"A War to Be Proud Of"

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That's Christopher Hitchens' summation of the current unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan. In The Weekly Standard, Hitchens gives no fewer than 10 reasons to grok that-which-is-not-Vietnam:

(1) The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention, has even gone to the trouble of naming his organization al Qaeda in Mesopotamia….

(4) The agreement by the United Nations that its own reform is necessary and overdue, and the unmasking of a quasi-criminal network within its elite….

(6) The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.

(7) The immense gains made by the largest stateless minority in the region–the Kurds–and the spread of this example to other states.

(8) The related encouragement of democratic and civil society movements in Egypt, Syria, and most notably Lebanon, which has regained a version of its autonomy….

(10) The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

Whole list here. Hitchens has always been a consistent humanitarian interventionist–essentially, he supported the invasion of Iraq for the same reasons he called for earlier and more decisive intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

As someone who was against invading Iraq but hopes the occupation will deliver something other quagmirism, I've got to say that I don't find most of his points as reasons to stand up and cheer. Yes, of course, it's great that Saddam is gone. But it's far from clear to me that it was the United States' (and it was primarily a U.S. action) responsibility to topple him–or that it was worth the lives of any Americans (why didn't we push harder to support indigenous insurrectionists both in Iraq and Iran–home-grown rebels whose success would have led to a stability so far eluding Iraq)? In claiming that UN reform (which will not happen anyway) is one of the boons of Iraq, Hitchens is really searching through the shit for a kernel of corn. Or that we can now be certain Saddam didn't actually have weapons of mass destruction–weren't inspections going on to determine just that? Etc. As important, the U.S. has emerged from this situation with just a vague and clueless a foreign policy as we've had since the end of the Cold War.

I think it's worth drawing an elemental distinction, too, between the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, which refused to turn over Bin Laden, and Iraq. The former was clearly defensible to all but the most extreme Islamists and Hate-America-Firsters. The latter is rightly seen as a far less clear-cut operation. And that's without asking questions about the reconstruction of Iraq, which virtually everyone acknowledges has been poorly planned to date.

NEXT: Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine

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  1. The UN inspectors on the ground were verifying that Saddam had disarmed. They may have been able to verify the post-war discovery of no WMD had they been allowed to continue their work with the full support of the international community.

    The Kurds have had great automony since the Gulf War I and it’s hard to see how they’re so much better off now. A Kurdish state could have been encouraged/created without a direct US intervention. The same thing can be said of an autonomous Shiite region in the south. The US could have easily separated Saddam from his oil money without a full scale invasion and occupation.

  2. The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat

    Is he saying its good that we had a “practice” war? Ugh.

    And… what are “the forces of nihilism and absolutism”?

  3. You know, I keep seeing the rightness of the invasion of Afghanistan treated as a foregon conclusion, and from a national-interest standpoint maybe it is, but I have to say, it’s a bit odd coming from the desk of a president who claims as his favorite political philosopher a man who I believe had quite a bit to say on the nobility of refusing to strike back, even if you had damn good cause. Now, I know that there are good arguments for the compatibility of certain kinds of use of force with Christian morality, but he didn’t name St. Augustine here.

  4. home-grown rebels whose success would have led to a stability so far eluding Iraq

    Or led to a bloody civil war that killed millions. Sheesh.

  5. Somewhere along the line, Hitchens was given the impression that we’ve declared some sort of global war against theocracy. Tell Dobson that.

    Anyway, getting near time for an intervention.

  6. Why is it assumed without argument that an indegenous insurrectionist movement would have resulted in greater stability? It seems more likely that whatever insurrectionist group took power would instantly be in civil war with the other factions.
    The UN had no credibility on the situation in Iraq, as they were functioning as paid agents of Saddam at levels all the way up to the Annan family.
    Realist, it’s hard to see how the Kurds are better off under their autonomy? Are you kidding me? Have you actually seen/read about the Iraqi “Kurdistan”? You don’t see how it’s better than what they had under Saddam?

  7. iw,

    The forces of nihilism and absolutism are those german guys from the Big Lebowski.

    What would we call that ideological battle? The War on Nothing and Everything?

  8. They may have been able to verify the post-war discovery of no WMD had they been allowed to continue their work with the full support of the international community.

    Sure, all they needed was another 12 years, right?

    The US could have easily separated Saddam from his oil money without a full scale invasion and occupation

    Yeah, because Saddam would have cheerfully given up his main source of power.

    You named yourself Realist?

  9. Of course they were Nazis.. they were nihilists! Do I have to draw you a picture here?

  10. (why didn’t we push harder to support indigenous insurrectionists both in Iraq and Iran–home-grown rebels whose success would have led to a stability so far eluding Iraq)

    So we could have averted a civil war by… starting a civil war? I’m not sure I follow this logic here.

  11. But it’s far from clear to me that it was the United States’ (and it was primarily a U.S. action) responsibility to topple him

    Doesn’t US support for Saddam’s rise to power and subsequent regime imply some responsibility, regardless of whatever national interest justification there might have been at the time?

  12. “. . .The forces of nihilism and absolutism are those german guys from the Big Lebowski.”

    “Its unfair?! What kind of nihilist are you?”

    I think that’s one of the best lines I’ve heard in movie.

  13. Granted that the last four wars that US has fought (Iraq I and II, Afghanistan, Panama) were against clients gone bad, taking responsibility for every badass we’ve sponsored at some point would involve far more fighting than even this administration contemplates.

  14. Grummun,

    If you want to play that card, you indict just about every government in history for which we have records. Making deals with the enemy of your enemy is nothing new to the world of politics; the US sure as hell didn’t invent or refine it. And even if it did, I’m not quite sure what you’re hoping to say about the US in that an erstwhile regional “ally” was later identified as a threat and taken out. It’s one thing to install a government in a foreign land, it’s quite different offer military and financial aid to an already established regime (which is what the Baath party in Iraq was, at the time of the famous Rummy handshake).

    That being said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good questions that need answerin’ about the Iraqity. I happen to think that, of all such questions, the most popular ones being asked are also some of the stupidest.

  15. “searching through the shit for a kernel of corn”

    Far more descriptive than “needle in a haystack” – I’ll have to use this one from now on.

  16. I noted to my amusement that Hitchens had managed to get through another article without using the word “Shibboleth”. Perhaps “Pellucidity” can be his new favorite word.
    More importantly, for god’s sake Christopher, please shave.

  17. (why didn’t we push harder to support indigenous insurrectionists both in Iraq and Iran–home-grown rebels whose success would have led to a stability so far eluding Iraq)

    Aside from that fact that this is a call for civil war, when generally the worst outcome anyone can see from the current situation is . . . civil war

    I mean, aside from that, after we called for indigenous insurrection in Iraq once already, and then stood aside while they were slaughtered, no sane Iraqi would answer our call for insurrection again.

    And when Saddam hit back, and the slaughtering started, again, would we sit back and let it happen, again, or would we go in? This time into the fully functioning civil war that we are now supposed to be avoiding at all costs?

  18. “(1) The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention, has even gone to the trouble of naming his organization al Qaeda in Mesopotamia….”

    I’m tryin’ to get my arms around the idea that we sacrificed almost 1,900 American lives and some 14,000 casualties to expose “highly suggestive links”, and that, having done so, the sacrifice was somehow worth it. Yes, I know, that’s why point number six, “the ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.” is so important.

    Still, proving that Iraq didn’t have WMD doesn’t justify the sacrifices we made either. I didn’t believe that Iraq didn’t have WMD–not even for a minuite; I was shocked to find out that they had abandoned WMD. …But my opposition to the Iraq War wasn’t about WMD per se, it was predicated on the idea that proving Hussein had what he said he didn’t have wasn’t worth the sacrifices required to prove it.

    How many American lives is it worth to prove that the Iranians or North Koreans have a nuclear program?

  19. I cannot say that I buy much of Hitchen’s argument, but his point about a Kurdish state is striking. As Realist noted above, the Kurds have enjoyed some level of autonomy since shortly after Gulf War I. On top of that, I hardly think that the Turks are happy about the concept of a Kurdish state. That country has a significant population of ethnic Kurds. They have reportedly feared the establishment of a Kurdish state in that it might raise more troubles within their own borders as well as possibly change the borders if Turkish Kurds wanted to merge with Iraqi Kurds in a new state.

  20. Why is it assumed without argument that an indegenous insurrectionist movement would have resulted in greater stability?

    I think you’re correct that this is bad assumption. I also think Iraq is a mess, and that the warning, “You break it, you bought it,” applies.

    I also think that Iraq has been a choice between the lesser of two evils that took years and years to create. Rumsfelds, “long hard slog” statement seems to be a way of saying what is the truth. It’s a dirty business, it’s undesireable, but needs doing.

    The problem for the Bush, or any, administration is that they need to sell (spin) the war. Saying things like, “this sucks, but we’ve gotta do it,” doesn’t make for good politics. Tell the truth and the other side will beat you with it. For example, it’s much better to triumphantly announce the success of the Iraqi Constitution, then to say, “things are still a mess and we’re working on it.”

    Kinda like the answering machine that says, “Your call is important to me…”

  21. In my view it’s not so much a “war to be proud of,” as a mess that needs cleaning up. There’s no reason that doing a good job with cleaning it can’t be something to be proud of, but they’ve already sold this as a crusade to save Iraqis, to stabilize the middle east, in the name of freedom, to stop terrorism, to prevent weapons proliferation, and on and on. All of which are a lot more sexy, as reasons go, then being the worlds custodian.

  22. “All of which are a lot more sexy, as reasons go, then being the worlds custodian.”

    I don’t think “sexy” is the question. Americans won’t support a war with the justifcation that we’re the world’s janitor.

  23. Replacing Washington on the dollar bill: Pat Harrington in red, white and blue, arrows and olive branches in his tool belt–
    Uncle Schneider

  24. A Kurdish state could have been encouraged/created without a direct US intervention. The same thing can be said of an autonomous Shiite region in the south.

    Kurdish and Shiite states were only possible with American and British air cover.

  25. So, the government knows best, and is justified in making misleading statements if that furthers the objectives of our wise leaders. Makes sense to me.

  26. Don: And Saddam repeatedly attacked those aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, in defiance of the treaty that ended his invasion of Kuwait. But why allow facts to overrule feelings…Bush lied, after all? Or at least that’s what I’ve been hearing.

  27. I think it’s worth drawing an elemental distinction, too, between the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, which refused to turn over Bin Laden, and Iraq. The former was clearly defensible to all but the most extreme Islamists and Hate-America-Firsters.

    Though neither an Islamist nor a hate-America-firster, I have several reasons for not finding the attack on Afghanistan “defensible”

    1. The end never justifies the means. The means here were several killed Afghanis.

    2. The attack was not self-defense. The (stated) goal was to capture bin Laden.

    3. Bin Laden has not been captured. So even if the end did justify the means, there’s no end to justify anything.

    4. Afghanistan has not been “deTalibanised”. The Taliban and other “bad guys” hold sway over most of the territory of Afghanistan. Karzai looks great in his robes, but his government doesn’t control much outside Kabul.

    5. Opium production remains strong, despite a “drop” in the area under cultivation.

    6. Two American soldiers were recently sentenced to two months and three months respectively. They were “convicted of abusing two Afghan prisoners who later died.”

    7. Guantanamo.

    8. American soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan.

    It seems to me that the US has made a mess of Afghanistan. An indefensible mess.

  28. “And Saddam repeatedly attacked those aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, in defiance of the treaty that ended his invasion of Kuwait.”

    Wow, Dynamist, how many Americans did that kill and maim?

    RC, why so certain that an indigenous uprising would end in civil war? You certainly aren’t suggesting that “those people” aren’t ready for democracy, are you?

  29. And Saddam repeatedly attacked those aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, in defiance of the treaty that ended his invasion of Kuwait. But why allow facts to overrule feelings…Bush lied, after all?

    The fact that both are true is one of the things that makes this rather complicated.

  30. “And Saddam repeatedly attacked those aircraft enforcing the no-fly zone, in defiance of the treaty that ended his invasion of Kuwait. But why allow facts to overrule feelings…Bush lied, after all?”

    I find this line of reasoning, quite frankly, perplexing. It’s as if someone suggested that 1,900 dead Americans, 14,000 American casualties and a gazillion tax dollars were all well spent because it was the only way to eliminate the Hussein threat to coalition aircraft. Am I supposed to think that was a bargain?

    …To me, whether Hussein broke any treaties is beside the point. When the Iraq War started, I wanted to know if what we were going to get by winning was worth the sacrifices we were about to make. Now that it’s over, I want to know if what we got was worth the sacrifices we made. Whether what we did was legal or within the bounds of some treaty, etc. doesn’t matter much to me…

    …I want to know if what we did was smart.

  31. RC, why so certain that an indigenous uprising would end in civil war?

    It wouldn’t “end” in civil war, joe. It would be a civil war from day one. By definition.

  32. I’m actually a lot closer to the neo-cons on the issue of “humanitarian interventions” than most of the anti-war posters here. I supported Clinton’s actions in Bosnia and in Kosovo. Hell, I thought it was a good idea to help guard food convoys in Somialia (didn’t like the mission creep, though). I consider Clinton and Albright’s refusal to intervene in Rwanda to be one of the most disgraceful failures in recent American history – so much for “Never Again,” eh? And while I mainly supported the Afghan invasion on straight anti-terror grounds, I also thought it was beneficial from a democracy-and-human rights perspective as well.

    But any honest evaluation of the Iraq War from this perspective has to count the operation as a net loss. This war has made it virtually impossible that we will ever be able to gain the political support, either domestically or internationally, for any more such missions in the near or medium term. Too bad, Darfur. Best of luck, eastern Congo. Hasta la bye bye, Burma.

    Does anyone remember the professor who said he wanted to see “a million Mogadishus?” Great job, Iraq hawks, you gave them to him. But just as long as you feel superior to those of us who saw this sort of thing coming, I guess that’s all that matters.

  33. I usually like Nick’s writing even when I disagree, but on this one he’s way way off.

    Just imagine the undisciplined Shia and Kurd militias storming through Sunni territory wreaking vengeance on the civilians for 30 years of oppression.

    And that’s after Saddam’s regime exacts a toll probably in the millions on its way out, assuming he could be forced out at all. Remember, he had 400,000 tons of conventional weapons, and latent WMD production capabilities as well.

    The Afghan recipe of supporting rebels could not have worked. The Baathists made the Taliban look like playful kittens, and were far better armed. It would be a bloodbath, and make our current occupation look like a cakewalk.

  34. Tall Dave,

    “But it’s far from clear to me that it was the United States’ (and it was primarily a U.S. action) responsibility to topple him–or that it was worth the lives of any Americans (why didn’t we push harder to support indigenous insurrectionists both in Iraq and Iran–home-grown rebels whose success would have led to a stability so far eluding Iraq)?

    Speaking for myself, I hold our leaders responsible for the lives of the American troops under their command. If the objective was to remove Hussein from power, would it not have been preferable if we could have achieved that objective without a loss of American life?

    I care about the Iraqi people. I can show you old comments where I came out big against dropping bombs on them. …but it isn’t clear to me that protecting them from the dangers of life under a vicious dictator necessitates the sacrifice of the lives and limbs of American troops.

    …And who’s to say that the Shiites won’t eventually retaliate in a big way anyway? (Some of Sadr’s people appear to be doing that already) Who’s to say the Shiites won’t use all the brutality they can muster to try to put down the insurgency?

    I don’t know who speaks for the Iraqi people on whether the American invasion was worth it. I know it isn’t George W. Bush. If the Iraqi people are someday grateful for the invasion, well that’ll be just peachy. …but I’m primarily concerned with what’s best for the American people, and I expect that to be the primary concern of our leadership also.

    …and it isn’t clear to me that what little we got out of this war couldn’t have been gotten in some other way. …Some way that didn’t cost the lives and limbs of so many Americans.

  35. The point, which joe doesn’t want to acknowledge, is that the invasion of Kuwait was never settled or completed. The patrols which Saddam sought to interrupt were protecting the lives of the Kurds and Sunnis who would have, in joe’s fantasy world, somehow ousted Saddam without further inciting the Salafi/Wahabbi jihad. Ol’ joe has almost fleshed out an alternate history that would basically put us exactly where we are now: pissing off terrorists by intervening in the affairs of the sons of Muhammed. Brilliant.

    Les gets close to my outlook. There are too many interwoven complications for either end of the simpleton spectrum to fairly represent the situation. People of principle (whatever those principles may be) are given the choice of when the principles are suffciently violated to take a stand. The UN (led by the corrupt powers of Europe) were apparently comfortable having their resolutions mocked. The Coalition of the Willing (led by the corrupt US administration) decided the risk of appeasement had become to great. I see truth in both views, but have greater respect for those who act upon their principles and take responsibility for it. GWB staked his reelection on choosing war, and he got 4 million more votes than Team Appeasement.

  36. … the invasion of Kuwait was never settled or completed

    That’s my view. I think we bought this whole thing back on the first go round.

    The great failing, to my mind, was a policy that basically made life miserable for the population in the hopes that it would make the leader go away. Kinda like Castro.

    It’s probably what Pat Robertson want us to do to Venezuela. I mean, once you get past the surface of what he said.

  37. joe said:
    “I’m actually a lot closer to the neo-cons on the issue of “humanitarian interventions” than most of the anti-war posters here.”

    As usual, I’m with you, joe. The trouble–and I’m pretty sure you agree–is that the interventions are assumed to be by governments rather than “intelligent designers” such as ourselves.
    I mean it’s like the myth of Tantalus… so close while so far.

    If humanitarian interventions were ever to “fly,” it would be thanks to anarchy, the pixie dust Peter Pan and I peddle.

  38. If one sees it that we bought the whole thing back in 1991, the “we” gets much bigger than USA/UK. We (the world) bought the puzzle when we pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. Now most of the world is content to let the USA pay for a solution while they incessantly carp about Bush putting the pieces together poorly.

    Robertson, I think, suggested an assassination of Chavez. That’s a pinpoint use of force that still puts the burden of a solution on a miserable population. But it probably gets them to the civil war phase more quickly, and without direct USA casualties. It might be smart, but sure seems even less ethical than invading/liberating.

  39. “I see truth in both views, but have greater respect for those who act upon their principles and take responsibility for it. GWB staked his reelection on choosing war, and he got 4 million more votes than Team Appeasement.”

    I’m not sure I get the appeasment reference. In what way, exactly, did the opponents of the Iraq War appease Saddam Hussein?

    …You make it sound like he annexed the Sudetenland.

  40. Ken: I’m playing on the notion of Kerry understanding the nuances like the Europeans allegedly do. I don’t accept his medal-tossing antiwar phase as being over. Did he vote for the invasion of Iraq, or against it? And in which order?

    You gotta figure that if Saddam had any friendly neighbors, he would have annexed them. Instead, he had to go invade Poland. (It’s not a perfect analogy; attacking Iran came first and that feels more like Hitler trying to snatch Alsace from France)

  41. (It’s not a perfect analogy; attacking Iran came first and that feels more like Hitler trying to snatch Alsace from France)

    Remind me. Which American country supported Iraq against Iran in that war? Are you accusing the US of being USSResque?

  42. “A War to Be Proud Of”

    Everything is going according to plan.

  43. “The point, which joe doesn’t want to acknowledge, is that the invasion of Kuwait was never settled or completed.”

    That’s funny, I thought the point was to prevent one of “the world’s most dangerous regimes” from “threatening us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

    Then I thought the point was to stop all those jihadist terror groups that were crashing on Saddam’s couch.

    Then I though the point was to send 150,000 highly trained American troops to stand around as serve as flypaper.

    Then I thought that the point was to create Switzerland on the Tigris, so all the other Muslims could see what they’re missing.

    But now, apparently, the point was to defend the honor of the UN.

    Damn, you really are dynamic, aren’t you?

  44. Appeasement, throwing medals, 4 million more votes…you, Dynamist, are out of arguments.

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