January 13, 2004

Warbloggers Circle Wagons; Dog Bites Man

It didn’t take Nostradamus to predict that in the wake of reports about Paul O’Neill, the war’s defenders would observe, accurately, that any post-Gulf War administration would have had such conversations about Hussein, and that there was nothing of interest in O’Neill’s statements. The critics (of whom I’m one) naturally noted that this confirms suspicions that Bush exploited September 11th to accomplish a pre-existing policy agenda (Hussein’s removal and a general rejection of multilateralism) rather than concentrating on the most effective prosecution of the war on terror.

It’s a tedious debate, partly because positions on both sides have hardened into total inflexibility. For me, given that I completely reject the kinds of anti-war arguments that follow Chomsky or Soros’ lead or anyone similar, this immobility is especially frustrating. I am potentially persuadable about the war, and have been ever since September 11th. I needed and still need to be convinced that this war in particular was urgently necessary, justifying the poor management of the build-up to war. Most of the evidence that it was has now been disavowed by the Administration itself.

The “Hussein was a tyrant, and needed to be overthrown because of his tyranny” argument is just about all that’s left for the pro-war advocates. They’re right in this respect that it is great that his regime is overthrown and he is in custody, but this remains a horribly dishonest argument for the war itself. One might ask how I can say, “A great thing to have done, but it was wrong to do it”. If I told you that I had a vitally important meeting to get to that started in 30 minutes, and it was an hour away by car, and you drove me at 120 miles an hour to get there on time, I’d be grateful to have gotten there once I was there, but I wouldn’t want you to ever do that again.

The argument is dishonest both in that it’s not how the war was sold to a democratic society, even by most pro-war pundits and bloggers, and dishonest in that none of those who offer it actually mean it to be a continuing rationale for policy in general. Don’t try to tell me that I’m somehow supportive of Hussein’s tyranny for criticizing the war, because I can serve up a steaming load of the same whup-ass back on your plate, as I’ve observed here before. If this is the real reason for war, then you have to support another fifteen such wars right now or be accused yourself of the same support for tyranny elsewhere. Wilsonian idealism at this level is an all-or-nothing thing. Once you agree that we must bow to what is pragmatically possible, that cost-to-benefit matters, the war in Iraq is open to criticism.

The biggest intellectual sin, among many, in Chomsky, is that there is no information or data which would lead him to rethink his arguments, nothing which can falsify his case. If it were revealed tomorrow that Saddam Hussein was three weeks away from planting nuclear weapons in the fifty biggest cities on Earth or had made a deal with space aliens to sell humanity into slavery, Chomsky’s case wouldn’t alter one iota. It would still be the fault of the United States and the war still wouldn’t have been justified.

I think most of the defenders of the war have backed themselves into the same predicament: there is nothing that could ever falsify their case, nothing that would make them re-think, no event or information that would require a careful reconsideration of their arguments. Not Paul O’Neill, nor an occupation that has from the outset gone the way that the critics of the war predicted it would, nor the absence of deployable WMD, nothing.

The reasonable thing to do is be predictive. What information would change your mind, whatever your feelings are? What developments would alter your assessment? Say it now and say it explicitly.

For me, it’s simple. The discovery of actually-existing WMD that was readily deployable; revelation of substantial, sustained connections between Hussein and al-Qaeda or similar groups; evidence that Hussein independently was preparing to order or support terrorist attacks on the United States, Western Europe or other nations; evidence of imminent plans for territorial aggression against Iraq’s neighbors. All or any of that would be sufficient for me to concede a reasonable case for the immediate war as it was conducted, even with its enormous costs and risks. The other thing that would change my thinking is a change in what I understand to be the cost-benefit ratio. If next year, the United States withdrew in an orderly fashion, a meaningfully democratic government was elected in Iraq and neighboring regimes also made serious moves to democratize and liberalize their societies, I’d be glad to confess my error.

For the prowar advocates, is there anything that would change your mind? If Dick Cheney gave a national speech where he said, “Yeah, it’s all about Halliburton”, would you feel differently? Is there any series of events that would change your assessment? If the occupation was still going five years from now and 10,000 Americans had died in the conflict in the interim, would you feel differently? If there’s nothing that fits the bill, then seriously, stop blogging about it. Stop writing about it. There’s no point: this is faith, not reason, and there’s no need to bore the rest of us as you bear witness.