June 2003

2003 06 29

A small point about news coverage of Iraq. It seems pretty clear from everything I’ve read that U.S. soldiers in Iraq haven’t been trained in all the skills they now need to occupy Iraq effectively. Press coverage has focussed very much on the lack of preparation for the occupation of Iraq. Very little, by contrast, has been written about the longer term lack of preparation by the U.S. military for tasks requiring broader goals than all-out fighting. Surely the problems the U.S. is facing in Iraq now stem partly from lack of preparation of this sort as well.

From a political point of view, if you want to twist the military’s arm on this, or at least get their attention, you might propose the creation of a sort of MP force under the heading of the State Department. If the military only wants to blow shit up, then let it. But the U.S. clearly needs (needed!) a lightly armed, but highly skilled, force to take on this kind of task.

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2003 06 28
Affirmative Action

A few thoughts about affirmative action:

I’m glad that the Supreme Court has decided that some form of affirmative action is constitutionally kosher. But before we celebrate a victory for the forces of goodness, we might reflect on how unfortunate it is that so much of the debate about race and inequality in this country focuses on this one issue. Admission to law school, or even to undergraduate programs, takes place very late in the game: by this time in their lives people have already been shaped by all kinds of important social forces.

I worry that the focus on affirmative action in universities takes our attention off the fact that affirmative action is really a sop, a sort of ad hoc device that cannot hope to address the pervasive inequalities we seem to hope it will. For every minority admitted to an elite institution there will be a great many others who are deprived of a proper education in public school, to take only one example. If you were serious about dealing with these broader social inequalities, you might consider a serious measure, such as delinking property taxes and the quality of education children receive. Unless you do this, or something similarly radical, you have little hope of dealing justly with all the other people who never get near an elite institution.

Speaking of elite institutions, I haven’t gone over the case particularly carefully, but my understanding is that Michigan’s undergrad admissions flunked the court’s test because assigning points for race is too much like the quota system that was rejected by the court in Bakke. In contrast, the law school’s admissions policies passed muster with the court because they used the word “holistic” and claimed that race had no specific, uniform, policy-wide, role in the process. Sometimes it influenced the admissions panel, the law school told the court, and sometimes it did not.

The main thing to notice here (unless I’m just mistaken about the case) is that the “holistic” approach is far more expensive. As N. Lemann pointed out in his excellent book, The Big Test, most schools rely on standardized testing and point systems for economic reasons. Since I’m not completely sure about the law here, I’ll put this point in the form of a question rather than a claim: Won’t the practical effect of this ruling be to wipe out affirmative action in poorer schools, i.e. the vast majority of schools, while throwing liberals the bone of affirmative action in the view elite institutions which can afford it? Or have I simply misunderstood the issue? Anyone?

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2003 06 27
OK, one more . . .

I can’t resist another quick post. John Keegan, the noted military historian, has a piece in Canada’s National Post today.

The piece is sensible enough in its way, but it still worries me. Keegan reviews the history of Iraq, putting special emphasis on the difficulties involved in ruling it. It’s much harder, he notes, to invade a country than to stabilize it.

This is all true, of course, though as Wolfowitz would protest (or at least used to protest) nothing in Iraq’s history makes it impossible for democracy to flourish there. It’s just a very big job.

But Keegan concludes:

What is now needed is that “exit strategy.” It cannot be found either in the previous British experiments with “air control” or “divide and rule.” For one thing, there are no Assyrians left. The whole community emigrated to America 50 years ago.

A better solution is that of recreating an Iraqi national army, as the British did in the 1920s. There is plenty of raw material — the 200,000 unemployed soldiers at present not under orders and only erratically paid. Their discontent is fuelling the disorder.

It must be a matter of priority to enlist as many as possible, give them Western training and use them to replace the American and British soldiers patrolling the cities and countryside. That program will take several years until it is completed. Casualties among the Western occupation forces will, meanwhile, continue.

A few questions and comments.

Keegan says nothing about whether the U.S. ought to stick it out for democracy in Iraq, having invested so significantly, and so publicly, in such an outcome. The most important question about an exit strategy is what Iraq has to look like before it gets exited. Keegan’s failure to say anything here, except to talk about training the military, seems to me to suggest a rather minimalistic, and dark, view of those conditions.

The second thing I notice is the deep pessimism about Iraq’s possibilities. I opposed the war in part because I thought that leaders in the U.S. lacked the wisdom and the patience and the will to do the job properly, not because I thought it impossible. And I hope to be shown up as foolishly pessimistic. My guess is that we will hear much, much more along Keegan’s lines in the next year or so, as people on the pro-war camp look for pretexts to disengage from the very experiment they launched. It’s near impossible, the argument will go, just look at history.

Speaking of the pro-war camp, I haven’t followed Keegan’s pieces in the NP very closely, but I think I remember him rather staunchly pushing for war. I have discovered to my surprise that I actually have people reading this blog now (less than a dozen, but still . . . ). So I will ask: Does anyone else remember Keegan’s position before the war? I ask because I don’t recall Keegan warning of Iraq’s internal turmoil in quite such dire language before the war – when he was arguing in favour of it. What gives?

So a prediction or two: You’ll see a lot of people spinning pretexts to dodge responsibility now in Iraq in the coming months and years, and many of them will be the same people who incredulously asked the anti-war camp why they didn’t want to bring democracy to the beleaguered Iraqis.

Finally a warning: The anti-war movement resisted the war for all kinds of reasons, some idiotic and some sensible. Among the more sensible, I hope, is the one I mentioned above: not pessimism about the possibility that Iraq could become democratic so much as fear that the American leaders lacked the wisdom needed for such a big job. Now that the U.S. is committed, though, I think the anti-war movement needs to focus on pressuring the admin to do the job properly. The pre-war pessimism about the possibilities for Iraq ought to be put on the back-burner. The worst outcome would be for the anti-war movement to be transformed into a let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-Iraq movement. This will only play right into the hands of the thugs* who got us there in the first place and will be pushing to leave at the first possibile opportunity.

*(From the thug category, I exclude people like Hitchens who really did, I think, support the war for humanitarian reasons, and who really will want the U.S. to do the job properly.)

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2003 06 27
A letter to Paul Krugman

Too busy to post today, but I did write a quick note to Paul Krugman:

Hello, a quick note from a fan.

You often suggest that Republicans tend to rule in the interests of the rich. I wish this were so, since the rich tend to have many interests in common with the poor, even when they don’t realize it.

I think it’s more accurate to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich. In the long run, of course, the rich are also hurt by policies which harm the environment, or leave the labour market insufficiently educated – even if wealth provides some insulation from these consequences.

It would be even more accurate, alas, to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich, taken one group at a time. Things would be much better if the Republican party stepped back from the fray, and thought about how to maximize the short-term fortunes of the rich as a whole. As it is, satisfying interests groups one at a time may often lead to lower benefits for the rich overall. When a particular group of the rich gets bought off by the administration, it may well have negative consequences for other groups of the rich, which are not compensated for by their own special packages.

Keep up the good work!

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2003 06 26
Not Quite

C. Hitchens writes in his latest piece in Slate:

The furthest the peaceniks will go is to say that Bush’s rhetoric made these people turn nasty. I am not teasing here: The best of the anti-war polemicists is Jonathan Schell, who advanced this very claimin a debate with me earlier this month. Meanwhile, the overwhelming moral case for regime change in both countries is once again being left to the forces of neoconservatism, with the liberals pulling a long face while they wait to be reluctantly “persuaded.”

I believe Hitchens is referring to the debate at Pace University which I attended.

This isn’t how I remember Schell’s remarks. Schell’s point, as I understood it, was that our actions do make some difference to how others behave, that aggressive behaviour, such as brandishing nuclear weapons (see Bush the elder’s threat to nuke Iraq if S.H. used chemical weapons; see also, the recent nuclear posture review), or waging preventative war, can actually spur proliferation.

Hitchens’ position, as I understood it, was that N. Korea and Iraq and a few other countries are run by totally homicidal maniacs who are utterly undeterrable, and have their own fixed, and malevolent, ends. Our own rhetoric or behaviour doesn’t make them more evil, or lead them to acquire nuclear arsenals – that’s inevitable, given how awful they are. It’s silly, so Hitchens’ argument goes, to think that the leaders of N. Korea were waiting around for the U.S. to be consistent about the issue of nuclear disarmament. They don’t care a whit for consistency, only ruthless advantage, and Schell and co. are projecting their own obsession for this so-called consistency onto lunatics with no time for it.

There is a very important grain of truth in Hitchens’ criticsm of Schell here, if only because Schell’s failure (in the debate, but also, I think, elsewhere) to spell out clearly just exactly how he divies matters up here leads to the suspicion that he might well be vulnerable to the charge. Schell, I think, really does underrate the extent to which insane dictators march to the beat of their own drum, and not ours. S.H. would have wanted nukes (I still firmly believe that S.H. wanted nukes.) even without the nuclear posture review, even if the U.S. disarmed as Schell believes it should. But, it is deeply unfair of Hitchens to distort this into the claim that Bush’s rhetoric made these people turn nasty. Come on, for one thing Schell knows perfectly well that both leaders of N. Korea and Iraq were in power long before Bush assumed the presidency. Satisfying polemic may be one-sided, but it has to at least hit home. This isn’t satisfying polemic.

Although I think Hitchens is right to think that S.H. had an inflexible desire for nukes, and perhaps that N. Korea did too, he misses something by failing to take Schell seriously (which he couldn’t possibly have done, if that’s how he remembers, or at least, chooses to remember, the debate). American actions really can have an effect on the behaviour of even awful dictators, partly by moving a nukes program up or down in priority. N. Korea’s nukes predate that idiotic State of the Union speech inviting them into the axis of evil. But I would not be surprised if the speech prompted N. Korea to ramp up the pace of its program. (While we’re on the subject of idiotic and inflammatory political rhetoric, N. Korea, it should be stressed, is obviously a far greater sinner than the United States – in fact it is in quite a different league.) To think otherwise is to suppose that being evil makes you incapable of reacting in any intelligible way to greater or lesser dangers.

(The rest of Hitchen’s piece, by the way, is a decent enough take on the wimpy “convince me” school of democrats, though, again, Hitchens gets so carried away swatting at his straw man he forgets to investigate whether a sensible position might be constructed out of the more reasonable requests on offer from critics of the admin. (“Convince me” might mean: i, I have no ideas of my own, so if you don’t show me the way, I’m staying put on this issue; or ii, I just do not see a case for regime change, and you haven’t made one, so go ahead and tell what you know that I don’t so I can see where you’re coming from.)

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2003 06 24
How does he know that?

N. Kristof argues in a column today that the U.S. has unleashed fundamentalism in Iraq, which may prove to represent the will of the Iraq people better than some of the alternatives that the U.S. is bound to favour:

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a more repressive one; it may well be that a majority of Iraqis favor more curbs on professional women and on religious minorities. As Fareed Zakaria notes in his smart new book, “The Future of Freedom,” unless majority rule is accompanied by legal protections, tolerance and respect for minorities, the result can be populist repression.

Women did relatively well under Saddam Hussein (when they weren’t being tortured or executed, penalties that the regime applied on an equal opportunity basis). In the science faculty at Basra University, 80 percent of the students are women. Iraq won’t follow the theocratic model of Iran, but it could end up as Iran Lite: an Islamic state, but ruled by politicians rather than ayatollahs. I get the sense that’s the system many Iraqis seek.

“Democracy means choosing what people want, not what the West wants,” notes Abdul Karim al-Enzi, a leader of the Dawa Party, a Shiite fundamentalist party that is winning support in much of the country.

It certainly does seem that fundamentalism is gaining ground in Iraq. Resistance to the Ba’ath party for many years took a religious form. Now, these forces are released, and the religious parties often look good for having been on the right side of the struggle.

Still, Kristof doesn’t cite any polls, of course. And growing membership in political parties is no proof: there weren’t any parties before, so obviously all the political parties will be growing for a while. It’s also important to interpret extremist violence carefully. A few extremists can create an enormous impact without necessarily commanding popular support.

I think it’s too early to start making assumptions about what Iraqis want, or about the popular support that religious groups will command in Iraq. It’s especially dangerous, in fact, to start making these excuses, because they may function down the road as a pretext to abandon the job of building a democracy: a costly committment, but one that the U.S. ought now to take seriously.

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2003 06 20
Pollack Revisited

Don’t miss Kenneth Pollack’s op-ed piece in the NYTimes today. Pollack was, of course, the brains behind the recent war in Iraq. His book, The Threatening Storm, was often cited for its meticulous case for war, though, I suspect, far less often actually read. A bit late in the debate this spring, someone at Slate noticed that Pollack hadn’t in fact made a case for the admin’s war at all, though the book was intended to make the case for a war. It was also interesting that Pollack built his case differently from the admin, which found it either desirable or necessary to dumb down the argument. I think that Pollack’s book has numerous flaws, but it at least had the virtue of distinguishing between different kinds of WMD (important because the differences between them are big enough that it can be seriously misleading to lump them together), refusing to put any weight on the Iraq-terrorism angle, and taking the case against the war seriously enough to argue against. Pollack also always stuck to the line that Iraq was a long term problem, and that invasion was a response to that long term problem, not a response to an immanent threat. (There were also some serious flaws in the book, but I’ll take a crack at them another time. The article I linked to above also has problems.)

I think that many people in the admin saw things roughly along these lines, but were pushed to make a weaker case by what they saw as the limitations of public debate. The public is often dubious enough about wars undertaken in the face of a threat. It’s especially hard to talk the public into a war with such long term goals, when the threat is far from immanent. And so a decision was made to stress short term danger, immanent threat, the dubious terrorism connection, and so on.

I’ve harped on this enough, but I can’t resist making the point (briefly) again: Iraq really did present the U.S. with a long term problem. S.H. really would have been dangerous if the sanctions had been lifted and oil revenues had flooded back into the country’s, or rather his, coffers. The failure to discover significant WMD reserves does not remove from the anti-war crowd the responsibility to explain how we would have dealt with this problem. I think we can meet this challenge, but it’s still one to take seriously.

The failure to discover WMD so far is not a scandal, then, because it shows that Iraq was not a long term threat. It is a scandal because it shows that the admin lied, and lied repeatedly, in trying to make the case for war. It squandered the credibility of the U.S. both at home and abroad, and if it gets away with it, American democracy will be that much weaker.

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2003 06 18
Two quick e-mails

Really busy today, so today’s output will have to be limited to two quick e-mails I just wrote, the first to Slate and the second to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting:

1. Quick question for Slate. On April 9th, 2003, Michael Young wrote a piece called ‘Looking for Mr. Khazraji’ for Slate about a former Iraqi general who might or might not have escaped from Denmark with the help of the U.S.

Since then Slate has published nothing about Mr. Khazraji. Why? I’ve seen one news report that he is indeed now in Iraq, but I’m not sure what to believe. Why not do a follow up on this piece? No one else is!

2. Hello. A quick question about a news story that no one seems to want to investigate. On April 9th, 2003, Michael Young wrote a piece called ‘Looking for Mr. Khazraji’ for Slate about a former Iraqi general under house arrest in Denmark who might or might not have escaped from house arrest, and Denmark, with the help of the U.S.

Since then Slate has published nothing about Mr. Khazraji and as far as I can tell no one in the mainstream media has picked up the story. I’m not sure why. If Khazraji did escape from Denmark with the help of the U.S., it seems to me that that is newsworthy. He is, after all, implicated in some pretty horrific crimes. And the last time I checked, Denmark was an ally, so springing him from house arrest seems rude, to say the least.

I’ve seen one news report in the Arabic press that he is indeed now in Iraq, which would confirm part of the story, but I’m not sure what to believe.

Why not call attention to this?

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2003 06 17
[Press freedom in Morocco]

This just in . . .

This just in from Human Right Watch:

Press Freedom in Morocco Set Back by Journalist Jailing

(Washington D.C., June 18, 2003) — The affirmation Tuesday of a 3-year
prison term for journalist Ali Mrabet is a grave blow to press freedom in
Morocco, Human Rights Watch said today. A Rabat appeals court upheld a lower
court verdict that also banned the independent weeklies that Mrabet directs,
Demain and its Arabic sister Douman.

“With this unjust ruling, Morocco joins those countries in the region that
imprison journalists,” said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights
Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “Mrabet’s weeklies were among
the brightest indicators of free expression in Morocco. They belong on the
newsstands, and Mrabet belongs at his editorial desk, not in a prison cell.”

Mrabet has been in prison since his May 21 lower-court conviction on charges
of “insulting the king,” “undermining the monarchy, and “endangering the
integrity of national territory” for articles, interviews and cartoons that
appeared in the two Casablanca-based publications. The appeals court reduced
his prison term from four to three years but left in force a fine of 20,000
dirhams (about U.S. $2,168).

Mrabet began a hunger strike on May 6 to protest the government action
against him and against his printer. He has been hospitalized since May 26
due to his hunger strike and did not attend the court’s ruling.

The items in Demain and Douman that prompted the charges under the press code

– An article about the budget that the state allocates to the royal court;
– A montage that allegedly manipulated photographs from King Mohamed VI’s
wedding to ridicule ex-interior minister Driss Basri and other political
– A cartoon on the “history of slavery” that lampooned the obsequiousness
of local officials toward the monarchy;
– An interview with Moroccan political activist Abdullah ZaÆ’zaa in which
he restated his well-known views critical of the monarchy as an institution
and in favor of self-determination for the people of the disputed Western
Sahara territory.

In a nearly unprecedented move against a journalist in Morocco, Mrabet was
imprisoned upon his original conviction by the Rabat Court of First Instance.
The judge invoked Article 400 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows
for the court to jail defendants who are appealing their convictions if they
are deemed dangerous or likely to flee. The appeals court judge rejected
defense motions to obtain Mrabet’s provisional release.

Morocco’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But the press code,
revised in 2002, provides prison terms for a wide array of speech offenses,
such as the ones for which Mrabet was convicted.

After this confirmation of the verdict on appeal, Mrabet’s only legal
recourse is a pourvoi en cassation before the Supreme Court, a challenge that
can be based on procedural but not on substantive issues.

“This is a sad day for those who placed hope in the king’s pledges to expand
public liberties,” said Megally.

On April 17, prior to this conviction, Moroccan police prevented Mrabet from
traveling to France, a move that was rescinded a week later. In November
2001, a court convicted him for an article in Demain concerning reports that
one of the royal palaces might be sold for redevelopment. Sentenced then to
four months in prison and a fine, Mrabet had been free pending an appeal of
that verdict.

To read more on human rights issues in Morocco, please see:


The Moroccan verdict is a bad step in the wrong direction. It is also something of a fresh challenge to the Bush admin. It always puzzled me that the U.S. was supposed to be able to democratize Iraq when it often hadn’t been willing to put more than minimal pressure on other countries in the region to democratize. (Though, I should say, the Bush administration did act wisely recently in pressing the Egyptian government to relent in its persection of the Egyptian intellectual Saad Ibrahim. The pressure worked, and Ibrahim was finally cleared of all charges and released.) This, I think, is an important test of the admin’s credibility on this issue. It needs to make clear to Morocco that this sort of nonsense is going to do real damage to bilateral relations with the U.S., that it carries a real cost.

I believe that this is yet another area where moral responsibility overlaps significantly with self-interest. The U.S. has a real interest in Morocco’s long term health, and that is precisely what is threatened by the recent crackdown.

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2003 06 17
When does a spin becomes a lie?

The spin in Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is so strong, I think it pulls him over the line several times into outright dishonesty. Krauthammer thinks that critics of the war hyped the looting of Iraq’s cultural treasures out of shame at the sight of cheering, liberated Iraqis. They’ve now moved on to bogus charges about missing WMD out of the same sense of shame, the shameless bastards.

Krauthammer’s views would be silly enough to ignore if he didn’t have a prominent perch at the WaPo to spread this sort of nonsense. But he does, and so it’s worth trying to sort through the mess he’s made of yet another issue.

K begins by quoting earlier erroneous reports that 170,000 artifacts were carried away from the museum in Baghdad. These reports have since been corrected and qualified. More on this in a moment. K comments:

Turns out the Iraqi National Museum lost not 170,000 treasures but 33. You’d have to go back centuries, say, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find mendacity on this scale.

This is the sum of what K has to say about the looting. His account is correct in several respects: The scale of the looting at the central museum in Baghdad was inflated in initial reports. Also, some of the looting of the best stuff appears to have been an inside job, by S.H.’s cronies. Moreover, it’s important to see that what happened was in many ways a continuation of the general ransacking of Iraq’s cultural heritage that began in the first Gulf War and continued through the 90s. It is an unfortunate mirror image of the looting that S.H. perpetrated on Kuwait during Iraq’s brief occupation of the country.

What’s grossly unfair in K’s account is that it suggests that grounds for concern end there. The treasures confirmed stolen from the central museum happen to have been the most valuable in the collection. So quoting a figure here is seriously misleading. Moreover, the central library was also destroyed, leading to an enormous loss of priceless manuscripts. And the central museum in Baghdad was only one museum among many in the country which suffered far more extensive damage. This is now a matter of public record, and rather than dispute it, K simply pretends it isn’t so.

Is K’s account a spin or a lie? I think it’s as clear an example of lying by omission as you can get. What K neglects to mention is absolutely crucial to the question of whether the admin’s critics are as mendacious as he suggests. No one who cares a whit for Iraq’s cultural heritage, for culture at all, could fail to be depressed, and even angry, at the massive pillage that went on in front of U.S. troops during the war. This was a failure, and you should think so even if you think that the broader context is one of success. K can’t admit this because it would get in the way of his attempt to distort the motives of the anti-war camp.

K goes on:

Frank Rich best captured the spirit of antiwar vindication when he wrote (New York Times, April 27) that “the pillaging of the Baghdad museum has become more of a symbol of Baghdad’s fall than the toppling of a less exalted artistic asset, the Saddam statue.”

The narcissism, the sheer snobbery of this statement, is staggering. The toppling of Saddam Hussein freed 25 million people from 30 years of torture, murder, war, starvation and impoverishment at the hands of a psychopathic family that matched Stalin for cruelty but took far more pleasure in it. For Upper West Side liberalism, this matters less than the destruction of a museum.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein was indeed a very good thing. But it’s premature to say that it liberated the people of Iraq. You are not liberated until you are free, and you are not free until you live under a functioning democracy. It is far to early to expect results yet on this front, or for either side to render verdicts. But it isn’t too early for predictions. Until influential people like K fess up to the U.S.’s curious historical ambivalence about the value of democracy abroad, and the ways in which this ambivalence might complicate the project of nation-building in Iraq, I reserve the right to be fearful about the results of the current experiment. Iraq is a complicated place, and the U.S. is a complicated, and often imperfect power. Let me repeat my refrain: If Iraq is a functioning democracy in 5 or 10 years I’ll eat crow. Big time. But until then I’m going to hold off on calling the people of Iraq “liberated”.

I can’t afford to live on the Upper West Side, but if I can speak for a moment for the political perspective K is attacking, I think K’s saddles his opponents with his optimistic assumption that there was a choice to be made here between a museum and the liberation of a people. Since he supposes, at least here, that liberals share the assumption, and deplore the destruction of the museum, he feels free to argue that liberals thereby betray a strong preference for the former in their reaction to the fall of Baghdad. But if you’re dubious about the prospects for a liberated Iraq under U.S. control, then there’s no trade-off under consideration. Just the destruction of a country’s cultural heritage for an extremely risky gamble in nation-building under the most difficult of circumstances, and not a gamble off to an auspicious start.

Do I honestly believe that the people of Iraq would be better off under S.H.? This is a good question, and one the anti-war movement needs to have a better answer to. First, this is an impossibly low standard to insist on if you’re in the pro-war camp. I wouldn’t deny that, for now, most Iraqis are better off with S.H. gone. But in order to justify a measure as serious as war, with such a high cost for both the people of Iraq (the kids killed playing with cluster bombs are not going to benefit from anything) and the U.S. (which expended, and will continue to expend, enormous amounts of economic, military and diplomatic capital on this project), the people of Iraq ought to be considerably better off. If your basic test for the legitimacy of an invasion is whether the people of Iraq are better off, without any further specification of how much better off, you will be able to justify all kinds of depredations.

As high, or low, a standard as S.H. has set here, I worry that it is possible at least to best, or worst, it. How so? There is a very real risk that Iraq will collapse into civil war sometimes in the next few years, or that it will relapse into another brutal dictatorship. All this might happen even with the best U.S. intentions, which the United States does not always have. If Iraq looks like Lebanon writ large, or Iraq under the Ba’ath, then I do think it will be worse off. But the verdict is still out.

K similarly distorts the furor over the failure to find significant evidence of WMD. If we find WMD, the debate isn’t over. It’s reset to where we started prior to the war when most people assumed that S.H. had them. If we don’t find them, it raises further questions difficult questions about many of the assumptions that underlay that debate. Either way, though, it is clear that the admin led the U.S. into war by citing bogus intelligence, much which they should have known was bogus. It’s no good saying that the war wasn’t really about this, or that Iraq is liberated anyway. The worry here is about the health of a democratic system which permits this kind of manipulation and abuse of trust.

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2003 06 17
The death of clientism?

At a debate on Iraq recently I heard Christopher Hitchens say that one of the results of Sept. 11th is the death of clientism, the habit of cosying up to unsavoury dictators who are useful in the short term. (I should say that this is what I think I heard Hitchens say. It struck me as remarkable, and I wondered at first if I had misheard him. I think he takes this as the basic reason for the U.S.’s recent moves away from Saudi Arabia, and that he also sees genuine regret among important members of the admin for the U.S.’s former alignment with Iraq.)

I certainly agree that this is one of the lessons of Sept. 11th. But reports of the death of clientism are surely premature.

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2003 06 14
13 Ways of Looking at Missing WMD

1. Excuse: Iraq’s regime might have destroyed stockpiles of WMD prior to an invasion, either in the hopes of embarrassing the U.S. or in the faint hope that it could save its skin by declining to use them.

Merits of the excuse: It would at least explain something.

Problem with the excuse: It would show that S.H. was more deterrable than anyone had a right to hope prior to the invasion. Certainly it vindicates the judgement of those who argued that S.H. could be deterred by the U.S.

2. Excuse: The C.I.A. didn’t pass the information up to higher-level people in the admin. Oops.

Merits of the excuse: None.

Problem with the excuse: Transparent lie. The WaPo worked this angle a day or two ago, but by the end of the day a more convincing counterspin had emerged from the C.I.A. Dick Cheney’s office, for example, investigated the uranium story and found it to be bogus. Come on, folks, at least lie with a little imagination.

(And the WaPo should be ashamed of itself for printing an angle it surely knew was bogus. This kind of deal – I’ll spin your story, you’ll give me access later – is really smarmy. What’s more, the only check on this kind of smarminess is public ridicule. Everyone join in!)

3. Excuse: This war wasn’t really about WMD. It was about an agreement that S.H. had with the U.S. that ended the first Gulf War. S.H. plainly didn’t live up to that agreement when he obstructed serious inspections for 12 long years. The U.S. stepped in to enforce it when no one else would.

Merits of the excuse: It’s clearly true that S.H. didn’t live up to his end of the bargain. And he sure acted as if he had something to hide.

Problems with the excuse: Um . . . wasn’t war supposed to be a last resort? There were all kinds of military solutions falling short of full-scale war which might well have fit the terms of the agreement. Anyway, there are a whole lot of agreements that get enforced by measures short of full-scale war.

4. Excuse: Well, I didn’t support the war on the basis of claims about WMD and A.Q. I supported it for humanitarian reasons. So bugger off.

Merits of the excuse: Gets writer told-you-so-points.

Problems with the excuse: The American people didn’t support the war on this basis. So, first, there’s something seriously wrong about the fact that the admin manipulated people into supporting the war for bogus reasons. Second, don’t get too smug. Your reasons for supporting the war depend on something which might prove even harder than finding WMD: the ability of the U.S. to make good on it’s pre-war promises to provide stability and democracy. Stay tuned, your turn for recriminations and rebukes may be next.

5. Excuse: It would have been plainly irresponsible not to assume that Iraq had WMD, based on any reasonable assessment of S.H.’s character, Iraq’s past behavior, and reports from defectors. So the admin might have spun the evidence they had about Iraq’s WMD programs, but they clearly expected to be vindicated. So it’s not exactly a lie.

Merits of the excuse: It’s fair as far as it goes.

Problems with the excuse: It doesn’t go that far. The admin talked the public into the war by making specific claims. They said “Trust us.” And people did. They shouldn’t have. But they should have been able to. That’s the scandal.

6. Excuse: The admin wasn’t alone in expecting to find WMD. Most of its critics did too. That includes Blix and all the people who warned that Iraq might use it’s WMD as a reason not to invade.

Merits of the excuse: Yeah, lots of people thought they had WMD.

Problems with the excuse: Lots of people thought they had WMD because the U.S. said it had specific intelligence to that effect. And lots of people who thought Iraq had WMD thought that the problem could be managed without invasion. It hardly damages their case that there were no WMD.

7. Excuse: The intelligence we get out of countries like Iraq is usually out of date. So if the C.I.A. reported that Iraq was X amount of time away from nukes, that was the most conservative estimate. To be safe, we should halve or quarter all its estimates.

Merits of the excuse: C. Rice tried this one out before the war, so I’m anticipating its resurrection as the Bush camp gets more desperate. It has the merit of being correct on at least one occasion, and intelligence history buffs could probably point to more. When Kamel defected from Iraq in 1995, the extent of Iraq’s nukes program was revealed. This was particularly embarrassing to the U.N. inspectors and it jolted many into realizing that lots of things could go on in Iraq without our becoming aware of it, even with U.N. inspectors on the ground.

Problems with the excuse: I sure hope C. Rice was lying when she said this was a good general rule of thumb. The history of intelligence failures shows a broad trend in the opposite direction. Click here for a recent article with examples of this. Also, Kamel’s remarks to U.N. inspectors were rarely reported accurately. Kamel had indeed dropped a bomb, so to speak, on the inspectors. But he also said that Iraq had halted its nukes program.

8. Excuse: It was reasonable to assume that after 1998, Iraq would have restarted it’s WMD programs. But suppose they hadn’t. It would still have left us with a serious long term problem, likely to be exacerbated by the eventual removal of the sanctions. The real problem was the fact that Iraq was likely restart its programs later. Even if Iraq relinquished its WMD dreams for the moment, it would never relinquish them permanently. And that poses a long term problem which the far-seeing Bush admin decided to deal with rather than postpone.

Merits of the excuse: This is the best excuse, in my opinion, though I would hardly describe Bush as far-seeing. The whole case for or against the war, as I understood it then, and as I understand it now, pivots around this problem. It’s unfair of critics to think that the failure to discover WMD gets them off the hook here. Everyone has to deal with this problem.

Problems with the excuse: First, the war wasn’t sold on these grounds. It was sold on false grounds. Second, although I can’t argue it here, I’ve argued many times that there were better solutions to this admittedly real problem.

9. Excuse: We had indirect proof all along that S.H. had something to hide: He preferred to sacrifice a great deal rather than cooperate with inspectors. Why would he have done that if he hadn’t had something to hide?

Merits of the excuse: Hmmmm. I confess, he did seem guilty.

Problems with the excuse: There are at least three other perfectly good (non-competing) explanations for S.H.’s behaviour. First, the U.S. made clear right from the start of the sanctions regime in 1991 that they would last for the duration of S.H.’s regime. He had no reason to think that they would ever be lifted. Why cooperate with inspections if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel? (This isn’t to excuse S.H. for anything, only to explain that that’s how S.H. might have seen it—which is what this excuse focuses on itself.) Second, U.S. demands were designed to humiliate S.H. Both sides rightly saw loss of face as a threat to S.H.’s rule, which is why the U.S. pushed maximalist demands and S.H. resisted them. Third, having a rep as a guy who might or might not have WMD did help S.H. maintain internal rule. It even discouraged some in the U.S. from backing an invasion. So S.H. might have seen something substantial to gain in keeping his rep the way it was, despite all its costs.

10. Excuse: Bush is too stupid to lie. And the people around him are ideologues who genuinely believed what they said.

Merits of the excuse: Gosh, if Bush gets through this relatively unscathed—and he might well—I think this’ll be what does it. No defender of the admin is gonna bite for it, but that hardly matters. This excuse will also get some boost from the absurd taboo against claiming that the president is a practiced liar.

Problem with the excuse: Oy vey! Is this what we’ve come to? Anyways, even if Bush didn’t lie, he still showed terrible judgement by believing people who either lied or were themselves ideologues.

11. Excuse: It’s in the nature of intelligence reporting that much of it is ambiguous and filled with error. Critics of the admin confuse the issue by pretending that this isn’t always the case.

Merits of the excuse: Yeah, it’s true that much intelligence is ambiguous and error-prone.

Problems with the excuse: That’s precisely why the admin shouldn’t have presented a set of supposedly irrefutable facts to the public and the security council, all the while hinting darkly that there were many other secrets which they couldn’t afford to declassify (if so, where are they now?).

12. Excuse: Let’s get real. This might be a mini-scandal. But it’s clearly not as great a threat to American democracy as a President lying under oath about oral sex. Where’s your sense of perspective?

Merits of the excuse: It’s probably gonna work.

Problems with the excuse: Wow, the American chattering class has a lot to answer for. What a bunch of losers.

13. Excuse: It’s still to early to tell. You have to have some patience. They’ll show up.

Merits of the excuse: I suppose it buys people time. Given the public’s short attention span, that’s a good thing for the admin. (It’s also a fair excuse for some of the current disorder in Iraq. It really is too soon to tell. What really matters is how Iraq looks in 5 years.)

Problems with the excuse: They have enough high-ranking people in custody that something should have come out by now. The chances of something unambiguous emerging at this point seem fairly slim. Not impossible, but getting slimmer every day.

Is it rude to point out that we had firm assurances that they knew where the stuff was, but couldn’t tell Blix because he would botch it?

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2003 06 11
The Nation vs. the Economist

I went to a debate between the editors of the Nation and the Economist last night. The debate was moderated by the always-solid Brian Lehrer. Unfortunately the debate was a little lame: neither editor was a particularly strong debater and the debate was very short of focus. The topic was the very broad “America: Predator or Protector”. The two went around in circles debating the meaning of the the last fifty years. Van Heuvel, the Nation editor, was particularly weak: she had nothing to offer but platitudes about the Bush cabal. It reminded me why I let my Nation subscription lapse.

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2003 06 10
WMD Again: A primer on what was and was not reasonable to assume about Saddam Hussein’s WMD

Critics of the Bush admin have been struggling lately to contain their excitement at the continuing failure to turn up WMD in Iraq. The early leads were all busts, and the current favorite now is a looted trailer whose use is disputed by the different intelligence teams assigned to interpret it’s obscure meaning. Distinctly underwhelming. There is real damage to the admin internationally, though it remains to be seen whether there will be any domestic consequences. But even hawks who supported the war – W.F. Buckley and Mark Bowden, to name just two – are starting to write columns expressing unease about the admin’s salesmanship in the leadup to the war.

All of this is obscuring a fair picture of what it was and was not reasonable to assume prior to the war. The Bush admin clearly brought this on itself by exaggerating what it did know, but some of the criticism is unfair nonetheless.

But first, a word of warning to my fellow critics: Be careful how you frame the debate. The point shouldn’t be the complete failure to find WMD. If that’s the way you frame the matter the war will appear vindicated in retrospect by the discovery of even small though unambiguous stockpiles or precursors. And it’s important to see that it will not. For the selling of the war depended on claims about relative degrees of danger – remember when Iraq represented a unique threat? – and for the war to be vindicated retrospectively on these grounds requires that significant WMD stores be found. So first things first: centering the debate around the fact that no WMD have been found risks ceding the main point for temporary rhetorical advantage.

I never believed the admin’s claims that it knew lots about WMD in Iraq but couldn’t say it, or that it had quality intelligence but couldn’t share it with inspectors or allies. The issue was simply too important for the U.S. not to be leaking its best intelligence on the issue, and that made me fairly confident we were hearing most of what there was to know, or at least believe, about Iraq WMD program.

Still, it was reasonable to believe at the time that Iraq had an ambitious WMD program. In fact, it was foolish at the time to refuse to believe it. Prior possession, ugly news brought by defectors which could be independently confirmed, and five minutes spent reflecting on S.H.’s character all tended to suggest that Iraq had restarted its WMD program after the withdrawl of inspectors in 1998.

It was also reasonable to believe that even if Iraq did not have an active WMD program in 2002, it would restart the program in the event that the sanctions were lifted and significant oil revenues were again made available to the regime.

What’s more, it is reasonable now to think that S.H. would have restarted the programs, given half a chance.

The fact that the U.S. has found no evidence of the programs so far does nothing to diminish the fact that it was once reasonable to assume he was hiding something, and it certainly does not provide evidence that he was out of the WMD game for the long run.

Trouble is, the admin was acting on long-term calculations about Iraq’s capabilities, but it was trying to sell the war on short-term calculations of immanent threat. It was dishonest, perhaps impeachably so, but we shouldn’t let that distort the fact that WMD were a genuine concern prior to the war. Opponents of the war, such as myself, still owe an account of how we would have dealt with this concern.

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2003 06 04
A forum on Iraq and the U.S.

Yesterday I went to a forum organized by the editors of the new Iraq War Reader. The debate was lively, though a little lopsided. W. Kristol was supposed to balance things out, but he bailed for some reason or other. His replacement was more than worthy: Saad Ibrahim, whose case I’ve been following off and on in Human Rights Watch press releases, and occasionally, the mainstream media. Ibrahim is the Egyptian intellectual arrested by the government in Egypt for the reckless crime of attempting to monitor elections. After an international ruckus and American pressure, Egypt’s supreme court overturned the lower court’s ruling against Ibrahim. This was his first public appearance in the U.S. since. Although clearly in poor health, Ibrahim spoke engagingly about his attempts to build civil society in Egypt.

Also on the panel were Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Schell and Chris Toensing. Hitchens was in fine form. He is a bit paunchy—though he was not as large as he appears on television. He looked a wreck: His face was puffy, his clothes rumpled, and his hair disheveled. For much of the debate, especially at the beginning, he rested his head on his hands. For a few moments when he first sat down, he looked as if he might vomit. As the debate swung into gear, though, he looked increasingly animated. He was the target for many of the comments, and obviously the most infuriating member of the panel for much of the crowd. Well worth it, and I was very glad I had seen him in person.

After the panel discussion, there was a book signing. Towards the end, I decided to buy one of Hitchens’ books so that he could sign it. I also wanted to ask him a question. Our exchange, as best as I can remember it:

Me: May I ask you a question?
Hitchens: By all means.
Me: If Iraq is a functioning democracy in 5 or 10 years, I’ll admit that I was wrong to oppose the war. What would it take for you to admit that you were wrong?
Hitchens: Very little that could happen would lead me to admit that I was wrong because it was the right thing to do. That does not mean that we might not fail. It’s extremely risky. But even if we fail it will have been right to try. For one thing, there was a confrontation brewing with Saddam Hussein anyway, and it was best that it be at a place and time of our own choosing.
Incredibly risky, though. In fact, that’s one of the things which counts heavily in its favour. Risk-averse strategies are almost always awful ones. It is a great merit of the current plan that it was so risky.

His assistant (manager? wife?) was getting impatient at this point, so I didn’t press it any further. It seems to me an awful lots of lives to wager. I’m not against wagering 25 million lives when the alternative is so bad and the odds are good. I suppose I just didn’t think the odds were very good.

I asked Hitchens the question, because I wanted to see if we had a moral disagreement at all, or if perhaps we simply disagreed in our assessments of what was likely to happen. I suspected the latter: that our disagreement was a factual or predictive one, rather than a moral one. But this turns out not to be true. There is, also, at the root of it, a moral disagreement about how good the odds need to be before placing – or supporting – a wager of this sort.

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