Thursday, January 27, 2005

There's a time for rants, but...

Babble on.

While I disagree with a couple of his conclusions from the last two paragraphs - I happen to feel we won't be able to conclusively pass judgement on the war's impact on the middle east and on the battle against Islamofascist terror for years to come - James Bow has done an admirable job summing up both the positives and negatives of the Iraq war to date (nod to BBG for pointing me in the right direction).

I would think that it is time to acknowledge, as others have done, liberals and conservatives alike, that while things aren’t as bad as they could have been, this war doesn’t look nearly as good as it did during the days leading up to it.

No shame in admitting that type of mistake. We all pursued our ideals using the best facts available, and some of our predictions turned out to be right and some turned out to be wrong. It’s still a source of surprise to me that there were no weapons of mass destruction. That’s fine. Make adjustments. Learn from our mistakes. Move on.

But let us learn from our mistakes, at least. And let’s ensure that some people accept responsibility for what they’ve done.

Equally importantly, in my opinion, James eschews inflammatory rhetoric in favour of reasonable questions and comments presented in reasonable language. Over-the-top commentary in the blogosphere can be fun, and venting is an important function for many like Sean and myself who only partially joke about blogging being cheaper than therapy. But an uninterrupted diet of blog-rants can produce intellectual constipation. As someone whose own rhetoric becomes inflammatory from time to time, I appreciate James' sobering influence on the discussion.

So, with James' example to follow, how comfortably do I sit in my Monday-morning armchair on the issue of the Iraq war, George Bush, and the broader war on terror?

Well, first, I'd agree the U.S. intelligence on WMD's and the immediate threat posed by Iraq was so incredibly faulty that the entire American intelligence-gathering and analyzing apparatus should be pulled apart from top to bottom. The fact that intelligence agencies from a number of other countries thought the same thing is a mitigating factor, but not really a valid excuse. The U.S. has more resources than anyone else to devote to knowing what it needs to know - period. And this isn't the first time in recent years the intelligence community has been dead wrong on a pivotal issue - anyone remember the fall of the Soviet Union? These aren't peripheral issues. To be right about what sort of oil contracts are being signed in secret by what countries is inconsequential if you're wrong about a major justification for war.

Yes, yes, I know the threat of WMD's wasn't the only rationale the Bush administration put forward for the invasion of Iraq. But it was undoubtedly the most compelling one. To suggest Congress would have authorized the use of military force in Iraq for the sole purpose of freeing Iraqis from Hussein's brutal totalitarianism and creating a free democratic society from scratch is pure fantasy.

Personally, I don't believe Bush lied. I've always thought the analogy of a police officer who sees a known felon reaching into his jacket and shoots him, only to discover afterwards it was all a bluff, is a good one. You don't blame the cop after the fact, because he made the best decision he could on the basis of the information available to him at the time. Better safe than sorry. But I can understand why others see the Bush administration's wilful ignorance of any dissenting points of view as tantamount to lying. I believe James is right when he says the administration heard only those opinions it wanted to hear, and that's completely indefensible.

The question of troop levels for the war and the immediate aftermath is more difficult to answer, even in hindsight. More troops means more opportunity for logistical cock-ups. It means more expense. It means more targets for insurgents. And it might not mean more effectiveness. I also think the failure of Turkey to allow ground troops to attack from its soil was a critical hindrance to eliminating resistance before it could get organized.

In its defence, Turkey was in a difficult position as the only true Islamic ally of the United States. For its own internal political reasons, Turkey required a more widely-based international blessing, and it never got that. Which has to be seen as another glaring failure of the U.S. government. It's questionable whether Russia, China, and France would have ever allowed the UN to put its stamp of approval on an invasion of Iraq. But did Rumsfeld have to undermine the effort by spouting off about 'Old Europe' in front of a camera and microphone? In recent decades, the U.S. hasn't been particularly adept at diplomacy. I believe that's partly becuase they're big and powerful, not because they're stupid or inept. How diplomatic were the Russians at the zenith of their power? Not very - they didn't need to be. Diplomacy comes most easily to small and middle powers, because it's the only real tool they have.

But if the U.S. truly wants to lead the rest of the world away from the politics of power, to the politics of international cooperation and the rule of law as their rhetoric suggests, they need to do better. Because there's a serious gap between their words and their deeds right now, and it hurts their credibility, big time.

Some of the other points critics of the war make are questionable, and come down to carping. Take the example of disbanding the Iraqi army and banning Baathists from holding any positions of power. Turned the country into a chaotic mess, right? In hindsight, maybe. But we'll never be able to know what would have happened if the U.S. had taken the other fork in that road. It's quite possible the insurgency would have been far more effective with Baathist sympathizers in key government positions. And how much would the brutalized Shia and Kurdish populations have supported the reform process if their oppressors had been left in positions of influence? This sort of criticism is about counting angels dancing on pinheads.

Is it worth having the discussion about hypotheticals? Sure it is. But we shouldn't jump to unsubstantiable conclusions. That holds true for my side of the argument as well: keeping experienced Baathist hands on levers of government with which they were intimately familiar might well have avoided much of the chaos that has allowed the insurgency to survive this long. Just because I have a hard time swallowing that line of reasoning doesn't mean I'm right.

As far as James' assertion that the Iraq war has diverted attention, energy, and resources away from the war on terror, while I can see his point, I'm not convinced. I'm one of those people who thinks at some point you need to drain the swamp and kill the alligators. And I believe that the most sensible way to do that is by reaching for low-hanging fruit first. Iraq was low-hanging fruit: a brutal dictatorial regime whose pursuit of WMD's was consistent (although his stockpiles were nonexistent), whose willingness to use them was documented, whose ties to terrorism (though not to Al Qaeda) were established, whose hatred of the U.S. was unquestioned, whose defiance of international law was ongoing and on record, and whose threat to neighbouring countries was feared. If you're going to start changing things anywhere in the middle east, I think you can make a good argument for starting with Iraq.

You can make a good argument for starting with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. You can make a good argument for starting with Iran. You can make a good argument for starting with Saudi Arabia. You can make a good argument for starting with Syria and Lebanon. And you can certainly make a good argument for non-military methods in each and every case. None of those good arguments mean Iraq won't end up being a positive influence on the region, and therefore a strategic success in the years to come. If the jury's an honest one, it's still out on the wisdom of choosing military intervention in Iraq over the other options.

The decision to run two campaigns simultaneously - Afghanistan and Iraq - is another one that will be second-guessed by historians decades from now. America's inability to properly secure all of Afghanistan because of troop commitments to the Iraqi theatre has certainly slowed the progress of stable freedom and democracy in that country. The lack of real support from the rest of the world has also surely been disappointing to the U.S. - a lot of fine words and pledges, but few boots on the ground in the Afghani countryside, and dwindling financial follow-through as well. Unfortunately, the biggest problems in Afghanistan - from a U.S. perspective - were imported from the middle east: Bin Laden and his Arab muhajadeen. To not go back to the source of the threat - the rise of radical Islam in the middle east - might have been equally problematic for the Americans.

Still, with those caveats, I would have preferred a more focused effort in Afghanistan before going into any middle eastern nation. To have shifted attention so quickly to Iraq gives credence to the "NO BLOOD FOR OIL!" crowd of simplistic ninnies.

This is not to understate the importance of oil in the U.S. decision-making process. Oil certainly complicates all these issues, and not only in Iraq. It makes the U.S. look hypocritical in much of its idealistic rhetoric about freedom and democracy. The Americans remain overly 'nuanced' in their responses to injustice and oppression around the world - Rwanda, Darfur, and Kazakhstan come immediately to mind, not to mention Saudi Arabia. The selective outrage on human rights issues from the U.S. makes my eyes roll and my stomach lurch. There's no doubt in my mind that as a critical strategic interest, middle eastern oil was a significant factor in the decision to prosecute both Gulf Wars. But it's not as simple as the "NO BLOOD FOR OIL!" mob would suggest.

Many of these people also point to the Iraqi insurgency as evidence the threat of terrorism has increased due to the war, contrary to its stated goals. While I can see their point on a superficial level, that argument doesn't hold water with me. Without Iraq, Al Zarqawi and his like would have found other ways to cause trouble, most likely in the U.S. From a purely American standpoint, as gruesome and tragic as it is, it's better to have the scumbags killing people in Iraq than killing people stateside. And although it again illustrates the gap between American high words and ideals and real actions, I can't blame the U.S. for wanting to fight this war overseas rather than at home. That just makes sense, and so far it's worked (knocking firmly on wood right now). In the short term, the Bush administration's policies have been an effective barrier to terrorist attacks on American soil. If you don't believe that, then you have to believe they're the luckiest country on the planet; for three years solid now, they've engaged in provocation of the terrorists equivalent to stirring up the biggest, deadliest nest of hornets in the world and haven't been stung once. Luck's certainly a part of their success, but I can't believe it accounts for all of it. Of course, whether the long-term threat of terror is augmented or reduced by the Iraq war remains to be seen. That, I will freely admit.

An unintended consequence of the Iraq war is that it seems to have coalesced a great deal of latent Bush-hatred and anti-Americanism both in the U.S. and worldwide. Like many, I lament the idea that if you support a war on terror, you must support all George Bush's methods of prosecuting that war. And I equally lament the idea that if, like me, you support Bush's efforts to fight terror and support freedom and democracy in whatever realpolitik capacity he chooses to, you must automatically support his administration's and party's policies on gay rights, taxes, abortion, the environment, and just about anything else.

In our serious, non-ranting, non-trolling, non-baiting moments, let's call each spade a spade on its own merits, and leave tied-issue politics to the political spin-doctors. America is not evil because George Bush gets a pile of things wrong. And anti-Americanism hiding behind a fig leaf of anti-Bush propaganda doesn't fool anyone with eyes, ears, and a brain. Anyone - including bloggers like me - who can't or won't distinguish between support for one policy and support for another should be taken precisely as seriously as they deserve to be. The Iraq war doesn't change any of that.

As to what the Iraq war does change...well, it's my humble opinion we'll just have to wait and see.

Babble off.


At 3:57 p.m., Blogger Kateland, aka TZH said...

Okay, I know I am being snarky and mean but please do enlighten me into what are the good arguments for starting with Saudia Arabia, or Syria or Iran without taking out Iraq first. Furthermore, there would be no Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the direct participation of of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Look at the map, Afghanistan is the logical first step, but the road to security does not end in Afghanistan, so where to next? Iran poses the biggest threat to world security but would you honestly want to strike Iran without a base closer to Iran? Would you feel safe striking Iran with Saddam on your back? And Syria causing mischief while you are bagged down in Iran with Saddam lurking? Syria is a mid-level threat but the same thinking applies - no home base and would you want Iran & Iraq watching your back? Saudia Arabia? The country's in the midst of an internal power struggle. De-stabilize Saudia Arabia and the economic impact worldwide would be devastating but again what do you do with Saddam, Assad & the Mullah's? Look at a map and look how the USA has lined up their ducks.

At 4:17 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Iran's not much further than Iraq (same logistical difficulties), and have more clearly-defined ties to international terrorism. The shia theocrats in Iran also wouldn't have had the support of Iraq, SA, or Syria in the fight. Saudi Arabia might have been possible to do peacefully by essentially buying off the House of Saud and tapping into the Western-educated intelligencia, while threatening the withdrawl of military support - the Sauds are justifiably scared of Iraq if they can't count on U.S. support. If you succeed, you've turned the most influential Arab nation, home of Islam, sitting on the world's largest oil reserves, into a beacon for the rest to follow. Payoff is highest turning SA. Syria is smaller and more easily subdued and occupied. You clear Lebanon as a base for Palestinian violence by taking Assad's crowd out of power. Maybe Saddam has a Gaddafi-style change of heart.

That's off the top of my head. Kate, I'm not saying these arguments are better than those for Iraq, just that they can be made, and made well with enough thought.

At 5:51 p.m., Blogger Kateland, aka TZH said...

Well, at least we are in agreement somewhat over Syria being more of a pissant factor rather than an overt threat - but Syria is the point man in Lebanon for the Mullah's. Herbollah receives the bulk of their funding from Iran via Syria. The problem with the House of Saud is that it is so divided that you cannot tell who to effectively buy off. Bin Laden and his boys were all western educated, relatively affluent Saudi's. Go into SA and the whole ME is on fire and the holy war is has begun in ernest. Mecca & Medina controlled by the infidels? No, can do. That would bring in the Egypt, Libya, Yemen et al. The relatively small US force in SA was the prime bone of contention for dissent in SA. That allowed the rise of Bin Laden et all. Furthermore, SA is not entirely unsympathic with to the West. No point in allowing the dissents to kill off your friends. Any overtly threatening act towards the western friendly Saudi's that they openly capitulated to would be the staw that would allow the overthrow the current government by hostile western forces and destabilize the world economy. Iraq fought a war for nearly 8 years to control Iran. With the American's bogged down in Iran I cannot see a compelling argument that Saddam would not see it as an opportunity to grab some land and increase the size of Iraqi controlled terrority. The Americans would be effectively squeezed between 2 hostile forces. The Iranians, unlike the Iraqi forces would be a much hard force to fight. Iran, unlike Iraq, has spent the money and time in upgrading their fighting capacity. If I wanted to change the geopolitics that allowed the ideology of bin laden's of the world to flourish I would plan it the same way the American's had. Iraq, possibly followed with strategic strikes into Syria, then roll into Iran. By having US forces already in Iraq you can control the land, air and waterways surrounding Iran. Think about it, you have US forces on the ground in Afghanistan on one side, allied with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, on the other side you have US forces in Iraq and your controlling the waterway. The Israeli's can easily deal with Syria, and your forces are already on the ground in Iraq. Dissent in SA can then be dealt with internally. By surrounding Iran you cannot also effectively take control of the economy of Iran. A big plus when your fighting a war.

At 11:47 p.m., Blogger Declan said...

Excellent post Damian, I've been pretty pessimistic about the moral and political results from the war from the start and nothing has happened yet to change that view, but you do a very good job of staking out a reasonable pro-war position.

Here's hoping that some good can yet come of this mess. OK, to be fair, good things have already come from it, but what I mean is enough good to justify the enormous cost - I point I don't think we're approaching yet.

At 1:11 p.m., Blogger brent said...

In its defence, Turkey was in a difficult position as the only true Islamic ally of the United States.You forgot Albania.

The population is 70% Muslim/30% Christian, and they are a founding member of the "coalition of the willing."

What's more, the Albanians actually seem to like Americans.

Someday I'd like to visit this strange land where Muslims have a higher opinion of Americans than your average Torontonian does.

At 10:02 a.m., Blogger Mike H said...


As we’ve come to expect, you provide an excellent analysis of the complicated situation that is present day Iraq.

I do have a couple quibbles with your take on things, though.

First off, I think you’re being a little too hard on the Bush administration at times, particularly as your criticism relates to the question of U.S. intelligence and Iraq’s WMD. I’m not going to re-hash my views on the subject of WMD to any great extent. I think you know where I stand on it.

Suffice to say, I see the argument over the intelligence on WMD as more a question of the significance of the threat posed by Saddam’s possession of WMD in the post 9/11 world. As I’ve said before, the foundation for believing Saddam was still fanatically holding onto VX and anthrax, along with the expertise to re-start his WMD programmes to full capacity, comes not from the Bush case for war, but from U.N weapons inspections.

It should come as no surprise that the U.N. inspection process escapes all blame for the failure to find WMD after regime change. To blame them, or Clinton or any of the anti-war world politicians who opposed regime change, but had made earlier statements that Saddam was armed to the teeth, would water down the “ Bush lied “ crusade of the hard Left.

I think the Americans made a huge tactical error in believing there would be any WMD evidence left in Iraq after regime change to validate their main reason for invading. No one, I mean NO ONE, in the Bush administration seems to have realized that even if Saddam was still holding out on WMD, there was absolutely no reason for him to not destroy any and all remnants of his clandestine WMD programmes. The Americans had no PR strategy in place to deal with this obvious eventuality, and the damage it would inflict on their credibility.

I also disagree (respectfully, Monsieur Babbler!) with the premise that oil was a consideration of any kind in the decision to oust Saddam.

In order for oil to actually be a factor, there’s a simple test that needs to be applied; if Iraq wasn’t a major oil player, would it still have been invaded? In my view, the answer to that is an unequivocal yes. Obviously, if you accept that scenario, then oil wasn’t a factor.

We see a precedent for this viewpoint with regime change in Afghanistan. Despite the ridiculous attempts by Leftist lunatics of the Eric Margolis/Michelle Landsberg mindset to portray the invasion of Afghanistan as an oil motivated war, it’s obvious there was no economic benefit for the U.S in invading Afghanistan, but they did, for security reasons. The U.S made no attempt to invade and occupy Libya in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when it was a pariah state, blatantly supporting terrorism. An America that supposedly lusts for oil could have seized Libya’s oil under the guise of fighting terror, but we know it did not.

It’s always puzzled me why so many who support Bush’s foreign policy still buy into the propaganda created by the Left that the U.S. is not only paranoid about it’s oil supply, but has every reason to be, and thus it’s plausible that their actions in Iraq are motivated by oil.

The Americans are dramatically less dependent on Mid East oil than most other industrial nations, both established (France, Germany, Japan) and developing (India, China). Saudi Arabia is the only Mid East nation providing the U.S. with significant quantities of oil. The last time I checked, the U.S. was importing close to three times the oil from Canada, Mexico and Venezuela combined than it was from Saudi Arabia.

But that only tells part of the story. The U.S. still produces more than 40% of its own oil consumption, and has diversified its oil imports to include countries such as Britain, Norway, and Nigeria, to avoid dependence on any one supplier. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the production potential of the Alberta Oil Sands.

It is misleading in the extreme to suggest that the U.S. is obsessed with its future oil supply, and at the same time there is no evidence that France, Germany or Japan share a similar obsession. These countries have infinitely more cause to be concerned about their oil supply than the U.S. The reality is, they’re not, because they don’t need to be. Neither does the U.S.

The whole oil for war canard is yet another bogus premise created by the radical Left, which quickly falls apart upon any reasonable examination of the evidence. We’re asked to accept the Left’s accusation that Bush lied about Saddam’s capabilities, both conventional and unconventional. Saddam was a toothless tiger, they tell us. Well, if that’s the case, and Bush knew this all along, then there was no reason to have any concern about the security and reliability of Saudi crude exports, and therefore no need to remove Saddam over oil. The idea that the Americans would embark on a multi- hundred billion dollar colonial style takeover to abjectly steal Iraq’s oil is simply ludicrous.

While serious mistakes have been made by the Pentagon and the White House in post-regime change Iraq, I believe much of the criticism is exaggerated and motivated by an agenda to discredit Bush. It seems apparent that this insurgency was elaborately planned for before invasion, with huge amounts of weaponry and funding pre-positioned for later use. Syria and Iran were likely on board long before the first U.S. tank rolled across the border. I suspect the Americans could have done everything “ right “ after the end of conventional fighting and the formal end to Baathist rule, and they would still be dealing with a very problematic, effective insurgency.

I believe the main reason for invading Iraq was the “ drain the swamp “ analogy you allude to, Damian. I think WMD was a close second, and Bush and his advisors had an honest belief that it was out of the question, in a post 9/11 world, to allow Saddam to continue to possess and/or rebuild his WMD capabilities. Did they exaggerate the intelligence concerning WMD? Yes, but not to the extent the critics of regime change have claimed.

I’m only speculating what went on behind closed doors after 9/11, in the Pentagon and the White House. But my best guess is that Bush and his inner circle decided that the only way to avoid cataclysmic repeats of 9/11 was to roll back the irrational culture of hate in the Muslim world which bred the 9/11 terrorists.

I believe we’re in a race against time, to crush Islamic fundamentalism before it strikes the west in a manner that dwarfs 9/11. I’m talking about multiple WMD attacks. Approximately 6 months ago, al Qaeda released a statement through its official news arm, al Jazeera, claiming it had obtained suitcase size nuclear devices. The fact that al Qaeda was probably lying should comfort no one. It’s probably only a matter of time before they acquire these, or other WMD.

Democratizing the Muslim world (particularly the Arab component of it) seems to be our only hope of ending this threat. Simply put, we have to find a way to stop these people from wanting to kill us, because wanting to kill us is the only part of the equation the west has any real control over now. The means to kill us, in our homes, in our places of work and recreation, by the hundreds of thousands, is now out of our hands to preempt. The U.S. alone is such a vast, heavily populated, freedom of movement oriented society, that protecting their ports of entry alone from catastrophic, unconventional attack is impossible. Bush and his advisors have come to realize that the convergence of Islamic fascism and technology have placed us in greater peril than at any other time.

I believe they’ve opted for the right strategy, the only strategy. And you’re absolutely right Damian. We won’t know for years whether it will succeed.

What terrifies me is the fact that it might fail, even if the western democratic world puts forth its best effort.


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