December 2003

2003 12 30
[Nuclear headache]


A Nuclear Headache: What if the Radicals Oust Musharraf?

I have often wondered if historians would see the failure to fully and constructively engage Pakistan after Sept. 11th as the gravest of the Bush administration’s mistakes. Indeed, if Sept. 11th were an argument for nation building anywhere, it was in Pakistan. Of course, I don’t mean invading the country. But a far larger carrot and a larger stick were both called for, I think, by the fact that an unstable nuclear power turned out to have directly supported fanatics like bin Laden. Bush has been stinting with his carrots – he wouldn’t even give Pakistan a decent (and fair) deal on textiles which might have strengthened his domestic hand, and he hasn’t been particularly aggressive in promoting civil society or stability in the country either. The dispute over Kashmir is managed to avoid a crisis, but not engaged in any meaningful way.

If you think the war on Iraq diverted energy and attention from this effort – or rather, from what might have been this effort – then we ought to reckon that among the consequences of the war.

It isn’t clear yet what the consequences are of allowing Pakistan to continue rotting in this way. But I’m afraid they will be cataclysmic.


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2003 12 28
[Norm]


normblog: Sad picture

Norm Geras is clearly a well-meaning guy. But I’m getting a bit tired of his incessant self-congratulation and cheap shots. I’ll try to keep this a short post. Just let me make a few points:

* Before you go congratulating yourself for going into a country and shooting up the bad guys, you need have thought a bit about your end game. Part of being morally serious is thinking about the likely consequences of a course of action. It wasn’t wrong to oppose the war if you opposed it because you thought that Bush and co. lacked the wisdom, the discipline, the savvy, the international support, and the political capital to pull it off. If you know the first thing about Iraq, you know that conditions for a serious civil war in the next few years are very, very real. If you know the first thing about the Bush administration, you know that it will have extraordinary difficulty managing this challenge. Before we can have a sensible discussion about whether the ends justified the means, we need to have a good reason to think that those means furthered those ends.

I’m tired of people like Geras impugning my integrity because I was unwilling to play such crappy odds. And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with condescending attitudes to Arabs about democracy, blah, blah, blah. Iraq is a badly brutalized and fractured country. This is a difficult and complicated matter about which it is quite reasonable to be pessimistic. And – yes – if there is a civil war, then things will be worse than they were under Saddam. (To be fair, it might be appropriate to say that there has been a (mostly) slow-burning civil war in Iraq since the Gulf War, particularly in the South. But I’m talking about a white hot civil war.)

I can understand the very strong pull of the desire to topple Hussein, to punish him, to free the people of Iraq. It was the main thing that made me think long and hard before casting my lot in with the anti-war crowd. But I could never figure out – and no one in the thousands and thousands of pages I read on the subject ever bothered to explain – how exactly the U.S. was going to bring democracy to Iraq when it had been unable to bring it to Egypt, despite many billions of dollars of aid over the span of a generation.

* I’m tired of people uncritically throwing their support behind the Bush administration because it’s supposedly keen on promoting democracy. What’s frustrating about Bush’s foreign policy is that it’s actually quite timid when democratic push comes to shove. There are a great many constructive measures the Bush admin could have and should have taken to actually promote democracy and civil society in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially since Sept. 11th. Why not make military aid to Egypt or Uzbekistan conditional on substantial improvements in human rights protections? Why support the coup attempt in Venuezala? Why turn a blind eye to Russian savagery in Chechnya? (Because doing any of these things would be risky? Oh, don’t you dare lecture me on costs and benefits, buster.) The Bush admin’s record on actual democracy promotion has its moments: I understand that the State Dept. sometimes applies real pressure in these countries to achieve decent ends. But overall the effort is peripheral to the main priorities of the administration, unsystematic, undisciplined and inconsistent. What’s wrong with insisting that if the U.S. really wants to promote democracy that it first exhaust the substantial peaceful means at its disposal?

* Geras consistently compares two outcomes: The actual outcome in Iraq vs. the outcome in which the U.S. did nothing. I think that this is wrongheaded, but I’ve already argued that here.

* It’s not crazy to lament the collapse of U.S. credibility on the international stage. That’s a very dangerous development. It’ll be quite a while before a U.S. president dares to send his Secretary of State to the U.N. to make a high profile presentation based on U.S. intelligence. Or at least, it’ll be quite a while before anyone would be willing to take that seriously again.

* I’m sick and tired of people bashing the anti-war left for caring more about U.S. misdeeds than anyone else’s. As I try to explain here, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s not a crazy view.


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2003 12 27


Some guy named Harry writes:

The worst human rights abuses in the world – including government engineered famines – are unfolding in North Korea today. Since the US isn’t involved, the Chomskyites aren’t interested. But the pro-intervention left – if we are serious about human rights – cannot take the same morally blank position.

And Matthew Yglesias responds in part thus:

The present government of Libya is a bad government. It was a bad actor in international affairs whose pursuit of WMDs was contrary to the American national interest. It is also repressive in its attitude toward its own people. Similar things could be said about Iraq. In the case of Iraq, hawks tended to dance to-and-fro between a focus on the national security threat (which turns out to have been, shall we say, overstated) and on the humanitarian issues in play. One way or another we invaded. This invasion is credited by many — myself included — with inspiring Gaddafi to offer to behave better in national security terms in order to avoid a similar fate. The Bush administration took this deal. That was a significant achievement, but note that it could only be achieved by deciding that we didn’t actually care about Libya’s treatment of its own people. If our opposition to Libya were truly motivated by humanitarian concerns, then we would continue to follow a strategy of regime change, Libya would make no deals, and our national security would be impaired in the short term.

Both thrust and parry seem to me poorly aimed.

The proper response to Harry is to say: a) The claim that the Chomskyites don’t care is just not true, and demonstrably so, so wipe that smug grin off your face; and b) It might well be true on a number of different issues that many people on the left care more about the evil that their own government supports than third party evil in which their own government plays no role. I’m not sure whether this is the right position, in the end. But the important thing to see is that it is a non-insane position. The evil your government does is evil in which you are implicated, it is evil you support indirectly through your taxes, and it is evil that you are in the best position to change. It is evil done in your name. Even if you think that third party evil is just as bad as the evil your own government is implicated in, or even if you think the third party evil is much worse, it is still non-insane, at the least, to respond differently to these different kinds of evil. And if you also think that moral hubris is dangerous, you have further reason to try to deflate the phony moral pretentions of those who act badly on your behalf. And if you think that the evil done in your name is underreported and badly neglected by your media, you have even more reason to focus on the sins of your own country. Like I say, non-insane, at the very least.

This strikes me as one plausible position to start with as you try to untangle some of the moral difficulties involved in U.S. foreign policy. Whether it’s true or not is another question. To sort through it would take a lot of careful thinking about the role that different views of agency play in moral appraisal, and a lot of other things I haven’t managed to work out yet. But it’s at least a starter.

Mathew Iglesias’ response seems uncharacteristically flat-footed. I think the hawkish position can escape contradiction (on this point) if its stated correctly. I’ve already tried to do that here, so I won’t repeat myself.


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2003 12 27
[Underreported stories]


Everyone is talking about the unreported stories of the year. I don’t think this story qualifies, since the main incident occurred in December 2001. If the story does qualify, perhaps it is because the full import of what happened then wasn’t clear until early this year. Let me explain.

In December 2001, U.S. troops in Afghanistan had bin Laden surrounded in Tora Bora. Unfortunately, things seem to have gone badly wrong. Worse, things seem to have gone avoidably wrong: According to news reports, the U.S. relied heavily on Afghan proxies who were suspected of letting bin Laden slip away. In any case, things seem to have been thoroughly botched. Afterwards, Rumsfeld lied about the whole mess.

On February 11th of this year, bin Laden released a tape with his version of events. Read it here. Now, factual claims in bin Laden’s semi-deranged rants are of questionable value, to say the least. Still, he was there in Tora Bora, and he escaped. That much we know independently of what he says. What is interesting is the lesson he draws from his experience:

We also realized that one of the most effective and available methods of rendering the air force of the crusader enemy ineffective is by setting up roofed and disguised trenches in large numbers.

I had referred to that in a previous statement during the Tora Bora battle last year.

In that great battle, faith triumphed over all the materialistic forces of the people of evil, for principles were adhered to, thanks to God Almighty.

I will narrate to you part of that great battle, to show how cowardly they are on the one hand, and how effective trenches are in exhausting them on the other.

We were about 300 mujahideen [Islamic militants].We dug 100 trenches that were spread in an area that does not exceed one square mile, one trench for every three brothers, so as to avoid the huge human losses resulting from the bombardment.

Since the first hour of the US campaign on 20 Rajab 1422, corresponding to 7 October 2001, our centres were exposed to a concentrated bombardment.

And this bombardment continued until mid-Ramadan.

On 17 Ramadan, a very fierce bombardment began, particularly after the US command was certain that some of al-Qaeda leaders were still in Tora Bora, including the humble servant to God [referring to himself] and the brother mujahid Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The bombardment was round-the-clock and the warplanes continued to fly over us day and night.

War in Afghanistan

The US Pentagon, together with its allies, worked full time on blowing up and destroying this small spot, as well as on removing it entirely.

Planes poured their lava on us, particularly after accomplishing their main missions in Afghanistan.

The US forces attacked us with smart bombs, bombs that weigh thousands of pounds, cluster bombs, and bunker busters.

Bombers, like the B-52, used to fly over head for more than two hours and drop between 20 to 30 bombs at a time.

The modified C-130 aircraft kept carpet-bombing us at night, using modern types of bombs.

The US forces dared not break into our positions, despite the unprecedented massive bombing and terrible propaganda targeting this completely besieged small area.

This is in addition to the forces of hypocrites, whom they prodded to fight us for 15 days non-stop.

Every time the latter attacked us, we forced them out of our area carrying their dead and wounded.

‘Alliance of evil’

Is there any clearer evidence of their cowardice, fear, and lies regarding their legends about their alleged power.

To sum it up, the battle resulted in the complete failure of the international alliance of evil, with all its forces, [to overcome] a small number of mujahideen – 300 mujahideen hunkered down in trenches spread over an area of one square mile under a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius.

The battle resulted in the injury of 6% of personnel – we hope God will accept them as martyrs – and the damage of two percent of the trenches, praise be to God.

If all the world forces of evil could not achieve their goals on a one square mile of area against a small number of mujahideen with very limited capabilities, how can these evil forces triumph over the Muslim world?

This is impossible, God willing, if people adhere to their religion and insist on jihad for its sake.

Now, one of the points made repeatedly by hawks is that the U.S. has to reverse the notion that the U.S. is a paper tiger. Invading Iraq was supposed by part of this project. What is striking here is that by this standard the U.S. botched the one main confrontation with bin Laden in Afghanistan, and he walked away with his paper tiger impression firmly intact.

Now, you might say that bin Laden is impervious to evidence and so anything short of death for him will be evidence of weakness. Perhaps so. The problems is that the Bush admin failed its own psychological test here by apparently giving bin Laden a real reason to stick to his pet theory about the U.S.

Now imagine an alternate world in which Gore had been in charge of the hunt for bin Laden. And imagine that during this hunt bin Laden had slipped away in similar circumstances. And then imagine that bin Laden later released a tape crowing about his escape.

What I want to know is: Do you think this would be a serious issue in our alternate world? Do you think that the conservative pundits would be howling for his head, and rehearsing the facts weekly in their columns?

Uh huh. Exactly.

(By the way, I would not be at all surprised to learn that bin Laden is now dead. Still, it’s a pity that he lived to tell the tale of Tora Bora.)


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2003 12 23
[Kaus on economic inequality]


Mickey Kaus writes:

Economic inequality’s clearly growing, because the rich are rapidly getting richer. What I resist is the idea that the average worker is getting poorer in absolute terms–a notion now pushed by Paul Krugman in The Nation as well as by Uchitelle. Arguing in this fashion that capitalism doesn’t “deliver the goods” is a mug’s game. It’s the one thing capitalism does! The New Left knew that. The Newer, Hack Left seems to have forgotten. Have Krugman and Uchitelle been to Best Buy and seen all the average families buying big-screen TVs? Casual empiricism suggests that the vast majority of citizens are also getting richer, just more slowly–i.e. not enough to stop the rich-poor “gap” from widening. That gap creates lots of profound problems, but the progressive immiseration of the citizenry is not one of them. I suspect honest analysis of the statistics will erase all doubt on this point. …] …

The basic point about absolute gains is surely right (I mean, if you compare present buying power in any social class with past buying power in any social class), however much Kaus usually seems to muck up the details. What are the other problems raised by social inequality? Here are a few:

a) How much of the absolute gains in the worst off are tied to social inequality anyway? Obviously some measure of income inequality creates incentives whose eventual effect is to raise the position of the worst off, or at least most people. That’s not Regeanomics – even Rawls agreed with that much. The problem is that the argument doesn’t tell you how much income inequality is needed to raise the position of the worse off, and at what point it fails to have the right sort of effect. What drives me nuts is people moving uncritically from the (perfectly obvious) point that some degree of income inequality is necessary, to the (often patently stupid) conclusion that their preferred degree of income inequality is justified.

b) Suppose we’re convinced that absolute gains for everyone are connected with a high degree of income inequality. Is that enough to clinch anything? No. We still don’t know if there aren’t other ways altogether of boosting absolute wealth among the worst off, ways which don’t involve some of the more odious aspects of (gross) income inequality.

c) Are we really taking into account the long term effects of a decline in social mobility? What does it say about the long term health of a political culture when it (arguably unnecessarily) trades absolute gains for everyone for a social structure in which a poor child has a far weaker chance of becoming a Senator or a President than a wealthy child? I think that in the long run this is very likely to have extremely corrosive effects, not all of which are easily measurable. But they’re real nonetheless. In other words, just how much is a TV worth, anyway?

Now, none of this is to belittle absolute gains in wealth, when there are absolute gains in wealth. But I think these are some of the concerns that loom largest – or at least ought to – in discussions of wealth distribution. I don’t think it’s fair of Kaus to ding Krugman for failing to say what everyone knows about absolute gains in wealth. (Actually, he seems to say that Krugman claims that people are worse off in absolute terms. I might be wrong, but I don’t remember Krugman ever saying that.) Krugman, at least, knows where the serious questions are, and I’m glad he’s asking them.


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2003 12 22
[Libya, again]


Abu Aardvark writes that the Bush administration’s diplomatic breakthrough with Libya does not provide any support for Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war. Exactly right. But he also writes:

On Saturday I suggested that Libya would pose a test of intellectual integrity to the supporters of the application of the “Bush Doctrine” in Iraq. The Bush doctrine declared that war with Iraq was necessary because international inspections could not guarantee American security against the threat of WMD in the hands of rogue regimes, and that only regime change to a democratic system could provide such security. In the case of Libya, the rather clearly non-democratic regime of Moammar Qadaffi remains in place, with a promise to allow international inspections to verify the country’s surrender of its WMD. In other words, Libya is fairly clearly a repudiation of the Bush doctrine, not its vindication. The test of intellectual integrity, therefore, was this: would advocates of the Bush doctrine in Iraq attack Bush for violating his doctrine in Libya by dealing with a dictator and relying on inspections, or would they praise Bush out of partisan loyalty?

I’m not sure this follows.

For starters, no one thinks that Libya was as dangerous as Iraq. And there was more evidence for Libya’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. than there was of Saddam Hussein’s willingness to cooperate with anyone. So I’m not sure intellectual consistency requires you to take the same position on the two countries. It’s perfectly coherent to say, “Yes, we can let international inspectors poke around in Lybia since the stakes are lower. With Iraq we couldn’t afford to wait.” A difference in the level of (stated) urgency can imply a principled difference in the response.

Nor does intellectual consistency about democracy really seem to require anything as strong as the same basic position on the two countries. After all, proponents of the Bush doctrine were always able to recognize, at least in the abstract, that there would be real practical constraints on what the U.S. could hope to do in the region. Again, it’s perfectly coherent to say, “If it’s feasible, then a democracy is always to be preferred to a dictatorship” and then to go with a dictatorship. That’s because now that the U.S. has invaded Iraq and things haven’t gone particularly smoothly, U.S. capabilities have been reduced to the point at which the project is not feasible.

Consistency restored.

Of course, that’s just one small point. I don’t think that the Bush doctrine is a particularly wise position, and I would certainly not rate it very highly for intellectual consistency. It’s just that Abu Aardvark’s particular line on this doesn’t strike me as very convincing.


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2003 12 20
[Libya]


Matthew Yglesias: Unexpected Victory

Matthew Yglesias writes:

I didn’t even realize Libya was still really an issue, but this is certainly a positive development. It is, moreover, a partial vindication of one of the nuttier aspects of grand strategy à la Bush as one imagines that our demonstrated willingness to invade countries on a rather thin pretext played a role in pushing Gaddafi into line.

The trouble, of course, is that Libya really isn’t that big of a deal as far as rogue states go. If this technique had worked with Iran or North Korea, that would have been a major good thing. As things stand, however, Operation Invade at The Drop of a Hat seems to be backfiring with the DPRK and Iran is still up in the air.

Still, credit where due, and good work for pulling this off.

Whether or not you think this move was inevitable, Yglesias is right that this is a feather in Bush’s hat.

If you want to figure out the influence of Invade at The Drop of a Hat, though, I think you need to take into consideration two main ways that the policy has changed the strategic landscape.

The first seems to be that everyone is now convinced that Bush is just nutty enough to do something if he really wants to. And that might well make hostile regimes more inclined to take him seriously. I’m sure most of the credit for Libya’s recent decision will go to this attribute of Bush’s. The unfortunate downside of this strategy is that sometimes taking someone more seriously means arming against them even more energetically than you might otherwise have. For this and many other reasons, I think the strategy is an incredibly costly one. Still, there may be benefits to this strategy as well as costs, and in this case the benefits are reinforced by two impressive and recent demonstrations of military force.

The second change in the strategic landscape is rather less remarked on the right. It is this: By tying down U.S. troops in Iraq for an indefinite period, the U.S. is now obviously in a much weaker position to strike its enemies. Muammar is an odd fellow, but like almost all world leaders he presumably reads the newspapers now and again. And it must have struck him that Bush is in no position at all to give him the Iraq treatment anytime soon.

If you think intimidation had anything to do with Libya’s decision, then I think this second change to the strategic landscape ought to make you rue Bush’s policies, since their practical effect has been to diminish and constrain America’s military options for the next few years.

This was a breakthrough. It was a breakthrough for Bush. (Disagree? What is Clinton had managed it? Or Dean? Would you really be carping about how much Libya wanted this? No, because it would have been a breakthrough for Clinton even if Libya had wanted it.) In this sense, you might attribute a breakthrough to Bush. But don’t attribute the breakthrough to Bush’s policy of preemptive war.


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2003 12 12
[Hitchens]


Sometimes Hitchens drives me nuts. Really, really nuts. But then he goes and gives this savagely funny and intelligent interview. (Link via Normblog) Two highlights:

Still, the solution of a local land-dispute between competing petty tribes ought not to be beyond the wit of man. The argument is contained within a quadrilateral. Either one side can defeat and expel or exterminate the other. Or there can be a sharing of the territory. Or the conflict may exhaust and destroy both parties. Or the status quo – a kind of armed and unstable apartheid truce – can be assumed to continue indefinitely.

And how about this:

In my opinion, Israel doesn’t “give up” anything by abandoning religious expansionism in the West Bank and Gaza. It does itself a favor, because it confronts the internal clerical and chauvinist forces which want to instate a theocracy for Jews, and because it abandons a scheme which is doomed to fail in the worst possible way. The so-called “security” question operates in reverse, because as I may have said already, only a moral and political idiot would place Jews in a settlement in Gaza in the wild belief that this would make them more safe.

Yes, yes, and yes, Mr. Hitchens. When you’re not being a simplistic dolt you’re really bang on.

In a way this makes me even more annoyed with him for being a simplistic dolt: It’s obvious he can avoid it when he chooses.


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2003 12 11
[Friedman]


I can’t resist taking one little crack at Friedman’s latest. Friedman writes:

Yes, by destroying Saddam’s regime and the real strategic threat posed to Israel by Iraq, the Bush team has taken away one of the strongest security arguments from Israeli hawks: that Israel needs to keep the West Bank, or at least troops on the Jordan River, as a buffer in case Iraq again tries to come through Jordan to strike Israel, as it has done before.

I don’t follow this.

First, it seems to me that Iraq wasn’t much of a serious threat to Israel before the war. If Iraq had managed to get its hands on nuclear weapons, things would have been quite different, but it hadn’t, and wasn’t likely to under sanctions. So this never made any sense to me.

But suppose I’m wrong and Iraq was a real threat to Israel. In that case, why should Israel feel any safer now? After all, it would be extremely rash to assume that a pro-Israeli government will come to power in Iraq any time soon. And now that the sanctions have been lifted and a rebuilding effort is underway, Iraq now threatens to become a regional power again. Why should this make anyone in Israel feel safe? Why would they trust U.S. reassurances that a friendly government is going to emerge from the current chaos?


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2003 12 10
[Contracts]


OxBlog’s David Adesnik has the right idea about yesterday’s decision to bar companies from Iraq rebuilding contracts if they hail from countries who were unsupportive of the war. But he also writes:

Coming from an administration that is usually so good about looking for its own self-interest, it is hard to know why no one seems to be watching out for Iraq as the election approaches and voters show more and more concern about the lack of visible progress on the ground.

I’m astonished that anyone still thinks that the administration is good at looking after itself. They’re not even good at that. They’re actually quite incompetent. This goes well beyond questions of politics. Whatever your political orientation, you should be disgusted by the admin. Indeed, if you’re an ideological ally you should be tearing your hair out as you watch the Bush team discredit all your favourite ideas.

There are signs on the right that people are starting to get that. But it’s taking an astonishing amount of time to sink in.

A few further points to add to Adesnik’s post:

First, many of the allies punished in yesterday’s decision are still actively engaged in Afghanistan. This has been a dangerous and costly mission. Where the hell is the recognition for that? Does anyone even remember that? Do the morons sitting at home crowing all day about American sacrifices in Iraq remember?

Second, the decision reinforces the impression that the U.S. thinks it has the right to divy up the spoils of war in pursuit of its own foreign policy agenda. But it doesn’t, however tempting it might seem. The resources belong to the people of Iraq, and the U.S. currently (and temporarily) holds them in trust. Decisions about rebuilding ought to reflect that fact.

None of this is to deny that countries should pay some price for arming and supporting Iraq during its long nightmare under S.H. I’m a big fan of debt forgiveness for Iraq. I also think it’s absurd and immoral to hold the Iraqi people hostage to debts incurred when they were held hostage by S.H. And I would love a full airing of who gave what to whom and when and with whose permission during the 80s and 90s. But you’re not allowed to hyperventilate about this (according to the CY “rules of engagement,” of course) until you write on long post about the U.S.’s complicity in the same nasty business.

Finally, the billion dollar question here is whether Baker was informed of this decision before it was made. I’d bet everything I owe that he wasn’t, and that he turned very red when he got wind of it. But I’m also guessing that we won’t need to speculate for long. Baker knows how to play the media game as well as anyone in Washington, and if there’s something damaging here about someone who just made his life harder, we’ll learn about it in the next few days.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention the 300 million Canada has promised Iraq. Wonder if Canada will throw a suck now and procrastinate on this promise . . .

SECOND UPDATE: And Canadians think that Bush is a real hoser, eh.

FINAL THOUGHT: And anyway, if it’s a real coalition, where were the British in this decision? Were they even consulted? Everyone is talking about this decision as if it’s a slap against the countries who failed to support the war on Iraq. But if such an important decision was made without consulting the allies, it’s also a slap on them.


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2003 12 05
[Hitchens]


Boy, can Hitchens ever kick the crap out of a straw man! That’s the last time it’ll look at him with that funny blank look! Here’s Hitchens going after more of those caaahraaaaaazy critics of the war. A day or so has passed since the piece appeared in Slate, so I’m assuming that it’s already been torn apart by packs of wild bloggers, that pitiless lot. They’ve no doubt already exposed the difficulties in the piece, and better than I could. But somehow this never stops me from throwing in my two cents. I’m starting to realize that I regard blogging away unknown in much the way that I think of voting: practically, my vote makes little difference, and yet there’s both a duty and a privilege (and a small thrill) involved in going through the trouble.

I suppose it was only fair to let Hitchens blow off a little steam after he left the Nation. (This was about the same time I let my own subscription lapse – I always knew exactly what they would say, and omit to say, before I read each issue, so what was the point?) And so he did, in column after column, sometimes unfairly distorting the views of his former comrades, but also occasionally getting the better of an argument. If I can permit myself a little conjecture (and of course I can – it’s my blog), it seems likely to me that all this was a very public process of purging himself of views he had previously held. Some of us go into therapy – others write opinion pieces. That would certainly account for some of the animus in his writing. We’re often most ferocious with past selves; we know their temptations intimately. (If I were really in a psychoanalytic mood, I would speculate that the full story here involves a reaction to Martin Amis’ criticisms of Hitchens in his book on Stalin, a reaction which might have set him even more firmly in his “root out all evil, whatever the cost” mindset. But I’m not in a psychoanalytic mood today, and I may well be wrong.)

But he kept writing in this vein, and he continued to obsess about the stupidest and most simplistic anti-war arguments long after it had stopped being appropriate, and long after he had started to write for a broader audience with very different concerns, and very different objections to the war. The result is that Hitchens writes as if the only people who opposed the war on Iraq were raving mad lefties, labouring under the burden of severe intellectual and moral handicaps. Well, I’m sure there were plenty of those. But of course there were plenty of moral idiots, uninformed blow-hards and raving mad zombies of the right urging the war too, and that was never a reason in itself to resist it. If we care about having a debate, about persuading, about arriving at a sensible view, we have to do better than that.

It cannot have escaped Hitchens – or can it? – that the war was opposed by an extraordinary cross-section of America’s foreign policy establishment, right and left, and by a great many people who knew a great deal more about the region than Hitchens (though he’s clearly better informed than many who urged on, or dissented from, the war just as loudly as he did). Many of these people had supported the war on Afghanistan, waged quite recently and by the same President in response to the same sort of alleged threat, and against a similarly bleak historical background. Cowardice, moral indifference, a pathological aversion to the application of force – none of these are particularly useful in explaining why so many thoughtful people discovered reasons to dissent so vigorously from the Bush administration’s war on Iraq.

I have never doubted that Hitchens’ concern for the people of Iraq is deep and genuine, or that his support for the war was based on that concern. In this respect, his writing on Iraq sometimes has a bracing moral vigour which makes it a useful spur for re-evaluation and further reflection. But this does not spare his writings on the same subject from a deep intellectual dishonesty. Polemic is a rough sport, and it’s easy to get carried away, especially when the stakes are high, to lose one’s temper, to exaggerate, to get lost in point-scoring. This makes it perilous to judge a commentator’s work on the basis of a single column, usually produced quickly, and perhaps not representing the best that he’s thought on a subject. But the cumulative case against Hitchens is absolutely damning. He appears to be constitutionally incapable of engaging honestly with the more plausible reasons for hating Bush’s war, and this failure makes his arguments go cockeyed. Taken as whole it’s fair to say that Hitchens’ work consistently distorts rather than enlightens; evades rather than engages. And I’m sick of it.

Here – for the record – are what seem to me the more serious difficulties with either side of the debate. If you want me to take you seriously on the subject of the war (I admit, no one seems especially anxious about this – but still), you’d better demonstrate at least a basic awareness of these difficulties.

There was both a prudential and a moral case for the war. The best prudential case was centred on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein had pursued an ambitious weapons program after the departure of the UN inspectors in 1998. The Bush administration’s particular claims about Iraq’s weapons programs were dubious even before the war, but the basic concern was not at all unreasonable. And who could have guessed that among Saddam’s sins sloth would figure so prominently in the story of his downfall? It was not especially plausible to think that Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons program, but it was plausible in the extreme to think that Saddam Hussein would have restarted the programs had the inspections regime been lifted. And whatever the apparent successes of the sanctions regime in retrospect, it is important to remember that prior to the war it was widely regarded as a failure, as a costly drain on American resources and diplomatic capital in the region, and as a monumental PR disaster. And because of all this the sanctions regime was slowly crumbling away. This was a real long term threat, and a threat to everybody. A nuclear-armed Iraq would probably have been deterrable, but no sensible person could have looked forward to the gamble.

I think this case for war can be met – met decisively, in fact, because a clear-minded response to the broader problems of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, instability, and human rights disasters in the region saw Iraq as only one part of a larger story, and for all its dangers, not the most dangerous part by a long shot. Allocating so much energy, time, and effort to Iraq drew away resources from the larger problem. The short term results of this experiment have been ominous; I’m afraid the longer term results will prove disastrous. But that’s beside the point. If you want to argue against the prudential case for war, here, in outline, is the basic worry you need to address.

There was also a plausible moral case for the war. The Ba’ath regime in Iraq was a wicked one, as vile as any in the world, expect, perhaps, for North Korea. There was little hope of internal change. The Kurds in the North would have been menaced as long as the regime remained in power, and unforeseeable shifts in the balance of power in the region might have undermined U.S. resolve or capacity to protect them. The regime was carrying out an ambitious program of environmental devastation in the South, wiping out an indigenous culture which had survived for well over a millennium (and, in fact, this may be reversed by the U.S. – and just in time). One could go on at considerable length about the regime and it’s depredations. It’s hard to know what value – what intrinsic value – could attach to the sovereignty of a regime of this sort. And I think it’s very hard for anyone who seriously contemplates the situation of Iraqis under the Ba’ath regime to resist the desire to see it vanished from the face of the earth.

(Indeed, I noticed a phenomenon among people who studied Iraq, which I called, awkwardly, Saddamification: There comes a point at which the stories – credible, independently confirmed stories – about Iraq under Saddam Hussein are so awful that some commentators were no longer able to weigh to the pros and cons of invasion very well, because the desire for justice, for retribution, made attempts at dispassionate analysis seem cynical and heartless. I felt some of this myself. While I was teaching a class on the war in Iraq and immersed in the subject I had a number of nightmares (rare, for me) about Saddam Hussein. And many times I devoutly wished him dead and gone.)

What’s more, the sanctions regime which featured prominently in most of the alternatives to war imposed very serious hardships on ordinary Iraqis. This was a consequence which the anti-war movement had a difficult time facing.

I think the moral case for the war can be met – though I’m less confident on this point than I am on the prudential question. It can be met, I think, by pointing to two main worries. The first is that the Bush administration manifestly lacked – lacks – the will, or the wisdom, or the discipline, or the smarts, to pull off such a delicate and difficult task. The second worry is that even handled with all the wisdom in the world, the country has been so badly brutalized and for so long that there is a very real possibility of a civil war within the next few years. And then things really will be worse than they were under Saddam Hussein. It was indeed an awful prospect to leave Iraqis to their fates under Saddam Hussein, but, to be blunt, a half-trillion dollars (what the war might well end up costing) might also have been spent on a great many other worthy people who are now left to suffer from malaria, AIDS, poverty, disease and so on. The relevant moral test is not how much better off the Iraqi people are now than they would have been without action – it is how much better off the world as a whole would be if the same resources had been spent other than they were.

This is what the debate on the war should look like, I think, if not in outcome, then at least in the basic kinds of considerations for and against it which were worth taking seriously. People of good will can – and do – differ on the answers to these question. But these are the questions.

Hitchens cares. This is good, and I think distinguishes him from many pundits who clearly don’t. But it’s not enough to make him a morally serious critic who uses his platform to raise serious questions, meet serious objections, persuade the unpersuaded. Indeed, it hasn’t saved him from becoming a cheap partisan hack addicted to bluster and innuendo, who not only fails to persuade, but who fails in the end to even try.


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2003 12 02
[Nice move]


Is this really what the Bush admin wants to do now, in the middle of delicate negotiations with other governments over how to handle Iran and North Korea?

I’m the last person to want Iran or North Korea to get nukes. It’s not just that they’re potentially quite unstable countries led by people I don’t at all trust. It’s that the more countries with nukes, the greater the chances of miscalcuation and disaster.

Still, for Pete’s sake, at what point does a position just become too hypocritical to sustain? If you really believe in non-proliferation, if you noisily trumpet the danger of nuclear weapons, does this carry any corresponding responsibilities to restrain yourself with the same class of weapons?


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2003 12 01
[The ICC]


Jackson Diehl writes of the International Criminal Court:

Though it lacks foolproof safeguards, the risk that it would prosecute a U.S. citizen is pretty small: It is designed to punish war criminals in failed states, not citizens of countries with their own functioning justice systems.

Is that true?

It seems to me that U.S. resistance to the court is based on two concerns: a) The concern that frivilous lawsuits would harrass U.S. policymakers long after they had left office. Enough of these lawsuits might eventually have an influence on the formulation of policy. b) The concern that lawsuits with genuine merit would harrass U.S. policymakers long after they had left office. And enough of these lawsuits might eventually have an influence on the formulation of policy.

As for a), I don’t know enough about the design of the ICC to say. But the temptation for abuse is surely going to be very strong. What’s more – and perhaps just as important – is that a case doesn’t need to be successful in order to generate a huge amount of negative publicity for its intended target. In other words, the ICC could end up being a useful political tool even if all the safeguards actually work. This may be one reason that so many people in the Bush admin think the thing is rotten all the way through.

As for b), I think it speaks volumes about U.S. political culture that a functioning justice system is casually assumed to be sufficient to punish war criminals. As long as Henry Kissinger is a free man I will be doubtful about the U.S.’s ability to apply even the standards of domestic law to its top policymakers, let alone international law. The fact is that the man broke domestic and international law and nothing was ever, or will ever, be done about it. (The problem runs very deep here. It’s not just that Kissinger has escaped prosection. It’s that he’s regularly invited onto television to give his opinion about international matters. It’s a cultural problem, as well as a legal one.)

(Just to be clear, I think that most countries in the world find it extremely hard to deal with criminal behaviour among their own policymaking elite. It’s not as if the U.S. is alone in this, even if it finds itself rather isolated on the question of the ICC itself.)

Now, this example is not directly relevant to the ICC, since the ICC doesn’t consider cases based on events prior to its inception. Still, it isn’t just failed states who have trouble dealing effectively and lawfully with criminals who are policymakers, and basing an argument for the ICC on that assumption is no way to win the argument.

On the left we often talk as if the Bush admin’s resistance to the ICC is simply willful stubbornness. But I think that officials who resist the ICC know exactly what they’re doing. The resistance makes perfect sense if you take the ambitions and the likely effects of the ICC seriously.

UPDATE: A friendly reader complains that I’m not clear enough about “the ambitions and likely effects of the ICC”. I just meant the ambition to actually punish people for actually committing crimes against international law, regardless of nationality. That’s pretty ambitious. If they were even partway successful at this, the likely effect would be a serious strenthening of the relevant international norms.


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