In a debate taking place in a “Comment” of February 2nd 2013 “Liberal Scum’s Response to ‘Telling the Truth and Tarentino..’.” a faithful and consistent liberal critic of this blog challenged me to explain how I, as an American, had benefited from the Iraq war. I am glad to take up Prof. Terry’s challenge. The job is a little more complicated than that of my opposition who are often content to say, “I hate war.” (So do I!) The challenge is found on a comment posted Feb.12 and following.
I believe there are old, un-original general principles the application of which optimizes the probability of a peaceful world. Here are big illustrated excerpts of those beliefs. If you perceive that they remind you of stuff you learned in kindergarten, you are right.
If you attack those who are weaker than you, if you rob them, if you murder them, there is a good chance that the civilized nations of this earth will attack you. If you are lucky, it will be little Finland or little Denmark that will try to teach you a lesson. If you are bad enough, and if the US is in the grip of denial at the time, it will be the United Kingdom and France, or even France alone. If you are unlucky, America’s mighty, large, well-equipped armed forces will make you stop. If you piss off enough of us in a public enough fashion, the US and any number of its friends will go after you together and you will suffer a great deal.
If you attack America’s friends, it’s not completely sure we will go after you but you should worry a lot about it. If we do, you will never be the same again. Our response is likely to be disproportionate.
The Iraq War that exercises Prof. Terry so much is a direct result of the (first) Gulf War of 1990-1991. Here are the connections in their great lines:
After a bloody war of attrition, against his big neighbor Iran that he was unable to win, Saddam Hussein, the bloody dictator of Iraq for 24 years figured he could swallow its small rich neighbor Kuwait in one gulp. He did. There were good reasons to believe that he had plans also to take also Saudi Arabia, or at least, a good chunk of its many northern oil fields.
Now, don’t veil your face, there is a large amount of petroleum in the ground of Saudi Arabia. We, but mostly our suppliers and our customers, need it. We and they pay for it, we and they even pay a lot. We and they enter into long term arrangement to ensure that we and they will be able to buy the petroleum tomorrow and in ten years. So far (regrettably) it’s essential to our civilization.
If you were an irrigated agriculture farmer and your livelihood depended on water that someone else sold you and if he cut off the water or even, if he threatened to cut if off, that would be a good reason to hurt the supplier. Killing him wouldn’t even be out of the moral question if he wouldn’t listen. If someone else threatened to interfere with the flow water, the same principle would apply. There are few moral systems that require one to allow oneself to be strangled without resistance. Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in particular do not require such submissiveness. Petroleum has about the same importance for modern economies as water has for irrigated farms. (Let me say that I am not pronouncing on the advisability of having put ourselves, collectively, the developed countries, in that situation. The fact is that we were and we are.)
Saddam Hussein did not just threaten in that case, he demonstrated what he could do to Saudi Arabia with what he did to Kuwait.
Note that, at this point, I have said nothing in favor of the religious fascist Iranian republic, in favor of the kind of crudely democratic Kuwaiti monarchy, or in favor of the miserable obscurantist, backward throwback that is Saudi Arabia. When ordinary people string back the current elites in the first and last country, I too will celebrate.
Long story short, in 1990 and 1991, the US, with the help of forty or so allied nations, destroyed in a short time the hold of Saddam Hussein on Kuwait. We sent his armies fleeing through the desert. We all felt bad because we saw that our armies killed tens of thousands of poor Iraqi draftees in the process. Largely because of that, but also perhaps because of a misplaced concern for “international law” we did not finish the job. Big mistake! Anybody who reads knows that you don’t let a wounded hyena slink away.
When we allowed Saddam to escape, we did it in conformity with modern customs of war. There were formal cease-fire talks where we told his representatives, “If you do X,Y and Z, we will stopped killing you.” He promised and we stopped killing his innocent soldiers, and also his less than innocent soldiers. That was in February 1991.
In the following twelve years the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein violated a large numbers of the conditions to which it had agreed in order that we should stop killing them. Not owning or developing weapons of mass destruction was only one of the many conditions. In a public relations disaster, the second Pres. Bush decided to sell the resumption of the war against Hussein’s Iraq on the basis of one particular violation that does not seem to have taken place on a serious scale: That’s the weapons of mass destruction issue. ( I have written at length about this matter on this blog. I don’t want to do it again. To put it briefly: There were not any or not significant quantities. No one lied except Saddam Hussein himself.)
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was simply a result of the Hussein government not respecting its promises from February 1991. The fact that there were many -such a myself- who were glad for a chance to correct the mistake of Feb. 1991 of not getting rid of Saddam, the fact that many wished his demise because of the mass atrocities he committed after the end of that war, these do not change this basic fact:
If you do X,Y and Z, we will stop killing you. If you resume doing X, or Y, or Z, we will start killing you again. Hussein dis not resume doing X but he resumed doing Y; we went after him. It’s as sound basis for the conduct of international relations. I believe any other policy is dangerous, that it invites attack from the unpunished themselves and from hostile spectators.
Many people are confused about this simple matter because, after Saddam disappeared, the US became involved in military occupation and in nation-building in Iraq. And it did not do it very well. Both could have been avoided. I think it was Secretary of Defense Colin Powell who emitted the poisonous doctrine: “If you break it, you own it.” I think our political elite had in mind the brilliant reconstruction under occupation of Japan after WWII. I think the elite was not paying attention. It’s an American problem: a high concentration of ADD. In the event, the long occupation was broadly perceived as a disaster.
The rancor of liberals in these pages and elsewhere comes much more from the clumsy occupation than from the three weeks campaign that preceded it, I think. Also from the tendency to blame the US for what Iraqis did to one another because we were there and stupidly pretended we were policing that multiple rings circus of hatreds. In fact, we could have broken the Saddam Hussein’s regime, we could have executed or taken to Guantanamo one hundred high officials and then, we could have made an agreement with Saudi Arabia to hold 100,000 of the Baathist cadres for ten years. And then, we could just have walked away.
Would it have been preferable to walk away with the possibility that Iran might gobble up a weakened Iraq? I don’t know. It’s possible to answer yes to that question. It would also have been possible to stand military guard around Iraq without meddling at all in the country’s internal politics.
Prof. Terry -who speaks for many other liberals who don’t dare speak to me – challenges me to explain what benefits I received for the costs in treasure and, more poignantly in lives for the Iraq war. I am glad to oblige. First, I want to put American costs in perspective using the numbers Prof. Terry himself provided to simplify matters. (This choice does not imply that I accept the numbers.) I begin with the easiest task, the economic cost of the war.
Prof. Terry cites leftist economist Joseph Stiglitz to the effect that the “indirect” costs of the Iraq war for the US was three trillion dollars and up (I assume this also includes direct costs).
My own share of that war would be that amount divided by 300 million Americans. That’s about $10,000. That amount spread equally between the eight years of war amounts to $1,250 annually on my personal war bill. Let’s put things in perspective: While, this is not insignificant money, it’s less than I spent on cigarettes during the same period. I would guess that in current dollars, that would be also considerably less than Prof. Terry spent on beer during his young years. My family could have saved that amount by driving a smaller car. The harbor fees for the small sailboat I owned during the whole period where higher.
Now, if the money had been thrown down the sewer, it would really annoy me but, it ‘s not what happened. Rather, of the total amount in taxes I was forced to pay during that period, the fraction going to the Iraq war was one of the easiest to accept. For one thing, it was constitutional. For another thing, I feel I got my money’s worth . That’s unlike, for example, the fraction of my confiscated money “invested” in education by a federal government who has constitutionally no business there at all. That’s unlike the vastly larger amounts going to support modestly qualified but unfireable federal civil servants. That’s unlike again, my share of (of the admittedly tiny) federal industrial investment in Solyndra. And common decency prevents me from mentioning at all tax-supported “light rail” projects, of course.
In general, I feel about federal spending the way I feel about my city’s spending: If you gave me a red pencil and a razor blade, I would quickly make big cuts. Few would notice the cuts except lazy bums in and out of government. Then, I would cut good services performed according to irrational standards: The fact that I have never waited longer in line than twenty seconds in my city library tells me that it’s overstaffed (aside from the fact that it should be a private venture or a coop.) Police and fire services would be examined, reformed and redirected but they would be low on my list of cuts. (Yes, I spend time fantasizing about cutting.) Military action would be last on my list of federal cuts because I respect the constitution.
Now, when liberals like Prof. Terry defy you to justify the death of Americans in a war, there is always implicit blackmail involved. That’s true even if they don’t do it consciously. Of course, how can you justify the death of a single American in the course of the pursuit of a threat that turns out not to have existed (or, existed only on a small scale)? There are two main ways to prevent liberals from trying to censor you in the connection of American deaths. The first, is to unmask them as closet pacifists, which many are. This stops the conversation, as far as I am concerned. Pacifism as a political philosophy lost all its credibility between 1939 and 1941.
The second way to stave off their attempt at terminal censorship is to highlight their implicit hypocrisy (which sometimes masquerades as gross forgetfulness). Since I don’t think that Prof. Terry is a pacifist, I will take the second path. I want to be precise. Unlike my adversaries, I don’t wish to hide behind a cloud of smoke. This will require a little attention, I am afraid.
Average annual deaths of American military in Iraq, combat plus non-combat deaths: 4487/8= 560
Mean annual deaths on American roads and highways for approximately the same period= 35,500 (Figures from National Highway Safety Traffic Administration on-line.)
The number of American deaths in Iraq to highway deaths is thus like: 5.6/355.0
The unthinking will exclaim that this is comparison is ridiculous because car accident deaths are “inevitable’ (unavoidable) while all the American deaths in Iraq were avoidable. But only the second part of the proposition is correct. In fact, those who study these things commonly state that half of car accident deaths involve alcohol. I believe that every one of those deaths is avoidable. They are easily avoidable because they depend entirely on Americans’ political will. (Ask me.) For the sake of appearing moderate, lets’ assume that half of traffic fatalities where alcohol is involved are avoidable, for an annual figure of about 8,900.
For the period of the Iraq war, avoidable American deaths due to traffic accidents were thus at least fifteen times more numerous that avoidable American deaths due to American military involvement.
Yet, did you ever hear any liberals critics of the Iraq war say anything about avoidable traffic deaths. Do you think Prof. Terry -who has volunteered for the dangerous mission of representing them- has ever done anything about that very large American problem, that he has ever done anything about preventing thousands of American deaths? ( I mean besides desisting driving under the influence, as I did myself.)
This being said, there is no doubt that being an American soldier or Marine in Iraq was quite dangerous. I believe it was something like three times more perilous to life than being a logger, for example, the most dangerous occupation in America. (My rough computation assumes that there were 200,000 American service personnel in Iraq annually on the average. Unfortunately I am unable to find the source for this figure that sticks to my mind. I will correct this estimate immediately if shown that it is wrong. If the number of military present in Iraq on the average is lower than 200,000, then the fatalities rate will be accordingly higher. This may be enough to disqualify the order of magnitude I present here.)
The most dangerous occupation in America in 2005 was logging with 92 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to “America’s most dangerous jobs “ CNN MONEY for 2006. (The numbers do not change enough year to year to affect the orders of magnitude I am presenting here.)
I would guess – and this is a guess – that the death rate of American military personnel in Iraq may have approximated the death rate of Chines miners, for example.
In absolute terms, the number of American military deaths in Iraq was small. Compare with 600, 000 for the American War Between the States and 38,500 for the Korean War (both fought in defense of a principle, I think.) World War Two, which was declared on the US after we were attacked by Japan, cost 405,000 American lives over a shorter period than the war in Iraq.
Liberals critics of the Iraq invasion, liberation, occupation, and re-establishment as a roughly representative state demonstrate strange moral preferences. They would have us believe that the utterly meaningless deaths of children in traffic accidents, for example, are more deplorable than the death in battle of young adults who have clearly volunteered for the risk and who usually think they do it for a worthwhile cause. Do I also detect a bit of ethnocentrism in their preferences? The deaths of 6,000 American professional soldiers appall them but the deaths of ten times that number of Syrian civilians in a much shorter time leaves them cold.
In addition, older liberals, such as Prof. Terry, often stubbornly if implicitly insist that Iraq is pretty much the continuation of the Vietnam war with its hundreds of thousands of hapless draftees. That is part of a simplistic narrative of American “imperialism.”
Incidentally, libertarians who are in the wake of Congressman Paul display the same kind of stubbornness. I think that’s because most old libertarians are incompletely reconstructed leftists with a vestigial predisposition to judge America wrong at every turn. Also, old libertarians of the Ron Paul generation miss their glory days and the corresponding testosterone charge. (I am a thoroughly re-constructed leftist myself, if you need to know. And the testosterone charge brought me nothing but trouble in its time!)
So, now, I answer Prof. Terry’s lib question. The war in Iraq and even to some extent, the occupation and reconstruction of that country have given me the following benefits:
First, a general principle has been safeguarded well enough to make future aggressors think again. Note that retribution does not need to come down on the perpetrators 100% of the time for the contemplators to edge their bets. In political time, there is usually an internal war party and a peace party. (These even existed in imperialist Japan and in National Socialist Germany.) A high likelihood of retribution will strengthen the hand of every peace party for a long time to come.
I think that if the Japanese extreme right had had any idea of the ruination awaiting their country after only three years, they would not have attempted Pearl Harbor. It was a bet placed on American weakness. Similarly, if Hitler had guessed right about the indomitable will of the British people, he would probably have avoided the invasion of Poland. Contrariwise, German generals were heard to say after the war that if they had known of the weakness of the French army in 1939, they would have attacked earlier.
Secondly, the Islamist terrorists, the violent jihadists who have targeted us as Americans had a chance to observed that Americans are not soft. This is important because fanatics always think that a desire to die for a cause is an indispensable ingredient of victory.
Thousands of Islamist terrorists actual and potential, had a chance to observe that Americans don’t especially want to die but that it does not prevent them from doing an excellent job of soldiering. Terrorists were stopped for a while from confusing unwillingness to commit suicide with softness. (You saw how far that belief took the Irish Republican Army, right, by the way?) Yet, it appears that the lesson has to be relearned every so often. In any case, people who think 72 virgins are awaiting them in Paradise probably don’t have high IQs, on the average; they need frequent relearning. (Incidentally, it’s really one seventy-two year old virgin.)
Note that I do not claim that the Iraq war rolled back Islamic terrorism in general. It’s possible that it stimulated it. (Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the West’s war on terrorism lasted a hundred years. Fevered dreams of domination fed by religious fervor are hard to kill. The Crusades lasted longer.) However, quickly after the invasion of Iraq, the Islamist terrorists directed their attentions elsewhere. The 9/11 attack against the US was imaginative, well-designed and superbly executed. It was not even expensive. It was a masterpiece of terrorism. There has been nothing of this quality directed against the US since. Every attempt we know of seems amateurish, or even childish. (Think of the panty bomber.) Coincidence or timidity? I can’t decide for you but it does no seem reasonable to rule out the latter.
Incidentally, the fact that violent jihadists’ most numerous targets are not Americans is interesting but it’s another topic altogether. It just serves as a reminder that their hostility against the US in no way depends on American actions (or on Israeli actions!) That’s one of the reasons I think it will last a bit. I know that some try but you have to twist your shorts into an unseemly mess to argue that violent Sunni jihadists murder Shiite Muslims during religious services in Northern Pakistan because of American policies or because of Israeli actions.
Thirdly, the war in Iraq was good training for all branches of our military. We often forget it but war is the best training for war. Yes, it was expensive in treasure and especially in lives, but military personnel die during all training and it’s not cheap in general. The fact that the Iraq war was unusually costly training does not make it useless. Thanks in part to that war (in another part thanks, to the war in Afghanistan), the Unites States now probably has the most experienced officer corps in the world. This is itself a factor of safety for our troops in a future war.
Fourthly I believe that the timing of the beginning of the Arab Spring was not a coincidence. It seems ridiculous to argue that the now well-informed Arabs did not react to the spectacle of Iraqis brandishing a violet inked finger in the street exultingly in one of the very few real elections in the Arab world. Some Arabs, at least, must have said to themselves and to one another, “If these moron Iraqis can vote after 24 years of absolute tyranny, why not me?” And then, you will have to deal with the fact that Arabs did next to nothing for the fifty years preceding 2005 to defend their freedom and then, they suddenly woke up for no reason although at a time that coincides well with events in Iraq. OK, there are coincidences, but what do you really think?
Now, if you believe that that scenario is out of the question, if you believe that there is no way the establishment of representative institutions in Iraq under American auspices influenced the coming of the Arab Spring please, try to say it here clearly. And if you think the Arab Spring is actually a disaster, say that and don’t get it confused with the first proposition. Please! Myself, I think both that Iraq influenced the coming out of the Arab Spring and that it’s a good thing, on balance. I have written about the last topic elsewhere, I don’t want to repeat myself to much here.
In brief: I cannot bring myself to the cynicism required to wish endless despotism on others to protect my own tranquility. I don’t rightly know whether the secular, rational forces will gain the upper hand. I don’t know if Islamic moderates will eventually prevail democratically and rule like the current “Islamic” party in Turkey. Some signs are encouraging: Last week an Arab prime minster resigned of his own accord (in Tunisia). That’s new. In any case, I think Arabs were right to rise against stifling despotism. I wish them well, including the Communists among them. And, incidentally, none of the Arab countries involved is doing worse than did the French at the same stage. In the final analysis, the US and world peace stand to benefit eventually: The more democratic countries there are the safer Americans are. That is true although it’s also true that Iraq is not yet Switzerland.
Speaking of cynicism: My appreciation of the American war of choice in Iraq would be different if I though it had made the suffering of Iraqis worse. I think it has not. Based on Saddam Hussein’s record, I believe the American military intervention saved many more lives than it caused to be lost.
The hunger concentration camp that is North Korea, religious fascist Iran, nuclear and terminally unstable, miserable Pakistan, the Russian gangster regime, and the so-called “People’s,” so-called “Republic” of China watched the American Iraqi expedition with interest. I am glad that they were able to see the US military dispose of one of the largest armies in the world in two weeks flat plus a sand storm, and at the cost of fewer than one hundred American lives.
I realize that Russia poses no threat to the US right now. It will if and when the flow of petro-rubles dries up. China ‘s future behavior is predictable. Its whole history suggests that it will continue translating its astonishing economic success into geopolitical power. And then, one day, it will miscalculate. Or there will be a Communist mafia succession crisis best alleviated through a foreign adventure. Or, the Chinese economic elite will run scared of running out of raw materials such as petroleum and it will convince the People’s Liberation Army to start a fight.
(Technical note: I think the term “mafia” is technically correct to describe the Chinese regime simply because the governing Chinese Communist Party has lost the legitimacy it derived from its revolutionary task. China is the most successful mafia state in history. It has managed to trick and bribe millions, making the Jersey mob blush with embarrassment!)
As far as the future bellicose actions North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan are concerned, your guess is as good as mine but would you be willing to bet something substantial that we will not be forced to fight because of what happens in connection with those rabid dogs?
Weakness, real or merely perceived, invites attack or, at least, military adventurism. Occasional tangible demonstrations of strength fortify the forces of peace. The successful American military expedition of the fall 2003 in Iraq acted as a brake on the ambitions current and future of fanatical, gangsterish and totalitarian world actors. It gave them food for thought. In one well-publicized case, a grotesque and bloody dictator even volunteered to surrender his weapons of mass destruction (real ones) shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Either, he suddenly saw the light of peacefulness, by coincidence, or the effectiveness of American military action scared the s… out of him. What do you think? And, I don’t think that the unconvincing performance of the US as a military occupier that followed undermined significantly the impression the swift and merciless invasion itself created.
Finally, I stayed carefully away from a topic that was not part of the question: There are sometimes humanitarian reasons in favor of military intervention. When the US does not move, often (not always) you get a Rwanda. You get Syria today with 70,000 dead for no particular reason for the outcome is all but certain. When the US stays on the sideline but on the wrong sideline, you get the massive Khmer Rouge massacre (that was in Cambodia between 1970 and 1975). The US supported the genocidal regime in the UN then out of spite at the Vietnamese Communists who opposed it. About two million died or were killed in an astounding act of self-genocide. I think there were good humanitarian reasons to intervene to protect Iraqis but I don’t need to call on this belief to justify the war.
In conclusion: War is not the solution, of course, except to slavery, Japanese aggression, fascism, Nazism, and in its most poetic form ever, ( the threat of “stars war”) to the armed colossus, communism itself.
Every good thing that has happened in my lifetime (possibly including life itself) happened under the umbrella of the pax americana. Any liberty-bearing development in the near future will take place under the pax americana. Right now, the alternative is Somalia. Of course, there lies a paradox, a major contradiction. War is the single main contributor to the extension of government over civil society. Yet, in the world such as it is, lovers of freedom sometimes have to support war to preserve the conditions leading to greater autonomy for individuals.
Right now, I don’t see any other candidate willing and able to supply a substitute pax. Sometimes, I wish someone would persuade Finland or Denmark to step in but it’s not happening. At other times, I wish I could observe liberals and pacifists shame blood-thirsty beasts like Saddam Hussein or Moamar Quadafi into mending their ways. Vigorous finger-waving might do it. Or maybe talk therapy, or acupuncture, or green tea. Who knows?