Sunday, June 19, 2005

That dog won't hunt, but it sure is persistent

If we are going to take a hard look at whether the decision to go to war with Iraq was sound, the argument advanced by Robert Kagan in the Sunday Washington Post is not the way to go about it.

Kagan makes a show of taking the long view, the historian’s view. He pulls his chin and doffs his reading glasses for wipe-downs several times. He looks at the consequences, good and bad, of various wars past. His basic conclusion – just because things are going to hell right now doesn’t mean it was all a big mistake – is arguable.

However, all of it is just a big show to distract us from a deeply dishonest argument:

It is a great American myth, voiced by John Kerry last year, that the nation goes to war only when there is no question about the necessity of going to war. There's always a question. Even if the Iraqi insurgency disappeared tomorrow, George Ibrahim al Washington became president of Iraq and every liter of Saddam Hussein's onetime stockpile of chemical and biological weapons suddenly appeared in the desert, historians would still spend the next century debating whether the war was "worth it."

Wars remain subjects of debate not just because their "necessity" is in doubt but also because their results are mixed. No war has produced unmitigated successes. The Civil War did not completely "free" African Americans, who remained oppressed for another century. World War I destroyed Europe, and helped pave the way for the rise of Hitler and the Soviet Union. World War II defeated Hitler but enslaved half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain and introduced the world to nuclear warfare. The Persian Gulf War drove Hussein out of Kuwait but helped produce the Osama bin Laden we know today. Add to that the millions of innocent lives lost, and the toll of these wars, generally regarded as "successful," is high. Does that mean those wars were not "worth it"? Demanding unmixed results and guarantees against the unintended consequences of war is as unrealistic as demanding absolute confidence in the "necessity" of going to war in the first place.

Well, yes. All wars have detractors and produce mixed results. But this argument is so broad as to rule out any serious debate about any war within a century of its occurrence. Despite the faux high-mindedness, this is just a warmed-over defense of Bush. It's framed a little bit differently, but it's political shilling no different from that practiced by the various anti-war types and straw men Kagan attacks. Its purpose to dismiss any questioning over the decision to invade Iraq as historically short-sighted and thus invalid.

The arguments he employs are, by now, so stale the odor wafts off the page. He compares Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and Saddam’s Iraq to Germany in the late 1930s.

The main difference would be that Germany in the runup to World War II was a genuine security threat.

He continues with the old standards - Saddam killed and tortured people. He wanted to do other bad things:

For another fact not in dispute is that Hussein remained keenly interested in and committed to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, that he maintained secretive weapons programs throughout the 1990s and indeed right up until the day of the invasion, and that he was only waiting for the international community to lose interest or stamina so that he could resume his programs unfettered.

So we’re back to “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”

Saddam was effectively neutered at the time the war was launched. The containment policy was working. Could it have continued to work indefinitely – for five years? Ten? Twenty? Who knows? Let’s just eliminate all effective government policies that might fail at some undetermined point in the future and see how we do! (We’d be left with policies that don’t work, but might be made to appear to succeed at some point in the future – like Iraq and the Cuban embargo.)

I am all for democracy taking root in Iraq, and don't think we should pull before the security situation improves and the political system, well, exists. But the U.S. and regional security risks for today’s Iraq are, it seems obvious, potentially much worse than those we’d be facing if Saddam were still in power. If we are going to look at where to go from here, a little honesty from the neocon front would be useful at this juncture. Kagan is capable of better than this.