None the Wiser

"Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think." --J.S. Mill

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Monday, March 31, 2003
We're Gonna Git on Down Now With the "Iraqi Freedom" Bullshit

As indicated in the title of this post, I am totally unconvinced that Operation Iraqi Freedom has very much at all to do with Iraqi freedom per se. Anti-war people have seized upon this obvious truth and turned it into a rapier with which to rhetorically flay the Bush administration. They're still wrong, while being right on a significant point, and to make matters more muddled the administration is inflating the importance of that one strength in the anti-war argument.

The hawks have essentially walked into a carefully laid trap by turning a conversation about global security into a conversation about Iraqi democracy. By shifting their stated goal to one that, for reasons I have discussed before, I think is almost impossible to achieve, Bush and Co. run a real risk of having this operation judged a total failure when all is said and done. Moreover, the constant changes in rationale from week to week give the impression of dishonesty and hypocrisy, and on this the anti-war crowd is on very firm footing. Let me elaborate more succinctly and simply, since this is getting muddled fast.

The basic rationale for Revenge of the Kurds in reality is the threat that Saddam poses to the United States as a major sponsor of international terrorism, a demented megalomaniac with nuclear ambitions, and so on. The UN has no collective will of its own, so the anti-war position that it should deal with the problem is entirely untenable. The approval of the "international community," as defined by the left, necessitates a thumbs-up from Cameroon and Guinea but not those laughable and insignificant Czechs and Poles, so here too the anti-war crowd is faced with the incongruence of its position with common sense. But the moral case for war--ah, here the pacifist sees his opening.

It runs something like this:

The pacifist can declare that killing is wrong, and that war will result in the same, and so the war is also wrong. In order for this position to hold, they must also demonstrate that the Iraqi people will suffer grievous losses among their civilian population. Since this eventuality is totally consistent with the forcible occupation of a country this seems like a reasonable assumption. Indeed it is, and no technological leap has yet eliminated this certainty from the realities of war (nor do I hope that it will, but that is another topic).

In the face of numerous civilian casualties, the advocate for war must demonstrate that the Iraqi population will be better served over the long haul if the United States goes to war with Hussein. This is not to say that the war is about freeing the Iraqi people. It is only intended, for purposes of the present argument, to demonstrate that whatever benefits the U.S. aims to gather by invading a foreign land are not ethically disqualified by a net loss for the well-being of the indigenous inhabitants of said territory. Its a necessary deflection of the humanitarian issue, and that's why Hussein's treatment of average Iraqis is such an issue. (I happen to believe that if the people of Iraq were complicit in his ambitions, and actually adored Saddam, then that would be all the more reason to go stomp on that situation before it really got out of control, but never mind.)

So the pro-war crowd is forced into an unwieldy utilitarian argument upon which the morality of its position appears to depend, that being that fewer Iraqis will suffer over the long haul, even if more suffer in the short term. Like all utilitarian arguments this suffers from the basic logical infirmity that we can only make imprecise predictions about the future at best, and the quality of life in Iraq is difficult to quantify in the first place. So one has to demonstrate that Saddam is so irretrievably evil, and that life under his regime is so awful, that even getting invaded and bombed into smithereens is obviously more desirable than enduring ten more years of it.

Here's the quandary. By this time we're not talking about weapons of mass destruction, or the collapse of Cold-War security frameworks, or 9/11, or any of those, you know, actual reasons we're going to war. We're instead talking about the poor benighted Iraqis. If the war only makes sense under the assumption that the Iraqi people would be glad to be rid of him, then that becomes the watermark for our success--anything short of jubilation in the streets will seem to disprove the premise (hence all the handwringing in the press over the conspicuous absence of pro-American parades in Baghdad).

Furthermore, Bush has conceded so much ground in the debate to this consideration that right now it's drowning out every other reason for war. Of course, the anti-war protestations on this point are extremely disingenuous. They claim that the shifting rationale, from WMD to "liberation," is proof positive that in fact neither one is the real reason we're fighting--it's oil, or Israel, or Bush's personal dementia. But the fact that Bush keeps changing his story shows that he doesn't mean what he says.

This is unfair, however. It was not claimed in the beginning of the debate that this was a war of liberation. It was the pacifist who demanded that humanitarian concerns be addressed by arguing that too many Iraqis might suffer in the event of military conflict. It was to neutralize their absurd objections that the nature of Saddam's police state became an issue for the pro-war crowd. Now that the case has been made that their concerns were naive and misguided, they are crying foul and accusing the Bush administration of changing the subject.

"Operation Iraqi Freedom"? No, I don't care what anyone says, this is not principally about Iraqi freedom. The anti-war leftist rightly protests that if it was about freedom then we'd go to war all over the globe against every dictator we could find, but that isn't our policy. So this war must be about something else. (They're missing the point, of course. We're interested in this particular dictator for reasons not directly related to the treatment of his people. The pacifist injected that element of solicitude himself, and having seen that concern thoroughly assuaged is left without an argument other than, "If we're not going to war over Iraqi liberty, then we ought to be.")

Again, Bush has conceded WAY too much ground here, as has almost every supporter of the war I've read lately. "Iraqi freedom," as we understand freedom, is very likely to die in utero even if the war is won in spectacular fashion. By making that objective the very raison d'etre of the war, Bush has set an impossibly high bar for success, all in an attempt to rejoin a ridiculous, if emotionally compelling, complaint from his ideological enemies. This charade has been picked up absolutely everywhere among anti-idiotarians. "Pro-liberation" is a favorite euphemism for "pro-kick-serious-fucking-ass." Yes, it's true, strictly speaking, just as I think it is also true that anti-war demonstrators are pro-Saddam in a kind of way.

But let's be clear: Iraqi liberation was never supposed to be anything more than a by-product of the war; at most it could be fairly regarded as a factor that mitigated the hideous nature of the act, so as to render the act itself morally palatable. Saddam's wickedness was only ever supposed to be relevant insofar as it disqualified him from the nuclear club. But now, we are forced into a situation in which we are falling all over ourselves, even losing the lives of coalition soldiers, to prevent civilian deaths and make good on our promise of an antiseptic war--more reconstructive surgery than amputation. By redefining our mission almost completely, we are forced into the unpleasant predicament that success will be measured against the hope of total Iraqi capitulation to American post-war whims, and the historic success of democracy in the region.

Worst of all, we are forced to wage a relentless and unwinnable propaganda war against the various and sundry Arab despotisms in the region for "hearts and minds" in the Arab "street." This particular front in the wider war is unwinnable because we have a free press and they do not, period, end of story. Joe Six-Pack in Riyadh is stunningly ignorant of the world about him, and ill-disposed to giving Americans the benefit of the doubt in any event. All of this adds up to make the entire prospect of waging a "war of liberation" in the Middle East a preposterous and unnecessary rationalization for acting in the interest of our national security.

So in sum, we have accepted the premise of the anti-war position and allowed our own position to become hopelessly infected by it. We have an entirely new mission statement, and it is one that conforms to the standards of our political adversaries. This is why the press coverage on al-Jazeera and even Fox News is such an incredibly hot issue. Perhaps, it now occurs to me, this is all to the good. Maybe that's why democracy and open debate work. It allows us the use of moral language, and those moral currents indelibly find their way into our national consciousness. Revulsion at the nature of warfare is imminently healthy, to be sure, and acting in conformity with that impulse is critical to our spiritual well-being.

I only hope that by fighting our war for someone else's reasons, we don't wind up wrapping victory in the mantle of defeat, and thereby satisfying the ambitions of those whose hopes lie with an American "failure" in Iraq--however defined.

Erin O'Connor has more (natch) on Professor Mogadishu. I have something in the comments section. And the self-referential blogosphere continues its march toward the dubious honor of becoming the biggest free lunch since the exponential expansion model of the early universe.

Good grief, I am a lazy bastard. I've been gone from NTW for so long that I've probably lost my entire readership. Both of them. More in a moment...