Monday, December 19, 2011

Hitchens and Iraq

. Monday, December 19, 2011

Two events this week -- the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the death of Christopher Hitchens -- have brought to mind something that has always bothered me in conversations about the Iraq war: the fact that the "pro-war" side is often made to answer for the crimes of the other side. In the case of Hitchens, a general criticism is that he never changed his mind on Iraq despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed, maimed, or forced to flee the country. Quite often he is accused of having blood on his hands. Here's one good example.

There are, in my mind, two possible answers to this. The first is to turn the logic on its head. If it is true that removing Hussein from power unleashed a "quagmire" in Iraq that could only be resolved when the power vacuum had been filled, then this was inevitable. Hussein was not going to live forever, and there would likely have been a protracted power struggle involving mass amounts of civilians deaths whenever he passed on. In which case the presence of large numbers of American troops may have had something of a pacifying effect; as bad as Iraq was, it wasn't Rwanda or Sudan. It may be true that the presence of foreign occupiers was what was driving the violence, but there are good reasons to think that that is not the case. There were different strong factions within the country, from the Kurds to the Sadrists to the Baathists and others, with fundamentally different interests and a strong desire to control the mechanism of the state to improve their own standing. There were a number of regional powers that would have been happy to encourage violence and instability in Iraq both as a method of proxy warfare and to prevent a strong Iraq from materializing and threatening their interests in the future. It simply is not clear that there was any realistic counterfactual scenario in which there was not large-scale bloodshed in Iraq.

And could you imagine how Hussein would have responded to an Arab Spring in his country?

The second is to flip the logic entirely. The groups most responsible for the violence in Iraq are the groups that Hitchens wanted to fight. The people Hitchens wanted to defend from these groups were the civilians being victimized by them. The level of violence that occurred in Iraq following the invasion can thus taken as vindication for Hitchens: these groups will use violence against civilians or governments whenever it is tactically advantageous to do so, and therefore they should be obliterated. Carrying that out will have costs, but failing to do so will have even greater costs, and for a longer period of time.

Many of the other criticisms of Hitchens' support for the war -- "blood for oil", "imperialism", your typical warmed-over '60s Marxist rhetoric -- have also turned out to be vapid. (Although I do recall Hitchens making the argument that if we were going to fight for any materialist reason, securing the supplies of energy that fuel the global economy was a pretty good one.) And as Nick Cohen once wrote of anti-war protests in London, it was pretty odd to see a bunch of leftists marching in opposition of a war against a fascist regime. It is true that the Bush administration made many excruciating mistakes, such as not getting the electricity back on quickly, or protecting the National Museum. Probably the biggest one was appoint Bremer as Viceroy, and then letting him screw up everything he possibly could. But these were actually less inevitable than the counterfactual that the internal politics of Iraq would have remained peaceful in the absence of invasion. And now there is some real hope that a stable state that is responsive to its citizens will emerge. That would have been exceptionally unlikely in any other state of the world.

Perhaps these reasons are not sufficient for supporting the war in retrospect. But too many people are too glib about it now. It's not enough to simply say it was a "mistake" and let it go at that.


Richard Bridger said...

I'm as against glib analysis as you, but by your first example of logic-on-head, murder is fine because we're all going to die anyway?

Surely some of the things that need to be taken into account when discussing Iraq are: agency (the fact we sparked it and through our neglect at least partly facilitated the carnage) and outcomes (not necessarily a stable, responsive state, potentially a new dictatorshop, potentially net loss for US influence in the Gulf and wider world).

You're right that there were no good options, but that doesn't mean that we had to choose what was arguably one of the worst ones.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I don't think the murder analogy is any good. The argument I was making is that in 2003 it was easy to imagine a future in which there were more civilian casualties resulting from internal violence w/o invasion than with invasion. Even in 2011 it's not impossible to think that thought. If we want to think in terms of probability distributions, it isn't immediately clear that Iraq is worse off now than it would likely to have been if, say, the Kurds, Sadrists, and Baathists ended up in a full-on civil war. And the likely result of such a conflict would have been some combination of partition and resumed dictatorship. The government there now is nowhere near perfect, but it's likely better than it would have been in *any* invasion-less world.

The point of agency cuts both ways. Choosing to stay disengaged is just as much of a choice as choosing to intervene, as Clinton belatedly admitted w/r/t Rwanda. We were likely to intervene in Iraq at some point anyway, it just would have been after the domestic violence had already started. Perhaps that would have made intervention more "legitimate", but it also might have led to greater damage. As for particular bad policies, Hitchens can hardly be blamed for not having enough troops, or not getting the lights back on, or de-Baathification, etc.

As for outcomes, I'm not sure they're all that bad from the perspective of the U.S. I don't think we lost much standing in the Gulf, b/c I don't think we had much to lose. Allies elsewhere might not have liked it, but it didn't cause them to not work with us on other issues e.g. AfPak and Libya. (And remember that many of our most important allies went with us into Iraq. France and Germany were the exceptions, not the rule.) There was a large fiscal cost, which was exacerbated by Bush's stupid decision to simultaneously slash taxes, but how could Hitchens be blamed for that?

LFC said...

Yikes. There is almost nothing in this post I agree with.

1 -- this business about Iraq was going to descend into chaos and bloodshed anyway after Hussein died or otherwise relinquished power. How do you know? maybe he wd have appointed one of his sons as successor (cf North Korea) and things would have passed off relatively smoothly. I don't know. But it's at least as plausible as your counterfactual.

2 -- yr claim that the US was going to intervene in Iraq eventually anyway. Oh really? The Project for a New American Century and its ilk had been wanting to forcibly depose Saddam since the 90s, true. But they took advantage of 9-11 and the presence of neocons in the Bush admin to create a series of complete lies that facilitated the invasion of Iraq. The main lie of course was that Iraq was tied in some way to 9/11. Without 9/11 the invasion doesn't occur. So I hardly think it plausible to suggest that the US would eventually have intervened in Iraq (ie invaded) simply to save the Iraqis from the evils of Saddam's regime.

3 -- despite the grotesque nature of the regime, the invasion cannot be construed as a humanitarian intervention a la Rwanda (if one had occurred there) as there was no ongoing genocide in March '03 when the invasion happened. The predictable -- or at least foreseeable -- consequence of the invasion was mass displacement (1 to 2 million refugees and IDPs), mass killings, and civil war -- all of which basically happened.

4 -- one must separate the discrete tactical mistakes -- going in with insufficient numbers of soldiers, failing to protect the museum, appointing Bremer, disbanding the Iraqi army and issuing a sweeping decree preventing former Baathists from holding positions in the new govt etc -- from the basic decision to invade, which was flawed from the outset b/c it was built on lies and deceit and a hubristic notion that the US could topple a well-entrenched regime in a country riven with ethnic/religious divisions and replace it with a new govt in a simple, bloodless way. This was a fantasy that no one in his right mind, no one with a scintilla of knowledge about the region, should have endorsed or thought reasonable.

5 -- the invasion led to the worst split in US-W.European relations since WW2, undermined the authority of the UN, flouted norms of sovereignty and nonintervention without the accepted R2P-style justifications, and caused damage to the infrastructure of the intl system that wd probably have been felt in a lot of serious, lasting ways had not the ec crisis of '08-9 come along to, in a sense, overshadow it.

In short, a terrible decision, as was recognized by many at the time. Yes, it's clearer in hindsight, I will admit that. But there were enough warning flags at the time to make the case vs the invasion strong.

Joshua Goldstein writes on his blog that the invasion decision was arguably the worst foreign-policy decision in US history. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far but it was clearly very bad. How all this relates to Hitchens is complicated but I think it's fair to say that after 9-11 he lost some or much of his capacity for political judgment. The last part of his career was a sad end to what might have otherwise been remembered quite differently.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Points well taken. I was trying to imagine what someone in Hitchens' position would say. I'm actually in a weird position in that I opposed the war at the beginning, became more in support of it when everyone else wanted to withdraw ('04-06), and now have no fixed views. I certainly think that tactically almost everything that could have been done wrong was done wrong. But given that we went in, I thought that we had a duty to leave something stable behind rather than abandon the country to the civil war that was emerging in '04-'05. I'm certainly happy that we're withdrawing now.

To your specific points:

1. I don't know. It seems the most likely scenario, however. It seems fairly obvious to me that Iraq as it was in 2002 was not in an equilibrium. It was impoverished, under sanctions, threatened from all sides, the government did not have the legitimacy of the people, and there were multiple strong factions -- with disparate foreign ties -- that would be happy to vie for control. It was a tinderbox. It's not very plausible, to me, that Uday Hussein (say) would have led Iraq to a peaceful transition into reunification with the rest of the world.

2. What I had in mind was that if Iraq turned into a Libya-type scenario, or something like that, the US would get involved. We had unfinished business there. We were patrolling the no fly zone every day for years. We were ready to go at almost any provocation. 9/11 was the excuse, but if it hadn't been that it would've been something else. Another Kurdish uprising? The death of Saddam? A Sadrist rebel movement? Any number of things could've triggered it. And I don't think this was just about Bush. I think a Gore administration would've acted similarly.

3. No, not yet. The point is that the civil war type scenario that *actually played out* from '04-'06 might have gotten much worse absent the presence of 150,000 US troops. And that civil war was brewing... those groups were opportunistic too. It could have gotten much, much worse. Maybe not Rwanda bad, but really bad. And it would have been much more difficult to intervene then than it was once we were already there.

4. I agree. But again... what was the alternative? According to estimates widely-discussed, the sanctions regime led to deaths of one million or more Iraqis from 1991-2000 or so. That wasn't going to end. The distribution of power and resources within the Iraqi society was not reflected in the governing structure, so a rebellion was more or less inevitable at some point. What happens when the Kurds secede? Etc. It's easy to say that the Bush admin screwed up by not planning for likely bad scenarios, but something else has to follow: what should have been the strategy? Nothing? Wait until it goes to hell before getting involved? Let it be a regional matter (even though it was already a global matter)? There was no sure-thing great option.

5. Not sure about US/WE relations, UN was already undermined (by Saddam, by "oil for food", etc.), true it flouted norms of sovereignty but those have always been soft when it comes to major powers, and I don't think it caused much damage to the infrastructure of the intl system. R2P still survives and is, indeed, stronger now than ever. The Arab Spring still happened. The US hasn't followed up Iraq with invasions of dozens of other countries (as some expected). The basic structure of the system remains intact.

It may have been a terrible decision. And yeah, some people called it at the time, although many others did not. It may have been one of the worst FP decisions in US history, although I don't think so.

But alternative choices could very easily have gone just as wrong.

As for Hitchens, he really didn't write that much about politics in the last 3-4 years of his life. It was all religion for awhile, then all about the experience of dying.

LFC said...

On Hitchens - I didn't read him that often in the last years, didn't read him on religion or dying, but as late as Jan. '11 he was writing in Slate about the Arab Spring:
link is here

Hitchens and Iraq
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