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August 7, 2002

Topic A Lots about Iraq lately. Here’s Electrolite’s unscientific selection.

Bruce Baugh challenges the idea that “humiliating” militant Islam will get us what we want:

Possibly I’m just projecting from my own personal experience of the world, but I’ve never found that humiliating others helps me get anywhere in the long run, nor have I found that being humiliated made me inclined to admit defeat or accept the agenda my humiliator wanted to foist on me.
Nick Denton disagrees:
The Arab world has long felt humiliated, it’s already dangerous. If you are going to defeat your enemy, do so conclusively, as the US and UK defeated Germany in the Second World War.
Joshua Micah Marshall asks:
Is it possible that regime change by force is the right thing to do, but that this administration is inclined to do it in such a reckless, ill-conceived and possibly disastrous manner that, under these circumstances, it is better not to do it at all? …This is a question I’ve recently been asking myself. And I don’t find it easy to answer.
Marshall’s biggest concern is with this Administration’s willingness to handle the difficulties that would immediately ensue after a military victory:
What you’re talking about is really an army of occupation and reconstruction — more on the order of post-war Germany or Japan, than Bosnia or Kosovo. Ideally a substantial number of these troops would come from NATO and other well-situated Muslim countries. […] Unfortunately, it is very difficult to suppose that the Bush administration has the stomach for an operation of such scope or duration.
Chris Bertram, who supported the invasion of Afghanistan, wants the Iraq hawks to directly answer a couple of questions:
[D]o they believe (unlike me) that the traditional conditions for just war are met for Iraq (conditions including just cause, last resort and reasonable prospect of success) or do they reject those conditions? And if they do reject those conditions which criteria would they adopt instead?
Eric Alterman provides a historical reminder that will make committed hawks roll their eyes and claw the ground. Read it anyway.

And Jim Henley has several posts on the subject, all of them worth your time. Was someone comparing Iraq to World War II Germany and Japan?

The sheer vainglory of the Iraq/Germany-Japan comparison is one of the enduring follies of the Iraq hawks. As UO has noted before, quite apart from the cultural issues, both Germany and Japan were staring down the barrel of a far worse fate than US occupation - conquest by the Soviet Union. There was something worse out there to worry them. Here in Monopolarworld, there is no comparable threat.
On the surreal news (quickly brushed off by US government spokesthings) that the Defense Policy Board entertained a presentation from a consultant arguing that Saudi Arabia is our real enemy:
Naturally, the notion that the Saudis are really our enemies is supposed to be a reason to conquer Iraq. The concept that, if the Saudis are really our enemies, one can just deal directly with them was apparently considered too complicated for the DPB.
Henley gets the last word for now:
The strongest argument for attacking Saddam is one that the government dare not make, but a commenter on [someone’s] site did. Unqualified Offerings is finding itself utterly unable to find the damn thing. So here’s a paraphrase:
Saddam was a rational actor, but defeat in the Gulf War, the sanctions regime and the use of UNSCOM personnel to foster covert ops aimed at his removal have been the geopolitical equivalent of teasing a dog with a stick - actually it’s been the equivalent of teasing a dog with a stick while saying, “I’m going to kill you soon.” The US has made a mad dog, yes, but now there’s no alternative but to shoot it, while resolving to do better next time.
There is no better argument Unqualified Offerings has seen for taking on the expense of blood and treasure necessary to conquer Iraq and try to remake it into something sustainable. But even this argument ignores something crucial: This is the middle east we’re talking about. Making up after determinedly trying to kill each other is Chapter 3 in the “How to Be a Regional Despot” book. Syria fought (half-heartedly) with the Coalition in Gulf War I. The latest word is that Syria is covertly supplying Iraq with military hardware. Saddam may or may not have intended the conquest of Saudi Arabia in 1990 when he conquered Kuwait. Saudi-Iraqi relations are as warm as they’ve been in years. Iran and Iraq are “ancient enemies.” Iran just turned down a secret Iraqi request to buy weapons, according to the London Times, but what’s significant is that Iraq even thought it worth asking. Jordan’s King Hussein vocally supported Iraq during the Gulf War, and made no protest when Iraq fired token missiles through his airspace at Israel. Within four years he had signed a formal peace treaty with Israel.

Say this for your Arab tyrants. They try not to take stuff personally.

[04:12 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Topic A:

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2002, 05:22 PM:

"Say this for your Arab tyrants. They try not to take stuff personally."

They can't afford to, most of them are clinging to power by a thread.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2002, 05:24 PM:

Some valid points made in this entry, to be sure (and some not so valid). I particularly found the last paraphrase of a summary horribly off-the-mark.

"Saddam was a rational actor" but "the US has made a mad dog"?

Exhibit A:

A comprehensive profile of Saddam Hussein by Atlantic Monthly. Of particular interest is the section on Hussein's purging of traitors once he took power in 1978, via "confessions" obtained under torture, trial by kangaroo, and taping their mouths shut so they wouldn't protest in front of a firing squad.

Exhibit B:

The recent New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg detailing the horrors of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein.

Yeah, *we* made Hussein into a mad dog with sanctions and saber-rattling.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2002, 05:35 PM:

I think you may be reading a little hastily.

First, Jim was trying to summarize one of several different viewpoints, not his own.

Second, the question isn't whether Saddam is or isn't vicious and brutal; the question is whether he's a "rational actor" (i.e., someone who will behave to protect himself, in a reasonably predictable way) or a "mad dog", i.e., someone who might do anything, no matter what the logic of deterrence and self-protection might seem to dictate.

I've read the Atlantic piece, and quite a bit else; I don't think anyone, on any side of this argument, is arguing that Saddam Hussein isn't a violent, sadistic son of a bitch -- or that, if he is, the US bears some particular responsibility for making him that way.

The viewpoint Jim was summarizing (again, not Jim's own) argues that the US may have driven Saddam from being a rational, deterrable vicious killer, to being an unhinged, undeterrable vicious killer.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2002, 06:19 PM:

I don't think I read too hastily or misunderstood the argument (and yes, I realized that it wasn't Henley's argument in the first place).

It just seems futile to try to determine the level of predictability of a particular agent's actions, and doubly specious to blame any modulation in that level of predictability on the actions of the U.S.

It seems much more reasonable to weigh the case on the facts, and the most important fact is that Iraq hasn't complied with UN resolutions for weapons inspections in four years. I personally wouldn't support military action without a clear ultimatum (let the inspectors in, unfettered) and a clear deadline.

I don't think we have a mandate to destroy Saddam, no matter how much we would like to see him disappear. Worst-case scenario, we should give the ultimatum, if refused invade and occupy to force compliance with weapons inspections, and put Saddam on trial for war crimes (if he can be taken alive).

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 07, 2002, 07:46 PM:

I don't think it's "futile" to discuss the predictability of someone's actions based on what they've done in the past. In fact, I think it's questionable to condemn "try[ing] to determine the level of predictability of a particular agent's actions" and then immediate declare we should "weigh the case on the facts" -- as if "the facts" were a set of hard-edged Lego blocks easily distinguished from wooly speculation. The fact is, the history of what Saddam has done and the history of how we dealt with it and how he subsequently responded are a part of "the facts."

Like you, I don't buy the "America turned Saddam into an irrational actor, so now we have to take him out" argument. And I don't think your skepticism about a war on Iraq and my own are all that different. But you seem to think some lines of discussion are "futile" which I don't.

Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2002, 11:24 AM:

From a European POV, Saddam is no poster-child; anyone who's read Samir al-Khalil's "The Republic of Fear" (published back when GWB's daddy was best buddies with the butcher of Baghdad, lest we forget) should be clear on that.

However, the current sabre-rattling is likely to isolate the USA diplomatically even more than any previous manifestation of unilateralism.

Even Tony Blair is now looking at the domestic opinion polls in the UK and having second thoughts -- there's an outright majority opposed to military action, something that hasn't happened before and that could cost him dearly if he sends British troops to fight in what seems to be being seen as an American colonial war. Because that *is* what it's seen as over here. Bush has shown he doesn't care about what anyone outside the US thinks, and now that lack of diplomacy has backfired spectacularly. If he'd handled things right, he could probably have shuffled the fifteen year post-invasion occupation and reconstruction costs off onto the EU, but about the only European politicians who aren't heading for the hills right now are the lunatic fringe.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2002, 10:07 PM:

Patrick...fair enough. I just don't see how you can honestly gauge the level of predictability of someone like Saddam Hussein. My point, was the gassing of the Kurds predictable? Was the invasion of Kuwait?

It seems most sensible to look at what he's done in the past, and based on what we've seen, expect the worst. Let's be honest, the status quo of no-fly zones would have continued as usual if Sept. 11th hadn't happened. Americans are rightly spooked by the possibility that something worse could happen in the near future, that Hussein could deliver WMDs via a third party, and that a nuke could go off in Chicago any day. Most Americans would rather been seen as aggressors rather than having to clean up a nuclear slag heap in L.A. or have some ugly bug sweep across the heartland.

I think Charlie's right about the diplomatic corner we've painted ourselves into, mostly because the worst aspect of the Bush admin is the way they handle PR. Would Europeans, I wonder, be opposed to military intervention in Iraq if it were couched as forcible compliance with UN resolutions from the Gulf War, as opposed to "regime change"?