Justa buncha ay-rabs

Yes, it seems we’ve failed in Iraq. But is that really the Iraqis’ fault?

Josh Marshall notes correctly the conversion of Lawrence Kaplan from neoconservatism to foreign-policy realism. Having supported the Iraqi adventure from the beginning &#8212 not out of concern that Saddam Hussein might be developing a nuclear weapon, but out of Wilsonian evangelical fervor for the liberal regime &#8212 Kaplan has now given up in disgust.

But note that for Kaplan, the alternative to Wilsonian evangelism-at-gunpoint is racism. In Kaplan’s view, the adventure didn’t fail because the Bushites were too intellectually lazy to understand the facts on the ground, too arrogant to listen to those who did, and too crooked to resist the urge to make Iraq a patronage feast for their buddies, but because the Iraqis, after all, were justa buncha ay-rabs, incapable of taking the gift of liberty when it was handed to them.

Thus Kaplan, as he leaves (on this issue, at least) the neocon fold, exemplifies the neocon charge that opposition to Wilsonian imperialism proceeds from contempt for those who live under illiberal regimes. If we really thought third-worlders were as important as we are, says the neocon, then we would be willing to fight and die to give them our way of life, which is demonstrably the one true way of life that every free human being, and every people, must aspire to.

I supported the Iraq war not as a favor to the Iraqis, but as a measure of national defense. I was wrong to do so, because the threat against which we were asked to defend ourselves turned out to be imaginary. (There was a second legitimate reason to support the war, one not entirely discredited by subsequent events: that the sanctions regime, without which SH would presumably have resumed the drive to join the nuclear club disrupted by the Israeli bombing of the Osirak reactor, was killing thousands of Iraqis, predominantly the children of the poor, every month.)

Arguably, we should have displaced the Ba’ath, made sure there weren’t any bomb factories around, and then exited, leaving the Iraqis to their own devices. (With luck, the Kurds might have figured out that they needed a working Iraq to keep the Turks off their backs; the Sunnis, without the spur of anti-Americanism and resistance to occupation would have decided to make the best deal they could with the Shi’a majority; and the Shi’a leadership, given the chance to be the dominant political force in a potentially rich country, would have decided not to stomp on the Sunnis.)

Or we could have tried, ideally with help from other countries, to try to cobble together there something that looked like a liberal republic, at least in a dim light. Perhaps doing so would have required more troops. Certainly it would have required not only more delicacy than we actually displayed but also more intelligence (in both senses of that word). But the fact that the actual effort failed says more about the competence and seriousness of BushCo than it does about any deficiency of Iraqi culture.

Nothing the Iraqis are doing to one another now is as bad as the things the Japanese did in China, or the Germans did to the Jews, in the period leading up to 1945. So, by Kaplan’s argument, it should have been futile to try to “reprogram” the “coarsened and brittle cultures” of the Japanese and the Germans.

The liberal regime isn’t a universal standard, but just about everyone does want honest civil servants, and courts that decide according to the law rather than the power of the litigants and whose decisions are obeyed. The mistake wasn’t in imagining that Iraq might move some distance in the liberal direction; the mistake was assuming that it would do so quickly, or that it would do so at all under the guidance of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer, and their hordes of patronage employees and crooked contractors.

To treat current intra-Iraqi atrocities as proof that the Iraqis are unfit to govern themselves embodies a great, and rather disgusting, fallacy. It may well be that the best thing we can do for Iraq right now is to get the hell out of there. But if so, that’s the fault of the Bush Administration, not the fault of the Iraqis. Isn’t it bad enough to have killed tens of thousands of them and wrecked their country, without insulting them to boot?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “Justa buncha ay-rabs”

  1. There was another option. We could have done what we did with Libia. Drop the sanctions and move on. (maybe some face saving noise about continued inspections). We might have asked them to join us in common cause against terrorism.
    At the time of the invasion Iraq had zero military ambitions and little capability. There was also no nuclear program and no chemical or biological weapons capability beyond what any country with a fertilizer plant has.
    Most of Sadam's posturing was so that Iran would not know how week he was.

  2. I supported this war for the same reason as Mark did; and now that the facts are known the best case I can come up with for the administration's behavior is that they lied to themselves in the course of lying to everyone else.
    Decisions taken with such a lack of integrity have less chance of being the right decisions than decisions taken randomly, because a lack of integrity is aimed first of all at suppressing unpalatable truths. So yes, responsibility for what has happened in Iraq lies first of all with us.
    That doesn't mean, however, that the Iraqis are totally without responsibility.

  3. I supported the invasion, tentatively and off-and-on (mostly off) until a couple of weeks before it happened, and I did so for the very humanitarian reasons you discuss. I've never been able to understand why fewer liberals were moved by those reasons…even if, like me, they ultimately thought that other reasons outweighed them…gut-wrenching though that realization might be.
    But as for liberalism being the universal standard…well, I think it is, actually, and I suspect that you do, too. I expect that you think that it's genuinely wrong to kill someone because they hold unorthodox religious beliefs. And you're right about that. Such an action is really wrong, and remains wrong even if the hypothetical killers don't recognize the wrongness of their action and don't recognize that a liberal government that disallowed such actions would be better.

  4. "… I've never been able to understand why fewer liberals were moved by those reasons…even if, like me, they ultimately thought that other reasons outweighed them…gut-wrenching though that realization might be."
    Amazingly enough, many liberals don't trust dishonest, war-mongering right-wingers when they weep crocodile tears and invoke human rights, democracy, humanity, and other things which those right-wingers do not, have not and never will believe in. It's odd of us.

  5. As someone who has actually pursued asylum for individuals tortured by foreign governments, I think it rather obvious that some of us liberals are quite concerned with human rights abuses, and have been for many years before GWB hopped on our bandwagon, we just happen not to inhabit a fantasy land in which we believe that we have commic book hero super powers to wave our hands (or drop our bombs) and, shazzam, bring peace, prosperity and opportunity to anyone we notice and decide to "liberate." That is in addition to (justifiably) not believing anything said by Bush et al., and not believing that it is fair to imperil American and Iraqi citizens in a venture that is so likely to have catastrophic consequences and virtually nil chance of success
    Our intuition has been so amply "rewarded" by revelation after revelation, whether its related to pre-war intelligence or post-war torture, that it still astonishes me that we are considered to be the bad guys. Denial, projection, whatever.

  6. If one gives food stamps to a poor man and he trades those stamps to someone else for a gun, leaving his baby daughter to starve to death, did one kill the daughter?
    The santions didn't kill millions, hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, or even one Iraqi – Saddam did.
    The sanctions allowed for sufficient resources to feed, clothe, and fuel Iraqi society – that Saddam either didn't take advantage of the opportunities permitted under the sanctions or chose to spend the money on other things is not the fault of those who imposed the sanctions.
    And what about the genocide that was occurring before the sanctions were imposed?
    If those who supported the sanctions are to be condemned merely because it resulted in many deaths, despite no intent nor any direct connection between the sanctions and those deaths, then how much more to blame are those who not only counseled against military intervention when Saddam was brutalizing his population BEFORE the sanctions were ever imposed, directly murdering people with arms and using funds supplied or allowed by aid from the US government, but who also counseled against intervention at that time?
    I heard no liberals crying for military intervention to prevent the murdering of Iraqis before the sanctions were imposed, nor from any conservatives, yet both now claim that the sanctions were tantamount to murder, ignoring that direct aid to Saddam and failure to intervene previously were a more direct cause of death and destruction than any sanction.
    Even more distressing is the utterly putrid hypocrisy of many conservatives who continue to support sanctions against other countries, such as Cuba, while loudly gnashing their teeth and crying out about the ineffectiveness and counterproductivity of sanctions against Saddam's Iraq.
    And finally, where are liberal demands for dispensing with sanctions and invading Cuba and similar countries, if they are so convinced of the alleged failure and immorality of sanctions in Iraq?

  7. Lots of people have called for the end of the Cuban sanctions. They just don't have any power and as such don't have to deal with Florida.

  8. His argument is not that the Iraqis are a bunch of "ay-rabs" and hence incapable of democracy but a variety of factions with deep and often real grievances, most or all of whom have no experience with democracy and its painful compromises, hence unable to suddenly form a democratic polity. Or anyway, that ought to be his argument.
    I thought going into the war that the problem with establishing a democracy in Iraq was decades of misrule by Saddam. He played group against group; he used spies and informers; he destroyed the fabric of Iraqi society. That wasn't a situation primed for armed foreigners to impose a system requiring trust of one's political opponents.

  9. Having just finished Kaplan's latest New Republic piece, which laments at length the U.S. political pressure that is leading to inevitable troop drawdowns before Iraq can take care of itself, it seems that you are attacking a straw-man, a caricature of a caricature, and not anything Kaplan says in his published work.

  10. Barry and Barbara–you miss the point entirely. I didn't say that liberals didn't care about human rights, but, rather, that they didn't seem sufficiently concerned about the fact that people were dying from the sanctions.

  11. And Trotsky's right. As for the stuff about Kaplan becoming a realist…and a racist…there's just nothing in the post to support these claims.
    You owe Kaplan an apology, Mark. Those are serious charges–if I'm reading you right and they are, in fact, charges–and they're unsupported by what Kaplan wrote.
    I wonder whether your reading of the post was influenced by Atrios's fantastical interpretation of Kaplan?
    (Anyway, focusing on the other stuff the first time through, I missed this big problem.)

  12. The problem I have with the national security argument: The "big stick" diplomacy was working. Hans Blix was back in the country, and finding absolutely nothing in a very agressive inspection regigm.
    You could support the invasion on rational national security grounds, up until the inspectors had returned with a vengence. But once it was clear (and growing clearer by the day) than Iraq had not restarted its weapons programs, the security rational for invasion evaporated.

  13. "Isn't it bad enough to have killed tens of thousands of them and wrecked their country, without insulting them to boot?"
    You're so right. Far better to allow Saddam to continue killing hundreds of thousands of them and have the country running with the Singaporean efficiency for which it was reknown.
    People have been dying horrible deaths in Baghdad for many decades. The primary differences today are:
    1) Shia and Sunnis are both dying. Previously, Sunnis had the clear upper hand.
    2) The incidence of homicide via industrial shredder is down. (Though death via drill and other awful stuff is probably up…)
    3) CNN (and the rest of MSM) actually reports it now. Previously, they whitewashed it so they could maintain "access".
    4) Most of the country sucked. Now, only some of the country sucks. Other parts of the country are dramatically better off than they were under Saddam. Can you say Kurds? How about Marsh Arabs?
    It's certainly disappointing that Baghdad is still a hell-hole. And boy, it sure makes for great Bush bashing. But can we please try to maintain just a little perspective.
    Also, this:
    "Arguably, we should have displaced the Ba'ath, made sure there weren't any bomb factories around, and then exited, leaving the Iraqis to their own devices."
    and this:
    "Or we could have tried, ideally with help from other countries, to try to cobble together there something that looked like a liberal republic, at least in a dim light"
    are borderline surreal. It's hard to see how the first would produce less chaotic bloodshed than the current level. And the second is what we have been doing.
    All in all, this is a pretty disappointing post. You are usually much more insightful (or at least reality-based…).
    James

  14. Isn't the other possibility that Cheyney and the boys knew from day one that we had to invade Iraq if we were to maintain a commitment to growing oil and gas consumption as the underpinning of our economy despite the fact that resources that we control have long since peaked. The one country which has a nearly untapped and massive supply of oil in the ground is Iraq. We certainly would not have wanted the Chinese or others to control this massive resource while we remain committed to oil and reject investment in the development of serious energy alternatives which might be renewable and which we might control.
    Would have been interesting to see how well this rationale would have sold if it had been given. Silly me.

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