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October 21, 2011

Comments

Andy Hallman

Hi Nathan. I found out about your blog through your comments on econlog, which have been very good, by the way.

However, I have to take issue with this paragraph:

"The architects of the Iraq war were hoping that Iraq would be liberal, democratic, and aligned with the United States; but if "better than Saddam" was all they got, that's an improvement; and the odds of that were always very good."

Sure, the U.S. could install someone better than Saddam, but we're still a long way from justifying the invasion. The U.S. took over the country and killed people who resisted, and quite a few people who didn't resist in the form of collateral damage. To justify that, they have to overcome the presumption against murder (and also manslaughter), and a slight improvement of the Iraqi government does not overcome that presumption. I can't kill the mayor of my town just because I I can better manage city utilities.

I think it would be different if there were some sort of genocide occurring in Iraq that could only be prevented through invasion, and which could likely save many more lives than it extinguished. But in 2003, there wasn't anything like that occurring in Iraq, so I don't see the case for invasion being very strong.

Nathan Smith

That's a much better argument than Bacevich's, and in general I wouldn't deny that there are good arguments against the Iraq War. But the small-town mayor example can be turned the other way. Would you be justified in killing the mayor if he established a reign of terror in the city, had committed countless murders, had totally destroyed all respect for rights, freedom of speech, association, etc.-- in short, if he ruled like Saddam Hussein?

You grant that genocide would be a license to invade, but say it wasn't occurring. But that strikes me as an odd place to draw the line. Saddam had committed genocide in the past. He seemed likely to do so again should the occasion arise. Can you imagine what he would have done if he were still in power in 2011 and the Arab Spring broke out in the streets of Baghdad? Murder and the threat thereof was still a fundamental aspect of his rule. And surely you'd agree that anyone who spoke out against the regime could expect torture or death.

A few other things that might be relevant. 1) The US had played a major role in bringing Saddam to power and maintaining them there. Does that give us a particular obligation to remove him when he'd become a totalitarian tyrant? 2) Iraq proved to be an advantageous battleground in the War on Terror. Whereas in Afghanistan the conditions for democratic development were basically the worst in the entire world, giving the Taliban an opening to recover, in Iraq the democratic idea proved to have some fight in it, and al-Qaeda had to stop us there and couldn't and got destroyed, so that by now the War on Terror is basically over even though we're losing in Afghanistan. 3) It seems pretty likely that the example of democracy set in Iraq (once it became clear that it wouldn't be permanently an American puppet state but was a real independent government) helped to inspire the Arab Spring (and also that Saddam's fall helped to inspire dictators not to resist the Arab Spring by a degree of force which would make them share his fate). 4) We tried pretty hard not to kill innocent people there, though it's not possible to avoid that completely.

Andy Hallman

Sorry for the delay in responding. I will have to post this in two parts:

"Would you be justified in killing the mayor if he established a reign of terror in the city, had committed countless murders, had totally destroyed all respect for rights, freedom of speech, association, etc.-- in short, if he ruled like Saddam Hussein?"


Whether an act is justified or not is a function of its likely consequences (and if you don't agree with that premise, we can debate that separately), so we're going to need to know more than just how bad the person has been in his life. Specifically, we will need to know how killing this person affects other people, by making them better or worse off. If the gains to the rest of the population are not substantial, then it doesn't matter how bad the old mayor was, it would be wrong to kill him.

In any case, the analogy of the bad mayor deserving punishment would be an argument for assassinating Saddam Hussein, not an argument for invading Iraq. Assassinating Saddam is far from obviously correct but certainly less objectionable than invasion, which involves killing lots of people who had nothing to do with Saddam's crimes.

"Saddam had committed genocide in the past. He seemed likely to do so again should the occasion arise."

Is this just speculation or is there good reason to think this?

"And surely you'd agree that anyone who spoke out against the regime could expect torture or death."

I'm aware torture was commonplace under Saddam. I'm sure you're aware of the conditions in Abu Ghraib when it was in American hands. According to the Bradley Manning's account of his time in Iraq, he was given 15 detainees and asked to find out who the bad guys were. When he found out that the people had simply written a critique of the Iraqi government, his superior officer wasn't interested in hearing that and asked him to find more detainees. So it seems as though Iraqis are still being imprisoned for disagreeing with the government.

http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/manning-lamo-logs/

"2) Iraq proved to be an advantageous battleground in the War on Terror. Whereas in Afghanistan the conditions for democratic development were basically the worst in the entire world, giving the Taliban an opening to recover, in Iraq the democratic idea proved to have some fight in it, and al-Qaeda had to stop us there and couldn't and got destroyed, so that by now the War on Terror is basically over even though we're losing in Afghanistan"

My understanding is that there was basically no al Qaeda presence in Iraq prior to the invasion and that it surfaced only after the invasion. Is your understanding of the history different?

Andy Hallman

"3) It seems pretty likely that the example of democracy set in Iraq (once it became clear that it wouldn't be permanently an American puppet state but was a real independent government) helped to inspire the Arab Spring (and also that Saddam's fall helped to inspire dictators not to resist the Arab Spring by a degree of force which would make them share his fate)."

When the US invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein was not engaging in any more repression than he had in the prior decade, so why would this cause neighboring states to reduce their demand for repression? In fact, when Saddam was actually repressing people the most, in the 1980s, the US was giving him weapons. What lesson would you learn from that if you were a Middle Eastern autocrat?

"4) We tried pretty hard not to kill innocent people there, though it's not possible to avoid that completely."

If you watch the famous Apache attack video of 2007, you will notice that the Apache attacks a van that has come to rescue the survivors of the attack. The U.S. subsequently explained that this is in keeping with their policy and thus warranted no further inquiry.

I came across an article the other day about civilian deaths in Afghanistan and how they are underreported. This paragraph caught my eye:

http://original.antiwar.com/porter/2011/10/25/un-tally-excluded-most-afghan-civilian-deaths-in-night-raids/

"U.S. Special Forces officers belonging to a unit that had killed nine election workers along with a former Taliban insurgent they had mistakenly believed was the Taliban shadow governor of Takhar province in September 2010 told former BBC reporter Kate Clark last December that anyone found in the company of a person who is targeted is regarded as an insurgent as well."

Or, in other words, the U.S. has been able to reduce civilian casualties by defining them out of existence. I do not know if this method for counting civilian deaths is standard procedure in Iraq, but if it is we should doubt the military's numbers on civilian deaths there, too.

By the way, it seems that not all of the html tags I want to use, such as blockquotes or bold text, work on your website. Am I just doing it wrongly or does your site not support that?

nato

Though Nathan and I have disagreed extremely vehemently in the past and one might call my position closer to Andy's than Nathan's, I want to dispute/complicate some of Andy's responses.
1)Given how eviscerated Saddam's opposition had become by 2003, assassinating Saddam would likely have done one of three things: 1)placed his government in the hands of his even-more-vile sons 2)placed government in the hands of another strongman in the Baath party, and possibly leading to another round of purges/massacres as he cemented control 3)turned Iraq into a proxy battleground between Iran-backed Shia and Saudi/Jordanian/Syrian-backed Sunnis. As it happened, we were so incompetent that #3 was happening in a low-grade way in 2006-2007, but it never approached the type of bloodbath the Shia-Sunni conflict has been in the past. So, what we did was likely better than just assassinating Saddam. I won't swear to it, because these things are never certain, but I think my counterfactuals are not only fairly well-informed, they amount to settled consensus in the region.

Abu Ghurayb was a travesty, incredibly counterproductive and a huge blot on our national honor, I don't think it makes sense to compare it with Saddam's torture except symbolically. We fell vastly short of our own standards and the reasonable standards of the world, but we never approached Saddam's level (or Syrian levels) of abuse. In fact, our better treatment actually 'turned' a fair number of sources who had also experienced persecution by Saddam's Mukhabarat. I don't mention this in an exculpatory sense; merely that if you're performing a utilitarian analysis of comparative levels of torture, Abu Ghurayb in our hands was vastly better than in Saddam's.

I could also tell stories of command indifference, callousness or misguidedness, but I can also tell stories of commanders who started to 'get it' after pushback from intelligence analysts. They are, after all, *combat* commanders, and they may not understand stabilization operations without significant help from those who have some training in that direction. It's worth noting that killing civilians in the pursuit of military objectives is perfectly acceptable under the Laws of War, just like you can bomb an operational hospital that you think the enemy is using to store ammunition. With that 'get the bad-guy' type of mission, a certain callousness is baked into the whole mindset. Basically, the approach that Manning experienced is almost inevitable when military units are tasked in terms of 'kinetic' objectives - a failure right from the top. My team was asked to do screwed up things, and we resisted *as we were legally required to do*, and eventually prevailed. And that is how the system is *supposed* to self-correct. It's horrible that we and so many other teams were put in that position, but it doesn't mean that official policy was to imprison those who disagreed with the government. It just means that some teams didn't have the wherewithal to prevent abuses as they were supposed to.

2)There was one way in which Iraq was an 'advantageous' battleground: it was the Arab world, and thus Al Qaeda was beheading Arabs. It brought the viciousness of Al Qaeda home in a way that killing Dari-speaking Afghans could not. Otherwise, yes, it was colossally stupid. But still, Al Qaeda was stupider, and much, much more monstrous, so as much as it originally raised Al Qaeda's image in the Arab world, it also allowed them to eventually destroy themselves utterly in the Arab street.

4)I watched the Apache video without labels at first, and it was really hard to interpret - given what I knew and didn't know - the scene as anything but a neighborhood militia/death squad boss walking down the street of his sector accompanied by a large number of heavily-armed fighters. I absolutely saw the camera as an RPG, and it wasn't until I watched it again that I saw how it could be anything else. Certainly it isn't something you see people walking down an Iraqi street carrying, and just like the people giving the approval to fire, I had no idea there were journalists in the mix. Even the official explanation about the van pulling up to take the bodies totally fit for me, as it is positively expected for associates of a strongman to immediately pull up to take away weapons and bodies. I was surprised when the Apache pilot got the approval to fire because I didn't know that there was an active firefight going on not far away, but once that gets into the mix I make a lot of allowances for a battle captain when there's still troops in contact.

Also, I have some knowledge* of the targeting process, including the requirements for legal approval (which have only tightened over time). Special Forces have a lot of latitude to get around that, and they have certainly abused the process many times, but a)they aren't that big a proportion of overall targeting b)they only target top guys for whom their assumption makes more sense and c)I've worked with four different SF teams, and each of them had a different level of conscientiousness about making sure they didn't kill innocents. Just because one SF group goes about it a particular way doesn't mean they all do.

*I was very personally involved in it, and my wife was to a lesser extent, but I'm just one person and 2010 is well after my time.

Basically, I have an incredible well of bitterness about the conduct of the war including especially the administration's approach, as well as the way the war affected Afghanistan, and I also take an opposite assessment of OIF's affect on the Arab Spring, but the whole "aren't we just as bad?" and related lines of argument require a certain amount of ignorance or willful blindness to sustain. That probably sounds like a harsh judgement to lob at Andy, but I don't mean it to be. For one thing, it's not clear that Andy is making quite that argument, and for another, I expect a certain level of relative ignorance from someone for whom it's not their speciality or their profession, as it has been mine. I do not make the same excuse for certain government figures in charge of the Iraq effort, of course, because then it was their job and their responsibility. Both of which I feel they failed monumentally and culpably. Hence my bitterness.

For two books that I think have it sorta right: Assassin's Gate by George Packer and Fiasco by Thomas Ricks.

P.S. I feel sorry for Manning but think he did a horribly stupid, reckless thing. I have nothing but contempt for Assange now, though I thought Wikileaks was genius back when it was a true whistle-blowing site rather than a terrifyingly dangerous bomb in the middle of international relations. I'd like to put him in the room with some of the opposition people in Zimbabwe, or Burma, or endangered Afghan sources, or any of the other people he decided were expendable because they cooperated with US State Department et al. Not so they could beat him up. No, I want him to look them in the eye and explain what he did and listen to them when they tell him who and what they lost because of his insouciance. The US (and other countries) may screw up and behave callously, but at least it usually has a defined goal, a process, and a sense of responsibility. And of course, if you're no better than the US at its worst, then you're not very good, are you?

nato

Clarify the sentence to go "...I also make the opposite assessment from Nathan regarding OIF's affect on the Arab Spring..."

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Nathan Smith

Nato covered much of it. re: "My understanding is that there was basically no al Qaeda presence in Iraq prior to the invasion and that it surfaced only after the invasion. Is your understanding of the history different?" No, my understanding is also that al Qaeda was not in Iraq prior to the invasion, but we forced them to come there if they were have any hope of maintaining their prestige as the Islamist vanguard, and they lost. Iraq was a much more favorable battleground for us in the War on Terror than Afghanistan was, and it allowed us basically to win the War on Terror which otherwise would probably have been an embarrassing stalemate if not a Vietnam-style loss. I have moral qualms about assassination, and I'm not sure it was possible; anyway, it wouldn't have given Iraq the same kind of odds of having a better regime afterwards that the invasion did. re: "Whether an act is justified or not is a function of its likely consequences." That seems to make the question one of whether Iraq is better off now than under Saddam, and if you think that liberty and freedom of conscience are of tremendous value, as I do, then the balance of the evidence seems strongly on the side of better off. Or, if you want to say there was an opportunity cost of the invasion, then you also need to take into account the global effect of dictators facing a new semi-credible threat that genocide will be punished even *ex post.* At this point the positive and negative consequences of the war become very hard to weigh, but I'm inclined to a hopeful attitude. Abu Ghraib and specific abuses of rules of engagement are complaints about the conduct of the war rather than the decision to fight it at all, but they might affect one's view of the decision to go to war at all, if one sees it as inevitable that some abuses will occur. But, as Nato says, the abuses by the Americans were so mild compared to those under Saddam that it can hardly tip the balance much with regard to the decision to invade, although it is by all means something the military should worry about. About the html tags, I'm not sure... I should look into it I guess.

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