Looking Backward

|

Andrew Sullivan has a long meditation on what Abu Ghraib (and the state of affairs in Iraq more generally) means for war supporters. He still comes out as a supporter of the war, "but only just." An admirably frank appraisal from a prominent hawk.

NEXT: Self-Flattery Blues

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. remember your history
    “Beyond the Euphrates began for us the land of mirage and danger, the sands where one helplessly sank, and the roads which ended in nothing. The slightest reversal would have resulted in a jolt to our prestige giving rise to all kinds of catastrophe; the problem was not only to conquer but to conquer again and again, perpetually; our forces would be drained off in the attempt.”

    Emperor Hadrian AD 117-138

  2. Thomas Luedeke: “miraculously remake a bunch of 7th century barbarians into a “democracy””

    Ah. So the US is failing because Iraqis are 7th century barbarians…

  3. The primary piece of foolishness I hear from other war supporters is the theory of shining beacon of democracy or bust. Sullivan leaves out detrrence, which is to me the primary purpose of this war. Whether or not it is worth staying around until we have a shining beacon of democracy is a matter of costs and benefits. There is enormous value just in the killing people and breaking things that our military does well.

    Coming from a different perspective than Tim, I agree that any war supporter had to understand how messy the reconstruction would be. I do not agree that the US actions at Abu Gharib and other prisons are just one more instance of mis management in an overall effort doomed to failure. Unlike the complexity of ethnic and religous power struggles, this one is all on us. These are our crimes committed intentionally by those who bear the symbols of our country. These crimes are NOT an inevitable consequence of this conflict. This is NOT in any way connected to giving Halliburton a contract or excluding France from the rebuilding contracts.

    We sought to establish two major points in this conflict: 1) We will throw the most powerful military force in the history of the world at you if we perceive you to be a significant threat. It is therefore not advisable to act like a threat. 2) We are not coming to create an empire and enslave your fellow citizens. We are interested in removing the threat and, if possible, helping to replace the tyranny we destroyed with something that allows you to live in relative freedom. The military intelligence, officers, and those who followed orders will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans because of their willful disregard for the cost to our credibility resulting from their actions. They may have effectively destroyed the second message, which means that the man on the ground has no reason to believe that we are in fact trying to remove a tyrant rather than enslave him.

  4. Yo Joe!! (Yes, I watched the GI Joe cartoon in grade school)

    Kuros says remember your history: Joe, Bosnia was much different in outcome because we took the Kissingerian approach…we bombed the Serbs so the alliance between the Croats and Muslims could take effect and they could rearm, thereby deterring futher Serbian aggression. This created a new equilibrium of power and a marginal redawing of the map.

    Clinton’s goals in Bosnia were fairly minor, i.e., get p.r. stains (pardon the pun) like Srebrenica off TV screens and the whole thing off the table as a political issue…

    It seems like Bush is going in the opposite direction….

  5. Jason Ligon,

    As long as the US remains in Iraq, and Iraq remains a tinderbox, they have essentially destroyed the first message as well. Furthermore, the first message may also be nullified by an inability to take such an action again in the future – be it based on domestic restraints, etc. It can be argued that the Bush administration “blew America’s load” in Iraq, and that in doing so the U.S. is weaker today than it was before the war. Why am I thinking of “Dr. Strangelove?” 🙂

  6. Gary:

    “As long as the US remains in Iraq, and Iraq remains a tinderbox, they have essentially destroyed the first message as well.”

    I disagree on this point. To me, it is very important to remember who we are trying to deter. This was a military action that was necessary to depose one man. Such is the nature of the tin pot dictatorship. The government is not connected to the people. He is only one man. The establishment of a credible military threat means instilling the belief in each of the regional tyrants that we will go after THEM if need be. On this front, Saddam doesn’t care at all what happens now. He is gone. That is a lesson all by itself.

    Is it better to topple and leave? I don’t know, but I think that is a separate question.

    As for the blowing of our load, we have at least established that we aren’t, well, impotent. Our inaction in the face of direct attacks over the previous 12 years led OBL to preach that we would NEVER respond. It is hard to make that argument now, and that is powerful stuff.

  7. I do not agree that the US actions at Abu Gharib and other prisons are just one more instance of mis management in an overall effort doomed to failure.

    No, but atrocities are inevitable in war and the presumption that things like this would happen should have been part of the so-called debate over whether to invade. A prudent person would have expected that one of the results of invading Iraq would be plenty of incidents that make the United States look really, really bad. If you considered that and still thought the war was worth it, good on you-as long as you considered that. In for a penny in for a pound. If Sullivan is reconsidering his pro-war position, I welcome his return to the world of common sense. But I’m not going to excuse his self-deceptions or take seriously a show of indignation that says less about the administration’s “failures” than it does about Sully’s own innocence of how the world works.

  8. “These crimes are NOT an inevitable consequence of this conflict.”

    I agree, THESE crimes were not inevitable. But SOME crimes, SOME dead innocents, and SOME atrocities of sufficient horror and regularity as to engender the protests and hate we’re seeing were absolutely inevitable consequences of this invasion.

    Jason, the difference between tipping the balance in favor of a friendly, reasonably liberal power (as was done twice in frmr Yugoslavia) and hoping one will spring up from the bare soil (Iraq) is a one very apt distinction to draw.

  9. “A prudent person would have expected that one of the results of invading Iraq would be plenty of incidents that make the United States look really, really bad.”

    “Things that make us look bad” is a big, fat category that, to me, encompasses plenty of things we should be doing and plenty that we shouldn’t. When going to Afghanistan, we should have the same discussions in that so-called debate, I suppose. Some elements don’t see us as friendly, there will be not only innocent Afghanistani deaths but inevitable friendly fire incidents. There is a fog of war, especially this kind of low-intensity conflict with mixed ethnic groups and in cities.

    To throw up your hands and say, “Well, everybody SHOULD know that either we’d mis-target and kill a number of civilians or our troops would intentionally sodomize POWs. After all, atrocities are atrocities and these are all things that make us look bad,” sort of misses an important level of detail that may dictate the overall success of the mission.

    Aside from that, there is an unwarranted moral smugness in the case you and joe make for non-intervention. The argument goes that, so long as we take no action, we have no culpability. Hey, we aren’t the world’s policeman and this isn’t our job, right? Right. Just make sure that in your calculus, you include all of the people that die in chains while you watch from on high.

    No, I’m not saying that we are morally obligated to rid the world of evil. I am saying that we have a degree of complicity in every inhumane act that we could stop and choose not to. Choosing to sit at home and watch is a choice with repercussions, just as is choosing to go and fight. In net we may increase misery or we may decrease it, but we can’t argue that sitting on our hands is some sort of shield against responsibility.

    If you want to talk about losses to US prestige vs. increases in security, or even losses to US prestige with no increase in security, that is great. I perfectly understand a utilitarian analysis of consequences to us only. The argument that military actions are doomed to result in ‘something bad’ because ‘that is the way the world really works’ seems a bit unappreciative of the the way the world really works when only tyrants use armies.

  10. “Jason, the difference between tipping the balance in favor of a friendly, reasonably liberal power (as was done twice in frmr Yugoslavia) and hoping one will spring up from the bare soil (Iraq) is a one very apt distinction to draw.”

    Let’s suppose for a moment that there were a reason for going into Iraq that you found compelling, as was the case for me.

    The removal of Saddam should be followed by the immediate withdrawal of US troops, because there is no hope for a liberal democracy there?

    I’m not even saying that I necessarily disagree, but I am pointing out that there is a difference between the reason and likely outcome of an attempt to topple Saddam and the reason and likely outcome of an ambitious rebuilding plan.

    The apt difference is that it is more difficult in Iraq. So the solution is … ?

  11. When going to Afghanistan, we should have the same discussions in that so-called debate, I suppose.

    Invading Afghanistan was necessary. Invading Iraq wasn’t.

    To throw up your hands and say, “Well, everybody SHOULD know that either we’d mis-target and kill a number of civilians or our troops would intentionally sodomize POWs. After all, atrocities are atrocities and these are all things that make us look bad,” sort of misses an important level of detail that may dictate the overall success of the mission.

    Rape, abuse, and mistreatment of POWs happen on every side, in every war. When you make the decision to go to war you make the decision that stuff like this will happen and in some cases your own people will be guilty of it. That so many people seem to have thought it was possible to do this war without getting their hands dirty just demonstrates that the warmongers are frivolous, untutored, and lacking in (to use a favorite warmonger term) “moral seriousness.”

  12. Jason Ligon says:
    “I am saying that we have a degree of complicity in every inhumane act that we could stop and choose not to.”

    After the Tienanmen Square Massacre, the US did not invade China. Should we have?

    I have a book for sale on the North Korean Gulag. President Bush seems to be negotiating with North Korea, rather than planning to topple Kim Jong Il. What would you advise the President to do?

    Both China & North Korea have nuclear weapons – and they pose a greater threat to us than Iraq ever did. Jason, why do you spend so much time defending the President’s failed policy in Iraq, rather than lobbying for a pre-emptive strike against China & North Korea. Are you a secret sympathizer with Asian Communism?

  13. Gene,

    “After the Tienanmen Square Massacre, the US did not invade China. Should we have?”

    Never saw THAT coming. I say again, if you choose to watch an atrocity, you have a moral culpability to the extent you could have stopped it.

    Making the case that it is difficult or costly to fight for a good is not the same as arguing that you have no accountability for anything that happens around you as long as you sit on your ass. That is a morality of convenience.

    Also, I have not ever made the claim that suffering in Iraq is in and of itself a compelling reason to involve ourselves in something of this magnitude. Your argument, as do 99% of the arguments of the anti war crowd, takes any given contributing factor and pretends that I must therefore support a war against any foe if any one of those factors are present at any time. Like joe says of Kerry’s war position, mine is nuanced.

    I am not comfortable with the ease with which some exonerate themselves of culpability by saying that ‘Those aren’t OUR atrocities.’ The reality is that a known butcher will commit x atrocities for the duration of his reign while you watch, and an intervention may involve y misdirected attacks and, to hear Tim tell it, z amount of inevitable sodomy. My point is that your hands aren’t clean when you choose to stay home – you are choosing x.

  14. Interesting. Any chance that Sullivan’s views on the war are being changed by his views on Bush which are being changed by Bush’s support of DOMA?

  15. Sullivan’s is pretty much the only blog I look at with anything like regularity. I’d say so far he has managed to draw a pretty bright line between his support for George W on the war and his opposition on the DOMA. You’re right in your focus: 99 times out of 100, what poses as a principled stance on an issue is really something from the darker regions of the heart (for all of us, that is, not just Sully), but in this case I don’t think there’s much evidence that that’s the case.

    I do, however, question the basic intelligence of somebody who says he knows now something he really didn’t know before the war. What do these people think happens when you send troops into a foreign country? And I won’t let any of the war supporters get away with that pathetic “postwar mismanagement” excuse. What the war supporters have to acknowledge isn’t that the war has been a failure, but that it has been a much greater success than any prudent person could have expected.

  16. Isn’t the collapse of the WMD house of cards another argument put forth by the anti-war side that Sullivan should be conceding? He admits we were right about the administration’s incompetence, dishonesty, and arrogance, but not that we were right about the non-threat of Iraqi munitions?

    “(The Abu Gharib episode) has turned the image of this war into the war that the America-hating left always said it was: a brutal, imperialist, racist occupation, designed to humiliate another culture.” Actually, the need to be brutal, to take our rightful place as an Empire, and to humiliate the inferior Islamic culture are not merely the imaginings of the “America-hating left.” All three ideas were repeatedly and explicitly argued for in publications like National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Sullivan himself may not have made them (though as far as humiliating Islamic culture to shock it into modernity, he’s come awfully close), but when you like down with dogs…

  17. Sullivan has a tendency toward the dramatic: things are never nearly as perfect and bright nor catastrophic and hopeless as he says they are.

  18. Give me a break, Julian, you give Sullivan way to much credit for noticing the egg on his face.

    Andrew Sullivan is a fool for even thinking that our country would go over there and miraculously remake a bunch of 7th century barbarians into a “democracy” (whatever that is supposed to mean). It was just another step in the inevitable American empire and failed “nation-building” (again, whatever that is supposed to mean). Afghanistan was necessary, Iraq was a completely optional adventure.

    I’d be a lot more impressed if someone would advocate quit mucking around the world in a blantant misuse of our military, pull in our criminally overstretched defense perimeter to *our* country (i.e. not Iraq, not China, not Korea, not ….), and actually serve their Constitutional function of protecting *us*. Unfortunately, that’s the LAST thing anyone is advocating…

    TPL

  19. TPL, how does your vision of things distinguish between Kosovo/Bosnia on the one hand, and Iraq on the other?

    The outcomes have been dramatically different, yet I don’t see anything in your post that could explain such a thing.

  20. In my continuing efforts to become a Good Conservative, I’m going to blame the State Department and the liberal media for the prisoner abuse scandal. Since it is self-evident that those 2 institutions are always wrong about everything I don’t need to offer any evidence, and it spares me the trouble of having to assign blame elsewhere 🙂

  21. You’re going slack, t. You call that absurb exaggeration? Actual respected conservative commentators are on record blaming the events on feminism, porn, and “the academic left.” Next to these ideas, yours look like 2+2=4.

    You’re going to have to push it a lot farther than that if your want people to realize you’re being sarcastic.

  22. “The argument goes that, so long as we take no action, we have no culpability.”

    That is not my argument; I’ll let Tim describe his own views.

    My argument is that, when you order a fire company into a fully engulfed building, you’d better be damn sure they can actually save the people, and that you aren’t just sending them to pointless deaths. Had there been a reasonable opportunity of making Iraq better, and very little chance of making it worse, I might have supported the invasion. But the administration’s determination not to lay the groundwork that might have made that possible, and strut around in the confidence that they didn’t have their muddled heads up their lily-asses, made the likely outcome of this fiasco apparent to me. I cannot understand why otherwise intelligent people thought it would turn out any better than it has. Emotional post 9-11 rally around the flag wishful thinking, I guess.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.