Success in Iraq?

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At a meeting this week hosted by the Arab League, leaders of most of Iraq’s factions progressed toward reconciliation. There were a number of hopeful signs. They attended the conference held in Cairo. They conferred with each other for several days. They worked together to fashion a joint statement in an atmosphere of agreement. They made plans for a reconciliation conference to be held next year. Sunnis made some gains and moved further into the political process. The various factions agreed on a number of other cooperative measures such as not accusing each other, creating a fair election, and handling the situation of detainees. A number of participants expressed optimism at future progress.

Their statement called for a timed American withdrawal conditional on a buildup of Iraqi security forces, and it condemned terrorism.

The conference did not include leaders of the insurgency or former leaders of the Ba’ath Party. Conferees differed on the difficult issue of armed resistance and insurgency, making likely the continuance of the violence and rising death toll among Iraqis and foreigners.

Now that some Democrats and even a few Republicans have awoken from their torpor, the way is open for the U.S. to be able to withdraw fully from Iraq in 2006. The sooner this is accomplished, the sooner that Iraqis can settle their own affairs.

The President has a window of opportunity to declare "victory" in birthing an Iraqi democracy. He even has a chance to mitigate severe domestic repercussions and save what’s left of his Presidency.

The complete withdrawal of American troops anytime soon is a long shot. It looks like troop numbers will be reduced in 2006. But a permanent presence on American bases in Iraq is in the cards if the new government is friendly.

Winding down the Iraq War will not terminate the high degree of American engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere. It will not discourage addicts of American power. Unless we domestically clean house and discredit neoconservative ideas, they will be heartened by the Iraq outcome no matter how it turns out. If stability occurs, they’ll take credit. If it doesn’t, they’ll blame the anti-war supporters. Neoconservatives will, along with the President, declare success in Iraq and keep up the pressure for more foreign adventures.

We wish the Iraqis well. We hope they achieve their values. We hope that by withdrawing from their country, we allow them better to achieve their values. Societies often rebuild rapidly after wars are over. We hope this happens in Iraq.

We hope that each and every Iraqi lives peaceably and creates greater happiness than was possible under Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, this is not now the case, certainly not for the Iraqi dead, certainly not for those blown up daily, probably not for the maimed and injured, probably not for those living in greater fear and greater misery in a war-torn country, and probably not for those whose opportunities to progress are diminished and frustrated by the consequences of war.

Success in Iraq, if it is declared, is actually an empty phrase. This war made Americans no safer from terrorists than we were before. We are less safe because we diverted resources and attention from hunting down known terrorists and we encouraged more adherents to the terrorist cause.

A good many companies gained war contracts, but we would have been better off if they had been producing goods we valued and could use. A good many Americans felt the thrill of war and benefited from its entertainment. For the price paid, Hollywood could have turned out any number of gory war movies. A good many neoconservatives, commentators, politicians and pseudo-statesmen felt good about this war, as if they had made a big contribution to the United Way. We’d be far better off had they not stolen our wealth and wasted it on this destructive escapade.

Gains from this war for Iraqis are hard to discern. Some politicians who will eventually be running the country may gain, if the country survives, but that cannot have been a reason to "free Iraq." Maybe some Kurds have gained or some Shiites; women may have lost or Sunnis. There is no unambiguous calculus by which we automatically know that making war in Iraq was right for Iraqis. We’d like to think so to comfort our consciences after the fact.

Before the fact, before embarking on the Iraq War, the prospective gains in terms of Iraqi freedom and democracy were figments of the neoconservative imagination. There was no way of knowing what value individual Iraqis placed on these political structures as compared with other values in their lives. To interfere with their lives, in the process killing and maiming thousands and considerably diminishing the lives of those who survived, could never be justified by appeals to abstract concepts of freedom and democracy. The war can’t be justified in this way after the fact either. The dead can’t vote. They can’t speak. They can’t tell us whether they are grateful we freed them.

Iraq may fashion a "democracy" with many of its trappings of Parliaments and votes. It is not clear that the typical Iraqi will have gained much. We cannot know what value Iraqis place on these things. We can never know what political and economic situation may have occurred inside Iraq had we not intervened. Terrorism may subside in Iraq, or it may become a nagging factor of daily life. We cannot know how surrounding countries will relate to a new Iraq.

Iraqi values were inestimable before we attacked, and they are inestimable now. We did not know then what Iraqis wanted or how much they were, as individuals, willing to pay for it. We do not know these things now. These things are unknowable.

To speak of our doing good by freeing Iraqis and fostering democracy is literally to speak nonsense. It is to act like an omniscient God who knows what lies in every person’s heart, to know what they value and how much they value it. To invade a country on such a premise is to attempt to live other people’s lives for them. This cannot be done without destroying their freedom.

Suppose that China, looking at the U.S., determined that we were not a free people, that our democracy was a sham, that two parties monopolized the ballot, that they gerrymandered voting districts to ensure being elected, and that those in power were stealing from the people. Suppose that China invaded the U.S. to free us. Suppose that after deposing and imprisoning our leaders, China remained for years, rooting out and killing all those who resisted the presence of Chinese soldiers. Suppose that whole cities were leveled by the Chinese to root out these insurgent Americans, these terrorists. Suppose that our economy was so disrupted that we could not be sure of getting basics like water and electricity. Suppose that our travel was restricted, that we had to stop at Chinese roadblocks. Suppose they shouted at us in an unintelligible language, shot us, and pushed us around. Who could say in the end that the Chinese had done us a favor by freeing us?

Since the Iraq War involves a massive amount of aggression, loss of life, injury, displacement, destruction, and misery, we are responsible, directly and indirectly, for huge losses. Future consequences and losses remain to be seen: for our military, for their morale and fighting power, for the folks back home, for our politics, for terrorist activity, for Iraqis, for our relations with other nations, and for the Middle East. We are less well off in a myriad of ways.

In attacking Iraq, we surely have attacked both truth and justice. Downgrading these essentials harms us, dragging us downwards. We set ourselves back in terms of our principles and direction. We weakened our character.

This ill-considered war loses us time and sets us back in terms of facing our serious problems. It hastens our decline into a second- and third-rate nation. What gains it us if we have a diamond-studded military and a deteriorating country?

Until we see a systematic change in ruling doctrine, we can be quite sure that our rulers will continue to project American power throughout the world, no matter what their party affiliations. Due allowance being made for temporary lapses, disputes and rhetoric, this has been the predominant course of events for over 100 years.

In his 1939 letter to Adolph Hitler, President Roosevelt wrote: "Nothing can persuade the peoples of the earth that any governing power has any right or need to inflict the consequences of war on its own or any other people save in the cause of self-evident home defense."

These are fine words! It is as near to self-evident truth as one can get that no rulers of any State have a right to send their armies to invade other lands, except in clear self-defense. It is truth because invaded lands and possessions do not belong to an aggressor.

Would that Roosevelt’s successors had lived up to this self-defense philosophy! Unfortunately, most of them have not, including most recently Presidents Clinton and Bush. Iraq and Saddam Hussein never generated an American "cause of self-evident home defense."

Roosevelt queried Hitler: "Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions of the following independent nations? Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, the Arabias, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iran.

We will make it easy for our current leader. President Bush: Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions of Syria and Iran? Will you assure us that the CIA or covert Special Forces will never again be used to undermine a foreign State? As for our previous leader, Mr. Clinton, can you explain in what way Yugoslavia threatened Americans such that you brought Americans into war in that country?

Roosevelt wanted Hitler to speak to him as an intermediary: "Because the United States, as one of the Nations of the Western Hemisphere, is not involved in the immediate controversies which have arisen in Europe, I trust that you may be willing to make such a statement of policy to me as head of a Nation far removed from Europe." Whether disingenuous or not, Roosevelt must have thought there was some plausibility to his assertion that the U.S. was far removed from Europe and not involved in its controversies.

We are no longer as far removed from other countries in terms of travel time as we once were, but we are every bit as far removed from the "controversies" of other countries as we ever were. This is because their squabbles and differences do not directly involve the whole American people in a cause of self-defense. Yet our direct military and economic involvement through our government and its organs is huge. Who can name the self-evident threats to our lives posed by Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, Kosova, and Uzbekistan? Who can explain the self-evident threats to our lives posed by Greenland, Iceland, Germany, Okinawa, and Japan where we have large military establishments?

I doubt whether our rulers can give us a coherent explanation of our many interventions, outposts, alliances, aid packages, loans, and bases. Fifteen years ago, the rationale for some of this was to prevent the international spread of Communism. Now that the Cold War is behind us, our rulers seem unable to pull the plug on American power. They keep flailing away at new enemies and feeding us new (and old) rationalizations for war.

Freeing other peoples and establishing new democracies is one of these rationales for war. This rationale is false, wrong, empty, and destructive. It is false because we are bringing the replacement of one sort of rule for another, one sort of State for another sort. We are not bringing freedom. It is wrong because we have no right to aggress upon another people, causing great damage, in order to effect this transformation. It is empty because we do not know and cannot know, before or after, whether the gains exceed the losses or vice versa. It is destructive because a war begun to free others employs aggressive principles applied to both ourselves and others. The consistent application of aggression ultimately undermines its users. Applied in the U.S., it can only tear apart our society. Applied overseas, it can only elicit resistance.

Success in Iraq? A victory in Iraq? We will hear these phrases spoken. We will be tempted to feel good, that what we have done has been right, that it has been for truth, justice and the American way. This will be propaganda. The reality is that this war was none of our business, that we meddled where we do not belong, that we caused great damage, and that some gained and some lost but we can’t know how much. The reality is that starting this war under false pretenses was inimical to justice and the opposite of the American way.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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