The Questions of the Day
As one of the few pro-Iraq-liberation bloggers here at Catallarchy, it falls upon me to answer Orin Kerr’s questions to the hawkish blogosphere. I’m not much of a general hawk, and my default position towards US foreign policy is to have as little of it as possible (bring the troops home, a strong presumption towards non-intervention, etc) while allowing for as much trade & peaceful commerce by Americans as possible with the rest of the world. Nevertheless I supported the Afghan & Iraq wars, so I suppose I meet Orin’s minimum requirements. I will say, as a disclaimer to protect the rep's of my fellow Catallarchists (among antiwar types, at least), the following is, of course, my position alone and not reflective of a general editorial consensus. That said, here we go, a page at a time.
Question 1 – Assuming that you were in favor of the invasion of Iraq at the time of the invasion, do you believe today that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea? Why/why not?
In order to say whether or not the invasion of Iraq was a good idea, one must first establish why one was in favor of the invasion in the first place. There appear to be a few major themes floating about, and I’ll present them from least persuasive on up to why I thought the invasion was justified (heh), clarified with help from Jonathan:
2) The Liberation-from-Tyrants argument - Saddam is a dictator on par with Pol Pot, and Iraqi's deserve better. Civil society cannot take root until the head of the snake is cut off, although even then, it is difficult for civil society to flourish. Since governments already take the money that they would put toward private military organizations that might supply a demand for anti-tyrant military action, they desire to see state militaries used to take out Saddam (and, presumably, other tyrants when the time is right). Some libertarian hawks, specifically those at Samizdata.net, made this argument. This is a good sentiment and principle to have but in my view it is an after-the-fact justification that isn’t generally persuasive beforehand. I don’t want the US waging perpetual war for perpetual peace, even if large parts of the world suffer from odious governments. States should not get (back) into the habit of both settling ideological disagreements with open warfare and constantly looking at their neighbors to see how ideologically correct they are. Still, ceteris paribus, it’s better to not have tyrants.
3) The New Threat post-9/11 argument - After 9/11, the world changed, and the US government cannot afford to wait for garbage of the world to come flying across the oceans in nihilistic rage, so Saddam the Threat had to be removed. Saddam has a history of aggression against other countries - Iran, Kuwait, Saudi. He has also made references to establishing an Arab superpower in the Middle East. Seeing the success of 9/11, he could have easily tried to secure glory and political capital in the Arab world by partaking in even bigger and badder terrorism than 9/11. This argument is much, much more popular in the conservative/liberhawk side of the ‘sphere and is somewhat persuasive. But the argument does depend in part on empirical facts, a great deal of which were found not to be in evidence, such as: Active WMD programs, ties to global terror movements (aside from simply giving safe harbor to a Palestinian terrorist and funding anti-Israeli terrorism), and active plans for more military adventures beyond the borders of Iraq. It’s true that Saddam pretended to have WMD programs and played games with the inspectors (claiming not to have them, but explicitly acting like he had something to hide in order to suggest to his neighbors that he was still armed), but generally Saddam was in the ‘biding his time’ mode- pay off the French, Germans, and Russians with oil pumped with the UN’s tacit approval (don’t ask, don’t tell, eh Kofi?) outside of the sanctions regime to agitate by proxy in the Security Council for the removal of sanctions. The side effect of the UN corruption was to make Saddam rich and accumulate money for when the sanctions would be dropped, so that he might potentially restart his WMD programs, fund terror, etc. Who knows? But without the WMD and the active plans for mischief in the world, this argument falls short of justifying invasion, as it would be a war of choice when other forceful options short of invasion might do, and falls well short after the fact when the absence of WMD programs is revealed.
Which brings us to my rationale:
The options facing the US were not, as everyone keeps trying to assert in the back-and-forth on this issue, "war or not war", but rather "Continue the semi-explicit war on Iraq's people (low intensity bombing and sanctions) vs. Escalate and make explicit war on Iraq's state (high intensity ground combat operations).” The US has been at war with Iraq since 1991, a consequence of Bush Sr.’s ‘realpolitik’ decision to cut short the first Gulf War rather than directly ousting Saddam, and the legal fact that we never signed a peace treaty with Iraq (just a cease-fire). Instead, the US pulled up lame, incited the southern Shi’ites to rebel, and then let Saddam use his helicopters to mow them down. The US then decided to wage indirect war on Saddam by crippling Iraq with trade sanctions, closing the border to goods and services and greatly constraining Iraq’s oil trade. Saddam, having taken several leads from Stalin, made himself coup-proof by executing anyone with ambition or creative thought in his inner circle, or even for several circles outside of that. So the US/UN coalition was left hoping, perversely and immorally, that if they made conditions horrid enough for the average Iraqi, they’d rebel (again?) and take Saddam out. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen.
So since 1992 and all the way through to 2003, the US and the UK have been bombing the south of Iraq daily (hitting radar sites, etc) in little pinpricks while overseeing the immiseration of the Iraqi people through trade sanctions that, also perversely, enriched Saddam at the same time. The sanctions ought to be in textbooks as examples of policies that result in the complete opposite of what was intended (they strengthened Saddam). The suffering of the Iraqi people was used as a recruiting point for a different anti-western ideology, Al Qaeda.
The world, the US, and the Iraqi people needed to be rid of the sanctions regime, which was odious from a libertarian/moral perspective. The options then were: (A) stop the sanctions (end the war) and let Saddam ‘win’ by default, or (b) Escalate the war such that Saddam’s regime is eliminated (which would require invasion or something very close). Pre-9/11 there was no political stomach for another war in Iraq (involving ground troops), so if the US wasn’t going to do B, it needed to do A, which would have been a bad message to send, but at least some options approaching B might be implemented in the absence of the oil for fraud program, and in the meantime average Iraqis might be slightly better off.
Post 9/11, option A would send the message that it pays to slaughter westerners in massive terror attacks- “All you have to do to get what you want from the West is brutalize Arab civilians for propaganda purposes, and kill thousands of kaffir in exchange for a dozen martyrs! Tyranny and Al Qaeda Get Results!” Islamofascists have shown they need little incentive already to murder for the cause- providing additional incentives via evidence that geopolitical change is possible on the cheap using theatrical mass murder is asking for routine and unending butchery.
Thus, the US was between a rock and a hard place given its history and ongoing war with the country. 9/11 shut the door on ending the sanctions without war, and opened the possibility of option B. Finish the damn job, relieve the Iraqi people from their torment. In which case then, in reverse order, the other rationales come into play- Saddam was a thorn in America's side and odious, so eliminate a potential threat (rationale #3) and free the Iraqi people (rationale #2) and maybe, after all is said and done, leave Iraq a more liberal place in the end that might lead the region by example (rationale #1, SDB variant). Combine it all together and it passes the bar- eliminate one of the lesser rationales and it may not, eliminate my rationale and it definitely does not. Iraq is a very special case, indeed.
Finding WMDs, imminent threats, etc, were consequently meaningless to me as proximate rationales for the war.
The fact that we had to go and occupy Iraq to effect regime change & free the Iraqi people from international sanctions and pariah status sucks, no doubt. That the US government didn't even meet the low, low expectations of competence in the post-war administration classical liberals had prior to the fact also sucks hard core. That the federal government is using the Iraq war and the Terror War to justify all sorts of perfidy at home sucks (and is to be expected). But the suck would be with us one way or another, post 9/11, pretty much no matter what the US did, and I think in a much worse form had the US stuck with option A and let Saddam loose.
So to answer the question, yes, the invasion was a good idea, because the sanctions are gone, and Saddam is gone. I believe, too, that despite it all the Iraqi people are better off now than they were a year and a half ago, but that’s a matter of argument unrelated to Orin’s questions. Though I think it is impossible to argue the contrary.
fn1. I still don’t understand that.
fn2. The suffering due to the western sanctions, and not, of course, from Saddam’s home grown butchery.
Question 2 - What reaction do you have to the not-very-upbeat news coming of Iraq these days?
Life after a 34 years of tyranny, 12 years of sanctions, and 6-7 years of ground war with Iran & and recent ground war with the US, sucks.
But more seriously, I think that the situation is not as bad as it seems due to framing effects and short-term memories. Prior to “mission accomplished” (the 3 week war), there were estimates of 5 to 10 thousand US soldiers that would be killed in the course of taking Baghdad (street by street), not to mention the other big cities. It was expected to take months to finish off the Iraqi army and deal with guerilla actions and pacifications. That didn’t happen in the initial invasion. US combat deaths have reached a thousand after 1.5 years. That’s not nearly as bad as the estimates. Its horrific in the particular, but relatively speaking the occupation, from a military standpoint, was a victim of its success. Since it didn’t take a bloodbath to take Baghdad, the war should be “done” and our boys and girls ought not be dying in theater, says the conventional wisdom. That they are dying is presented as evidence of “failure,” which I think isn’t fair in context. To an extent, the expectations of what the initial fighting would take were correct, but are playing out a year later (rebel cities, urban pacification missions, etc).
However, I leave all that aside as quibbles for others to roll over. When I hear of the troubles in Iraq, I see that the US government didn't even meet the low, low expectations of competence in the post-war administration that fellow classical liberals and I had prior to the fact. I don't think it can be shown that either the situation today, which is suboptimal even to my low standards, or a potential disaster in the future is the inevitable and foreseeable outcome of the war, but perhaps an inevitable outcome of half-assed half-measures, an inevitable outcome of going in without a plan and trying to wing it with political appointees(!) rather than making do with professionals.
I grant all the problems of central planning, top down administration, etc. Which is why the Bremer regime of micromanagement and centralization was beyond stupid, since it did all the things Hayek, Mises, et al. said not to do when it comes to administrating a country, an economy, or really any large undertaking. The only thing that the US could have foreseeably done well, and the most important thing the occupation authority could have done, was to guarantee the security situation and pass out largess. The latter isn't very libertarian, no (dispensing US citizens' taxes, etc), but that two-pronged effort at least acknowledges the severe limit to knowledge the occupying authority would have as well as the calculation & incentive problems. There should not have been contracts to Halliburton et al. for Iraqi infrastructure reconstruction except in the dire circumstances of having no Iraqi company capable of doing a particular job. The money should have gone to people who had tacit knowledge of their areas and local social networks. Money should also have gone to the sheikhs from day one, paying them in advance for good behavior, giving bonuses for those who turn in malcontents in their tribe or have completely pacific areas, and cutting off those who don't play ball (i.e. just like Saddam did to maintain power). They should have leveraged the three things the US had in abundance at the time- fear of our military might, mad cash, and the ability to move large amounts of goods and supplies into the country. On the military side, the tactic should have been to overwhelmingly swarm any sign of resistance, and pay out the nose to anyone and everyone who wants cash. Pay the Iraqi army to sit in their barracks. Pay the ex-Ba’ath bureaucrats to push paper around for a while. Whatever. Just keep everyone formerly attached to the old regime in the money (to keep the quiet in the short run), haul goods in quickly, and kill/maim anyone who tries to disrupt the peace.
The US government’s three areas of competence, generally speaking, are to blow things up, use violence/force, and spend/transfer money. That it did not do any of these things, either at all, very much, or very well in Iraq has led to the problems we have now.
Occupying a country after destroying its previous regime is, lets face it, an imperial/colonial exercise. The United States may not be colonizing Iraq nor particularly keen in keeping it as an imperial holding for any amount of time, but the situation is essentially an imperial/colonial undertaking. And if you're going on an imperial or colonial enterprise, you need to go all the way- don't half ass your imperialism, or you’ll get your entire ass handed back to you, probably with bullet holes or riddled with shrapnel. The quicker (and more 'ruthless') one is, the faster one goes home. That success in Iraq (as I see it) takes quick and ruthless action is a sorrow and another reason why war is bad, and that you don’t go on these kinds of adventures without the ‘perfect storm’, so to speak, of past history, high downside risk (to either moral sensibilities or the greater war on Islamofascism) to inaction, and the possibility of setting a number of bad things right.
Right now, because of US administrative incompetence and political management of the military operation, the resistance thinks that the US can be pushed around and then out if they kill or wound enough soldiers, or keep bombing civilians, and that’s because we let them get away with it, both by not paying the sheikhs to police their own and by letting cornered rats escape in Fallujah. If the US government is not willing to do what it takes to wipe the insurgents out (both carrot and stick), then we need to pull a Dean and cut and run, even though cutting and running would seriously worsen our short-to-medium term security situation (due to reputational effects). Half measures are far worse in the long run (as the whole 1991-2003 Iraq War has shown!).
fn3. I figured there would still be sporadic fighting & terrorism, but not de novo guerilla armies and rebel cities at this point.
fn4. Which would have required almost double the amount of troops we currently have in theater, most likely.
Question 3 - What specific criteria do you recommend that we should use over the coming months and years to measure whether the Iraq invasion has been a success?
I object to the “invasion has been a success” question, mostly because the invasion is over and the occupation is a logically separate undertaking from the escalation that ended the Iraq War. But I’ll just change ‘invasion’ to ‘occupation’ and continue.
I’ll further change it up and put what I see as definite failure milestones:
The occupation has failed if in the next year the US armed forces have been bloodied as much or worse than in 2003-2004, and there is full-on civil war in Iraq in 2005. They ought to be able to contain the insurgency by then, and have thousands of Iraqi proxies to help (and who should be taking the brunt of the casualties). If the Iraqi successor state can’t manage a defense force by next year, then the US has really failed.
The occupation has failed if Iraq is an illiberal theocracy in 2005, whether or not it is an ally or neutral to the Islamofascists- and by that I mean an absolutist Iranian-style police-state theocracy with imposition of draconian shari’a law, not simply a conservative successor state run by Sistani and the DAWA clerics who govern as social conservatives but otherwise respect the rule of secular-but-Islam-friendly law. A merging of islam and state is a furthering of Al Qaeda goals, not those of the US/West.
If Iraq is an illiberal secular oligarchy/dictatorship, well... as far as dealing with foreign countries in the context of the War on Islamofascism, I'm still in the cold war mindset of "as long as you're not actively against us, and you cooperate with our larger security/ideological goals, I can tolerate some crap". Depends on how illiberal they are. If the new pigs in the farmhouse are the same as the old ones (i.e. a new strongman appears and starts flipping the bird to the US, aiding terrorists, etc), then we’ve failed massively and totally.
Some metrics for success:
Wage & economic growth.
Increased oil production.
Peaceful transition of power from one PM to another (I’d love to see Allawi either be defeated in the elections or willingly step down in favor of a new candidate- that’s the only way to wean yourself from dictatorship/strongmen)
Elimination of city-wide uprisings.
Increased electricity production & reliability.
Net inflow of population (of the non-Jihadi variety).
Regular local elections.
Secular army under civilian control.
At the onset of the war, there were solid libertarian goals that could have been met (though with the odds stacked against them, of course):
(1) Saddam's brutal regime would be ended, which would also obviate the need for the sanctions regime, allowing trade, travel, and general commercial and social activity to resume, to the benefit of Iraq and the world.
(2) Iraq’s civil society could begin healing, restructuring, and growing after the removal of the Tyrant and the threat of omnipresent state/foreign violence.
(3) A relatively liberal, federal order could be constructed that would serve as a model for surrounding states.
The US has succeeded at #1, for the most part, though the insurgency and security problems are severely hampering potential growth and Iraqi trade with the outside world. But internal commerce, trade, travel and social activity has improved markedly since Saddam’s ouster. #2 is a mixed bag due to the insurgency, but the insurgency/terrorism is geographically limited and not pandemic, which is a bright side, at least. #3 is right out, and that’s all BushCo’s fault. They set up a centralized, non-federal system that will stack the deck against Iraqi liberals maintaining a decent government in the region. Almost for that failure alone, Bush oughtta be thrown out of office, but unfortunately Kerry has shown himself acutely uninterested in ameliorating the situation since all he has offered on the subject of Iraq is an intensification of the half-assed half-measures Bush has implemented in the first place, with a dollop of even more wishful thinking (i.e. that France & Germany will somehow agree to help us in Iraq when Bush is gone). Wishful thinking by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush helped create the mess; we (as libertarian citizens of the US) need hard reality more than ever to animate US policy (either to stay or to go).