Reading Norm Geras’ site hasn’t led me to change my mind about the war. That’s because, as I’ll argue in a second, I think he dodges the hard questions for his position. But I have changed my mind on another matter as a result of reading him. Let me explain.
Norm’s “beat”, if you like, seems to be collecting stupid or insensitive things that people on the anti-war left have said, exhibiting them, and then adding a general comment or two about the deplorable state of the left. Generic Lefty Commentator remarks that “nothing of value” was accomplished by the war, and Norm huffs and puffs about the claim for a while, pointing out (perfectly reasonably) that apparently deposing a brutal dictator isn’t “of value” for Generic Lefty Commentator, and what do you suppose that says about the left with which Generic Lefty Commentator identifies? Then he waxes lyrical about a time when Generic Lefty Commentators were all opposed to oppression, instead of apologists for it.
All of this used to enrage me, not because I disagreed with Norm about his targets, but rather because I usually agreed with him so strongly that I thought he was picking on straw men, and that’s just a waste of time. I also thought that it was unfair to impugn the integrity of anyone on the left who disagreed with him by associating them with the stupid positions.
Well, I still think that Norm ought to be more careful to distinguish between what stupid lefty commentators say and what an intelligent and sensitive lefty commentator might say in response to the issue. It’s often unclear reading Norm whether he thinks that the stupidity and insensitivity noted in his targets is intrinsic to any attempt to argue against the war or not. I strongly suspect his settled view is that it is not intrinsic at all, but when he polemicizes that’s not always especially clear. And it’s not as though it would take a great work of imagination to figure out what an intelligent and morally serious anti-war position would look like. There are plenty around; for example, my own.
Still, the more I read Norm’s site, the more I see that he’s not just picking at the margins here. Like any good collector, his collection has real diversity and breadth. He’s managed to capture a lot of prominent people on the left saying some extraordinarily insensitive and stupid things. And I no longer think it’s fair for me to dismiss this as simply picking on straw men. For one, part of public commentary involves attempting to shame commentators for saying stupid things: without this public discourse would not be self-policing. And of course you can’t do that without picking on straw men. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with collecting evidence of a trend, and that includes stupid ones.
So in one sense, my straw man complaint was unfair: there are perfectly good reasons to spend time on stupid opinions. (God knows, I do on my own site.) But I think my objection can be sharpened in a way that leaves it with a considerable sting: While it’s not objectionable to thrash a straw man for the reasons outlined above, what is objectionable is thrashing him and then claiming you’ve won the brawl with his side. Now I confess that I have not read every post Norm has written on Iraq. If someone can point me to where he has met the case I make below, I’ll take this back. But I suspect that Norm joins Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman and many others on the pro-war left in doing exactly that.
I have the feeling that we’re not getting anywhere in the debate over Iraq, since both sides have dug pretty much in. At least, this seems true for those who took the humanitarian argument seriously. (The prudential argument was shot a long time ago, I think.) Well, if we’re not making progress, perhaps it’s time to get meta on the issue. Here are two ways we might do that: First, I think we should spend more time thinking about what plausible arguments on either side ought to look like, that is, what the main burden of argument is for each position. Second, I think we ought to distinguish as clearly as we can between the moral differences which apparently divide us and the factual assumptions we’re making. It’s worth doing this, because I think a great deal of the time what look like moral differences are actually differences produced by a difference about the facts of the case. I’ll explain more clearly in a moment.
As far as the the main burden of the argument for each position goes, I think that the anti-war position needs to deal honestly with the sorts of things that move Norm. Although there was no ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq at the time of invasion (strictly defined – but how strictly to define it is a serious question itself), life in Iraq was still pretty hellish, and might well have gotten worse had the regime remained in power. The regime was on the verge of destroying for good the Southern marshlands, wiping out the homeland of the Marsh Arabs who had lived there for over a millenium. The Kurds in the North were threatened in the long term. And torture, disappearance and fear were features of daily life.
(I’ve not only read this; I’ve also heard first-hand reports. For what it’s worth I dated an Iraqi exile for 3 years, and heard my full share of how utterly degrading and nightmarish Saddam Hussein’s rule has been for the people of Iraq. (The experience also allowed me to listen to what someone thinks of a CNN commentator crowing that a building in your hometown just went up “like a Christmas tree” and what they think of a culture in which it is unexceptional to say something like that.))
As Norm repeatedly points out, to argue against the war is to argue in favour of a state of affairs in which this is allowed to continue. It is not, as Norm sometimes seems to imply when he’s especially heated, to desire these things for their own sake. But it is to affirm a preference for a world in which these states of affairs obtain whatever else obtains. All of this means that anyone who takes human suffering seriously and hates oppression would want to take a very hard look at all the ways in which the situation of Iraqis might have been improved, up to and including a war of liberation. I don’t think there’s any point in denying any of this.
This is a heavy burden, but, as I’ve suggested, I think the burden is even heavier on the pro-war side. It is this: It’s not enough – not nearly enough – to say “If Iraqis are freed by this war, then the war will be justified.” Suppose that all other complications and questions are cast aside and we accept the conditional. We are still left with with the very sticky question of that dubious antecedent. And you need to explain why it was reasonable to think that the US would be able to actually free Iraqis. For this war may have deposed Saddam Hussein, but it does not deserve to be called a war of liberation until Iraqis are actually free. And they will not be free until they live under some plausibly respresentative government which does not also torture them. They will not be free if a civil war results from the post-war chaos. They will not be free if another strong man takes Saddam Hussein’s place. And what intelligent and sensitive critics of the left wanted – and never received – was some explanation of how the US was going to manage all of this, given its track record and given the quality of its current government. It did not escape us that the US has been either unable or unwilling to bring democracy to Egypt despite massive infusions of aid for decades, and so surely we can be forgiven for doubting whether the US would be able or willing to bring democracy to Iraq in unbearably more difficult circumstances. (Please don’t give me a song and dance here about Bush’s conversion in the aftermath of 9/11. There is an extraordinary amount of evidence that Bush never underwent any such conversion, or that if he did, he never took it seriously.)
There is much more, but let me just allude to it: You must also remember not to consider Iraq in isolation, apart from any other issue. Energy and resources devoted to Iraq are energy and resources diverted from other worthy causes. It cost 15 billion dollars just to get the troops to the theatre of war. The total cost of the war may end up around a half a trillion dollars (just for the US), plus, of course, a great deal of political damage to the US. It’s not heartless to ask whether we could have gotten a better humanitarian bang for our buck elsewhere: the other lives saved and improved also count, just as much as the lives saved and improved in Iraq. And so on.
I don’t want to give the impression that my entire case depends on this one point. But it is certainly enough to get us started, and I think it gives the general picture of the sort of worry a pro-war argument ought to address. The fact is, no amount of stupid comment collecting relieves Norm (and the others) from addressing this, especially if they’re consistently questioning the moral seriousness of the war’s critics.
Now, the way I’ve framed the burden of argument for the pro-war side makes a number of assumptions about the facts, and this will eventually bring me to the second of the two ways I suggested we might get “meta” here. First, though a bit more about the assumptions: Prior to the war, I assumed that a civil war in Iraq was probable absent an extraordinary effort and show of wisdom on the part of the occupying powers. That’s not because I’m pessimistic about Arabs and their cultural capacity for stable democracies, nor was it because I doubted that a great many individual Iraqi’s thirsted for a stable democracy, nor was it because I thought Iraq especially riven by sectarian divisions (if anything, I think I rather underestimated that). My impression was based on a particular understanding of how ethnic bloodletting and civil conflict tends to arise: not from seething ethnic tension or the aggregation of many individual resentments, but for structural reasons having to do with poverty and instability, the struggle over valuable resources, little or no democratic tradition, the presence of historical grievances which can be exploited, and no tradition of an independent media.
Iraq has all these in spades. That is not to say that civil conflict is inevitable, or that everyone should just throw up their hands, or that a war of liberation is absolutely ruled out of order under any circumstances. (On the contrary, we’re now on the hook for a great deal of work.) But it is to say that the conditions in Iraq were obviously explosive and that only a very sure, and a very steady hand could defuse them. It is to say most emphatically that unless you plan to do this properly, you had best not do it at all. You had best turn your attention and resources to the vast number of opportunities for spreading democracy and freedom elsewhere in the world – to those projects which have been passed over because of the war in Iraq.
So these are the empirical assumptions I’m working with, or at least some of them. This is already a long post, and I’m leaving out a great many other points and qualifications I would make if I had the time (and if I thought you did). Let me distinguish at this point two different sorts of moral disagreements. I don’t want to call them “deep” and “shallow” because they’re both serious, so let me call them “deep” and “deeper”. A deep moral disagreement is simply a disagreement about a moral issue, for example, whether the war in Iraq was justified. But two people can have identical positions on morality and still differ about a moral issue if they differ on the non-moral facts. E.g., suppose Norm and I both think that wars ought to be waged in such and such conditions. We still might disagree about a particular war if we disagreed about whether the conditions obtain. A deeper moral disagreement is one in which two people disagree about the specifically moral premises in their positions, so that even if they agreed about all the facts, they would still disagree about the specific issue.
Now, I think that a very large number of people share roughly my assessment of the facts. And although I have no doubt that Norm has successfully identified many stupid and insensitive people, I do wonder if he’s missing the fact that some people share these factual assumptions without making them explicit, and so sound worse to his ears than they should. In other words, they find the antecedent I mentioned above so absurd that they won’t entertain the conditional. Implicit, perhaps, in (some of!) their thinking is the view that of course they would have welcomed the freedom of Iraqis, if freedom had actually been on offer, but it wasn’t, so the war was totally unjustified. And in that case, we have a result which might surprise Norm: The disagreement he has with (some of) these apparently stupid and insensitive people isn’t even a deeper moral disagreement – it’s just a deep one.
Let me finish by making two pleas to Norm and other pro-war lefties. First, without disparaging your work collecting stupid and insensitive comments on the left, I’d like to suggest that (as far as I’ve noticed! – correct me if I’m wrong) you really are dodging the difficult questions. So please either answer the main objections to your position, as I understand them above, or suggest what you think the main burden for your side actually is. Second, I think we all need to be clearer about the factual assumptions we’re making. I’ve very briefly sketched mine. What are yours? Are you less pessimistic than me about the outcomes? Or are you just as pessimistic but you think that there was nothing to do but try? (Christopher Hitchens once confirmed for me that he falls into the latter camp.) That way, at least we’ll be able to figure out how deep our moral disagreement goes.