The politics of war and terrorism

Glenn Reynolds says opponents of the war in Iraq want us to lose the war on terror. That’s false.

Building a political argument on the graves of 3000 people is always a little bit vulgar. But ordinary decency would demand that, if such an argument is to be made, it at least should be an honest one.

I’m not in the habit of agreeing with Jonathan Schell, and I’m not plannng to start now. But his essay on the War in Iraq puts forward what is at least an arguably cogent analysis: that the attempt to make Iraq a democracy by conquering and occupying it was a mistake, and that continuing the occupation will not achieve the goal of democracy. Adopting (though not citing) the Clausewitzian definition of “losing” a war as failing to achieve one’s war aims, Schell argues that our best course of action now is to “lose” this war as gracefully as possible by turning Iraq over to some sort of international trusteeship and getting our troops out of harm’s way.

Again, I don’t think that’s right, and I strongly doubt that we can find any group of countries willing to accept that trusteeship if it means their guys have to do the dying instead of ours. But the point of Schell’s text is clear: we can’t do what we set out to do in Iraq, and the sooner we figure that out the better for us.

That leaves, in my mind, little excuse for Glenn Reynolds, who chooses the anniversary of 9/11 to continue his project of helping to divide this nation against itself by claiming that those who disagree with him are sympathetic with, or indifferent to, terrorism.

In a discussion of the war between the United States and the Islamist terrorists who attacked us before 9/11, attacked us on 9/11, and would very much like to attack us again, Reynolds misquotes Schell (either recklessly or wilfully; mere negligence can’t really explain it) as believing that we should “lose” the war against Islamist terrorism. Not the war in Iraq, mind you, which Schell was actually writing about, but the war against terrorism. Reynolds doesn’t try to explain why any American should be in favor of being murdered by terrorists, or in particular why liberals should sympathize with reactionary theocrats. He just asserts that “some people” (linking to Schell) want us to “lose it.”

The proposition that invading Iraq to replace its regime would put us in a more secure position was, in my view, a reasonable one. It looks to me far less plausible in the face of subsequent devopments — in particular the development, at least on a temporary basis, of zones in Iraq controlled by groups of Sunni and Shi’a extremists acting in opposition to the occupation, and who define themselves in terms of “fighting the Americans” and might well allow their territory to be used for terrorist training — but it still might turn out to be true. Some very smart people, including Bill Clinton, agreed with me about that.

On the other hand, some very smart, knowledgable, and patriotic people — including George W. Bush’s first two anti-terror honchos, Richard Clarke and Rand Beers — thought invading Iraq was a bad idea because doing so would leave us more vulnerable, rather than less vulnerable, to terrorist attack. So support for the war in Iraq cannot be said to follow directly from being for fighting a vigorous war against Islamicist terrorists.

Pretending otherwise — painting those who disagree with you as disloyal, or at least lackadaisical about defening the contry — is not only stupid, it’s also unpatriotic, because it makes rational decision-making harder.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt for a moment that Glenn Reynolds sincerely wants to defend this country. I’m just sick and tired of his pretense that anyone who disagrees with him doesn’t.

And that goes for George W. Bush (who needs his handlers to tell him not to say that we can’t win the war on terror) and Dick Cheney, too.

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: