Monday, November 12, 2007

Discussing Iraq

I have been involved in a discussion on Facebook with a friend of mine over the War in Iraq. However, since my response is rather complex and formatting things on Facebook is a nightmare, I have decided to post it here.
The whole thing started with Charlie (my friend) pointing to this video of Dick Cheney defending the decision of the Bush père administration (in which he served as Defense Secretary) not to topple Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War:

Charlie asks: "What changed in ten years?"
Echoing a previous comment, I wrote:
Indeed, September 11th. That's not to say that Saddam had anything to do with 9/11 (although he did foster indisputable connections to various terrorist networks including Al Qaeda), but that 9/11 alerted us to a threat gathering on the horizon, and the War in Iraq is one of the responses to that threat.
Also, I would contend that it is premature to claim that Iraq is a hopeless quagmire, as I suspect the Democrats will find to their embarassment over the coming months.
In response to this comment Charlie posted his point of view, which I would like reply to.
Charlie writes:
None of what happened on 11th September 2001 changed the fundamental problems with an Iraqi invasion that Dick Cheney so eloquently points out above.
Dick Cheney is generally considered a Realist in terms of international relations. As Realist and Neoconservative thought (which is where my sympathies lie) have very strong disagreements on a host of IR issues, I do not aim to defend his every position. I was certainly in favour of pushing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein well before September 11th. However I can speculate that the event which convinced some Realists, including Dick Cheney, that the risks and costs of an invasion of Iraq were outweighed by the potential benefits, were in fact the September 11th attacks, which alerted many people to a threat which had until then been underestimated. At any rate, my position on foreign policy is much closer to Christopher Hitchens' (unlike on some other subjects) and Norman Podhoretz's.
Charlie continues:
I have never heard of a convincing link between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda - there are many other Middle Eastern countries which have far more connection with the current terrorism and even back then it would seem Iran was more of a threat on the WMD front. I'm still not convinced we're fighting an advanced network vis a vis Al Queda at any rate - its a viral idea we're fighting against, an idea that has motivated disparate groups to make relatively low tech explosive devices and cause indiscriminate mass carnage on several occasions.
I certainly cannot claim to be an expert on the subject, but it seems to me that while Al Qaeda may be loosely organised and highly flexible it is far from being only a "viral idea." As far as I can tell, although Al Qaeda lacks a clear hierarchy and bureaucracy, it is still a sufficiently organised network to warrant viewing it as a single entity and fighting it on such terms (somewhat like the Mafia). I agree that there are other countries that are very much involved in encouraging terrorism and doing other unsavoury things, and I think our (the West's) policies towards them should be much more robust. On the WMD front, I don't know what "back then" is referring to but it seems to me that Iran was not a focal point of WMD/Nuclear development until more recent years. Not only did Saddam Hussein develop and in fact use chemical weapons against his own citizens decades ago, but he was only prevented from developing nuclear capabilities by a "rogue" Israeli raid.
This brings me back to why, since the mid-1990s, when I started following current events as a teenager, I have been in favour of increasing international pressure on Iraq and if ultimately necessary intervening militarily. The reason is not tied just to one specific justification, each of which taken separately may be too weak to impel the West to breach another country's sovereignty (a concept which I think is important, but should not be absolute). However, by the end of the last century Iraq's situation was such that the threat of a military intervention seemed to me the best course to address several festering problems.
Even ignoring Saddam's connections to Al Qaeda (and there is proof that some connection did exist), his regime supported terrorism through other channels, such as his harbouring Abu Abbas and Abu Nidal (and then purportedly assassinating him) and his sponsoring of suicide bomber families in the West Bank (just to mention a few). In addition, as I noted above, Saddam had developed and used chemical weapons on his own people in the 1980s and almost succeeded in developing nuclear capabilities at the same time (not to mention more recent suspect activity). He invaded Kuwait and demonstrated a repeated disregard for human rights and principles of common decency. Over a period of decades the brutality of the regime, the repeated invasions of Iraq's neighbours, the continued and longstanding flouting of Security Council resolutions regarding the Gulf War, Saddam's ability to completely corrupt the UN and its already ineffective and unpopular Oil-for-Food program, his use of chemical weapons on his Kurdish subjects without scruple and his close brush with success on the nuclear front, all indicated that Saddam needed to be removed for both humanitarian and security reasons. At the time there was, in my opinion, no other regime on earth which had posed such varied, sustained and worrying challenges to the international community, and it is precisely the mushy response of the international community which forced the Anglosphere's hand: if the entire West had presented a united front, my bet is that Saddam would have folded and outright war would have been avoided. Incidentally, the case in favour of the Bush Doctrine is presented with clarity and elegance by Norman Podhoretz in a series of articles for Commentary Magazine (and in his new book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism).
Charlie goes on to write:
Right now Iraq is a hellhole, let alone a Quagmire - just as Cheney predicted - a Kurdish-Turk war now looks inevitable. Iran arms insurgents in the east and gradually increases its influence over those oil rich regions. As yet, the Western Iraqi problems - in Anbar Province - seem to have marginally subsided with the troop surge and the loss of civilian support for the Jihadists trying to stir up more trouble.
Although Iraq is certainly going through a difficult time, I think it is hardly a hellhole and certainly not the most violent spot on the planet. In fact, there seems to be an increasing consensus that - for the moment at least (and as I expected) - things are looking much better than they have for years. That is why the Democrats are starting to fret over what to do if, God forbid, the surge actually continues to do well.
At the same time I think it is quite clear that while Iran is rattling sabers, it is actually having quite a few problems of its own both economically and politically. Therefore it is only by obtaining nuclear weapons that Iran will pose a truly daunting threat, which is why a stop should be put to Ahmadinejad's plans.
Charlie concludes:
I hope Iraq can come out of its current troubles and I hope the limited success of the surge in some areas spread to others and a peaceful solution to the Kurdish-Turk problem can be found. I am skeptical though. Cheney still knew in 2003 what he knew in 1994 so I am guessing he was either over-ruled or there is some larger imperative in which the problems he describes are deemed an acceptable cost. Whatever that is, I very much doubt it's the destruction of 'Al Queda'.
I'm glad to hear that Charlie hopes Iraq can overcome its troubles, and I am much more confident than him that indeed it will. It seems to me that some people who oppose the War, do not in fact share Charlie's hopes, which I find both a pity and objectionable. As I note above, the Iraq War was not fought on the narrow justification of an Al Qaeda connection, and there certainly were larger imperatives at stake. I don't think changing one's mind (as Cheney seems to have done) is necessarily a bad thing, not least when he has moved from a deeply cynical, short-termist, balance-of-power view of the world - to a neconservative (more idealistic but robust) vision.