Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MAKE WAR NO MORE?....In the American Prospect this month, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias chastise liberal hawks who have defended their past support of the Iraq war by claiming that it failed only because George Bush has prosecuted it incompetently. Instead, they argue, liberal hawks should admit that it was just a bad idea, full stop. It's simply not possible to impose democracy by force, and it wouldn't have worked no matter who was in charge.

This criticism certainly applies to me. Sure, I switched from pro-war to anti-war before the war started, but so what? I did so because I thought that "Bush's implementation of the war is the very one that will prevent it from ultimately being successful," and this statement clearly implies that I thought it was possible for a different implementation to succeed. So let's take a look at that.

Sam and Matt make three practical not moral points, all of them technical in nature. First, they take apart the argument that the occupation would have worked better if only we'd used more troops. This may be true, they point out, but since we didn't have more troops, this is just wishful thinking. I've made this argument myself, so obviously I'm sympathetic to it.

Second, they claim that hawks are wrong to think that we might have succeeded if only we hadn't disbanded the Iraqi army shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Unfortunately, Sam and Matt gloss over this pretty quickly, suggesting only that this wasn't the result of incompetence, it was the result of insistent Shia and Kurdish demands that any president would have been forced to respond to. This is unconvincing, and it's something that deserves a deeper look since it's pretty clear that the disbanded army has been one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Sunni insurgency we've been fighting ever since.

Third and here I'm paraphrasing very loosely they argue that the American military is lousy at policing and counterinsurgency. In fact, I'd go further, and argue (for example, here, here, and here) that no Western power has ever demonstrated much success at counterinsurgency. As Major John Nagl, a scholar of guerrilla war, admits, "counterinsurgency requires an excruciatingly fine calibration of lethal force. Not enough of it means you will cede the offensive to your enemy, yet too much means you will alienate the noncombatants whose support you need." That knife edge may simply be impossible to balance.


These are all good arguments, but I think they obscure two more fundamental points that Sam and Matt don't address. Point #1 is the fact that democratization was probably never more than a small part of the original plan anyway, so maybe the whole "democracy at the point of a gun" argument isn't all that important. Here is Josh Marshall describing the neocon grand plan back in April 2003:

In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East.

....In short, the administration is trying to roll the table to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism....Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments or, failing that, U.S. troops rule the entire Middle East.

In other words, democracy is nice eventually but the bigger issue is kicking over the status quo in the Middle East and forcing change. And the hawks would argue that this is happening. Slowly and fitfully, to be sure, but let's count up the successes so far: Iraq and Afghanistan are better off than before, Libya has given up its nuke program, Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is a sign of progress, Egypt has held a more open election than any before it, and the Syrian regime is under considerable pressure.

Did the invasion of Iraq precipitate these changes? I think the hawks considerably overstate their case, but at the same time they do have a case. Even if Iraq is a mess, it might all be worthwhile if it eventually produces progress toward a more open, more liberal Middle East. At the very least, it's an argument that needs to be engaged.

Point #2 is a little more abstract. Because Sam and Matt's arguments against democracy building are technical, they beg a question: what if we corrected the problems they allude to? After all, it's not impossible to have a bigger army, or to have an army that's better at policing and counterinsurgency, as Thomas P.M. Barnett argues we should.

So, should we? This question deserves a considered answer, because it gets to the heart of both liberal and conservative hawkishness. Is the threat posed by Middle Eastern terrorism great enough that we should take on the task of building a military that can fight and win wars of counterinsurgency and occupation in the future? Or should we just flatly rule it out?

As it happens, regular readers know that I mostly agree with Sam and Matt's probable views on all these questions. Kicking over anthills and hoping against hope that something good comes out of it is to put it mildly not a very convincing argument for war. The Iraq invasion has had some positive effects on the Middle East, but they've been modest and have been counterbalanced by some negative effects and those effects are likely to get ever more negative as time goes by. In general, military action is counterproductive in a long ideological struggle like the war on terrorism, just as hot wars Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan were the most disastrous events of the Cold War for everyone involved. And while I think that taking counterinsurgency more seriously is a good idea, I also suspect that there are systemic reasons that will prevent Western powers from ever successfully fighting a large scale overseas guerrilla war.

Still, these are assertions, not arguments, and if you're going to flatly suggest on practical rather than moral grounds that war "can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life," you need to engage these broad arguments, not merely demonstrate that Iraq would have been difficult verging on impossible no matter who was running the war. I think we need a sequel.

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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