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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Update: where I stand

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 9th, 2003

That would be the same place I explained about a month ago: with regrets, for war on Saddam. This update is prompted by the “defections” of former pro-war liberals Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, and “agonist” Sean-Paul. I’ll skip discussing “agonist”; as you can see, he isn’t on my “blogroll” to the left, although he doubtless should be. So my opinion on his change of heart would be pointless.

I have read Marshall (“TalkingPoints”) and Drum (“CalPundit”) fairly often, though, and I’ll confess I’m feeling equal parts uneasy about and let down by their points. Since I hate feeling lonely, I’m hoping to convince one or the other of them to at least suggest what might bring them back. First, Marshall.

On March 8, Marshall writes:

The pros and cons of handling Iraq have never been separable from how you do it, the costs you rack up in the doing of it, calculated against the gains you’ll get in having accomplished it. At this point, we truly have the worst case scenario on the international stage. And I think that those costs now outweigh the gains.

This is more or less taking the out Marshall apparently left for himself by emphasizing Ken Pollack’s own extensive list of caveats about the right way to “do” Iraq. As readers of Pollack’s book know, and as Fred Kaplan has recently pointed out at great length in Slate (but who am I to throw stones), Pollack — like anyone who is sane — would have preferred: 1) to wait a little longer, 2) to have a Turkish front (in part, by the way, in order to assure US troops could deter the Turks from doing harm to the Kurds); 3) international approval; 4) a well-conceived consensus on how to go about the political reconstruction of post-war Iraq; 5) doubtless other conditions I can’t dredge up from memory right now. These were not given as of Marshall’s last discussion with Pollack, and they obviously still aren’t, to put it mildly. On February 28th, Marshall nevertheless wrote:

If we could turn back the clock a year and we had the choice of a) doing exactly what we’ve done or b) waiting a year or two for a more favorable moment or until a new team was in place who knew what they were doing, I think option ‘b’ would unquestionably be the better choice.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice. The administration has already done massive damage to our standing in the world. And they’ve managed to create facts on the ground — intentionally and unintentionally — which make pulling back arguably more dangerous than pushing ahead. The question is no longer what the ideal thing to do is. It’s more aptly described as which of the really bad alternatives is best to choose given the jam the administration has backed us into.

I agree with all of that, really, but particularly “we don’t have that choice” of turning back the clock, and “pulling back arguably more dangerous” — minus the “arguably.” Marshall takes on the argument, by Carnegie Endowment’s Joe Cirincione et al, that containment works; in an effective and actually sufficient riposte, he notes that containment now may well work, but it can’t be sustained. My instincts are that even in the short run, inspections and surveillance are not the golden tools their enthusiasts would have us believe. But if even the inspections we’re familiar with can’t be sustained, they’re worthless.

The point of the dates is to try to pinpoint what’s changed in the meantime. As far as I see, there are two things: the Turkish refusal to base troops, and the President’s insistence on going through with a vote in the Security Council. Yet the former has arguable silver linings — some argue a “sellout” of the Kurds was averted — and may in any event be reversed. So I’m left with the impression that Marshall has been secretly crossing his fingers for a UN Security Council breakthrough all along, and he feels that’s unlikely. I agree with the hope and the estimate. I don’t agree with the conclusion: that this renders the cost of action against Saddam too high.

The point of the UN Security Council is precisely to be effective in dealing with challenges like Saddam Hussein. They are about to prove themselves incapable of doing so; that incapability will culminate twelve years of futility by that body. I submit that Marshall is discovering that an institution was already worthless, not that the United States and George Bush have made it so. Properly accounted, the loss of the United Nations Security Council is a sunk cost long since incurred. It’s like discovering that a ship you planned to use has rusted through and won’t work. You can kick yourself and wish you’d drydocked and repainted it ten years ago, but that won’t help now. You’ll have to do without it, and replace it with something better as time goes on.*

Drum’s reservations are numerous; the last straw was the report that some evidence forwarded to the IAEA was forged by parties yet unknown (to me, at least). Kevin shared the deep regrets about the diplomacy that has failed to avert the looming train wreck in the United Nations. Finally — at least that’s all I’ll attempt to take on here — Drum was also severely unimpressed by the press conference Bush gave on Thursday night.

On the latter point, I’m more inclined to agree with Andrew Sullivan than with Drum or others: my main impression was that Bush seemed very tired and serious. I know I agree with Drum in one respect: Bush’s evocation of his faith does not bother me — a nonbeliever — in the least; someday, we’ll have a president who believes in the efficacy of transcendental meditation or yoga or reading classical poetry, and he or she will be right about that, too: whatever calms you down is fine with me. As for the rest of it: Bush was repetitive, because he was tired and because he was probably sticking to a team mantra of “staying on message”. It would have probably been better to not have held the press conference as far as convincing intelligentsia like Mr. Drum, but whatever: it’s done.

Regarding the looming Security Council “train wreck,” there’s another point to be made: given the democracies involved, and the vast majorities in Germany and France against the war, this was arguably an unavoidable train wreck. I think it’s pardonable that the Bush administration didn’t reckon with a German election that was a referendum whether Bush was Hitler and America was an overweening tyrant among nations. That’s what happened, though, and Bush was understandably if a bit unprofessionally ingracious about it for a while. Likewise, it didn’t seem likely as late as last September’s SCR 1441 — a 14 to nothing vote — that France and Germany would basically be acting as two hostile, conspiratorial countries in the run-up to the follow-on vote this week.

Yet in retrospect, this was “old Washington” thinking: this can’t be happening, our allies will rally ’round. But “old Europe” didn’t rally ’round, they went their own way. It’s true, we might have been able to finesse things better: Rummie could have shut up more often, Powell could have made a few more visits to European capitals. But what comes through, at least from the German media and blogs I read, is a fundamental difference of views, of “Weltanschauung.” It’s one I think is grounded in the belief — possibly well-founded — that Germany and Europe are too valuable as economic engines for anyone in their right mind to attack them — and that’s all they worry about.** It’s Europe as a super-Switzerland, and it’s an interesting point of view. But it’s not one I think will stand the test of Europe’s own ambitions for itself. To be a “player,” you need a real military, not the toy varieties that Europe fields, on average; but once you have a “real” military, you will acquire suspicious neighbors as if by magic — especially in Europe. And the days of being a player without an army and a navy are waning, and will probably be over by Tuesday or Wednesday or whenever that vote is.

This doesn’t mean we can’t work with these countries ever again; we need to right now, and it will behoove us to be polite about it. But it also doesn’t mean that we’ve lost some pearl of great price: the unconditional loyalty of other nations. We may have had something resembling that for a fleeting moment in world history. Now it’s back to the usual situation: everyone looking out for number one. That’s no more tragic than most periods in human history, and a good deal less tragic than some. Get over it.

The forged evidence — that bothered me a great deal, too. Not because the idea of a particular uranium smuggling attempt was the critical item on which my analysis of Saddam and Iraq stands or falls, but just because I have to wonder about any of the evidence I’ve relied on. Reviewing, I find that the evidence I’ve generally relied on has actually been German evidence and the recent consensus history — or at least conventional wisdom history — of Iraq. While Drum focuses on U.S. incompetence in failing to detect the forgery that the United Kingdom passed along, the question is still who did the forgery. It seems to me right now like Tony Blair ought to figure out who sold him this bill of goods and the “graduate student summer paper” used to substantiate the case against Iraq last year. Someone or some group in British intelligence has been playing games; there should be a housecleaning. But it’s not my country.

While I’m on things that bother me and Drum, and a lot of other people in this country, liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike: torture — should we do it? To me, the answer depends — on how many words I want to use: 1) No. 2) Hell, no. 3) Of course not. And 4), amplifying Jim Henley: Hell, no, of course not, because we’re the fucking United States of America; we should therefore court-martial anyone who does torture a prisoner and put them away for twenty years hard labor at minimum.

This has been even more of a ramble than usual, and I guess I didn’t accomplish what I hoped to: some kind of persuasive “keep your eye on the ball” essay. Saddam is flouting international law and agreements; he is a proven war-starter; his behavior seems unlikely to improve if he gets a nuclear weapon; he has tried to develop such weapons; he refuses to cooperate in a way that would give confidence that he isn’t still trying. These are some of the main arguments, in capsule form, that pushed Drum and Marshall into the pro-war camp. They still hold. The diplomatic, international costs Marshall and Drum identify — at least the ones so far — will not be new costs, but “sunk” ones, already long since incurred, but only recently recognized. In my opinion, the case for war against Saddam still stands.

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* What could that replacement be? I don’t know either. A half-serious suggestion: a league for the defense of democracies, open only to countries who have actually fought to do so, with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia as the apparent charter members. Germany, France and others would join once they had fielded proportionate armies — in combat — for the purpose of defending a democratic regime from aggression, restoring one to power, or establishing one. Nothing else would count, and ongoing membership would require ongoing participation in such actions. This would basically resemble the situation we’re heading towards anyway, but would suggest how to grow the league and share out the military burdens, and it would suggest what the point would be.

The point of the international order can not be to maintain the status quo of a country like Iraq, a permanent threat to its neighbors and a curse to its own people; such a country should have no expectations under international law; although it might well be able to ensure its sovereignty via deterrence and bilateral agreements. But that’s a different matter.

**I wrote a two part blog “We’re not in the same boat… so we won’t be rowing together” last February 20 outlining half of this thesis, well before the Iraq crisis; based on interviews and observations of the German legal system, it seemed like there was already a different calculus of the risk from terrorism in Germany than there is in the United States. Germany took stronger steps more quickly against the pipsqueak Baader-Meinhof terrorist group than it appears willing to with Al Qaeda investigations; the reason may be at least in part that German officials believe they and Germans in general are less directly threatened.

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