November 2003

2003 11 28
[Kleiman on war]

Mark Kleiman has a very interesting post up at Open Source Politics.

Kleiman argues that the progressive critique of Bush’s policy on Iraq is flawed in its assumption that preventative war is always wrong. Bush’s policies may be bad, Kleiman argues, but they’re not bad simply because preventative war is bad as such.

There’s a lot to disagree with in Kleiman’s piece, but I completely agree with him that we need to rethink a lot of the assumptions we make about preventative war, and about the justification for war in general. It’s very healthy at this point to have a debate about exactly when preventative wars are bad and why.

First a little terminology. I assume that Kleiman is using the term “preventative” as a term of art, and so that he intends a contrast with a closely related term of art, “preemptive”. A preemptive war is one undertaken when the threat is immanent (in the real, and not Bushian, sense, of the word) – that is, when another party is poised to strike, has made clear its intention to strike, and all other plausible mechanisms for resolving the dispute have failed. The locus classicus of comtemporary discussions of preemption, for better and for worse, is Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. The classic example of preemptive war is Israel’s 1967 preemptive strike on the Egyptian airforce, since it is usually agreed to meet all these criteria.

A preventative war is one that is undertaken without an immanent threat, and is instead based on a plausible forecast of serious danger from another country, whose timing is longer term or uncertain.

There is an impressive consensus, rooted in international law, centuries of moral reflection on war, and common sense that preemptive wars may be just, so long as the conditions are genuinely met. Political rhetoric pays the highest tribute to the doctrine of preemptive war by frequently depicting aggressive war, no matter how unprovoked, as preemptive. There is also a consensus, almost as impressive, that preventative wars are not legitimate.

One reason for this consensus is practical: Because the threat involved in preventative war is vaguer and presumably longer term than the threat involved in a preemptive one, a fair standard for a geninely preventative war can be extremely difficult to draw in practice. This makes the standard easier to abuse. In the wrong hands, it’s especially easy to imagine the standard being twisted to justify wars of aggression.

But this kind of worry isn’t particularly compelling as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of the principle. A standard’s openness to abuse might make us wary about particular applications of it, especially when the statesmen applying it are not disposed to be honest about motives or rationales. But it’s in the nature of things that some cases are hard to judge, and if a principle is abused, we should blame the abuser, and those taken in by the abuse, rather than the principle itself.

A more compelling worry is that allowing for the legitimacy of preventative war seems too permissive. Any country with serious rivals has long term reasons to fear those rivals. And this fear is all the more rational – notice – if a country’s leadership has reason to believe that the rival country’s leadership subscribes to a doctrine of preventative war. If we considered preventative wars legitimate, the worry goes, we would be declaring a very large number of wars justified, at least in principle (though they might be morally bad in a number of other respects). And this seems incompatible with our sense that war ought to be a genuine last resort.

(Consider Iraq’s invasion of Iran. The war was quite unjust, both in the justice of its cause and in the manner in which it was fought. But recall that Iraq had very sound reasons to fear Iran in the long run. And while Iraq’s invasion may have been rash, there was surely no better time to take on Iran, which was so weakened by internal turmoil. What better, then, to strike at a time of Iraq’s choosing, instead of waiting for Iran to regain it’s strength. If we want to explain what makes Iraq’s war unjust, I think, part of the story will involve the wrongness of preventative war.)

So if we do want to allow that some preventative wars are just, we need to specify a great many further qualifications that will rule out unjust wars which are undertaken for long term strategic reasons. If we can specify these further restrictions clearly enough, we may still be able to make room for the justness of some preventative wars.

It’s important not to overestimate the extent to which countries have always been able to take each other by surprise. Still, nuclear weapons do more to challenge the distinction between preemption and prevention than any other development in the history of warfare, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. The sheer destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, combined with their ease of deployment, make hostile countries especially dangerous to one another. Add to this the fact that it’s often difficult to know how much faith to put in deterrence. Even if he had had nuclear weapons, Saddam Hussein is not likely to have used them, except in the most extreme difficulty. But they would surely have had an emboldening effect on him, and this would have opened up far more chance for miscalculation and error.

What I’m not sure about is how exactly we might rethink the distinction between prevention and preemption. We might argue that nuclear weapons force us to reclassify apparently preventative cases as cases of preemption, but leave intact the moral intuition that preventative war is wrong. Or we might leave the distinction itself intact, but argue that its moral significance has been misunderstood. Or we might simply discard the distinction as completely unhelpful and morally irrelevant.

I suspect that it’s better to leave the distinction between preemption and prevention as it is, but to allow, as Kleiman suggests, that there may be special cases in which prevention is legitimate. But I’m still working through all this, and find it very difficult to draw a plausible line.

A few of Kleiman’s other points are worth commenting on. First, it’s true that Iraq did not hold up it’s part of the bargain by submitting to inspections. But the case for war obviously depends on some sense of proportionality between the offence and the punishment. So some further argument is badly needed to demonstrate that war was a just response to Iraq’s cheating. I’m also afraid that the situation with inspections was more morally complicated than Kleiman suggests here. For all of Iraq’s lies, the U.S. never really played the inspections game straight either. It allowed the inspection team to collection intelligence which was passed along to Israel, for example. I’m very sympathetic to Israel’s desire for this intelligence, but this fact gives the lie to the idea that inspections were apolitical and reasonably conducted. And it was also perfectly obvious from the outset of the inspection regime that the U.S. would try to keep inspections in place as long as Saddam Hussein was in power, as a series of top officials all the way up to George Bush Senior made clear.

Also, Kleiman expresses doubt about whether sanctions were really much worse than war. It’s very useful to remember how awful the sanctions were, and to face up to the fact that continued sanctions as an alternative to war would have led to further suffering among the Iraqi people. Still, remember that many of the early deaths were due not to sanctions but to the (deliberate) destruction of the civilian infrastructure. And this was an effect of the actual fighting and not the sanctions. Second, there is evidence, collected for example in a UN report released just prior to the war, that the worst of the health crisis in Iraq was over. Both of these points, however, pale in comparison to the third point, which is that if Iraq undergoes a civil war, as I am increasingly afraid it will, then I can say with great confidence that the sanctions were preferable to war.

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2003 11 27

Some holiday fun with Friedman today. Adopting the clever, and entirely unexpected, literary device of pretending to be Saddam Hussein writing a letter to Bush, Friedman writes:

By now you’ve realized that I was prepared for this war. I got rid of all my W.M.D., hid explosives and set up an underground network to fight you once you were in country. But God bless the Turkish Parliament. By not allowing you to use Turkey to invade from the north, my boys in the Sunni Triangle were spared. By the time you got here from the south, we just receded into the shadows. You occupied our Sunni towns, but never defeated them. Had you been able to sweep down from the north, my boys would have had to engage you, and you would have killed them wholesale by the hundreds. Now you have to kill them retail — one by one.

Friedman sure can pack a lot of nonsense into a short paragraph. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Friedman supposes that S.H.’s grand plot involved getting rid of W.M.D., rather than, say, supposing that if he kept most of his brutality directed inward he would be left alone. (No one else is going to make that mistake again soon! Get working on your W.M.D. everyone!)

I also expect that S.H’s preparation for an overthrow was far less developed than Friedman thinks, if it was developed at all. I don’t think S.H. planned, for example, to have weapons caches lying around unguarded long after the downfall of the government so that insurgents could restock when supplies dwindled.

It may be comforting to portray your own incompetence as your enemy’s evil genius, but it’s not especially helpful if you’re trying to figure out what is actually happening.

What really caught my interest, though, is that Friedman wants to pin the blame for much of the postwar situation on Turkey. This is a very convenient explanation for the whole mess in Iraq. In fact, it’s so convenient that I’m astonished I haven’t seen more of this line. Hell, it’s so damn convenient, I’m going to bet that it becomes enshrined as a major article of faith among the pro-war camp. I’ll bet that years from now we’ll be hearing people defensively refering to the oasis of democracy that the Middle East might have been if only Turkey hadn’t gone and ruined everything.

So I might as well take my first crack at it, even though it won’t do any good.

I do agree that the war would probably have gone more smoothly if troops had been able to go in through the North as well as the South. But many of the postwar problems also appear to stem from entirely different causes, among them the failure to provide enough troops to properly secure areas once the fighting was over. That ain’t Turkey’s fault.

Friedman seems to think that this magnificent sweep from the North would have wiped out the bulk of what currently ails Iraq, but it’s now obvious that resistance to a U.S. occupation runs very deep in the Sunni triangle (for example). There are many tens of thousands of angry young men in Iraq now. I’m not sure how much difference killing “hundreds” of them would have made, especially when they would have left behind brothers and friends and parents to avenge them. Better, if I can offer a little advice, to keep an eye on enormous caches of weapons that seem to be lying around unguarded a lot of the time.

Anyway, if S.H. planned the whole damn thing, as Friedman suggests, wouldn’t he have given the orders for those troops to melt away before they could get pulverized? Or is his evil genius only selective? May we invoke it to get ourselves off the hook and reinvoke it when we’re casting blame at others?

Set that aside, though. Orders or no orders, one would have thought that many of these troups would have had the sense to melt away rather than risk a direct confrontation with the U.S. as it swept down from the North. But don’t take my word for it: that’s what a lot of them did when the U.S. came in from the South, isn’t it?

But if we’re playing the blame game, it’s worth taking a closer look at how Friedman keeps score. Friedman assumes the essential rightness of U.S. behaviour and then rates other country’s actions depending on how well they fit with its plans. Well, of course if you do that Turkey comes off looking pretty bad. But if the U.S. has no right in Iraq in the first place, if the venture was dishonestly sold and contrary and international law, why assume that it’s the failure of others to cooperate that’s to blame when things go wrong?

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2003 11 26
[Adesnik on Gelb]

David Adesnik, over at Oxblog quotes a friend in response to Gelb’s piece in the times yesterday (for my take on Gelb, click here):

Iraq is unique in the Muslim world as a country where Sunnis and Shias, both secular and religious leaders, have often collaborated against internal oppression and external aggression, and have not engaged in the vicious sectarian bloodshed seen in Pakistan, or the Wahabbi view of Shias as heretics and polytheists. Shia Ayatollahs supported Sunni opposition movements, and a radical Shia movement like the Da’wa party had a Sunni membership of ten percent…

Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias are related by common history and often common tribal relations, since Iraq only became a majority Shia state after Sunni tribes converted to Shiism in the 18th century. Even the most extreme Iraqi Shias are Iraqi nationalists and view Iran with suspicion. Iraqi Shias believe their country is the rightful leader of the Shia world, since Shiism began in Iraq, most sacred Shia sites are in Iraq and the Hawza, or Shia clerical academy of Najaf, dominated Shia thought until recently. Iran is a rival for them. Iraqi nationalism and unity were proven when all members of the Iraqi Governing Council unanimously rejected the American proposal to introduce Turkish peacekeepers into the country…

Kurdish leaders from all political parties have called for inclusion in the new Iraq, and while many may dream of an eventual Kurdish state, all recognize that it is quixotic at this juncture. There is only a light American presence in Kurdistan anyway, and it is not the reason troops are meeting resistance elsewhere. A Kurdistan without US troops is the greatest fear of most Kurds today who live under the ominous shadow of their Turkish, Iranian, and even Syrian neighbors. There is no clear border for Kurdistan. Kurds covet Mosul and Kirkuk, where many Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen would violently oppose secession…

Gelb’s proposal is the singularly least democratic suggestion offered to solve the Iraq crisis to date. Moreover, no neighboring country would accept the idea of dividing Iraq. How many small, artificial and unviable countries (like Jordan and the Gulf countries) does the west wish to create in repetition of its post Ottoman errors? Unlike Yugoslavia, Iraq’s different groups have no history of separate existence and they have no history of mutual slaughter. It is true that Iraq was to a certain extent an invention. But all states begin as an imagined idea. A state succeeds if its people believe in it. Iraqis believe in Iraq. If anything, the American occupation is only uniting Iraqis in resentment of the foreigners and non Muslims who
rule them, and increasing their desire to be “free, independent and democratic” as the graffiti says on walls throughout the country. Iraqis believe in Baghdad, an extremely diverse capital city, where Shias, Sunnis and Kurds live together and even intermarry.

I agree with the main sentiment expressed final paragraph, certainly. If I can add a pessimistic note, the author seems to assume that past ethnic harmony in Iraq (arguably overstated by the author) gives us a reason to hope that Iraq will continue to enjoy a reasonable amount of ethnic harmony in the future.

But past ethnic harmony is a good predictor of future ethnic conflict only if ethnic conflict is mainly about, um, ethnic conflict. I think it isn’t.

What do I mean? In many cases – Yugoslavia is an excellent example – the real causes of ethnic conflict have less to do with ethnic hatreds than may seem the case. It’s often far more plausible to see the causes as political, as having to do with the struggle for control over wealth and power. My sense is that the trouble in Yugoslavia had much more to do with the mafia and the struggle for control over state resources than with an eruption of long dormant ethnic hatred. And it is worth pointing out that Yugoslavia had the highest rate of intermarriage between ethnic groups in the world in the year before the ethnic cleansing started. Of course, recognizable ethnic groups are needed to get things going, and past grievances certainly help. Once things gets going, ethnic identity becomes the surest shortcut to figuring out who is safe and who is not – and this helps to fuel the impression that the conflict is, at root, an ethnic one.

This matters because it influences our sense of how likely an ethnic conflict is to erupt somewhere. Instead of asking whether there is a history of ethnic cooperation or conflict, it is probably more helpful to ask: Are there pre-existing ethnic divisions which might be exploited by unscrupulous leaders? How high are the stakes in the struggle over control of the state? What other legitimate kinds of groups exist besides ethnic categories (unions, associations, multi-ethnic political parties, etc.)?

I’m pessimistic because I think the answers to these questions are not encouraging, and because I think they matter more than the fact – to the extent that it is a fact – that Iraq has a history of ethnic cooperation.

Gelb is mistaken, I think. But make no mistake, the U.S. will need to work very hard to avoid a civil war.

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2003 11 25
[Gelb on Iraq]

Leslie Gelb, President emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former columnist for the New York Times, has a piece in today’s Times that deserves, and will no doubt receive, lengthy comment. Gelb argues that the current thinking on Iraq is flawed because it assumes that whatever the character of a future Iraq, it must be a single state. On the contrary, Gelb thinks, Iraq was only held together as a state in the past by brute force. Better to move, then, to a three state solution, with the Kurds in the North, the Sunni Arabs in the central part of the country and the Shiites in the South.

For an early reaction to Gelb’s piece, see Juan Cole’s remarks here. Cole, I think, is mainly right about Gelb. I just have a few points to add.

First, I’m not sure why Cole is so confident that oil reserves in Northern Iraq are so close to being depleted. I’d be curious to know why Cole thinks that, especially since oil exploration and development have been almost completely neglected for the last two and a half decades.

Second, both Gelb and Cole seem too quick on the Turkish question. Gelb basically seems to think that the Turks will just suck it up if the Kurds separate, while Cole flat out asserts the contrary. But surely the reaction will depend on all kinds of variables: to name just a few, the length of time between now and a proposed separation, the situation in South East Turkey, Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the U.S. at the time, the U.S.’s estimation of the costs and benefits involved in each policy, and so on.

The thing that is really striking about Gelb’s piece is its arrogance. Gelb speaks of various minorities and interests in Iraq as though they are chess pieces on a board, rather than groups of human beings with legitimate interests in own right. With a few modifications, Gelb’s piece could pass as an artifact of the colonial era, when Western powers carved up with the world without entertaining the slightest doubts about their own judgment or wisdom.

The trick, as far as Gelb is concerned, is to find the cleverest way to move the pieces about the board. Why not, for example, starve the Sunnis of oil revenues to bring them to heel?:

“The United States could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.”

Or why not facilitate ethnic cleansing throughout Iraq?

“For example, [the Sunnis] might punish the substantial minorities left in the center, particularly the large Kurdish and Shiite populations in Baghdad. These minorities must have the time and the wherewithal to organize and make their deals, or go either north or south. This would be a messy and dangerous enterprise, but the United States would and should pay for the population movements and protect the process with force.”

No. This won’t do. This kind of brutal calculating is almost always too clever by half. And Gelb’s talk of various political arrangements as “natural” or “unnatural” disguises a plain contempt for the wishes of ordinary Iraqis about the shape of their future political arrangements.

Gelb’s piece is a reminder that the capacity for moral engagement with a topic has deep connections with our ability to think prudentially about it. I’m not saying that if you’re a good person, it’ll be easy to figure out what to do. Nor I am saying, exactly, that immoral people always make prudential mistakes. I do think, though, that the capacity for moral reflection is very closely connected with our capacity to imagine what it is like to be differently situated than we are. Moral emotions and concerns can highlight aspects of a situation that are likely to be given more significance by other people, and that we’re liable to miss if we’re narrowly focused on the pursuit of our own interests. And this can be valuable when we assess how people are likely to respond to our behaviour. I don’t know what Gelb is like as a person – perhaps he’s a swell chap. But to judge from his piece, he hasn’t bothered to imagine what it must be like to be an Iraqi now. And it shows in his grasp of the strategic situation in Iraq, and his sense of how things are likely to play out there.

There are no easy solutions in Iraq’s future, and Gelb is right to point to powerful forces working against a unified state. Indeed, I am most terrified now of a civil war tearing apart a new Iraq within a year or so of a U.S. departure.

I also don’t want to argue that a unified state is the best or only solution for Iraq. I think that’s a matter for Iraqis to decide, if things ever reach the point at which a democratic process might legitimately help them sort through the options.

What I am arguing is that Gelb’s article embodies the sort of arrogance that mars so much U.S. foreign policy thinking. This arrogance has (deservedly) come to be associated with the Bush administration, but it obviously runs much deeper than that. Gelb isn’t some bozo the Times picked off the street. He’s at the very centre of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. That he can talk so casually about other countries, other lives, in this way, ought to be an occasion for much soul searching.

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2003 11 18
[I am Job]

There was a man in the land of New York and his name was CY. and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. He had a laptop, which was worth more to him than all of the oxen of New Jersey. And lo he did blog on his laptop. And he worked mightily on his PhD during the day, and during the evenings reclined with his laptop and watched Monty Python videos borrowed (for free!) from his university’s library. And he was pure of heart, or at least pure enough to hate the evil Bush.

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant CY, not a perfect man to be sure, but at least he dislikes Bush? And verily he treasures his laptop as a man should.”

Then Satan answered the LORD, “Does CY fear computer failure for nought?

Hast thou not hitherto delivered him from system failure, even though he tempted fate this very summer by switching to a PC because he was too cheap [ed. Satan is unfair here. He was too poor.] to buy a Mac? But put his laptop to failure and he will curse his fate to your face.”

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

And CY was frolicking with his laptop on Sunday, tinkering with a blog entry before resuming work on his paper to be delivered on Wednesday, and lo, his computer became sluggish. And lo! when he rebooted his computer began to repair itself. But verily it was completely kaput.

And CY fell on the ground and said: “Without a laptop was I this summer, and without a laptop am I now. Anyway, it’s under warranty and as chance would have it I backed up my paper on my email account an hour before disaster.”

In all this CY did not sin or despair or feel especially sorry for himself, beyond a little pouting to his wife.

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant CY, that he’s holding up pretty well considering how much he loves his laptop and how nervous he is about the talk.”

Then Satan answered the LORD, “What. Ever. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his email account and he will sob like a little girlyman.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare the laptop itself.”

And so when CY went to check his email Tuesday morning, the day before the talk, verily was his email down. And Satan singled him out, since the email shortage seemed to affect very few people on campus, though the computer geeks did note mail server problems in isolated cases. And verily was CY an isolated case.

And then did CY curse his dependence on technology, having been screwed once before he got his laptop and by the same idiots who run his school’s email server. And then did he curl into a ball and wimper and resign himself to finishing the talk in the computer lab, a process involving not only a lot of typing but also the futile attempt to filter out inane conversations going on around him a good deal of the time.

And so, he’d better get to work and stop playing with his blog. But you’ll surely understand if it’s a little quieter around here for a few days.

BONUS HELPER POINTS: Anyone know what you do if you think you might have lost your Home XP System disk? Verily, I suspect I’m fucked.

UPDATE (much later): If you’ve just wandered in from Wampum or anywhere else, I’ve written a little welcome here.

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2003 11 16

I want to call attention to a little noticed irony in hawkish attitudes towards risk, and to use it to reflect a bit on a taboo in American political debate which has potentially serious consequences.

During the Cold War, hawkish attitudes to the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union were often alarmingly casual. I don’t mean that anyone actually wanted a confrontation. But hawkish rhetoric and strategizing flirted more openly with the risks of nuclear annihilation than many of us were comfortable with – and that includes many of those who supported standing up to the Soviets in all sorts of ways. (This isn’t a point aimed exclusively at Republicans, of course – think of McNamara’s advice to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

It’s worth remembering how serious a risk we were all flirting with. A nuclear exchange would have wiped out life on earth.

Compare this to the threat of terrorism. What is the worst that a terrorist could do? Well, it’s pretty damn awful. In the worst case, a small nuclear device packed in a truck in Midtown Manhattan could kill hundreds of thousands, destroy the American economy, spread sickness and devastation, and render my favourite city in the U.S. uninhabitable. But this is still not as awful as the complete and final destruction of life on earth coldly contemplated by hundreds of pointy-heads in government and Think Tanks for the duration of the Cold War. And although this is a difficult judgment call, I think there’s considerably less risk of a worst case terrorist attack than there was of a nuclear confrontation.

It isn’t being cavalier about terrorism to point this out, since even less than worse case terrorist attacks are awful enough that we ought to be prepared to go very far out of our way to try to prevent them.

And again, I don’t mean that anyone intentionally courted disaster during the Cold War. I mean that the risk of nuclear annihilation was never considered an absolute argument stopper when policymakers were weighing risks of different sorts against one another.

The irony, then, is this: Hawks during the cold war went from excessive risk-taking in the face of a far greater threat, to a total refusal nowadays to countenance any course of action that involves an increased risk – however slight – of further terrorism.

Critics of the current administration have noted that many of the hawks who were gaming intelligence during the Cold War were up to the same old tricks during the build-up to the war on Iraq. And indeed, there is a depressing continuity both in actors and tactics here. But it has eluded critics that the underlying attitude towards risk has been completely reversed: The risk of terrorism is no longer considered a risk to be balanced against other risks in other areas. It is a trump card, a genuine argument stopper. It is now the case that to identify a plausible measure in the War on Terror is automatically to have a decisive reason to act, whatever the other consequences.

Now, perhaps this is more a feature of hawkish rhetoric than hawkish belief. Anyone who is serious about protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks should also be serious about adequate funding for homeland security, and this is not something which the Bush administration or its defenders have been serious about. Still, I have a sense that I’ve put my finger on a real article of faith in the administration and among its supporters. And anyway, it functions as an argument stopper in real political debate, so we might as well treat it as sincere and examine it accordingly.

It might also be objected that the nature of the threat has changed in ways that make this shift in attitudes to risk intelligible. But this overlooks the fact that, for one thing, the risks presented by further terrorism are less serious than the ones contemplated by policymakers and analysts in during the Cold War (What is the best case scenario involving a nuclear exchange?). I think this also overlooks the years of uncertainty during the Cold War about whether, in fact, the Soviets were deterrable. Don’t forget that this was once a very open question, especially over the years as each side postured to try to stare down and unnerve the other. But, more important, this objection misses the main point. The undeterrability of terrorist groups is part of the risk we’re considering. And what I’m comparing is the risk presented by these two very different kinds of adversaries and the attitudes of American policymakers to that risk.

Without our much noticing or debating it, this principle – the one that says that no risk of terrorism is acceptable under any circumstances, and can’t be weighed against any other sort of risk in formulating policy – has hardened into one of the firmest taboos in American political culture. It’s the explicit party line of the hawks, who trumpet it most loudly, but it’s also never been challenged effectively in the mainstream, as far as I know, and this has allowed it to enter the conventional wisdom by default.

Despite this, I think it’s a terrible principle, and one that is bound to mislead Americans. In fact, I think it’s bound to make all of us much less safe given enough time.

Let me explain this by describing one of the consequences of the principle in action. Consider the U.S.’s dealings with Russia. The relationship is complex, with all sorts of trade-offs, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. But one very prominent justification offered for the U.S.’s steadfast refusal to press Russia on Chechnya, or human rights in general, or the failure to respect the rule of law, or for generally behaving like France on the international stage, or for any number of worrying developments, is that Russia is an ally in the war on terror and provides intelligence cooperation on Muslim extremist groups. (And the same considerations apply to China, more or less, mutatis mutandis.)

Well, I’m sure it does, though I’ve not heard many stories of actual cooperation. On balance I rather doubt that the trade is worth it, even on its own terms. Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya has surely done more to inflame radical Muslim sentiment than its intelligence on radical groups could ever compensate for. But set this aside, and assume that the trade makes sense from the point of view of combating terrorism.

Also set aside – just for the moment – the moral question: Is Russian intelligence so good that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the wanton persecution of human beings in Chechnya? Hawks who like to brag about saving Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo might want to chew on that one for a while. It’s a bit deflating to add Chechnya – and the U.S.’s non-response to it – to this supposedly glorious story. Pooty-Poot is a war criminal, and anyone who stares into his beady little eyes and comes away without shuddering is a fool or worse. But let this go for a minute.

The most serious prudential point is that U.S. policies which subordinate the goal of fighting terrorist groups over everything else miss the fact that an increasingly unhealthy Russia is bad for the U.S. (and a lot of other people, like, for example, Russians) for all kinds of reasons quite unrelated to terrorism. Investment, a stable source of oil, a potentially reliable partner, an actor on the global stage which still has considerable influence – all these things are set at risk by the sort of political decay in Russia that the U.S. has so clearly declined to resist since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

This is a bipartisan criticism, by the way, and a problem in which – just to be clear – there are more factors than an interest in combating terrorism. I think Clinton’s coddling of Yeltsin for quite different reasons played a crucial, and very unfortunate, role in bringing things to this point.

But the War on Terror as an article of unquestioned faith has made things much worse, and now stands firmly in the way of a re-evaluation of the policy. Here, then, is the effect of the taboo: Our politicians (and indeed, most of the chattering class) now lack the vocabulary, and perhaps even the conceptual tools, that would help to evaluate the various risks and balance them sensibly. That’s because balancing them sensibly would require them to seriously consider the possibility that other considerations might, in principle, outweigh the risks posed by terrorism. It might make sense to accept slightly more risk in the War on Terror in order to achieve a more stable Russia, assuming for the moment that helping to bring about a stable Russia actually did require the U.S. to jeopardize a potential source of intelligence on extremist groups. In fact, I think this particular trade off would be worth it. And I live in New York!

Now, part of the solution here would be to try to figure out a way to frame the political debate which doesn’t allow this point to be distorted into the simplistic claim that critics of the assumption are soft on terrorism, and don’t take national security seriously. Perhaps you can figure this out. I’m not sure I can.

It’s important to rethink this mess of intuitions from the start. For the refusal to consider different sorts of trade-offs influences more than just foreign policy. It figures prominently in the debate over civil liberties, for example. People have assumed that Ashcroft and others are acting consistently with past positions when they balance civil liberties against terrorist measures and civil liberties come off worse for it. But in fact we’ve come a very long way from the days of “Better dead than red”. It would be nice to have just a bit more of that spirit back in the right. It would be better to have just a bit more of that spirit back in all of us.

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2003 11 09
[Afterthought on the last post]

An afterthought to my post below responding to the President’s recent speech on democracy and American foreign policy.

I think that the war on Iraq will surely make Americans less safe than they would otherwise have been. This isn’t mainly because of any backlash over the invasion, though there may well be one. It’s because diplomatic, economic, and military resources which might have gone to fighting AQ and other groups didn’t go towards that struggle, because they were diverted towards Iraq. Even if I concede that Iraq posed some real long term threat, the prudence of the war is not settled by the mere fact – if it ever is one – that the long term threat from Iraq has been dealt with. The prudential case for war has to grapple with the relevant counterfactual: We have to compare not just the benefits of war against the losses, but the probable benefits and losses of acting otherwise against the actual benefits and losses which will accrue to the war and reconstruction.

An analogous point applies to the humanitarian case for war. Defenders of the war have claimed that Iraq is now liberated, and so its people are substantially better off than they would otherwise have been.

Well, in the first place, they’re not liberated, as far as I’m concerned, until they’re free, and they’re not free until the U.S. succeeds in establishing a functioning democracy. Now, Saddam Hussein was so awful that I agree it will be hard to find something worse. But in the meantime, there’s been a war, and people have died and been further harassed and that surely gets weighed in the balance. More troubling, there is something worse than Saddam Hussein, believe it or not, and it is now a very real possibility. If there is a civil war in Iraq – and don’t you dare count that out – things will be even worse than the almost impossibly low standard set by Saddam Hussein.

But suppose that Iraq has now been through the worst, and has been set on the path to freedom and prosperity. The humanitarian case for war still has to confront a more difficult question in order to succeed: If your aim is really to impartially advance the cause of human development and freedom across the world, was this the most effective way to spend several hundred billions of dollars and a generation’s worth of credibility in the international sphere?

This seems like a pretty heartless question to ask. After all, it is extremely unlikely that the Iraqi people would have been able to dump Saddam Hussein by themselves. So what I am contemplating is having set aside 25 million people as too difficult a case for the moment, to concentrate on other people. And this means – just to be clear – that Saddam Hussein would have continued his low grade civil war in the South, and continued to menace the North, and that he would have been able to complete his destruction of the Iraqi marshlands in the South, and destroyed the ancient civilization of the Marsh Arabs. It means that his people would have continued to suffer malnourishment (though this was improving in the years before the war), and – perhaps worst of all – from an almost complete lack of hope for the future. Societies under dictators like Saddam Hussein continue to rot for the duration of their servitude, and in a thousand thousand ways. And I am suggesting that something short of the radical solution proposed by the Bush administration might have been better, morally speaking, even if I had been more confident that the U.S. could avoid the worst outcomes as it goes about reconstruction. Why, I can just hear Christopher Hitchens sneering as I write this.

This is heartless in its way, but that way is the way in which we are always heartless when we make difficult choices involving large numbers of people. What I am suggesting is that the humanitarian case for war has to consider not just the consequences of inaction against the consequences of action, but the consequences of the action actually undertaken against the array of other possible actions we might have undertaken using the same diplomatic, economic and military resources.

And if you are honest enough to consider it that way, let me suggest that if you gave me several hundreds of billions of dollars, and that much diplomatic and military capital to spend, I could have gotten you far more bang for your humanitarian buck than the U.S. is currently getting in Iraq, even if the rest of the reconstruction goes off without a hitch. In case you haven’t noticed, much of the world is in rough shape, and it is part of the humanitarian case for war on Iraq that the resources spent there be diverted from efforts which might have improved the lives of other equally deserving people in other equally deserving countries. And if my objections to the humanitarian case for war are heartless, then so is the humanitarian case for war.

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2003 11 08
[Bush’s call to freedom]

Global dislike for President Bush has reached the point that there’s very little he could say now to please anyone abroad, beyond a brief resignation speech. Bush’s speech at “The National Endowment for Democracy” on November 6th, was his government’s most recent attempt to change the stubborn perception of Bush as a malevolent force in world history, and although it was no doubt pitched partly at his domestic supporters, it is not hard to imagine that the speech was also prompted by genuine concern about the intensity of loathing Bush now inspires the world over. The loathing runs very deep, and its impact on foreign policy is very real, since it constrains the sorts of the concessions Bush is able to win from foreign leaders, who have strong domestic political reasons to avoid any association with him. Although Bush’s speech is extraordinarily dishonest on the subject of history, and also very short on specifics about the future, it does contain an inspiring vision. Given the context of the speech, and the speaker, however, the piece is as likely to enrage as to inspire, as initial reactions to the speech already suggest. The President’s call for the spread of democracy, freedom, women’s rights, and literacy, will be met with contempt and anger. It’s worth reflecting on how we got to this point.

Setting aside the frustrating attempt to distort the historical record in Bush’s speech (on which more below), the substance of the speech is as follows: Freedom and human rights are absolutely essential to progress, peace and stability. In the long run, the failure to respect these principles lead societies to rot and lose their vibrancy. In a pluralistic world with different faiths and cultures, we can’t expect – and we don’t expect – an enthusiastic embrace of all things American. But there are universals, and these include respect for human rights, freedom and democracy. It is especially patronizing and wrong-headed to think that Muslim countries are any less capable of achieving a free society than anyone else. The U.S. must move to protect and spread democracy and respect for human rights, since the failure to do so breeds the kind of false stability and political extremism that is both morally wrong and a source of very real dangers to Americans. Here is the high point of the speech:

There are, however, essential principles common to every successful society, in every culture. Successful societies limit the power of the state and the power of the military — so that governments respond to the will of the people, and not the will of an elite. Successful societies protect freedom with the consistent and impartial rule of law, instead of selecting applying — selectively applying the law to punish political opponents. Successful societies allow room for healthy civic institutions — for political parties and labor unions and independent newspapers and broadcast media. Successful societies guarantee religious liberty — the right to serve and honor God without fear of persecution. Successful societies privatize their economies, and secure the rights of property. They prohibit and punish official corruption, and invest in the health and education of their people. They recognize the rights of women. And instead of directing hatred and resentment against others, successful societies appeal to the hopes of their own people.

Though I have significant reservations about what Bush probably intends in the economic sphere, I think the rest of this is exactly correct, and so do many other people. If the President is willing to articulate such compelling principles, then I suppose things could be much worse than they are. It is better that Bush say this, for example, than that he glorify war explicitly or omit any attempt at moral justification at all for his actions.

But Bush cannot pretend to be morally serious while he acts as he does. And he cannot hope to persuade anyone when his words stand so obviously at odds with his behaviour. In the end, Bush’s words will be unpersuasive because they insult his listeners intelligence. And they will be discouraging, because they suggest an alternative path for American foreign policy which is far wiser and more effective than the one it is currently treading.

Bush delivered his speech the same week that a scandal was tearing through the Canadian press. Some months ago, A Syrian born Canadian citizen had been nabbed at JFK on a layover during a return trip to Canada. In violation of international law which would have required his return to Canada, the U.S. returned the man to Syria, where he was imprisoned and tortured at length. When the deportation became a scandal in Canada, the U.S. government’s response was to depict the deportation as standard practice. And indeed it is: the policy of deporting suspects in this way is part of the Bush administration’s policy of outsourcing torture. The spread of human rights in the Middle East would therefore pose a serious inconvenience for Bush’s administration since it relies on this increasingly as an investigative technique. Certainly, it leaves Bush in a delicate position if he genuinely wishes to push other governments on human rights, since his government’s own position with respect to torture is not indifference or inadequate attention, but rather active complicity. And how can Bush urge foreign governments to respect their own citizens when the U.S. is not itself willing to forgo the alleged advantages offered by institutional brutality, and before the very eyes of the governments which are the targets of the criticism?

The painful fact is that the Bush administration has lacked the moral fibre, the resolution and the judgment to seriously question the human rights record of a very long list of allies. For most of these countries military and economic support from the U.S. bears no relation at all to their record on human rights. This list includes, but is in no way limited to, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, and the list goes on.

The last item on the list recalls one of the enduring puzzles of the Bush administration’s prewar rhetoric for me, which was how the administration expected to spread democracy in Iraq when the U.S. has been unable to bring it to Egypt, in spite of its relatively moderate political culture and a generation’s worth of substantial U.S. aid. Part of the problem is that although some U.S. policymakers see the spread of human rights as desirable in principle, in practice actual human rights concerns are consistently subordinated to so many other priorities – the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War for Freer Trade, and so on – that the U.S. has had depressingly little effect for the good on most of the troubled countries it deals with. Indeed, the final irony of the Bush administration’s foreign policy is that, in spite of its reputation for assertiveness, it has been timid and unambitious in pursuing the laudable goals outlined in Bush’s speech.

The world is filled with hypocrites, of course. But Bush is far and away the most powerful of them, and the special attention paid to his hypocrisy is not a result of simpleminded inconsistency. The administration’s bellicose rhetoric, its drive to disarm potential nuclear rivals while simultaneously pushing forward on new nuclear research, its dishonestly sold war against Iraq all combine to make the U.S. a legitimate source of concern as a global actor. Bush’s speech is not likely to address this unease because blatant hypocrisy is rarely reassuring.

Bush’s speech was obviously written with the desire to present Bush as a leader comparable to Reagan, that great and principled cold warrior who was dismissed in his time as out of touch and hypocritical, but who is now held in such esteem that it is apparently unwise to criticize him on television. I think the comparison with Reagan is apt, though not for the reasons which Bush’s speechwriters fancy. Reagan proclaimed himself against tyranny, but no one who seriously studies the historical record could possibly think that tyranny as such bothered Reagan very much at all. Reagan was an avowed and sometimes effective foe against communist tyranny, and communist tyranny was both wretched and worth resisting. But he continued and aggravated the longstanding U.S. habit of uncritically supporting any dictator who offered nominal support in this struggle, and we are still living with the consequences (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran to name just a few of the most troublesome cases).

Like Bush, Reagan was probably a genuine moral simpleton, someone so disengaged from the world, except in the most abstract way, that he was unable to fashion a morally coherent response to any evil which didn’t fit comfortably into his way of seeing the world.

Like Bush, Reagan’s rhetoric could be magnificent and inspiring if stripped of context, but it fell on deaf ears precisely because the speaker’s actions belied his own words.

But if the comparison with Reagan is apt, much of the history lesson in Bush’s speech is dishonest. Bush cites a whole series of countries as if their emergence as democracies had some connection with anything Reagan did. In fact, the United States played different roles in each of these countries, encouraging the spread of democracy in some, tolerating it reluctantly in others, and thwarting or undermining it elsewhere. The last country on Bush’s list, South Africa, comes as a bit of a surprise. Does Bush know, one wonders, that his own Vice President would have nothing to do with Nelson Mandela in the 1980s on the grounds that he was a terrorist? Does he know that Reagan did far less than nothing to help bring about a world in which Nelson Mandela could come to power peacefully?

This distortion of the historical record matters. It matters partly because it undermines the sensible things that Bush wants to say. But it also matters because part of being morally serious involves reflecting on past mistakes. Bush’s administration is filled with hardliners who refuse to accept these as mistakes, or to grasp that living up to the ideals outlined in Bush’s speech would mean a more radical shift in U.S. policy than any it has ever undertaken. And since they refuse to learn from these mistakes, they are surely doomed to repeat them.

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2003 11 05
[Bush poetry]

Bush channels William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say

I have taken
the funds
that were in
the lockbox

and which
you were probably
for retirement

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

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2003 11 04
[Make Baghdad pay]

Op-Ed Contributor: Make Baghdad Pay

Imagine you are enjoying your breakfast some quiet Sunday morning. The coffee is brewing and your family is bickering peaceably, as it often does. Now imagine that the calm is broken by armed intruders smashing their way into your house. Even before the sound of tinkling glass has faded, they have set upon your spouse, and put a bullet through the forehead of your favourite child. You are strapped to a chair as your wallet and bank statements are examined to determine your worth.

Credit cards are produced, and the guests go on to ring up the charges on all kinds of choice items, though they don’t seem particularly choice to you, and you had nothing to do with choosing them. No care is taken to mask the nature of the theft. Your hopes are dashed as you realize that the people taking the orders over the phone know about your situation – they just saw it on the news – but they don’t care. They’re treating the new owners of your credit cards as the proper legal owners of your burgeoning debt, since what goes on in your house is an internal affair, and they’re not inclined to do anything as low as meddle in other people’s affairs.

The same, alas, goes for your neighbours, who were at first alarmed by the noise, but have since gone back to their business – until, that is, your guests hold a garage sale to raise more money for themselves. Then, with only a few exceptions, your neighbours do make your business their business, but only long enough to purchase all your belongings at deliciously low prices.

You are muffled and beaten when you try to cry out to them. But after a while you realize that there’s little point in crying out to anyone. None of your neighbours will meet your frantic eyes anyway. You’re an embarrassment and you’re ruining a perfectly good garage sale.

This goes on until you have lost everything. But one day, when your guard’s attention slips, you manage to take back your house. Or perhaps a sympathetic neighbour sees that your house might be resold (splitting the profits with you, of course, in some way yet to be specified) and lends a hand.


Except that not only is your house cleaned out, but you also find yourself with a crushing post-party debt. Your credit card companies now take a fresh interest in you, or more precisely, a fresh interest in the interest to be gotten from you.

You consult a lawyer, and he points out that you have a degree, and plenty of potential to make money. After several years, provided you don’t crack up under post-traumatic stress, or have bad luck, you should be in a position to start repaying your debt. He says that debt relief in your case would set a damaging precedent – after all, what about all the other people whose homes have been likewise invaded? He chides you that the very rule of law depends on the principle that we pay back our debts, and so the standard for relief of debts needs to be a very, very strict one. He’s sorry to inform you that you haven’t met this standard. He reminds you that you did, after all, have a balance on your credit cards before the unpleasant business started, and points out – getting increasingly impatient with your incomprehension – that you had all those years tied to a chair in which you might have been paying it off.

Noting your distress, your takes pity and offers you a few consoling (billable) words. He’s not suggesting that you pay everything off right away. But part of getting back on your feet is assuming your responsibilities. Chin up, lad. You’ll make it through. Don’t think that your creditors have given up on you. You’ll make it. You’ll make it in spite of everything.

Piece parodied below:

Make Baghdad Pay

The economic consequences of regime change in Iraq could get worse if the United States, Great Britain and their coalition partners act on radical impulses to make grand gestures. A case in point is Iraq’s sovereign debt.
Iraq’s debt includes $40 billion owed to Paris Club official creditors, most notably Japan, France, Germany and Russia; at least $30 billion to other official creditors; at least $3 billion to London Club commercial banks; and perhaps $10 billion owed to corporate creditors.

What is to be done? Already we hear calls from the right and the left to impose what might be called a “zero option”; that is, cancellation of Iraq’s debt. From the right, Richard Perle and William F. Buckley Jr. have called for freeing Iraq of its “odious debt” on moral grounds. From the other end of the political spectrum, Oxfam and Jubilee Iraq have taken much the same position, while Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobelist, is advocating relief on more prudent grounds, citing the lessons of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which required Germany to pay heavy war reparations.

These recommendations, though doubtless well intentioned, are misguided. A country like Iraq, with the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, should be expected to be able to pay its obligations. Furthermore, the moral charge that the debts are odious is simply too sweeping. Acting on it would be bad for Iraq and would set a damaging precedent for the international financial system.

For Iraq to normalize its external financial relations, it must respect one of the first principles of the rule of law: contracts should be honored. Without this presumption, markets cannot work. The threshold for overturning the presumption must be kept high to prevent chaos. In the case of Iraq, the threshold has not been met.
Several myths have gained currency in the debt debate. The first is that Iraq’s debts are invalid because they were accumulated under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is overbroad and misleading. First, much of the debt, including the bulk of what Iraq owes to banks and corporations, went to finance civilian construction — roads, hospitals, apartments and utilities. By contrast, military-related debt can and should be separated out and perhaps even forgiven.

It’s worth remembering, too, that much of Iraq’s debt was incurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s, before sanctions were imposed, when the United States was willingly doing business with the Hussein regime.
Another myth is that historical precedents dictate that zeroing out the debt would be prudent. Post-Versailles Germany is a frequently cited case. But there is an important difference between punitive reparations and commercial debt incurred by a country for civilian projects. Moreover, in the last decade countries like Poland, Egypt and Yugoslavia have escaped their heavy debts not because their debts were forgiven but because the financial community created reasonable long-term repayment plans.

Third is the myth that companies have already written off the Iraqi debts and no longer care about them. This is ridiculous. How companies account for bad debts on their books is irrelevant to the legal status of their claims. It would be a perverse result to extinguish debt simply because a debtor has not paid.

Iraq is entitled to have its special case heard. So far it has been granted an official moratorium through 2004. When the international community decides to begin tackling the wider debt problem, it should follow several simple maxims: avoid radicalism and bad precedents; promote an orderly, market-friendly debt repayment schedule based on financial analysis; and encourage creative solutions, including debt swaps.
Finally, for solutions to be meaningful, Iraq must negotiate with creditors on its own behalf. This, after all, is a major aspect of sovereignty.

The Iraqis should also favor an orderly debt repayment process. The country has been a financial rogue state for the past 12 years. What the new Iraq needs is a reputation for honoring its word.

Mark Medish, a lawyer, was deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury from 1997 to 2000.

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