aggressive vs. defensive, I don’t think that it’s correct to assume that defense is good, while offense is bad. (Someone please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted the question-- if, for example, there’s something more to “aggressive” than simply “attacking first.”)

The best historical case I can give are the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, fought under the “Clinton Doctrine” of humanitarian intervention. At the time, I was highly conflicted about American involvement in the Balkans (particularly in Kosovo); I was unsure that what the U.S. had to gain outweighed the risks those wars entailed, and somewhat disgusted by the Clinton administration’s hypocrisy in ignoring humanitarian crises in, say, Rwanda. In hindsight, though, I have little doubt that stabilizing that region has been an almost unmitigated good: lives have, on balance (even with collateral damage and anti-Christian reprisals), been saved; the Muslim population we protected from ethnic cleansing has become relatively infertile for radicalism; policy makers have fewer strategic factors to worry about in a region at a critical geographic crossroads.

If aggression, even in a case (like the Balkans) where there is little direct defensive benefit, can be an effective foreign policy tool, than surely pre-emption, which encompasses an essentially defensive goal-- stopping threats before they become harder to deal with-- must be an especially non-problematic brand of aggression.

2. What do you feel are the prospects that an invasion of Iraq will succeed in a) maintaining it as a stable entity and b) in turning it into a democracy? Are there any precedents in the past 50 years that influence your answer?
Maintaining Iraq as a “stable entity” is not an especially important goal to me. Certainly, destruction of the Ba’athist regime (a regime that maintains the current “stability”) is part of my hopes as a war aim. Will the borders of a free Iraq match the borders of the current Iraq? Only if this is important enough to the Iraqi people; if the country is to be divided, obviously a peaceful and democratic split (as happened in the former Czechoslovakia) is preferable, and Kurdish irredentism in Turkey in the event of Kurdish independence is something to worry about. (Kurdish irredentism in Syria and Iran, on the other hand, would be a bonus; it would weaken the Assad regime and might topple the mullahs.)

My one-man Iraqi focus group, Baghdad blogger Salam Pax, gives me the impression that, at least in Baghdad, maintaining Iraq’s borders is important to Iraqis. Certainly it is important to the Turks, who will be our allies in the campaign (Franco-Belgian maneuvering notwithstanding). Representatives of the Kurds, at least those in exile, seem to have given their assent to maintaining an intact Iraq, as have representatives of the Shi’ites in the South. For all these reasons, I think maintenance of Iraq’s borders is a likely outcome.

From this opinion logically flows my expectation that, in spite of anticipated difficulties (some of which are exaggerated, particularly the condescending notion that Arabs are culturally adverse to democracy), a democratic regime is likely. If the borders of Iraq are to be maintained, it’s hard to imagine any government that doesn’t give representation to the various ethnic factions; even the most aggressive authoritarian regime would lack the time to build its military infrastructure to the point where it could impose order. A republican or parliamentary system would provide the best framework for pursuing the interests of the competing factions, and is therefore likely to be sought.

The last part of the question asks for examples going back 50 years (to 1953), and thus cleverly disqualifies the post-war democratizations of Japan and Germany. But there are many more examples than that, even in the past 15 years. There are of course numerous young democracies that have been built in Eastern Europe on the ashes of communist regimes. In the Balkans, the scope and quality of democratic institutions varies widely, but the former Yugoslav countries taken as a whole are undeniably more democratic than in the days of Milosovic.

3. How successful do you think the military operations and "regime change" in Afghanistan have been in achieving their stated objectives? Does this example affect your feelings about war in Iraq in any way?
I believe these have been very effective-- the Taliban is no longer in control, and al-Qaeda is severely weakened. (I do worry about some recent reports about warlords who control certain areas and about how stable the Kharzi government is, but these are not insurmountable problems, and almost anything is better than the Taliban.) This probably does affect my “feelings,” but since I try (with varying success) to be as dispassionate as possible in analysis, perhaps a more pertinent question is if this affects my thinking. It does; the demonstration of American defense technology and how it has advanced in the past 10 years is factored into my cost-benefit analysis of war on Iraq. I’m more optimistic about the ease of achieving military dominance than I might be without the Afghan example.
4. As a basis for war, the Bush Administration accuses Iraq of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, nuclear), supporting terrorism, and brutalizing their own people. Since Iraq is not the only country engaged in these actions, under what circumstances should the US go to war with other such nations, in addition to going to war with Iraq?
Armed conflict should always be on the table as a last resort, but we should do everything to avoid war unless an informed cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risk of not confronting a regime militarily outweighs the risk of confronting it. In this framework, Iraq is an especially easy case; if left to his own devices, Saddam is likely to develop nuclear weapons, in which case dealing with him would become much more problematic, and if steps are taken to contain his nuclear weapons program without a war for regime change, the apparatus of containment would amount to an indefinite occupation and cause far more Arab anti-Americanism than any war.
5. The Bush Administration has issued numerous allegations about the threat represented by Iraq, many of which have been criticized in some quarters as hearsay, speculation or misstatements. Which of the Administration's allegations do you feel stand up best to those criticisms?
Regarding statements by the administration on Iraq, criticism that strike me as valid have been few and far between. If this question were more specific, I could decide which particular statements to defend, but I can’t answer which statements are most credible, since so many are equally credible. I suspect that direct answers to this question will be used to score cheap debate points (i.e. “None of the pro-war responders said that statement X stands up to criticism, so we can discount statement X.”).

I will say, however, that I do think the most widely criticized statements, the administration’s insinuation of connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda, do stand up under scrutiny. Colin Powell’s report to the UN, specifically the segment about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, filled in the details of one aspect of connection. I wrote about some of the older information we had here and here. (The too-soon predictions of imminent war are somewhat embarrassing, but I think the other points in these posts hold up well.)

Posted by John Tabin at February 11, 2003 01:15 PM