Friday, March 17, 2006

Conservatives Still Don't Get It: Their Mea Culpa on Iraq

Brian Tamanaha

A slew of prominent conservatives--including George F. Will, William F. Buckley, and Francis Fukuyama--are coming out to express their new-found conviction that the Iraq War was a mistake. It's hard to object to their belated announcement, but they seem to be missing the key point.

Take Andrew Sullivan's "What I Got Wrong About the War:"

In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors. The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence....The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed....

The second error was narcissism. America's power blinded many of us to the resentments that hegemony always provokes. These resentments are often as deep among our global friends as among our enemies--and make alliances as hard as they are important. That is not to say we should never act unilaterally....

The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. There is a large discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism of government's ability to change culture at home and its naivete when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian cultures abroad.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but:

The first and overarching error of neoconservatives, Mr. Sullivan, is their willingness (nay, eagerness) to use war to achieve their ideological objectives. Neoconservatives see war as a tool, perhaps messy and unpleasant, not to mention expensive, but sometimes useful.

War is the greatest horror we inflict upon one another, destroying bodies and lives, inflicting untold pain, often on innocent bystanders. War must be a last resort, undertaken with great reluctance, when no other option is available--appropriate only when necessary to defend ourselves against an immediate aggressor (as international law recognizes).

That was not the case with Iraq. Bush and the neoconservatives were bent on starting a war in Iraq for their own ideological and personal reasons and they made sure it came about. Bush's premptive war doctrine, recently reiterated, is more of the same failure to recogize the utimate horror of war.

None of the neoconservative mea culpas I have read have recognized this true (moral and pragmatic) error of their vision and understanding, which is more fundamental than Sullivan's three so-called "huge errors." If neoconservatives understood that war is appropriate only as an absolutely last resort to defend ourselves against an attack, the war would never have happened--hence no WMD debacle (because there was not enough to justify war), no offending allies with our arrogance of power, and no attempt to shape another country in our own image.

Sullivan, to his credit, does mention the tens of thousands killed and maimed in this war, but then he goes on to justify:

If we hadn't invaded, at some point in the death spiral of Saddam's disintegrating Iraq, others would. It is also true that it is far too soon to know the ultimate outcome of our gamble.

These are not the words of someone who understands the magnitude of war and its consequences. "Our gamble," as he put it, involved rolling the dice on the lives of tens of thousands of people, for our own purposes.

Until neoconservatives and the Bush Administration renounce the notion that war is a tool, we will not have learned our lesson, and more wars of aggression begun by us will follow.


I don't recall George Will ever being in favor of the war. Why do you say his conviction is "new-found"?

What you say is accurate, as far as it goes. But what you say just does not go far enough. I think your comments are applicable to the all but a few Democrats who voted in support of the war.

There is a Democratic Wing of The American War Party which, just like the neoconservatives you so roundly and justifiably trounce, "see war as a tool" and are willing to use aggressive (illegal) war to achieve their ideological objectives. The Liberal Interventionists who populate that wing of The American War Party are just as culpable for the Iraq War as are the Bush People.

Beautiful comment, but understated at one point. You note that war "inflict[s] untold pain, often on innocent bystanders." Not often -- always. The parents and children of the dead always experience untold pain. If only Bush could empathize, but he seems pathologically incapable of doing so.

Henry, some general was quoted early on in the Iraqi adventure as saying that collateral damage is not just possible, it is inevitable.

Yes, collateral damage is defined by the actor's intention, not by the likelihood of its occurring. If one drops a bomb on a crowded city with the intention of killing just one particular person, the other deaths are "collateral." Innocent people whom capital punishment causes to be executed are also examples of inevitable collateral damage. The point is that collateral damage must be weighed when determining whether the action that will cause it is moral, as the actor is morally responsible for it. Thus, for example, defenders of capital punishment who take a utilitarian approach must show that its alleged benefits outweigh the inevitable deaths of innocent people; these deaths cannot be discounted as "mere" collateral damage.

War is an absolutely horrible thing. But fact that we went to war in Iraq isn't the the WHOLE problem. It's how we conducted ourselves when we went over. You can't fight a war with one hand tied behind your back. If you're going to fight, then fight. If you're going to go halfway...then don't even bother. There is only one real rule to warfare in my experience: "Whatever will keep me alive and bring me home." That's the only one that matters. But by placing all these restraints on soldiers and their actions; you have now made them soft targets who are not being proactive but are being REactive to all situations. You have to fight to win...

I'm aware of the charges that we didn't send over enough soldiers, and that we didn't provide them with enough protective equipment. But these aren't "restraints." To what restraints do you refer?

You can't both claim that war and all this stuff is both as abominably horrible as you suggest and with any kind of consistancy NOT regard it as a tool. Of course it shouldn't be used as a tool to increase your countries economic position or political power but it is only force, and willingness to use force that can stop wars, genocides and similar levels of horror.

If we are never willing to invade a country because it/it's dictator are making war (or worse slaughtering unarmed individuals) upon part of their population we make sure that such behavior is not detered and allow more war and suffering to persist in the end.

Listen to some of the people talk about life under Sadaam's regmime. Compare the number of people who likely would have died in the next 20 years of his rule, or that of his sons to those who died in the initial invasion. Quite clearly if once liberated Iraq had become a nice free democracy the harm of the war would have been less than the harm of not going to war.

Of course as it is they were wrong in this case but if you were confident that the war was going to go as I just said you would have been being *immoral* to oppose it.

Listen to some of the people talk about life under Sadaam's regmime. Compare the number of people who likely would have died in the next 20 years of his rule, or that of his sons to those who died in the initial invasion. Quite clearly if once liberated Iraq had become a nice free democracy the harm of the war would have been less than the harm of not going to war.

I would find this more persuasive, though still with serious flaws, if it were the real reason Bush authorized the Iraq war. It wasn't. Today at his press conference, he was asked "what was the real reason" for the war. His answer:

"I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

HELEN THOMAS: -- go to war --

THE PRESIDENT: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it."

Note, too, that Bush's answer is another lie: Saddam did NOT deny inspectors, he admitted them. The rest of the answer may not quite constitute lies, but it's hard to find any actual truth there.

Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.
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