Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report

The Iraq Study Group has released its report on Iraq.

With it, there has been several sets of responses, some of which I find objectionable.

Backwards Thinking

One set of reactions shows up in responses that sound something like:

“I support/reject this report on the grounds that it affirms/denies everything that I have been saying all along about Iraq.”

These are instances of ways of thinking that I have raised repeated objections to in this blog – the arrogant backwards thinking where a person uses their own version of ‘the truth’ to evaluate evidence; accepting or rejecting evidence according to whether it supports the conclusions that they have adopted, rather than changing their beliefs to correspond to the available evidence.

There are a few people – a VERY few people – who can get away with making these types of statements. These are people who have devoted their life to studying these issues – who do so from the time they wake up until they go to sleep at night – who have formed theories, and who have used those theories to explain and predict events in the Middle East. When such a person says, “That report affirms/denies what I have been saying all along about Iraq,” that person is saying that the report is consistent or inconsistent with theories that have explanatory and predictive power – and that is important.

However, your average political blogger (or average person writing comments to a political blog) does not fit that description.

My view is that I am no expert on Iraq, and I want experts on Iraq to determine our policy.

On this measure, there are reasons to be concerned about the Iraq report.

The Bush Administration put the committee together.

When it comes to ‘backwards thinking’ (“The evidence does not support my beliefs – about God, about global warming, about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, about what is going to happen when we enter Iraq, about a federal system of checks and balances – therefore the evidence must be wrong and is to be rejected; or, the evidence supports my belief so it must be good, solid evidence) President Bush is among the worst of the worst.

It is one of my strongest hopes and wishes that the tremendous COST, in terms of lives, limbs, and property, of Bush’s mistakes will turn the country as a whole that much stronger against those who engage in backwards reasoning such as this. Yet, the numbers of people who use just this type of reasoning in responding to the Iraq report, without hearing a word of criticism against that way of thinking – suggests that it has not weakened at all.

Anyway, Bush is a ‘backwards thinker’ and no doubt used his ‘backwards thinking’ to measure the qualifications of those who sat on that committee. In other words, “A person is knowledgeable about Iraq and can offer sound policy advice to the degree that he or she agrees with my conclusions.” Perhaps the utter, complete, “could not have possibly been worse” failure in Iraq has taught Bush a bit of humility on this issue. Perhaps reality has become so forceful that it simply penetrated his thick skull and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I need real advice. I will listen to anybody with a plan, because my plans obviously don’t work!” Perhaps this is what happened.

However, James Baker, who heads the committee, is an avid partisan. His efforts in getting Bush into the Oval Office in the contested 2000 election were the actions of somebody who places great value on the well-being of the Party. There is no reason to believe that his desires have changed any in the last six years. In running the Committee and preparing the report, Baker probably had one question foremost in his mind; “How will this help or hurt the Republican Party.”

Yet, this is not necessarily a bad think. It is reasonable to argue that, right now, what the Republican Party really needs is success (or, perhaps, a least disastrous failure) in Iraq. His partisanship is not necessarily a barrier to his coming up with a good plan. However, it is something to keep in mind, and his appointment is indicative of where Bush’s mind was at when he created the committee. He was probably looking for a report and a set of recommendations that would produce the best results – not for the country, but for the Republican Party and, in particular, for his Presidency.

At this point, I hope that he gets what he was looking for, because the Republican Party truly does need a plan for Iraq that is successful (or at least avoids the worst failure).

The American People Have Spoken

Another response that I have objections to comes from Democrats who reject the report on the grounds that, “The people spoke in the last election, and they want our troops to come home!” Using this mantra, they assert that complete and rapid withdraw is the only option.

I have written before, one problem with this is that, if it is true, then the Democrats who are making this assertion are getting their advice from the least informed advisors on Iraq policy imaginable. That makes their ‘strategy’ – their method of policy formation – every bit as dangerous and prone to disaster as the Bush decision to attack. Even if the policy succeeds, it would be more a matter of pure dumb luck – and, chances are, it will not succeed.

More importantly, I do not think it is fair or accurate to claim that the American people have spoken and insist on bringing the troops home at any cost.

I have a question. How many of you out there think that we should bring our troops home even such a move turns out to be a public relations bonanza for Al-Queida, allowing them to acquire a huge inflow of new money and expertise, that significantly increases the chance that they could set off nuclear bombs in major American cities. All of those in favor, raise your hand?

Please note, I am not using this argument as a scare tactic like the Bush Administration did. I am not saying, “We do not want the smoking gun to take the form of a mushroom cloud.” The main difference is that the Bush Administration used fear in favor of a specific policy – a policy that was not supported by the evidence and that threatened to do more harm than good (a threat that has been realized in the past five years).

I am simply pointing out that the American People did not vote to say, “We want the troops home, now!” Some of them did – and those who did are displaying the same irrational and arrogant presumption of their own God-like wisdom that Bush used when he got us into this mess. The rest of us – the more rational of us – said, “We want a plan that works, and the Bush plan is not working!”

What I voted for, at least, was not, “Bring the troops home whatever the cost and whatever evidence may exist that it would be a bad idea.” My vote was, “Give the Iraq policy over to people who have a better chance of coming up with a good plan based on the available evidence – much of which I do not have and act on that plan, whatever it is.”

Do not tell me that I voted for “bring the troops home now” and, more importantly, quit lying to the television and blogging audience by telling THEM that I voted for “bring the troops home now.” That is a lie.

What About the Iraqis?

A third moral concern relevant to this report is one I found in Iraqi comments to the report. Those Iraqi said, “The Americans are looking for a plan that is best for America. They are not showing any concern at all for what is best for the people of Iraq.”

This would be a strange attitude for the Bush Administration to adopt, given that its (I think) fifth in its series of reasons for going to war – after the first four fell apart – was that it was a humanitarian effort meant to help the people of Iraq. I do have to say, given Baker’s historic preference for “what is good for the Republican Party,” this response might have a grain of truth.

Desire utilitarianism speaks towards using praise and condemnation to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires. It would seem that, one of the ways to make America safe is to promote a certain level of consideration and respect for the people of other countries. Making such a set of aversions universal will have the effect of promoting in others a respect for the well-being of the people of America.

However, a part of this means promoting a respect in America for the well-being of the people of other countries. The whole system fits into the moral category of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, its Desire Utilitarian counterpart, “Promote those desires to do unto others that you would want to promote in others to do unto you.”

I have written in the past of how Bush, certainly, is not fond of this principle. He regularly treats captured “suspected terrorists” in ways that, if Americans were treated in the same way by other countries, we would consider it justification for war. Bush is making the world a worse place for Americans to live in precisely because he is telling the rest of the world that torture, rendition, imprisonment without trials, are perfectly acceptable. It is an attitude that is certain to spread.

A lot of the, “Bring the troops home no matter what,” crowd are, in fact, acting very much like people who could not care less about the harms that befall to people of another country. Yet, in promoting this attitude, they are telling others that it is permissible for others not to care about the harms that Americans suffer. This makes it that much easier for people to join organizations dedicated to causing harm, and does nothing to secure our future safety and happiness.

Of course, the Iraqi people have to take care of themselves as well. I have written earlier of how the Iraqi people have to quit thinking in terms of Shiite and Sunni, and think in terms of “murderers” and “potential victims”, with the potential victims banding together in the form of a government to eliminate every potential bomber they can get their hands on. Still, the fact that the Iraqis deserve much of the blame for their own misery – after all, they are the ones who are causing it to themselves – does not change the fact that Americans would be much better off promoting a general concern for the well-being and rights of those wo are not Americans but who are, nonetheless, still people.


Anonymous said...

I firmly support your conclusion that promoting a concern for the peoples of all countries will make America a more moral nation. I think it would do far more to engender patriotism than absurd anti-flag-burning laws.

One way I would suggest doing this is to be careful about how we talk about them. When we use language like, "... the Iraqis deserve much of the blame for their own misery – after all, they are the ones who are causing it to themselves ..." we violate that concern in a couple of ways.
First, we group together those who commit crimes and those who are the victims. Most Iraqis were first the victims of a brutal dictator, then the victims of a war which they did not instigate, then the victims of a leaderless chaos, and now victims of vicious sectarian violence. By blaming "Iraqis" for the behavior of a minority, we commit an injustice to the majority of the people.
A second violation is to judge a people in an extreme environment as though it is a normal one. In some ways morality is a long term investment that brings about a better world over time. The long term payoff needs to ultimately outweigh the temporary price. It's just human nature to have a harder time seeing a long term payoff when the immediate cost becomes extremely high. To the extent Iraq has become a "kill or be killed" environment, we should be careful about how we judge or blame the actions of people there who may see no other way to survive.

beepbeepitsme said...

What do you think about morality/ethics as a result of natural selection?