Saturday, March 13, 2004

Ignatieff's "gamble"

Michael Ignatieff, a card-carrying member of the "cruise missile left," has written a retrospective about his personal journey through the Iraq war debate in the NY Times Magazine. The article is a pretty remarkable artifact for displaying the tortured logic of an Iraq war apologist.

Here are just a few of the jaw-dropping assertions:

We thought we were arguing about Iraq, but what might be best for 25 million Iraqis didn't figure very much in the argument. As usual we were talking about ourselves: what America is and how to use its frightening power in the world. The debate turned into a contest of ideologies masquerading as histories. Conservative Republicans gave us America the liberator, while the liberal left gave us America the devious, propping up villainous leaders and toppling democratically elected ones. Neither history was false: the Marshall Plan did show that America could get something right, while the overthrow of President Allende in Chile and support for death squads in Latin America showed that America could do serious wrong. Either way, however, the precedents and the ideologies were irrelevant, for Iraq was Iraq. And, it turned out, nobody actually knew very much about Iraq.
Apparently, Mr. Ignatieff has been reading comic books over the past two years, not any serious media. This depiction of the run-up to war is such a distorted caricature that one doesn't know where to start critiquing it.

US foreign policy, first of all, is understood through the spectrum of "strategic interests." Human rights and morality are not major considerations. When there is congruence between interests and morality, then expect the latter to be constantly invoked. When there is no congruence, expect it to be ignored.

Ignatieff's examples in this paragraph are telling. The Marshall Plan, in one sense, can be viewed as a gift to Europe from the American people. But there's plenty of evidence suggesting it was implemented to preserve the capitalist system, and reintegrate Europe back into that very system, a crucial aim of the US following WWII. It was, in other words, not created out of altruism. The other example, Chile and Latin America, is also indicative of the same policy inertia that the US does whatever it takes to prevent "irresponsible" Latin Americans -- to quote Kissinger -- from allowing their nations to tread down the road of socialism.

Thus both of the examples Ignatieff offers, which are intended to represent polar ends of the spectrum of US intentions, betray a rather cozy consensus on foreign policy goals.

Says Ignatieff:

A year later, Iraq is no longer a pretext or an abstraction. It is a place where Americans are dying and Iraqis, too, in ever greater numbers. What makes these deaths especially haunting is that no one can honestly say -- at least not yet -- whether they will be redeemed by the emergence of a free Iraq or squandered by a descent into civil war.
News alert: nothing will "redeem" those that have died in this war. This is just a pleasing sentiment made up by the living apologists to justify what's transpired. The war should not be judged in this way. If Iraq becomes a vibrant, successful state with milk and honey flowing everywhere, then fine. Or if it descends further into chaos, fine as well. Judge the events on their own merits. Let the tens of thousands who have died rest in peace.

A more relevant issue at hand is why there is no discussion of the huge number of casualties inflicted by the military campaign. Everyone knows about Hussein's atrocities, which have been copiously documented by self-avowed guardians of morality. Very few know much about the atrocities committed or enabled by US policy -- be they from the campaign of complicity during the 1980s, the campaign of mendacity during the 1990s (read: war and sanctions), or the campaign of violence this past year. Why is this so? If the Iraq policy truly rests on noble foundations, why is it necessary to avoid such inconvenient details?

There is an argument that pops up periodically, usually with a reference to Bush's November 2003 speech to the NED, that the toppling of Hussein was meant to rectify these past injustices. Yet it seems to me that the historical context here provides ample evidence that we should be skeptical of claims from a country that promises to correct the mistakes gone by with even further violence and destruction.

Says Ignatieff:

The real issue [say the critics of the war] was oil. But they got the relevance of oil backward. If all America cared about was oil, it would have cozied up to Hussein, as it had done in the past. Oil was an issue in the war precisely because its revenues distinguished Hussein from the run of other malignant dictators. It was the critical factor that would allow him, sooner or later, to acquire the weapons that would enable him to go after the Kurds again, complete the destruction of the Shiites, threaten Saudi Arabia and continue to support Palestinian suicide bombers and, just possibly, Al Qaeda as well.
No, Mr. Ignatieff has things backwards. Perhaps if he had read the major internal arguments put forward by the Bush administration, he would know that Hussein's regime was perceived to be "a destabilising influence to...the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East," that the US "has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf," and that "the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

Asserting greater control over Middle Eastern affairs, which implicitly means greater control over the region's oil reserves, was at the heart of the Iraq policy. It was not marginalized for the advancement of a newfound policy of benign interventionism, as Ignatieff would like his readers to believe.

Says Ignatieff:

I still do not believe that American or British leaders misrepresented Hussein's intentions or lied about the weapons they believed he possessed. In his new memoirs, Hans Blix makes it clear that he and his fellow U.N. inspectors thought Hussein was hiding something, and every intelligence service they consulted thought so too. But if lying was not the problem, exaggeration was, and no one who supported the war is happy about how ''a grave and gathering danger'' -- as Bush carefully characterized the Hussein regime in his speech at the U.N. in September 2002 -- slowly morphed into an ''imminent'' threat. The honest case for war was ''preventive'' -- to stop a tyrant with malignant intentions from acquiring lethal capabilities or transferring those capabilities to other enemies. The case we actually heard was ''pre-emptive'' -- to stop a tyrant who already possessed weapons and posed an imminent danger.
I think it's reasonably clear that the appeal to the UN was a charade. The Bush administration was not interested in finding out what Iraq had, but rather trying to muster additional support for its war. The thinking, allegedly championed by Powell and Blair, was that an intensified search would reveal that Saddam was hiding something. This would then provide the momentum for additional Security Council resolutions, which, in their minds, would justify a military assault. The Bush administration realized this was a prudent course of action to take in the Summer of 2002 since they had to wait a few months for a troop buildup and to allow for time to "market the war," because domestic support for an assault was tepid.

And, frankly, if you don't believe "American or British leaders misrepresented Hussein's intentions or lied about the weapons they believed he possessed," then you must be living under a rock. Lying, plagiarizing, excising, conjuring, fabricating, cooking, exaggerating, misrepresenting, you name it -- the Brits and Americans have done it.

Says Ignatieff:

The problem for my side is that if the honest case had been put -- for a preventive as opposed to a pre-emptive war -- the war would have been even more unpopular than it was. But this is also a problem for opponents as well. If they didn't think the case for preventive war was proved this time, what will convince them next time? Unless threats are imminent, democratic peoples don't want to fight, but if they wait till threats are imminent, the costs of war may become prohibitive. The next time an American president makes a case for war to meet a purported W.M.D. threat, almost everyone, members of the Security Council included, will believe he is crying wolf. But what if he's not? What if the example of Iraq leads electorates and politicians to respond too slowly to the next tyrant or terrorist
The first sentence alone speaks volumes. The latter points can only be responded to with an "oh well." If US foreign policy strategists were truly concerned about the threats other nations posed, and not merely trying to use those threats to justify their existing aims of geostrategic dominance, then I'd doubt that they would be so reckless in their application of military force.

The proponents of the Iraq war have lost their credibility, entirely. What's amazing is that Ignatieff is blaming the people that opposed the Iraq war for this situation. The mind boggles.

Says Ignatieff:

So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can't have human rights without order and that you can't have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation. The administration failed to grasp that from the first moment an American tank column took a town, there had to be military police and civilian administrators following behind to guard museums, hospitals, water-pumping stations and electricity generators and to stop looting, revenge killings and crime. Securing order would have meant putting 250,000 troops into the invasion as opposed to 130,000. It would have meant immediately retaining and retraining the Iraqi Army and police, instead of disbanding them. The administration, which never tires of telling us that hope is not a plan, had only hope for a plan in Iraq.
Mea culpa, mea culpa. All that's needed to judge the administration's respect for human rights is its agonizing over the potential humanitarian effects of the war, which was well evident in the media.

Oh, wait. Hmm. That never happened.

Ignatieff finally concludes:

Now that we are there, our problem is no longer hope and illusion but despair and disillusion. The press coverage from Baghdad is so gloomy that it's hard to remember that a dictator is gone, oil is pumping again and the proposed interim constitution contains strong human rights guarantees. We seem not even to recognize freedom when we see it: Shiites by the hundreds of thousands walking barefoot to celebrate in the holy city of Karbala, Iraqis turning up at town meetings and trying out democracy for the first time, newspapers and free media sprouting everywhere, daily demonstrations in the streets. If freedom is the only goal that redeems all the dying, there is more real freedom in Iraq than at any time in its history. And why should we suppose that freedom will be anything other than messy, chaotic, even frightening? Why should we be surprised that Iraqis are using their freedom to tell us to go home? Wouldn't we do just the same?
Better apologetics could not come from Rumsfeld, Cheney, or, judging from the first sentence, Chalabi.

Yes, we are in Baghdad now. Yes, things are a mess, but one can point to improvements in certain indicators. Will things continue to improve? For the sake of the Iraqis, hopefully, and, considering how the US helped plunge Iraq down the UN development indice during the 1990s, likely. Following two decades of war, sanctions, and corruption, Iraq has nowhere else to go but up -- assuming, of course, that a civil war doesn't break out in the next few months/years.

But does any of this justify what has been done thus far? Not to me. The administration and its supporters decided to go to war because it promised to yield strategic dividends: to allow the US to gain stronger control over energy resources; to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia while at the same time increasing the US military footprint in the Middle East via permanent bases in Iraq; to demolish Israel's primary military adversary in the region, paving the way for some kind of "settlement" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (no doubt a settlement to be forced on a cowering Arab world, perhaps via "transfer" and the reconstruction of a "Hashemite kingdom"); and, lastly, something that would trigger wider reforms in the Middle East, hopefully taking down unfriendly regimes and replacing them with ones that were more tolerant of and complicit with US dominance in the region, either militarily, economically, or culturally.

You'll notice here that Hussein's atrocities or the general welfare of Iraqs were, in my view, hardly primary considerations. If they were, they were viewed through the prism that a long term realization of these policy goals would yield a greater standard of living and a regime that doesn't engage in grievous human rights abuses somewhere down the line. I recognize these are respectable goals, but they are couched in so many assumptions about historical development, the moral superiority of the western capitalist model, and, dare I say, racism that they can only be seen as self-satisfying, arrogant delusions that posit the United States and its allies as the sole dispensers of justice in the world.

This piece by Ignatieff is simply amazing for betraying an obliviousness to the true foundations of the Iraq policy. Perhaps I should not be surprised. Michael Neumman dressed Ignatieff down a few months ago and everything he wrote then is relevant here.