Thursday, July 05, 2007

Hard-Nosed Idealists

[posted by Callimachus]

Ali Eteraz is an indispensible Web voice for many reasons: He has a personal perspective on things most of the rest of us lack; he is a sharp thinker and an able writer; he seemingly is immune to the gravitational and magnetic influence of political factions.

He takes different positions than I do on many questions of the day, but I always trust he arrives at them honestly, and after hard thinking, and I find myself hoping he disagrees with me when the matter is of some complexity, because then I can test my reasoning against his, which has a better chance than the usual blog mush of making or breaking it.

The trouble is, he's all over the map, with several Web sites of his own and posting privileges at several more.

Here, for instance, he drives a stake through the silly fetish of Western commentators for turncoat Islamists. As though someone with sufficiently dim wits to join a suicide bomber cult acquires intellectual clarity when he stumbles away from it.

If anything, the same mentality that led him to first seek out a one-stop utopia in radicalism, upon his conversion, leads him to posit a one-stop solution to it as well. Further, reliance upon these "former" radicals and criminals keeps the discourse about violence stuck in the past. We keep doing historiography; the terrorists keep evolving.

And, he might have added, as though any traitor ever could teach you anything useful about the mindset of the loyal. It reminds me of the response I have, mostly kept to myself, to stories of people who were clinically dead and were revived, which are supposed to prove an afterlife: Yes, we know something about people who died and came back; we still don't know a damn thing about people who died and stayed dead.

At Dean's World he has a rollicking tenure as the dynamic Dean's gadfly, and the resulting arguments have been full of both heat and light. In the post I linked, he attempts a comprehensive dismantling of the humanitarian justification for the overthrow of Saddam and the bid to bring democracy to Iraq.

This happens to be the argument that was most persuasive to me in the run-up to the war. I won't say entirely persuasive, because personally I had questions and reservations up to the day it began, and I am more anti-anti-war -- to borrow a Cold War rhetorical trick -- than objectively pro-invasion. But I believe the best path for all concerned is to finish the war and win it decisively once you've begun it. And I took my stand on the humanitarian position, remembering that America's wars often start out over mean details and gradually open up into large missions for greater good undreamed of by the starters of wars.

Anti-Iraq War arguments I read online usually take a weird swerve about two thirds of the way through. When the writer has worked up some heat on the topic, he or she throws in a paragraph that says, "And anyway, it was US who armed Saddam and kept him in power. He was OUR creation," etc., etc. As though this, overstated as it usually is, is part of a good argument against the war instead of a good argument for it.

The war supporters usually don't recognize this, either. They push back with a reminder that our flirtation with Saddam was temporary, and he was armed principally by the Europeans and the Chinese.

All true, but none of it would have been possible without the context of the Cold War, which was a world half-shaped by American goals. It was the game and Saddam was a player. He was one of our bad bargains, along with Marcos and Somoza and Chiang Kai-shek and the Shah of Iran. One of those we rolled our eyes and held our noses and did business with.

The first and lasting policy of America in the Cold War was containment. The first points of conflict with the Soviets were at the periphery of its empire: Greece, Turkey, Iran, Korea. But both sides soon realized the Soviets could, and ideologically must, leapfrog over the geographical boundaries and expand into the "weak places" of the globe, especially those left vulnerable by the collapse of the old European empires. It became American policy to shore up the weak places. Often, too often, this was done on the cheap, with tough but poisonous and unstable local material.

Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" was an anti-war argument about Iraq: If we break it, we bought it. It overlooked the fact we already had left the whole store a shambles by having an Old West barroom brawl with the Soviets over the length and breadth of it for 50 years. We are so justly relieved that the missiles never flew and the nuclear holocaust never happened that we forget the whole world was a battlefield. Not a bombs-and-bullets battlefield, but one torn and blooodied nonetheless.

Ali does not fall into this trap. His most effective tactic is to force Americans to imagine what sort of conditions would be necessary for us to invite a foreign intervention, which plays on our gumption and our lucky history (though some might remember the millions of blacks in the Confederacy). His least effective is a retreat into the absolute, inviolable authority of nation states, however degraded. I doubt he really wants to stick to that principle in every case.

He addresses the "Iraq was our responsibility" argument properly as a pro-intervention argument:

Even if you were to say to me that we needed to go into Iraq to right the wrongs of Reagan and Clinton, that's not good enough, because other countries are not play-things for our amusement and for mollification of our guilt. They are other countries. They have sovereignty. You believe that since we violated their sovereignty twice (indirectly in Iran-Iraq war, and directly in sanctions regime), we might as well do it again.

He doesn't take it back far enough; our footprint in Iraq is of older provenance than the 1991 war; it goes back to the 1970s. But I think his main mistake is he tries to address this as a humanitarian justification, and respond to it with the kind of scolding that would make a humanitarian blush.

It is not a humanitarian argument, essentially. It is a self-interested one, though it wears a mask of responsibility. That it is so is perhaps overlooked because it runs counter to the really cold-blooded Kissingerite self-interest that says you keep doing business with a Saddam; you keep him strong and on your side no matter how he smells. But there's more than one way to see self-interest.

A nation learns from its wars. The Russo-Japanese war may have taught American admirals something about how not to use battleships to break a blockade, but it didn't teach the American people any deep lessons.

Our Civil War did, however. One side fought it and won it and then gave up on the humanitarian aspect of the fight. It left the battlefield before the clean-up was complete, and a century later we were still tangled up in the consequences.

World War I did as well. America swallowed its determination never to get involved in European quarrels, and, just this once, for the sake of Lafayette, intervened. Then as quickly as it could it pulled up stakes and came home again, sealed off its economy, and sent out the bills. The consequence, as we learned, was 20 years later we had to go back and do it all again, on a larger scale at a greater cost. Once again, we paid a price in blood for leaving the war without cleaning up the battlefield.

We almost repeated the mistake after World War II, with a precipitous draw-down of the armed forces that had to be reversed, painfully, once the Cold War became clear to us.

When the Cold War ended our old tendencies kicked in. We gave Russia no Marshall Plan, and perhaps as a consequence kleptocrats and crypto-totalitarians now rule the world's largest chunk of real estate and its remaining nuclear arsenal. We left the odious Taliban alone in Afghanistan, and we felt their sting on Sept. 11.

Saddam? Who knew what he had up his sleeve. It was all a degree of suspicion or doubt, till he was gone. We knew what he coveted, however. And how ruthlessly he would use it. And how the anguish of his people under U.N. sanctions was a rallying cry for the Osamas of the Middle East. And how much he was a creature of our last battlefield. And the lesson, the hard-nosed, realpolitik lesson that Americans have become alert to, is, you clean up your battlefields. In the matrix of causes and shadows that brought America into Iraq in 2003, this was not least among them.

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