Yesterday’s post about the mosque bombing and the general topic of making political decisions drew forth a host of interesting comments. I gave a very brief response here, but I think a few more words are in order because the issues raised are quite important and the answers are not intuitively obvious.
First, let me say that anyone who wonders what “neocon” actually means, and why I had the temerity (or the stupidity) to name my blog thusly, should look here for a brief discussion and a good link to further information. It has become clear to me that the name “neocon” functions at times as a sort of red flag waving in front of the bulls who’ve decided–for whatever reasons–that neocons are the scourge of the world. As I put it in that linked “Why neo-neocon?” post:
Neocon” is used by critics as a code word for a lot of things, among them: imperialist, unrealistic dreamer, and scheming puppeteer (along with its subset, scheming evil Jewish puppeteer).
The comments on the thread about the mosque bombing display the three charges to a greater or lesser extent. I think, however, that the accent there was on the “unrealistic naive and stupid dreamer” part.
The question raised in the comments that especially interested me (and the one that I plan to try to answer in this post) is this:
Purely as an exercise. If 9/11 was the trigger event to “make you a neo-con”. What kind of event would make you give up this credo?
Is there an outcome in Iraq that would suffice for this event?
The questioner is probably a new reader here, and therefore may have missed my previous statements about how 9/11 was the trigger for my change only in the sense of starting a process that took several years to complete. I tried to make that clear in my “About me” section, and I took several thousand words to explain it, here. Please read them.
But suffice to say it actually wasn’t a single event that changed anything for me. And I doubt a single event would change me back.
What would? The brief and quick answer I offered last night was this one:
What would it take for me to stop believing that, as Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”? Perhaps nothing, short of seeing another form of government that is superior, in action. I have yet to see that. What would it take to get me to believe that someone like Saddam shouldn’t have been overthrown? Perhaps nothing, short of a demonstration that leaving him in would have been better (and I can’t quite imagine how that would be demonstrated).
If the neocon agenda were to guide foreign policy for the next couple of decades (highly unlikely, by the way), and if in that time the world erupts in an enormous conflagration of some sort, it will be clear that the neocon agenda did not prevent very very bad things from happening. I always knew that was a distinct possibility. But if I managed to survive such a conflagration, I still would never know what the alternatives might have brought–the same, worse, or better?
All I can do–all anyone can ever do–is evaluate the situation on the basis of my reading, my thoughts, and my observations. I do quite a bit of all three, and I have seen no other policy that seems as though it would have been a better way to have handled the world we have faced during the last four and a half years. I’m not talking about the details–clearly, there’s room for improvement there–but about the big picture.
I’d like to expand a bit on that answer of mine. To do so, I want to refer to another comment from the previous thread (boy, that thread is the gift that keeps on giving). This comment contains the heart of one of the main serious criticisms of the Iraq war and the hand that the neocons had in it: the writer calls the war an “elective military adventure” that “aggravat[ed]…existing problems.”
I think that the quoted commenter, and many others who would state something similar, are quite sincere in their belief that the Iraq war was elective. Part of that belief system is based on the “no WMD” argument, the one that’s been repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseum on this and other blogs, so I’m not going to rehash that part of it.
The idea that this war was elective has some possible corollaries. The first is that it was waged for dark and nefarious purposes by an evil administration (oil, racism, love of slaughter). I think these arguments have been disposed of so many times that I’m not going to address them further here; those who believe them at this point are beyond the reach of any argument I could muster. The second is the “neocons are naive fools” contention, which is the one that’s relevant to today’s topic. The idea behind this assertion is that those who started us on this “adventure” (note the word choice: they are silly boys who had no idea that war is not a scouting trip) were stupid and shortsighted, having no notion and taking no thought of possible and/or probable consequences before they blundered in to break a lot of eggs.
So, in summary, the criticism goes as follows: neocons naively and stupidly, and for no good reason, electively embarked on a war they saw as an easy (“slam dunk”) adventure. Now we all reap the consequences, including the long-suffering people of Iraq.
I’ve previously written a post that deals with the issue of whether neocons, or Bush, or Rumsfeld, actually thought the postwar reconstruction would be a “cakewalk”, here.
The short answer: they did not. The longer answer: they underestimated the problem of the aftermath, and made some mistakes in going about the reconstruction.
But this in no way invalidates the decision, in my opinion. And this is not a simple failure to admit error on my part–I think this entire blog has proven that I can admit making mistakes, and that I can change my mind. But I’ve seen no reason to do so in this case. Why? One reason is that I did not consider (and still do not consider) this war to have been elective.
Oh, it was elective in the sense that the land mass of the continental US hadn’t been invaded by an enemy force of millions of soldiers bent on our destruction. It was elective in that no country had vaporized our cities with nuclear weapons, or the like. But it was not elective in the following ways:
The evidence or lack thereof of actual WMDs aside, there was (and still is) strong and incontrovertible evidence that Saddam was planning to reconstitute his WMD program as soon as possible. And, combined with the postwar evidence of French and Russian collaboration with Saddam to lift sanctions, that “as soon as possible” would have come sooner rather than later. Nothing would have stopped it short of war, and the UN was complicit in the whole thing. Saddams’s defiance of the UN and weapons inspectors set a terrible precedent that had to be stopped, and the UN was completely uninterested in doing so.
This is not just neocon rhetoric. It is the conclusion of the Duelfer report (not a neocon document). The new Saddam tapes only solidify the idea, and the Oil for Food scandal is part of the picture. The humanitarian plusses in deposing Saddam are also clear; and, although these benefits were most assuredly not the main reason the war was waged, they are a strong side benefit.
And what of the negatives, which are very real and quite serious? The fact that this endeavor was not perfectly executed–well, that was simply inevitable, I’m afraid. I take issue with some of the decisions that were made, but that does not mean I think the whole thing should not have been attempted.
How is it that I can still say this? Well, for one thing, we have no idea whether civil war will actually occur or not; the jury is still out on that. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say it does. What then?
My answer is that it was always a possibility, a risk inherent in the toppling of Saddam. If you remove one threat it does not mean another less-than-desirable outcome will not take its place, not in the real world vs. the world of wishful thinking. And those who accuse the neocons of the latter are guilty of it themselves, I’m afraid, if they ignore the dangers inherent in all the possible choices we faced, including that of inaction.
Because the truth is that the forces leading to unrest in the Middle East are not necessarily stoppable, but the creation of a functioning democracy, if successful, would constitute a counterforce of some magnitude.
If the democracy/human rights experiment in Iraq falls into civil war and chaos, does that mean that doing nothing would have been better? Allowing Saddam to laugh at the sanctions and the UN inspections, and later to rearm himself with WMDs? Would this have been a good outcome? I don’t think so; just a different bad one.
The forces of hatred and destruction have been building up all over the Middle East and Iran for quite some time now. It is very possible they cannot be stopped; that is Wretchard’s Three Conjectures, required reading for all who might desire to understand some of the deeper reasons behind the launching of the Iraq war, and what it hoped to possibly avert.
In fact, civil war in Iraq is not an artifact of American intervention via the invasion of Iraq. It is a manifestation of forces that have been brewing for centuries and especially since the division of the Ottomon Empire after WWI. Saddam controlled and manipulated these forces in his own way, which was to orchestrate his own Sunni-dominated war against the Shi’ites, a type of civil war waged by dictator. Taking Saddam away does not create the problem; it simply changes it in a way that at least gives the Iraqi people a chance of ending up with a better result.
Because the truth is that Moslem-on-Moslem violence is hardly a new thing, or a small thing, or a US-generated thing, much as the anti-neocon faction would like to pretend it is. As Wretchard writes in Three Conjectures:
Revenge bombings between rival groups and wars between different Islamic factions are the recurring theme of history. Long before 3,000 New Yorkers died on September 11, Iraq and Iran killed 500,000 Muslims between them. The greatest threat to Muslims is radical Islam; and the greatest threat of all is a radical Islam armed with weapons of mass destruction.
And Saddam, who did not directly represent radical Islam, was more than willing to arm himself with WMDs and to use them against his own enemies, and/or to support factions of radical Islam with WMDs and use them to revenge himself against his enemies. Does anyone honestly doubt that, had Saddam re-developed his weapons program as he planned, he would have hesitated to use nuclear-armed terrorists to get back at his arch-enemy the US, or his other enemies, both internal and external?
The Iraq war always was a gamble, and it still is. But doing nothing (as well as all the other proposed alternatives) was at least as great a gamble. Perhaps greater. And I believe that those who fail to see that are the naive ones.