Sun, Sep 24 2006

I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of the author’s travels by train through China in the mid-1980s, just as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were taking hold. Theroux is a bit of a prick – it’s what makes him such an interesting writer – and he likes to provoke the Chinese, whenever one of them expresses enthusiasm for the newly-sanctioned pursuit of profits, by baiting him or her with Maoist rhetoric: “Doesn’t that make you a capitalist running dog…an imperialist lackey…a right deviationist?” Usually the Chinese respond by nervously laughing off his questions.

I too am a right deviationist, and I too spend a lot of time nervously laughing off disagreements. I’m a poor arguer – I’m too slow-witted – and I don’t enjoy conflict, especially with friends. It’s easier to laugh and change the subject. I realise it’s cowardly of me to sidestep disagreements this way. And it makes me a reticent, and consequently less interesting, conversationalist. Then again, to the degree that my instinctive timorousness prevents me from turning into a ranting blowhard, like the ones I’m so eager to escape from in bars and at parties, then it’s an instinct I should perhaps indulge. The world doesn’t need any more self-assured nitwits broadcasting their opinions in public places. At least I restrict my ranting to the written word, where it can be easily skimmed over or ignored.

But now that I’ve got this blog-like section on my website, where my past opinions can be easily accessed by any of the two and a half people in the world who give a damn, it occurs to me that my ranting has been rather scattershot, and that it might help to have a few rants that spell out roughly where I’m coming from, ideologically speaking. I’m hoping I can do this without becoming too nakedly tendentious. When it comes to enunciating one’s principles, it’s tempting to just lay them out there, like a street hawker spreading his wares on a tablecloth: Abortion rights, PRO; Mistreatment of detainees, ANTI. But I will heed a lesson I learned reading The Grapes of Wrath. In the chapters where Steinbeck tells the story of the Joads, his novel is powerful and convincing. In the alternating chapters where he describes the Forces At Work On Society As A Whole, it’s hectoring and dull. Stick to the specifics, avoid generalities.

I’ve written several times about the American adventure in Iraq, notably here, where I expressed my “relief” that the invasion had finally begun, and here, where I predicted that the conspiracy theories of the anti-war left would cost the Democrats the 2004 election. As to the second posting, I stand by it. I think Kerry’s over-nuanced position on the war might have been forgiven, if the American public hadn’t perceived that his party was poisoned by affiliation (through Wesley Clark and Howard Dean) with charlatans like Michael Moore. I predict that the purging of pro-war democrats that began with the primary defeat of Joe Lieberman will do the party serious harm in the upcoming midterm election. And if Democrats wind up selecting in 2008 a presidential candidate of the anti-war left, then they might as well just start singing “Hail to the Chief” to John McCain, or (god help us) Bill Frist or Sam Brownback.

War opponents are encouraged by signs that increasing numbers of Americans are tiring of the war in Iraq. What they misunderstand is that this anti-war sentiment is a fundamentally defensive impulse. Americans are turning against the war not because too many Iraqis are dying, but because too many Americans are dying. If things get worse they may in desperation climb into bed with the party that promises to expedite the homecoming of “our boys”. But if that party is associated with a fundamental hostility to the very use of American power abroad – a hostility such as the anti-war left frequently displays – or if that party seems to openly celebrate the thugs and murderers who are battling American troops in Iraq – as Michael Moore has done, by referring to them as “Minutemen” – then voters will not stick around for breakfast.

About that other posting – the one where I said I was “‘relieved” that the war had started. I guess what I meant was that I was tired of the suspense. Now that the first blow had been struck, I hoped, Saddam would be quickly overthrown and Iraq pacified, and the whole controversy over whether the pre-emptive war was wrong or right would recede into irrelevancy.

Of course, I was naïvely optimistic, about both the duration of the war and of the controversy. Still, as badly as things have gone, even now I’m reluctant to say definitively that the invasion was a mistake. After all, we don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t occurred. How many Iraqis would have died under the Ba’athist regime if it had clung to power for another decade or two? How many would have starved under the dysfunctional U.N. sanctions? Or if the sanctions had been lifted, would Saddam or his sons have taken the opportunity to reconstitute Iraq’s weapons programs and commit further acts of aggression against their neighbours or their own citizens? Given the regime’s history, these are not outlandish speculations.

If Saddam had died of old age, would his son Qusay have taken over without a power struggle? Would there have been a civil war? The gibbering hatred that prompts Sunni insurgents to blow up Shi’ite pilgrims, that inspires Shi’ite death squads to torture their Sunni neighbours with power drills, was not imposed by the U.S. Army, nor was it smuggled across the border by foreign jihadis. Obviously that hatred was there already, in more or less restrained form, when Saddam was in power. Perhaps civil war was inevitable, and it was only a question of whether to have it now or ten years from now.

But. Perhaps Saddam in his dotage would have contented himself with writing his kooky novels and verbally abusing his underlings. Perhaps he or his successors could have been bullied into some kind of compliance with the international community. Perhaps they would have successfully redirected all that gibbering hatred toward the usual scapegoats – the Jews, the Americans, and Iran. Perhaps Iraq would have remained just another averagely brutal Arab totalitarianism for decades to come. Certainly it’s hard to conceive of any what-if scenario that would have led to so much chaos in Iraq quite so quickly. But it’s impossible to know.

Let’s suppose that we, like the Flash, could vibrate ourselves into an alternate reality – say, a reality where the Florida recount went ahead and Al Gore won – and it turned out that in this reality Iraq had been effectively constrained by UN-imposed no-fly zones, sanctions, and weapons inspections. Would that prove that the war (in our reality) was a mistake?

Probably. But I still don’t think that seals the argument against pre-emptive invasion. Say you’re planning to overthrow a totalitarian regime. Is the death of one innocent person, as many anti-war activists would argue, too many? That strikes me as an absurdly simplistic position, but at least it’s clear and morally consistent: killing innocents is wrong, therefore we must not kill – even to defend innocents from being killed – and certainly not in support of an abstract principle like “democracy” that may never be successfully implemented. As with every absolutist ideology, the appeal of pacifism is that once you’ve arrived at it, the need for further analysis is curtailed. In any given scenario, only one question need be asked: will we have to kill anybody? If the answer is yes, then, moral investigations concluded, the pacifist can stop thinking and start painting Hitler moustaches on photos of the president.

Those of us who aren’t pacifists have to do some murky calculations. If the number of fatalities in the Iraq war had been quite small, and the result were a real democracy, everyone except the Michael Moores – those who are pathologically hostile to American power – would admit that yes, war was the right choice. On the other hand, if the fatalities are sufficiently enormous, and neither democracy nor stability ever comes, then even the Dick Cheneys will have to concede that the invasion was a mistake. Somewhere between those two extremes there’s a line that you reach where you say, Alright, this wasn’t worth the costs. I am inclined to admit that we crossed the line some time ago. But I’m not sure precisely where it was.

Or, I don’t know. Maybe all this talk of “lines” and “calculations” is just me covering my butt. Maybe I’m just embarrassed that all those idiot kids marching with their giant puppets and their “No War For Oil” signs back in 2003 were – cringe – actually right. And I was wrong.

In any case, I doubt that withdrawing troops now is going to help things. From anecdotal evidence, I reckon that the Americans are on balance a calming influence. I know, I know, there was Abu Ghraib and Haditha, and we will undoubtedly learn of others and quite possibly worse. I said “on balance”. Between the grisly little evil of Abu Ghraib and the great galloping evil of the now-deceased Mr. Zarqawi and his followers there can be no moral comparison. Leaving Iraq means leaving an unburied corpse of a state which will, if we’re very lucky, merely disintegrate as the competing militias peck it to pieces. If we’re less lucky the corpse will be reanimated by some Islamist strongman and shamble after us, arms outstretched, reeking of oil riches and coughing up suicide bombers. Staying in Iraq means more dead and maimed American soldiers. But if the soldiers leave now, with Iraq poised to self-destruct, they’ll just have to come back later on.

Let me expand on that thought. After the events of September 11, 2001, as it became apparent that Osama bin Laden and his cohort had once benefited from CIA funding to the Afghan anti-communist resistance, a lot of liberals trotted out the analogy of chickens coming home to roost. The lesson they drew was that the United States had made a mistake in financing the resistance in the first place. Perhaps they’re right – perhaps the mujahideen were no better than their communist foes. (I would argue that Afghanistan’s importance in the wider fight to contain Soviet expansion shouldn’t be discounted. It’s easy from a post-Cold War perspective to say that the Soviet Union was doomed to fail anyway, but that wasn’t so clear at the time the tanks rumbled across the border, in 1979.) However, I think there’s a different lesson, one equally compatible with liberal principles, that we should draw from America’s Afghan proxy war. The problem wasn’t that the mujahideen won. The problem was that after the communists had been defeated, the United States lost all interest in what happened on the far side of the Khyber pass. A small amount of influence exercised in 1989 – a little diplomacy, a little aid, a little peacekeeping – might have been enough to keep Afghanistan from degenerating into civil war. But after war had been raging for a decade, after the Taliban had swept into Kabul and made al-Qaeda their favoured guests, there were no cheap options for the United States – the only way to dislodge the terrorists was with a costly and destructive invasion.

With the ascendancy of the new Afghan government still in doubt, launching another war just a couple timezones over was, perhaps, a dumb idea. But once again many liberals are drawing the wrong lesson from America’s mistake. Things are a mess in Iraq. But they won’t be made better by America sweeping the rubble off its flak jacket and going home. Parts of Iraq are secure – the Kurdish north, a couple of provinces in the south. There is a democratically elected government that represents, albeit imperfectly, all of Iraq’s sects and ethnicities. And there are millions of Iraqis who don’t belong to militias or death squads, who might not be ready to embrace secular liberalism as practiced in, say, Ottawa, but who nevertheless want to live under a functioning, modern, non-terrorist government. These things are worth fighting for. And, I reiterate, it’s easier to fight for them now than it will be a decade from now, with the elected government very likely in exile, and the few remaining moderate Iraqis cowering amid the ruins, if Iraq is left to continue its headlong slide into failed statehood.

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