Press "Enter" to skip to content

In a nutshell

Orin Kerr nails it over at the Volokh Conspiracy, which is as good a time as any to launch into a discussion of my own anti-war feelings.

This post summarizes my opinion on a lot of the arguments we’ve seen on both sides. I believe that Bush wants to invade Iraq in order to expand American presence in the region. I think he also believes, quite accurately, that Saddam is a very bad leader and that regime change in Iraq will be a net good for the world — but that’s not the primary reason, it’s a nice side effect.

I don’t think the United States should be imperialistic. Despite my anarchistic leanings, there are things about this country I’m very happy about. Lots of ‘em, in fact. I think those things are worth defending. One of them is that we don’t go to war for the sake of improving our own lot. We defend ourselves, but we do not go out and preemptively invade other countries.

Why’s that so important? Because any rational moral calculus must make sense no matter which sense you’re on. In other words, moral arguments that rest on the privileged place of America among other nations are doomed to fail. This isn’t just a philosophical point. It’s a practical necessity, because there is absolutely no guarantee that we will always occupy the practical privileged place. It’s in our best interests to construct an international consensus that doesn’t depend on our superior military position. I don’t want my children to be facing a world in which China is the preeminent military power, and in which the US established the precedent that the preeminent military power can do whatever the hell it wants.

Therefore, while I think Saddam’s overthrow will be a net good for the world, I think it would be intensely stupid for the United States to go too far in the direction of unilateralism.

Now, I also think that in the end it won’t be unilateral. So far, while Bush has talked a good game, he hasn’t done anything without UN approval. This isn’t really a surprise. He can’t wage war on Iraq without support, and in particular Turkish support, and he’s not going to get that without another United Nations resolution. (Yes, another one.)

While his tactics in the UN will, in the long run, work, they’re also burning good will among our fellow nations. That’s a bad idea not because of fear of retribution, but because sometime in the next ten years we’re going to have to deal with the serious problem of India and Pakistan. I don’t worry much about Iraq’s nuclear weapons, or even North Korea’s. I worry about what the admitted nuclear states of the Indian subcontinent are gonna do. That really sorely needs attention, and it’s not going to be solved with force of arms. Brinksmanship works, but the price is diplomatic flexibility later, and we should be concerned about that.

Consider that everyone in the UN is aware that, as Bush says, failure to follow through with the resolutions concerning Iraq will be severely damaging to UN credibility. But Bush is deliberately ignoring the other half of the equation: giving in too easily to US demands will also damage UN credibility. He knows perfectly well that the UN can’t appear to be simply an arm of US policy. The UN knows that Bush wants war on Iraq in order to strengthen the US position in the Middle East. When you get right down to it, Bush has the UN between a rock and a hard place — which, again, will get him his short term ends but may cause problems in the long term.

OK. So, I am personally in favor of overturning Saddam’s regime. I am not in favor of doing so in order that the United States might extend its influence in the Middle East. We do not gain any safety from this; the long-term threat to the United States is not from any state or army, but from in-country terrorism which does not rely on long range missiles or the backing of nations. It’s a war of conquest, and up until now, that hasn’t been part of United States policy.

6 Comments

  1. “Terrorists, almost without exception, have host governments.”

    Not the case. Please look up the Shining Path of Peru, the Red Brigade of Germany, or our very own Tim McVeigh. Don’t forget the Unabomber. Do some research on Sikh terrorism in India. Look up the Hebron incident of 1994. Consider the activities of Aum Shinri-kyu in Japan. Research Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque separationists.

    Hey, remember the Weathermen? Remember the SLA?

    The problem is that terrorism is getting cheaper and cheaper. You’re right in that terrorists generally need funding from somewhere, but the required amount only gets smaller and smaller. The Beltway Sniper terrorized us for weeks on barely any funds at all. Sure, the big terrorist groups need a lot of funding — but why assume that they’re the only threat? Do you really think terrorism of global reach is the only thing we should be worried about? McVeigh didn’t have global reach; he still did a lot of damage.

    Further, in the long term (by which I mean twenty or so years), it’s only going to get easier to use terror tactics, even on the global scale. Communication, including encryption, is only getting cheaper. Weaponry? The same.

    We don’t live in a static world, and failure to recognize the sea-changes in geopolitics is hugely dangerous.

    Thanks, by the by, for your comments. I’m always very happy to get thoughtful points of view that aren’t mine; that’s how one learns.

  2. Lawrence Haws Lawrence Haws

    I have to agree with Richard. Though the McVeigh-like terrorists you mention can cause great damage and death on their own, they aren’t the consistent and long-term threat that al-Qaeda, Hamas (if we don’t abandon Israel), et al pose to our national security. The Weathermen and the SLA garnered a lot of press, but they were small fry compared to what Islamic radicals want to wreak on the US today. (And the Red Brigade? Are they even still around?)

    Islamists need state support to operate internationally and the war on terrorism is intended to quash that support (at least I hope it is). Iraq is one piece of the effort. Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are others, though wisdom may determine that they each be dealt with differently.

    It’s true that we don’t live in a static world and it’s therefore dangerous not to recognize new and very real threats to our nation. You say there are lots of things about our country worth defending. I’m glad we agree on that.

    I’m a Jacksonian on foriegn policy and though I disagree with you here, I respect opposing opinions on war with Iraq that does not invoke the ridiculous and too-often heard accusations of racism, oil greed and imperialism.

    I’m a veteran of Desert Storm and I assure you that if the US wanted Iraq’s oil we could have had it then. We didn’t get CNN at the time, but our commanding officer explained the ceasefire to us as a worry about mission creep: We were there to liberate Kuwait, not Iraq.

    Fine, we thought, we’re going home. But every marine and sailor I knew believed we’d be back there within 10 years to finish the job. Not off by much. Politics.

    You say that Saddam’s overthrow would be “a net good for the world”, but you don’t offer an alternative suggestion of how that may be accomplished. More UN sanctions? You oppose US “unilateralism” even though the UK, Australia and a number of other democratic countries are already onboard.

    I hate to disillusion you — who am I kidding? I love it — but UNSC counsel members France and Russia oppose regime change in Iraq for their own economic reasons and the vast majority of member nations are not democracies at all, but merely the expression of one man’s will. No moral confidence should be placed in that organization above that of the US.

    That’s my opinion anyway. By the way, I noticed via Taitus’ comment section that you are an alum of the intrastate rival of my own undergraduate school. I’ll forgive you for that since we have owned the Hawks on the grid iron for the last five years!

  3. Certainly the Weathermen and the Red Brigade aren’t still around, but I think you’re overly optimistic if you assume that equivalent organizations couldn’t cause us a great deal of damage. As a long term threat? Nah; a small group of people can be found and dismantled relatively easily. But what does it matter if ten buildings are destroyed by ten small groups or one persistent one? The death toll is the same.

    The point is that small, non-state backed terrorist groups capable of one or two significant acts of terrorism exist and will continue to exist — and kill people — into the future.

    Regarding unilateralism:

    http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/01/19/1042911270273.html

    And, let’s see, a quote today from the British Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon: “Resolution 1441 recognises that you go back to the UN at any stage. We believe the right thing to follow would be a further Security Council resolution – that is what we will work to achieve.”

    I’d say there’s an almost zero chance that the US is going to war without a second resolution, despite Bush’s rhetoric. Again: he’s deliberately taking an extreme position in order to get the compromise where he wants it. This is a point often missed by those on the left (who think he’s likely to go it alone) and the right (who are going to be sorely disappointed when we hit the compromise).

    In terms of what we should do? Well, I do in fact know about Russia and France; sorry to disillusion you right back. Don’t assume I’m poorly informed just because I disagree with you. Note that their interests are purely economic. If we’re willing to contemplate holding Iraq’s oil fields in order to cover some of the costs of the war, surely it would be reasonable to agree to divert some of that revenue to Russia and France?

    In general, I think that Bush should have broached the Iraq matter in private diplomacy with the permanent members of the Security Council before going out and staking his prestige on a war with Iraq. I.e., don’t blackmail the UN with loss of prestige. Push for a war under UN auspices, rather than an American war with reluctant UN approval.

    And yes, I think that with appropriate guarantees to the other countries with financial interests in the matter, he could have gotten it.

    Um, let’s see… I think you’re absolutely right about the oil; it’s not at all a primary cause of this war. Just in case the above regarding finances wasn’t clear: I think that while Bush is interested in using the Iraqi oil fields to offset the cost of the war, he’d still be doing this if they weren’t there. I also think you’re right about the inevitable return. In fact, I think we’ve been at lowkey war with Iraq for ten years. I can’t characterize the no-fly zone in any other way, because denying a sovereign nation its own airspace is pretty much a warlike act.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Whether terrorists rely on government support or not, the functional difference between terrorism and traditional armed conflict has the same consequences Bryant describes. If a portion of a foreign nation’s military enters the United States with official direction to take hostile action, this prompts obviously justified retaliation and a declaration of war. If a citizen of a foreign nation does the same, no matter how certain we are that the government wanted them to do it, a military response has more hurdles to overcome. The United States overcame those hurdles in the recent case, but circumstances were pretty exceptional. I submit that the case would be very different if citizens of a more respected nation without a history of harbouring fugitives were to begin a campaign of less striking terrorist attacks on the U.S. As Richard alluded to – we cannot always resort to armed conflict to resolve this issue. And that’s the problem.

    Maybe it would be better to say “does not submit to the accountability of nations” than “…rely on the backing of nations”? That’s an awful phrase, though.

  5. Lawrence Haws Lawrence Haws

    Citing the SMH as support for anything is troublesome. Also, Resolution 1441 does not require UN permission for action against Iraq for a material breach. I think you’re wrong about a second resolution. We’ll see.

    “In terms of what we should do? Well, I do in fact know about Russia and France; sorry to disillusion you right back. Don’t assume I’m poorly informed just because I disagree with you.”

    Fair enough. I don’t pretend to be better informed. We just disagree.

    “If we’re willing to contemplate holding Iraq’s oil fields in order to cover some of the costs of the war, surely it would be reasonable to agree to divert some of that revenue to Russia and France?”

    I’m conflicted about the possible taking of Iraqi oil wealth to offset expended US costs of deposing Saddam, but it should most certainly be used to wholly finance the post-Saddam reconstruction. And I can’t think of a single reason why we should make any effort to convince Iraq’s new government to honor contracts between Saddam and Russia/France (Why should we, considering their efforts to maintain the status quo?) But you’re probably right that we will. Politics at play, again.

    “In general, I think that Bush should have broached the Iraq matter in private diplomacy with the permanent members of the Security Council before going out and staking his prestige on a war with Iraq. I.e., don’t blackmail the UN with loss of prestige. Push for a war under UN auspices, rather than an American war with reluctant UN approval.”

    How do you know that he didn’t? I don’t think it’s giving the Administration too much credit to believe that the private approach was attempted and failed. Remember, after all, who the permanent members of the UNSC are.

    “And yes, I think that with appropriate guarantees to the other countries with financial interests in the matter, he could have gotten it.”

    I don’t share your confidence. Inertia toward the exercise of American power has many different appealing interests to foreign powers. But even if we could buy out French and Russian appeasement, is that really a good argument to oppose military intervention? If war in Iraq is morally wrong, what would it matter how many francs flowed to Paris? It’s our national security we’re talking about. Either war is justified or it’s not.

    “I think we’ve been at lowkey war with Iraq for ten years. I can’t characterize the no-fly zone in any other way, because denying a sovereign nation its own airspace is pretty much a warlike act.”

    The no-fly zones over northern and southern portions of Iraq are being enforced in accordance with UN Resolution 688 to end repression of it’s civilian population, which Iraq agreed to in the ceasefire terms of the ’91 Gulf War, and are the means to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a population in the south. This is not a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. The ceasefire is really more of an armistice than a peace treaty.

    Saddam has to go, dude. I know you don’t want war and neither do I, but finger-crossing ain’t going to do it. War is the least attractive option for everyone, but I believe it is the only one we have left available. I hope I’m wrong and I hope you’re right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.