Some Common, Bad Arguments for the Recent U.S. Policy Towards Iraq

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

It might be useful to review some of the arguments frequently offered by hawks in defense of the most recent U.S. invasion and its subsequent ongoing occupation of Iraq. A clear analysis of the flaws in their reasoning ought to help, for instance, in persuading those who are still undecided as to whether Gulf War II was a sensible and morally acceptable undertaking, that the case for the war is weaker than it might appear at first glance. With that in mind, let's examine several hawkish arguments in general circulation.

1) The U.S. tried "giving peace a chance," and look where that got us: 9/11.

There are at least two false premises underlying the argument above. The first is that the U.S. was at peace with Iraq in the years before September 11, 2001. That is far from the truth: Between the end of Gulf War I and the start of Gulf War II, American and British planes flew thousands of bombing sorties over Iraq. It should be obvious that two nations are not at peace if one of them is regularly bombing the other. Furthermore, the sanctions imposed on Iraq were themselves an act of war, and one that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created great hardships for most others.

The second fallacy is that the Iraqi government was in some way responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The talking point we are analyzing implicitly relies on such a causal connection, since it would be blatantly nonsensical to assert something like: "I tried getting along with my neighbor, and look where it got me: I was beat up by some mutual stranger whom I offended at a bar." However, no one has presented any plausible evidence tying Iraq to 9/11. And we can feel confident that, if the Bush administration had such evidence, it would not be keeping it under its hat.

The subject of sanctions leads to our second example:

2) Saddam Hussein, and not American policy, is to blame for all of the deaths and suffering stemming from the sanctions.

The primary flaw in this contention is the assumption that at most one individual or collective agent can be held responsible for any evil. A little contemplation of this proposition in the context of simple-to-evaluate circumstances should demonstrate its falsity. For example, imagine that while I am strolling about on the crest of a ridge, I spy a man whom I know to be a psychopath and who is apparently looking around for some mayhem he can cause. At the edge of the ridge, I notice a precariously balanced boulder, and directly downhill from the stone I see a family relaxing on their picnic blanket. I beckon the psychopath over to me and call his attention to both the boulder and the picnickers. He proceeds to give the stone a shove and crush the members of the family.

No morally reasonable person would deny that the psychopath is guilty of murder. But his guilt does not absolve me from any responsibility for the deaths. If I had not alerted the killer to the availability of the means for satisfying his murderous urges, he might well have gone home without acting on them. What's more, when I engaged in my little act of "sharing," I had a pretty good idea of what the result of it would be. Clearly, we both are to blame for the crime in question.

Similarly, no critic of the sanctions imposed on Iraq has to deny that Hussein is culpable for the terrible impact they had on the Iraqi people. Certainly, he could have saved his subjects a great deal of hardship by agreeing to abdicate in return for the lifting of the sanctions. But that fact does not let U.S. policymakers off the hook. They clearly were aware both that Hussein would not readily relinquish power and that he would allow the brunt of the effects of the sanctions to fall on the average Iraqi, rather than on himself or his high-ranking deputies. Does anyone believe that the American officials responsible for imposing or continuing the sanctions seriously entertained the notion that the Ba'athist elite would renounce their privileges and drain their Swiss bank accounts to relieve the plight of their less advantaged countrymen? No, the very point of the sanctions was to undermine support for Hussein by making life worse for the vast majority of his subjects. Those who seek to deny that the U.S. government bears any responsibility for the suffering brought about by that policy ought to be pressed to explain what in the world was the rationale for the sanctions, if it was not to put pressure on the common Iraqi?

(The above considerations should make Democrats who are critical of the current administration's conduct and compare it unfavorably to that of the Clinton administration feel a little less superior. While it is true that Clinton did not launch an all-out war against Iraq, he was an unwavering supporter of continuing the sanctions as well as the regular bombing missions. If it were really the case that the only possible options were never-ending sanctions or an invasion, it is conceivable that an invasion might have been the more humane choice, since it might actually save Iraqi lives compared to the alternative, even if the comparison was made over a fairly brief timespan.)

3) A failure to support the American invasion of Iraq demonstrates a contemptible disregard for the welfare of the Iraqi people.

(Note: In exploring the above proposition I will simply take it as a given that the U.S. government was going to have, and for the near future will continue to have, some policy towards Iraq, a policy it will fund by taxing American citizens. That does not imply I regard the government's activities as being legitimate. But that is a topic for another time, and here I only will consider the relative desirability of various policies the U.S. might have adopted.)

The first difficulty with our second contention is that it requires weighing the regrettable consequence that some innocent Iraqis will inevitably be killed as a result of an invasion against the desirable outcome that others will find their lives improved. The relative weights assigned inevitably must contain a large element of personal judgment, since there is no objective scale upon which moral values can be placed for ready comparison. I don't see that there is any bright and unmistakable line dividing the situations in which it is better to treat some deaths as the acceptable cost of achieving a greater good from those cases in which that price is judged too dear. Nevertheless, I suggest that we do have a strong sense that some situations fall well to one side of that blurry line, while certain others just as distinctly lie in the opposite territory. Consider yourself in a position where you are charged with deciding whether or not to attempt the forcible rescue of some hostages. First, imagine that the kidnappers are holding one hundred captives, and credibly threaten to kill them all within the hour. In your best judgment, a rescue mission would probably cost about ten of the hostages their lives, while saving the other ninety. I suspect that you would authorize the mission, finding it unfortunate but quite justifiable that some innocents will die as a result of your choice, since there is no other apparent way to save any of them. Contrastingly, if the kidnappers were holding their one hundred victims in decent conditions, only threatening to kill one of them per year, and a rescue effort seemed likely to save only ten of the hostages while the remaining ninety would wind up dead, I presume you would decide to forego such a self-defeating venture after calculating that the hostage-takers would take ninety years to equal the amount of damage that your attempt to help would do in an hour or two.

The relevant question, then, is not if the Iraqi people were unfortunate in being ruled by Saddam Hussein, but whether removing that ailment by force of arms was itself likely to cause them more harm than the distress it sought to cure. There can be no definitive answer for a question like that, since by its nature it requires comparing the actual course of events with various imaginary, alternative histories, and hard facts are categorically unable to rule out or decisively endorse any of those rival intellectual constructs.

Still, I contend that, in regards to whether Iraqis in general are better off because of the Anglo-American invasion of their country, at least as things stand today, the doves have a much stronger case for their position than do the hawks. While Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein was plainly no utopia, it had been many years since he had caused the death of large numbers of his people, and, aside from the effects of the sanctions, life in the country appeared to have stabilized in a condition of moderate but not intolerable or especially unusual oppression. It was almost certainly less chaotic, unpredictable, and dangerous before the U.S.-led invasion than it has become in its wake. What's more, by the most rigorous estimate of which I am aware, so far the war probably has cost well over 100,000 Iraqis their lives. It is impossible to determine with certainty if the targets of the liberation value the outcome more than the price they paid, particularly since so many of them are now unavailable for comment. However, the fact that prior to the war the masses had not risen to overthrow the Ba'athists, a revolution that ought to have succeeded if as many as 100,000 Iraqis were willing to die for its victory, suggests that the price for removing Hussein's regime was higher than they were willing to pay to achieve that result. (Of course, now that Hussein's rule has been ended, a survey of the war's survivors might reveal that most of them are pleased with the transaction; however, that is not the judgment relevant to determining if the Iraqi people preferred the U.S. invasion to the status quo, since, with the benefit of hindsight, everyone who is still around knows that he or she would live through the ordeal, whereas beforehand the only information they would have had was that many people were bound to perish and that they themselves easily might be one of them.)

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that it is a legitimate task of the government of the United States to improve the governance of other, sovereign nations as far as possible, I still see it as very unlikely that invading Iraq and continuing to impose sanctions were the only two, realistic options available. Although promoting democracy abroad is hardly a field of expertise for me, even I can suggest a number of alternative possibilities: providing Iraqi resistance groups with American assistance, withdrawing international recognition of the Ba'athist regime as a legitimate government, broadcasting pro-freedom programs into Iraq, giving scholarships to Iraqis for study in the U.S., and so on. A somewhat outlandish but I think quite promising approach would have been to attempt bribing Hussein to step down. Given that the cost of invading Iraq ultimately will total at least a few hundred billion dollars, it would have been much less expensive, and prevented hundreds of thousands of casualties, if the dictator could have been persuaded to abdicate by offering him ten or twenty billion dollars, a safe haven outside Iraq for his retirement years (perhaps a nice high-end senior community with golf and boating in Fort Meyers Beach?), and the promise that he would not be tried (at least at America's behest) for his conduct as Iraq's ruler. I'm sure that some popular pundits and foreign policy mavens will become apoplectic after seeing this suggestion, proclaiming "America should never reward or coddle tyrants." In response, I would suggest that they examine their primary motive for backing U.S. intervention in Iraq: Has it been to help the Iraqi people, or to exhibit their own moral purity? If the former, then wouldn't it be the morally required sacrifice for them to choke back their distaste at seeing a thug go unpunished in order to liberate the Iraqis at the lowest possible cost, measured both in terms of human lives and suffering and in the dollars expended by American taxpayers?

4) Sitting idly by while terrorists prepare to attack America again is not an acceptable option; the U.S. government must actively strive to pre-empt terrorism before more, perhaps many, many more, Americans are killed.

To the extent that it is possible to thwart real terrorist schemes in advance and capture genuine terrorists before they have a chance to act it is hardly imaginable that there are more than a handful of Americans who would reject our fourth proposition. However, they still may disagree quite significantly as to the degree of caution that should be exercised in preventing innocent people from mistakenly being imprisoned or killed during efforts to prevent terrorist acts. No amount of diligence shy of complete inaction can completely eliminate the chance of ever making a tragic error in this regard, but that does not erase the tremendous differences between how likely various approaches are to produce such errors. For example, employing the tactic of simply sweeping up anyone in the proximity of a terror hot spot who looks remotely plausible as a terrorist — don't bother grabbing grannies or infants! — and then stuffing the seized into a high security prison for an indefinite period that will end for a detainee only when he can convince his jailers that he is not a terrorist, does reduce the risk of letting a real terrorist with a convincing story get away. Nevertheless, many people who fully support the goal behind the tactic will reject it because of the near certainty that it will ensnare many, perhaps even mostly, innocent people. Assenting to the general principle that it is better to prevent terrorist attacks than to punish the perpetrators after the fact does not entail endorsing every conceivable method of pursuing that goal.

That is especially true in that some proposed schemes for "taking the battle to our enemies" might actually generate new terrorist recruits faster than they eliminate previously existing threats. I offer a hypothetical instance, which I hope will be illustrative: Imagine that some influential faction in American politics proposed that the U.S. launch a pre-emptive war on some other state, one which had never initiated hostilities with America, based on the intuitive suspicion that the targeted country's leader might one day assist terrorists in attacking us. (I know, I know, it's pretty far-fetched, but play along with me here.) Is it only an indication of spinelessness or a pathological deficiency of resolve to worry that many of the foreigners affected could view America as having started a war of aggression, and that as a consequence, some number of them would decide to join the anti-American cause who would not have done so otherwise? If that fear should prove to be founded, then the promoters of the war in question, far from having made Americans safer from future terrorist attacks, actually would have placed us in greater danger. It is one thing to repudiate appeasing or cowering before terrorists, but quite another to actively draw the attention and provoke the ire of potential terrorists. Seeking to avoid the latter is not a sign of lamentable cowardice but of commendable prudence, and refusing even to consider the possibility evidences a reckless and disaster-prone arrogance.

5) Sure, invading Iraq was a mistake, but now that we're in there, we've got to finish the job.

On July 2, 1881, U.S. President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin in Washington. The second bullet that struck him had lodged in his back, and his team of doctors could not locate it. They were persistent fellows though, and they continued to probe their fingers and various instruments around in the wound, hunting for the little bugger. At one point they even called in Alexander Graham Bell for help.

The doctors no doubt operated under the motto, "Now that we're in there, we've got to finish the job." Unfortunately, what they were finishing was President Garfield. The bullet itself presented no serious health risks, but the doctors' efforts to assist him were continually infecting and traumatizing their patient. On September 19, 1881, after over two months of "treatment," Garfield died. The doctors, with the annoying patient out of the picture, were no doubt then able to find the bullet and "finish the job."

March 25, 2006

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