Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Iraq and Iran

[posted by Callimachus]

As if I needed further evidence that I'm perverse. I was against the invasion of Iraq before I was for it -- and I'm still for it, in theory. But I'm against an attack on Iran. If we have any real left-anti-war readers here, their pupils just turned into flashing red "TILT" signs. "But of course every neo-con wants to boogie on into Iran right now, because they're all just a pack of militaristic, Islamophobic ... Christianism ... y'know ... blood-for-oil ... Shrubbie McChimpler ... corporations ....

Yet somehow my perversity seems consistent to me. I came around on Iraq based on:

  • the humanitarian justification (get rid of a tyrant who was crushing and abusing his nation -- all the more our job because we had helped enable him)

  • the progressive realist quantity (upset the business-as-usual situation in the Muslim-Arab world and hopefully turn Saddam's swamp into a beacon of hope, so young men in that wider society have better things to do than cut up our stewardesses and fly our airplanes into our skyscrapers, and less inclination to believe God wants them to treat us that way)

  • the calculation that Saddam had, or was close to getting, serious chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons, and that he would use them as blackmail leverage, or make common cause with Islamist terrorists bent on causing mayhem in the West.

That was a risk. I was willing to take it. The choice to dive into that war never was a "slam dunk;" it was the least-shitty alternative, or the likely best gamble. But always you think, this could be wrong.

Believe it or not, friends on the left, I wasn't too stupid or naive to realize that sometimes when you go to war on a nation's leaders, its people like you less afterward than before.

And that a stalled invasion or a botched occupation can be as deadly to innocent people as a totalitarian regime.

And that nobody knew for sure what Saddam had or didn't have, or what he might choose to do with it. Which, as is often forgotten, was Saddam's choice, not Bush's. Was there a 1 percent chance he had a nuclear bomb up his sleeve? A 10 percent chance? You can't duck the decision: You have to decide to act, or not.

So, now we consider Iran. And right now, based on what I've managed to learn about the situation, I say hold off. Use the cold war strategy. Contain Iran. Build up an international consensus for sanctions and pressure. Quietly and from a distance funnel money and aid to opposition groups. Be patient.

What's that based on? The same sort of calculations I used in thinking about Iraq. In each case, as I think about it, I'm bearing the same things in mind: the good of America and the American people, the good of people of the other nation under consideration, the good of the whole world.

[Certainly what I know now after watching the feckless Bush gang bungle Iraq colors my idea of what ought to be done about Iran. But I believe I'd reach the same conclusion even without it.]

But I don't think in terms of "what will produce" these goods, rather "what is most likely to advance" them, or what will produce more good than evil, on balance. You can employ terms like "good" and "evil" in your thinking without being bound by manichaean dualism. Good and evil exist, but they're liquid substances, not rocks.

Is doing nothing about Iran more likely to lead to good outcomes than doing something militarily? -- for the U.S., for the Iranians, for the world? It's all guesswork. Just like it was in Iraq.

How far along is the Iranian nuclear program? I'm willing to bet it's not as close to weapons production as Ahmadinejad wants us to think it is. But that's a gamble. How sure am I? What are the odds I'm wrong? One percent chance? Ten percent?

How much do I trust the rest of the world -- including China and Russia -- to keep a tight ring around Iran? Not fucking much, especially because of what I learned about Oil-for-Food after the fall of Saddam. About as much as I trusted the Bush Administration and the CIA to come up with good data on Saddam's weapons programs in 2002. It's a gamble.

But I think Iran, unlike Iraq, has potent indigenous forces for change and transformation that can overturn Ahmadinejad and bring something better. And I think Iran is economically unstable enough that it may slide into crisis on its own, if we can contain it, before the nuclear weapons program has a chance to bear fruit. (Marc lays out some of the evidence for that here).

The government of Iran does rotten things to its people. But the historical trend there has been toward slow relaxation of repression. Much of what I despise now about Iran (hanging teenage girls for loose morals, etc.) is done under legal cover of Shari'a justice, which seems a more deeply rooted problem, and a harder one to extirpate, than Saddam's arbitrary and personal brutality.

This is a risk. I'm willing to take it. The choice to step back from open war is not a "slam dunk;" it is the least-shitty alternative, or the likely best gamble. I might be wrong.

What I don't feel is some sort of juvenile moral superiority for being on the "no attack" side at this time. I know that, because of the path I advocate, certain Iranians I would embrace as friends will suffer repression and torture. Just as Eastern Europeans did in the 1970s and '80s.

If we throw up the ring of international containment around the Iranians and wait for the economy to rust out under them, that certainly condemns Iranian babies to die of curable conditions in wretched, under-supplied hospitals. Just as Iraqis did in the 1990s.

Chances are, no matter what happens, what we do or don't do, the media and shady governments around the world will pick up whatever is happening and wave it like a red flag to convince more people to hate America and Americans.

I admit, I'm not a great gambler. I can't even keep the winning hands in order. Why does three of a kind beat two pair? Does a straight top a flush? Why is babies dying from stray munitions more evil than babies dying from our deliberate economic strangulation? Are those who have the power to help a drowning man but do nothing sent to heaven, while those who wade in after him and try to pull him out, risking two lives instead of one, damned to hell?

All we're left with are shitty choices among cruel options, and cocktails of good and evil, self-interest and altruism. You may choose war. Or you may choose no war. The people of Iraq were in a war before 2003; it was a war against them waged by their own leader and his deranged sons. Peace, I'm afraid, is not typically an option. Despite what the plaster saints of the anti-war movement would have you believe.

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