Monday, December 04, 2006


Andy inspires me to a familiar argument:

If you're wondering why we're in Afghanistan or why we (Canadians) should be in Iraq, it is more than anything because we need to counter the notion that all this is feeding on...that the West will risk nothing in defence of its supposed "ideals". Even if one were to concede (in hindsight) that the Iraq invasion wasn't the best thing to do in 2003, it is crucial not to give up now. The establishment, there and in Afghanistan, of moderate, prosperous and democratic Islamic societies is still possible, and one of our last best hopes for a "sustainable" world.

My first complaint is about the parenthetical to the subjunctive concession. Whatever the epistemic benefits of hindsight, they are unnecessary for the conclusion that there exists at least one possible world in which the benefit/cost ratio of the invasion of Iraq, net of opportunity costs, is less than unity. What we know now, we could have known then.

The Pithlord wasted a good deal of time in '02-'03 arguing with Iraq War supporters, so everything about that era -- its music, its fashions and its bar debates -- remains impressed on my memory. Two things stand out in particular:

1. Everybody in the whole world (except the Anglophone centre and right) predicted disaster, more-or-less of the kind that occurred. Hippies did. Gaullists did. Andean peasants, Buchananite reactionaries, John Paul II, Al Gore, the career US military, pulp novelists, realist IR professors and pissy arts students all saw this one coming. I know it's kind of embarrassing for the English-speaking right to admit that they didn't have the foreign policy chops of the Berkeley Women Studies' department, but them's the facts.

2. When one argued with Anglophone righties back in the day, one could almost see them twitch with anticipation of being proven right against all of the persons mentioned in point #1 above. Their narratives of Churchill and Reagan were not really attempts to understand the present in light of the past, but the sweet anticipation of being a vindicated minority (albeit one in possession of the world's only military superpower). If Afghanistan's #1 problem right now was a sense of bourgeois ennui, I can't imagine them taking well to talk of "hindsight being 20/20." No, they would demand nothing less than acknowlegment that History had proven them right.

OK, on to less petty points. Andy's claim is that (a) demography is (if present trends continue) going to deal enormous power to the Islamic world that it currently doesn't have, and therefore (b) it is worth taking risks now so that they will be boring pacifists in fifty years.

Point (a) is impossible to refute altogether. But I doubt that we will see an Islamic ascendancy. If you want to worry about civilizational challenges to the West, I'd still bet on China. Having lots of people -- divided by country, confession and ethnicity -- is not power in the contemporary world.

True, you don't need to be a rival civilization to explode a nuclear device in a major Western city. But you don't need a demographic boom to do that either.

Moderate, prosperous and democratic Islamic societies would be nice. Domesticating Islam -- making it more liberal and bourgeois (which, for now, conflicts with making it more democratic) -- is a good thing. But conservatives are supposed to be the people who ask not whether a project is well-intentioned, but whether it will work. Reducing poverty among the working poor is a good thing -- but the minimum wage might not be. Best alternative technology standards for auto emissions may have negative effects if they price out new cars. Could it be possible that ill-thought out attempts to "democratize" a culture North Americans see no reason to try to learn the first thing about could have even worse effects?

To the extent anyone can make anyone else more bourgeois, it is by doing business with them. If we occupy and militarize, then we give power to precisely the undemocratic, extremists forces of anti-prosperity.

Those were just arguments three years ago. Now they are experience.

As for our reputation for the future, every power in the world suffers defeats. Better to suffer smaller ones than bigger ones, so it is better to cut losses now than later. We should fulfill our commitments in Afghanistan. The US should make sure that the Kurds' security is guranteed (it has no other real allies in Iraq). But we should get clarity about what we are fighting for, and what we are not.

Update: Here is a September 2002 paid announcement in the New York Times setting out the realist case against the war. The key bullet point is, "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state."

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