Navel-gazing punditry: Iraq 5 years on

March 18, 2008 at 9:11 am | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Iraq War, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment
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To ‘commemorate’ the fifth anniversary of the invasion/liberation of Iraq, Slate asks three of its once-vocal advocates how they got it wrong. Fred Kaplan confesses to being too trusting of the evidence offered by Colin Powell. Kanan Makiya admits to underestimating the ‘self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship’. And, somewhat predictably, Christopher Hitchens assures us he didn’t get anything wrong.

This is all overshadowed by the unarguable hash that was made of the intervention itself. But I would nonetheless maintain that this incompetence doesn’t condemn the enterprise wholesale. A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society. Further afield, a perfectly defensible case can be made that the Syrian Baathists would not have evacuated Lebanon, nor would the Qaddafi gang have turned over Libya’s (much higher than anticipated) stock of WMD if not for the ripple effect of the removal of the region’s keystone dictatorship.

None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves. There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it’s not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn’t count, and we are not involved. Nonetheless, the very thing that most repels people when they contemplate Iraq, which is the chaos and misery and fragmentation (and the deliberate intensification and augmentation of all this by the jihadists), invites the inescapable question: What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?

The past years have seen us both shamed and threatened by the implications of the Berkeleyan attitude, from Burma to Rwanda to Darfur. Had we decided to attempt the right thing in those cases (you will notice that I say “attempt” rather than “do,” which cannot be known in advance), we could as glibly have been accused of embarking on “a war of choice.” But the thing to remember about Iraq is that all or most choice had already been forfeited. We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something.

Matt Zeitlin has a pretty good riposte:

As far as Hitchens sees it, it’s not our responsibility to look at the consequences of advocating for an invasion.  Instead, all that matters is that we intervened on the “right side for the right reasons.”  The problem with looking at a decision this way is that it discourages the exact type of analysis that everyone admits needed to happen before Iraq.  Namely, what would the consequences of the invasion be besides removing Hussein from power?


Questions of whether of Hussein’s Iraq was “a concentration camp” or whether we were on the “right side” necessarily bracket off the types of considerations that even Hitchens and Makiya think that we ought to have made.  Hitchens is also being incredibly glib when he says that we intervened after an “open and public debate.”  Last time I checked, when advocates for a policy are presenting skewed intelligence in support of their war, no debate will be “open and public.”

Being against the war from the start, I suppose I’m entitled to indulge in some rather petty triumphalism this time of year, but the truth is I would’ve probably lived a little easier if everything I’d said against the war had been proved wrong. It’s much easier to live with being a know-nothing fool than it is knowing your government was complicit in an atrociously mismanaged war.

But these handwringing rounds of ‘who was right/who was wrong?’ make me pretty nauseous. This ‘credibility olympics’ of pundits revising their past positions in order to remain relevant shows that for all the information they might have at their disposal, these people don’t really know much more than the rest of us about either the long or short-term consequences of something as violently unpredictable as war.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who was right; what matters is what is left. Has the apparent progress made by the Americans under General Patraeus strengthened the case for continued military involvement? Or has the failure of the Iraqis to resolve their political differences and develop a fully-functioning government highlighted the limits of achieving stability through military means alone? How much longer should coalition forces stay there, and at what cost, and isn’t there a great strategic disadvantage to having the bulk of a country’s armed forces tied up in one country and unable to respond to threats from elsewhere?

Of course, I don’t have satisfactory answers to any of these questions. Nor, I suspect, do many of the self-proclaimed pundits who’ll try to answer them regardless

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