Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Retrospective: Iraq

On this, the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I am fortunate to be one of the people who does not have to apologize for the position that I took on the war 5 years ago. I hold the same position now that I held back then. That position was:

(1) The international community had not only a right, but a duty, to remove Saddam Hussein from power and deserved condemnation for its unwillingness to execute that duty.

My model for involvement in the affairs of individual countries by the international community is the same as that for involvement in the affairs of an individual family by a town. For the most part, we have an obligation to let other parents raise their children as they see fit. Even if we disagree with their methods, we ought not to interfere. However, there is a line – an admittedly fuzzy line, but a line nonetheless – beyond which the parent’s behavior becomes abusive. When that happens, the others in community not only have a right, they have a duty, to forcefully interfere with that family and to remove those parents from their position of power.

Saddam Hussein’s reign was obviously a tyranny. For the international community to stand back and do nothing is like the neighbor who shuts his window and turns up his television to drown out the bloody screams of a neighbor beating his children. It was a contemptible dereliction of duty.

(2) President George Bush was an incompetent leader who would almost certainly make things worse.

Before 9-11, when President Bush had unilaterally broken off any and all negotiations with North Korea, unilaterally stepped away from Kyoto, and unilaterally ended American involvement in the anti-ballistic missile treaty, I was saying that Bush’s foreign policy was immensely stupid. I wrote, before 9-11, that there may well come a time in which America will need the help and cooperation of the rest of the world in some enterprise, but Bush would have left us without friends – alone and isolated in a hostile world.

Even though I felt that the international community had a right and a duty to act to remove Saddam Hussein from power, we needed to wait for a more competent President before we could actually act. We needed a President like Bush’s father, Papa Bush, who lacked Bush’s arrogance and who actually listened to the advice of people who knew more than he did.

What is it about idiots (like baby Bush) in that they insist on compounding their idiocy by insisting that they know everything?

(3) The duty to remove Saddam Hussein from power does not necessarily include, nor does it exclude, the possibility of war.

Using the family model above, in order to remove an abusive parent from a position of power in a household, it is sometimes necessary to enter the house with guns drawn to arrest – or to kill, if the accused violently resists capture – the responsible parent. So, it is legitimate to enter a country and forcefully remove from power a politically abusive leader in a foreign country. Yet, that is not always the most useful way with dealing with a family in crisis. Sometimes, the situation calls for a less militant response. It requires intervention and coercion – perhaps with a threat of force just outside the door – or the children in that household.

So, in saying that the international community had an obligation to remove Saddam Hussein from power, I am not saying that they necessarily had an obligation to use violence to do so. My claim is that knowledgeable experts should have been put in charge of coming up with a plan. Unlike President Bush, I do not assume that I have the knowledge necessary to come up with a perfect plan myself, and I would insist on consulting experts. Since the possibility exists that those experts would decide against invasion, it would be wrong for me to prematurely assume that invasion is the best option. However, since the experts might also come up with a recommendation to invade,, then that option should not be assumed to be closed either.

(4) The Bush Administration had an obligation to present its evidence to an impartial third party before acting on it.

Obviously, the Bush Administration was not going to come to my home and show me every piece of evidence it had on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. I could not pretend to know enough to be able to determine whether he had enough evidence of an imminent threat to justify attacking. Bush thought he had the evidence, but for an idiot like Bush to claim to know that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction is like an idiot like Bush claiming to have evidence that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

We invented the institution of a trial by jury precisely because we wanted to avoid the problem of unnecessary and disproportionate violence against individuals who happen to be innocent. We maintain peace within a community by promoting an aversion to doing harm to others. This is an overridable presumption. When we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody did something that we have reason to punish, we may harm that individual. However, we are to presume innocence and prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to an impartial jury, before we have any right to think that the harms we would inflict on an individual are justified.

For President Bush, it would have been sufficient for him to have presented evidence to NATO or some group of trusted allies to determine whether the evidence was sound. If they agreed that the evidence was good enough, then I would consider the invasion to be legitimate. However, when an impartial jury remains unconvinced, it is a violation of the basic principles of justice that keep the peace in a community. In this case, those principles should be put to use to preserve the peace in the international community. The risk of not applying those principles of justice that we might get involved in a costly and unnecessary war fully justifies the application of the principles of justice in international disputes.

(5) What would you do with a half billion dollars and 4,000 lives?

Of course, before the war started, a rational person would have looked at the opportunity costs of war. He would have said, “Assume that I had $X and $Y lives that I could spend to make the world a better place?” The invasion of Iraq should have been carried out only if there was not some better use for those same resources.

For example, what would have happened if we had invested the money we spent on the war to better develop alternative energy options in this country? What would we have had if we had invested $100 billion per year in developing wind, wave, solar, and geothermal power? With that money, we could have launched solar power satellites and collected energy that way. We could have lost 3,000 construction workers and laborers in this project, and still come out ahead.

One argument I have seen people use (and that I may have used myself in the past) is that, in purchasing foreign oil, we are funding the terrorists. However, there is another line of thought that says that countries that trade with each other are less likely to war with each other. What would the situation be if we made oil obsolete and drove the economies of the Middle East into a deep poverty? Would this make them less likely to attack the United State, or more likely? I do not know, and I do not have an education in the relevant areas to speculate.


The Bush Administration abandoned every principle of morality and justice in its route to war. In doing so, they have provided us with an important lesson as to why it is important to follow, rather than to discard, those principles of morality and justice. They exist because they prevent us from making some very costly mistakes. They exist as a barrier to unjustified and very costly acts of violence – protecting us both from being the victim of that type of violence, and to protect us from victimizing others.

With luck, we can elect a new batch of decent, moral leaders to replace those that we have had for the past seven years. And we can start to repair some of the damage that this Administration has done.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're second bullet-point reads:

2) President George Bush was an incompetent leader who would almost certainly make things better rather than worse.

I think you meant "...make things worse rather than better" instead of the other way around.