hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Friday, March 18, 2005
Matt Yglesias has a post quoting Jeanne D'Arc on the people killed in the Iraq war, and how they don't get to vote on whether the Iraq war was "worth it". His post triggered a long comment from me concerning a bunch of distinct, but related, issues on how to think about the Iraq War:

First, the issue of dead Iraqis and dead Americans:

The second crucial mistake, in addition to not holding early elections, that Bush made in waging the Iraq war was not establishing the principle that we value the truth and human life, even the lives of our enemies, while our enemies don't. Immediately on winning the war, we should have announced the formation of a Truth & Reconciliation committee, dedicated to rigorously accounting for every Iraqi life lost during the war, including Iraqi civilian & combat deaths, as well as every Iraqi killed during Saddam's reign, including the first gulf war.

If we had done that, the powerful message we might have sent to the Iraqi people is "your long national nightmare is over" & "the truth shall set you free". Instead the message we have sent over the past two years is that we don't particularly care how many Iraqis we have to kill, as long as the end result is a victory. That is of course unfair to the many heroic US troops & comanders who have taken care & great personal risks in order to minimize loss of life in accomplishing the mission, but it is true nonetheless. When we carefully account for US deaths and injuries in Iraq, the message that is sent is that we care about US deaths and that we value each life. When we refuse to release our best estimates of Iraqi deaths on the flimsy grounds that "the enemy might use it for propaganda", what message does that send?

In any case, perhaps we, or the new Iraqi government, could still form such a commission.

Second, the issue of "humanitarian war":

Previously, advocates of humanitarian war have generally advocated military intervention in cases of "hot oppression", where the oppressors are engaging in immediate, current acts of killing & ethnic cleansing, and we are advocating intervention primarily to stop those acts. The Iraq war is an example of humanitarian intervention in a case of "cold oppression", where the Sunni/Baathist elites had been brutally oppressing the Shias and the Kurds for a number of years, but there was no ongoing mass killing/ethnic cleansing going on at the time we intervened, and which would have the been the cause of our intervention.

All this is a long-winded attempt to say that I agree with you that humanitarian war to liberate an oppresssed people from a "cold oppression" is probably not the best course of action (And I think the Iraq war supporters agree with this as well. Their attitude towards the Iraq war seems to be "We did a great thing. Now, let's never do it again").

Rather than start the war in Mar. 2003, FWIW, I would have preferred pursuing a more patient, long-ranging, "surgical" policy of regime change, with a stronger and more authentic Iraqi opposition. And another thing I think the administration should have done was put in the 2002 UN resolution several humanitarian conditions, that Saddam would have to meet in order to avoid war. I have *no* idea why they didn't do this.

Third, the issue of history being written wrongly because "dead men tell no tales", and because most people don't consider opportunity costs:

In other words, you're asserting that the fact that we'll win in Iraq, and do some real good in Iraq, does not necessarily mean that initiating the war was the right decision. Well, you, me & Bob Rubin know this is true. (it cuts both ways, BTW. A bad outcome in Iraq does not necessarily mean going in was the wrong decision.) So then how do you respond to the "I wanted to go to war in Iraq, you didn't. Well, we went to war, and we won. Therefore, I was right, you were wrong, nyah, nyah, nyah, Bow before me nowwwww" challenge?

I don't think the fact that dead people can't speak for themselves affects this issue at all. I'm pretty sure that the Iraqis are not forgetting their dead, and are not disrespecting their dead, when they say they're better off because of the war. In fact, it's much more likely that the large number of deaths makes them much *more* likely to say it was worth it, because they don't want so many to have died in vain.

I think you prepare for the "nyah nyah nyah" challenge by your conduct after the war starts. You make clear that even though you disagree with the decision to start the war, now that it's started you're 100% committed to try to make it a success, and to advocate the best course of action, going forward. The complex and altruistic psychological tricks required to do this shows why opposing a war is amost always a bad move politically, and why opposing a war is almost always an act of great political courage. And great and sophisticated democracies know that there's a natural bias towards using War as a "Force That Gives us Meaning", and they try to create some institutional & cultural safeguards to correct against this.

The great William Burton early on in the post-war said no one should care whether they were pro or anti war. It simply didn't matter any more. Salam Pax said the same. Around May 2003 Salam was getting a lot of questions "Was the Iraq war the right thing to do?". His slightly exasperated response was basically "What fool cares? Maybe once upon a time we might had a nice chat about what the alternatives were, but it's a moot point".

Ultimately, you answer the "nyah nyah nyah" challenge by being 100 percent focused on the future, and what needs to be done going forward, rather than getting bogged down in unproductive arguments over who deserves Vindication or Repudiation. I just read a quote by General George C. Marshall which says it quite nicely: "There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit." And Marshall knew what he was talking about. If he had insisted on commanding the Normandy invasion, he would have gotten the glory. Instead, Ike did.

The obsession of modern conservatives of demanding Credit for their heroes and and Repudiation of their enemies reflects the weakness of modern conservatism, not strength. Instead of making decisions objectively, in the Bob Rubin/George Marshall mold, you become unwilling to hear even constructive criticism, and you start basing your actions on an egoistic, self-destructive need to justify every decision or judgment you've ever made.

Lastly, an interesting historical comparison to the Liberation of Iraq by the US is the Liberation of Bangladesh by India. There, too, I would guess a large number of Bangladeshis would say the war was "worth it", but they don't think of Indians as "liberators", nor do they give India the Credit that US conservatives are so obsessed with. Unless US conservatives pay a lot more attention to the actual situation on the ground in Iraq, rather than just stroking their ego and claiming Vindication, Iraq might turn out for the US like Bangladesh did for India. Not terrible, but not great either. . .

"Roublen, you're just making stuff up". Well, yes. But perhaps another way to think of it: Saying "the war was not worth it" is to implicitly say that the near-term future will be worse, or no better, than the past. Even if someone you know has been killed, an Iraqi still might want to remain hopeful for the future. Also, most Iraqis are *not* out there seeking revenge for deaths of their family members. The way they would justify to themselves the decision not to seek revenge is "Well, we have to think of the long-term good of the country.".