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Impearls: War Debate 2

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Earthdate 2003-04-24

War Debate 2

Here's the second part of the war debate which a long-time friend of mine and I conducted by e-mail prior to the outbreak of the conflict.  My friend wrote:

I presume, then, that you will not be stopping by to watch the Pentagon Papers recreation on FX.  (It starts at 8 pm, by the way.)

Some comments:  I do not think that this Iraqi situation is the same as Vietnam, not by a long shot.  There are many, many differences.  I also don't think it is 1939, either.  There are lessons to be learned from these two previous experiences, but neither makes a very good or complete model for the current situation.

Vietnam is different because we opposed a national hero who was trying to win independence for his country.  After all, in 1958, Eisenhower torpedoed the reunification election because, as he later stated, “Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote”.  It was also different because the geography and climate were radically different, making war tactics much different.  I could go on naming differences, but these two will do.

I am conflicted on this war.  Emotionally, I want to see Saddam gone from the scene, preferably dead.  Intellectually, it just doesn't all come together.

I do get the same oily feeling about government claims now, and there is a lesson from Vietnam to be learned.  Here are some things that trouble me:

1.  Why is it that the nations in most direct danger from Iraq (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) all resist our intervention?  Now, Kuwait was quickly reminded that they owe us one, so they are letting us station troops.  Saudi Arabia reluctantly is letting us do fly overs.  Turkey and Iran are not helping at all, although Turkey is ready to punch the Kurds around a bit.

2.  When I listen to the Bush administration claims, the reasons for war keep shifting like the dessert sands.  Is it ‘weapons of mass destruction’?  Is it to liberate the Iraqi people (what about the Kurds, who we just sold out — are they being liberated)?  Is it to bring democracy to the region (hah!)?  We didn't do such a good job of bringing democracy to Kuwait or Afghanistan.  Saddam is in cahoots with Al Qaida?  This is the weakest claim of all!  The Bush administration is not being honest with us, they keep on throwing one bone after another hoping to find one that works.

There is a good argument being made, I cannot disprove it, that we want to establish dominance in the region for several Machiavellian reasons.  Not directly for oil reserves, but rather to control the allocation of oil worldwide.  China needs access to Mideast oil, and we want to pre-empt China from becoming a superpower this century.  Europe is very dependent on the Mideast.  Also, the Arab oil producing countries have been discussing switching from the dollar to the euro for oil sales, something that would have negative repercussions for the dollar worldwide.

Several current administration members have argued (in print) over the last 20 years that we need to exert control over the Mideast for these strategic reasons.  They believe, and wrote, that it is critical to control the oil producing countries to insure we continue as the sole superpower.  This is the intellectual underpinning for the current situation.

3.  Why can't Iraq be contained?  We contained far more dangerous countries for decades — USSR, China, Eastern Europe, even poor little Cuba (who we really should reapproach).  War should not be conducted when there are less destructive means available.  I think this is Europe's main objection (although the French are motivated by business contacts with North Africa).

4.  Why do we invade a country that has not attacked us, and never threatened to attack us?  I don't like this new ‘since 9/11’ mentality of pre-emptive strikes against enemies who never attacked us.  This, by the way, is the other similarity to Vietnam:  They never attacked us, either.

Michael, this is not 1939.  Iraq is not an industrial power that can support a world class military.  We have them contained, unlike the situation with Germany where the world ignored them while they attacked one country after another.  Saddam models his rule after Stalin and Hitler, but the similarities end there.  He cannot even move his armed forces freely within his own country.  The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ argument doesn't wash, great nations don't make wars on the basis of could-be's.

So, as much as I dislike Saddam emotionally, the reasons for war fail the intellect.  If the nations most directly affected by Saddam do not want this war then we, as American citizens, have to severely question our government on their motives and intentions.  They do not look honorable to me.

On Earthdate 2003-03-09, I replied to my friend's message above:

Re the Pentagon Papers show:  I appreciate the offer, but no, I don't believe we wish to go out this afternoon (we were out and about all day yesterday), and I doubt the program would provide much insight into the present dilemma.  Thanks anyway, though.  [Follow-on update: we did eventually see the program, plus several recent interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself.]

Re “I do not think that this Iraqi situation is the same as Vietnam, not by a long shot.  There are many, many differences.”  Well, that's the problem with comparing any two events in history: there are always a nearly infinite number of specific differences between them!  Can then no inferences ever be drawn from history?

I also don't think it is 1939, either.  There are lessons to be learned from these two previous experiences, but neither makes a very good or complete model for the current situation […].

Granted there is no complete analogy.  However, what I'm seeking is a simple comparison:  Are we entering a period of war which will occur in various circumstances, across various parts of the world, over a period of years, much as the world was in 1939?  Or is this more like Vietnam: generally a period of peace (“cold war,” perhaps, but peace), with the aberration of Vietnam erupting in the middle?  I'm afraid that we're entering (have actually already entered) a lengthy period of war — basically unavoidable war, if we don't want to be defeated without war, that is.

I could go on naming differences, but these two will do.

Yes, there are always a nearly infinite number of differences between any two events (sorry for the echo).

1.  Why is it that the nations in most direct danger from Iraq (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) all resist our intervention?  Now, Kuwait was quickly reminded that they owe us one, so they are letting us station troops.  Saudi Arabia reluctantly is letting us do fly overs.  Turkey and Iran are not helping at all, although Turkey is ready to punch the Kurds around a bit.

Turkey actually voted in favor of our troops passing through into northern Iraq.  It was only a parliamentary maneuver (akin to a quorum call) that invalidated the majority vote in favor.  Beyond that, U.S. and British patrols continue to fly over the northern “No Fly” zone (and much bombing is accompanying that; I've heard of 750 missions a day) which originates in Turkey.  It simply isn't true that “Turkey … isn't helping at all.”  As for the overall reluctance of Turkey's people to allow our troops to transit, they're a Muslim country.  Any Muslim would be conflicted over Christian forces proposing to occupy the capital of their ancient historic Caliphate.  The people of Turkey, like many another country, are as confused as anybody.  (I'm surprised they're as positive as they are.)

As for getting Iran's help, Iran is one of the “axis of evil,” and they (the mullahs, that is) know it.  If you listen to the youth of Iran, on the other hand, you'll find that many of them can't wait for the U.S. to invade — them not Iraq — and toss the mullahs out.  I'm not kidding.  (Have you noticed that with Iraq subdued, Iran will be bracketed by U.S.-friendly regimes?  I guarantee you, Iran's leadership has.)

Saudi Arabia ditto, except that — by courtesy (at least until Iraq is conquered) — they'll stay off the “axis” list.

Really, if it's actually so inconceivable that democracy and responsible government could be transplanted into Arab and Islamic society (as you tried to convince me the other day), why do you think all these Arab and Islamic monarchical and oligarchic regimes are so afraid of it?  Personally, I have little doubt democracy could be successfully transplanted — as long as the 101st Airborne remains close at hand.  Just as in Germany and Japan (neither of which had really been a democracy before the war, the poor example of the Weimar Republic notwithstanding), following World War II occupation forces stabilized those countries while republican institutions took root.

2.  When I listen to the Bush administration claims, the reasons for war keep shifting like the dessert sands.  Is it ‘weapons of mass destruction’?  Is it to liberate the Iraqi people (what about the Kurds, who we just sold out — are they being liberated)?  Is it to bring democracy to the region (hah!)?  We didn't do such a good job of bringing democracy to Kuwait or Afghanistan.  Saddam is in cahoots with Al Qaida?  This is the weakest claim of all!  The Bush administration is not being honest with us, they keep on throwing one bone after another hoping to find one that works.

Personally, I think we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of reasons for tossing out Saddam.  Any and all of those rationales are more than adequate for me.  I can't fault the Bush administration for attempting to emphasize those particular causes which appear to resonate best with the public at any given moment — any politician would do the same.  As for what you call the “weakest claim of all,” an alliance between Saddam and Al Qaeda does not seem at all unlikely to me, regardless of whether conclusive “proof” has been delivered up for scrutiny.  Both forces are exceedingly dangerous, and simply cannot be allowed to combine.  Saddam stands convicted without any doubt of violating the world's demands for disarmament.  There's no need for the explicit danger to materialize: chuck him out!

As for Afghanistan, that country is infinitely better off than it was before the war.  The left likes to moan and groan about the progress there, but in fact much progress has been made.  The best indicator of that fact is that the Afghan refugees themselves are pouring home by the millions.

There is a good argument being made, I cannot disprove it, that we want to establish dominance in the region for several Machiavellian reasons.  Not directly for oil reserves, but rather to control the allocation of oil worldwide.  China needs access to Mideast oil, and we want to pre-empt China from becoming a superpower this century.  Europe is very dependent on the Mideast.  Also, the Arab oil producing countries have been discussing switching from the dollar to the euro for oil sales, something that would have negative repercussions for the dollar worldwide.

Several current administration members have argued (in print) over the last 20 years that we need to exert control over the Mideast for these strategic reasons.  They believe, and wrote, that it is critical to control the oil producing countries to insure we continue as the sole superpower.  This is the intellectual underpinning for the current situation.

I'd like to see references to supposed advice from presidential advisors that we should just take over all the oil of the world (moreover, 20 years is a long time ago to boot).  I'm afraid you're departing into never-never land here.  This is the constant refrain of the antiwar crowd (that it's “all about oooiil!”) dressed up in slightly more intellectually respectable garb.  During every international intervention of the last ten years, the far left has hysterically proclaimed that it's all about oil.  According to such people, the Bosnian and Kosovo wars were waged to control a prospective pipeline through Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo — which has somehow failed to materialize.  The Afghan war was fought not because of September 11, but for a supposed pipeline to be built through Afghanistan (also imaginary so far) — and now this!  Oughtn't one get a little suspicious of “oily” rationales like this one?

Beyond that, any industrialized country that wants to free itself from the “domination of oil” can readily do so: build a large number of nuclear power plants (like France gets 80% of its electrical power from); make hydrogen from the electricity, and burn that in cars instead of oil.  One can also make petroleum products from coal — and both China and India have lots and lots of coal.  And what about all that Russian and Central Asian oil?  I suggest that no one can corral the supply of oil in the present day world and make it stick.  Also, as the Arabs found out following the 1970s oil shocks, people adapt to higher prices by shifting to other sources.  George W. Bush himself recently announced a initiative to propel the country towards a non-oil based, hydrogen economy.  After thus undercutting the importance of oil to people everywhere, Bush is now supposedly trying to capture the world's oil?  Sounds to me like he sees the handwriting on the wall that oil has no future (except as a lubricant and materials source for plastics).

If you're looking for Machiavellian reasons for invading Iraq, however, I suggest, once again, that you read this article.  (I'll wait.)

Of course, most in the antiwar movement can't accept that as an explanation for the Bush Administration's plans.  Why?  Because this would require that they acknowledge that Bush is following his course for exactly the reason he says he is: because he's convinced that the national security of America — and the lives of many Americans — depend on it.  It appears to me that the antiwar movement is far more fixated on George W. Bush than on Saddam Hussein, and most people seem unable to avoid attributing all manner of nefarious, corrupt motivations to him (Bush, not Saddam!) for his actions in this war.  To the contrary, as columnist Thomas Friedman (who is far from a rightist or Bush supporter) put it in the New York Times:

… what you are about to see is the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan.  Vietnam was a huge risk, but it evolved incrementally.  And threatening a nuclear war with the Soviets over the Cuban missile crisis was a huge shake of the dice by President John Kennedy, but it was a gamble that was imposed on him, not one he initiated.

A U.S. invasion to disarm Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein and rebuild a decent Iraqi state would be the mother of all presidential gambles.  Anyone who thinks President Bush is doing this for political reasons is nuts.  You could do this only if you really believed in it, because Mr. Bush is betting his whole presidency on this war of choice.

Given the high stakes in this game, it's simply silly to think that Bush has wagered his job — his chance at reelection, his reputation in history — just so his buddies in the oil industry can make a few more bucks.

I take Bush at his word (and I'm speaking as one who never voted for Bush, and in fact was appalled by the events of the fall of 2000), because I also believe the danger is real.  Many other thoughtful people do too.  Why can't those in the antiwar movement accept that there's an honest difference of opinion concerning the reality of the danger — rather than attribute all to the basest motives and darkest conspiracy theories?  (Because demonizing the opposition makes it easier to make political points, is my guess.)

3.  Why can't Iraq be contained?  We contained far more dangerous countries for decades — USSR, China, Eastern Europe …

A country that has nuclear weapons pointed at our heads we must treat gingerly.  Why however, should we merely attempt to “contain” not just an obnoxious but dangerous regime — see September 11, 2001, if you forget just how deadly such can be — but which (at present) lacks deliverable nuclear weapons, when we can displace such a regime with relatively small difficulty and casualties in a few days time?  What does a war almost 40 years back which lasted over 10 years and consumed more than 50,000 lives have to say to us?

… even poor little Cuba (who we really should reapproach).

“Poor little Cuba” is poor because its system makes it poor — just as with North Korea.  I'm afraid my opinion of Castro will always be colored by the fact that (according to Khrushchev's memoirs) he tried to get Khrushchev to attack the United States with nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis.  He's just a wanna-be mass murderer, in other words.

War should not be conducted when there are less destructive means available.

Less destructive means?  The left has been arguing for over a decade that “hundreds of thousands” of children die every year from the sanctions on Iraq.  It should be obvious that no containment of Iraq is possible without the sanctions.  The common refrain of the left that the sanctions hurt “only the people of Iraq and not Saddam” is simply silly — the sanctions keep tens of billions of dollars out of his grubby little hands, that he would otherwise use for dirty little armaments and additional dozens of gleaming presidential palaces.  The sanctions are vital if Iraq is to be contained.

On the other hand, a few days of warfare as the U.S. is now capable of waging it will not only liberate Iraq but probably cost fewer civilian deaths than a mere week of sanctions — much less the years they would have to remain in effect while we “contain” Saddam.  So what does “less destructive means” mean given that kind of capability?  That's what's known as being penny wise and pound foolish.

I think this is Europe's main objection (although the French are motivated by business contacts with North Africa).

The French are not motivated by “business contracts,” in my view, despite much that has been written alleging it.  (I'm not sure where you get the “North Africa” bit from, as North African contracts would not seem to be under threat from a second Gulf War.)  Iraqi contracts would be under threat, but from what I've read, the total value of French business with Iraq (and North Africa too, at a guess) is a small fraction of their business with the United States — which is what they're now endangering.  No, the French are quite explicit about their reasons, as a legislator close to French president Chirac put it the other day:

This is not about Saddam Hussein, and this is not even about regime change in Iraq or even the million people killed by Saddam Hussein or missiles or chemical weapons….  It's about whether the United States is allowed to run world affairs and battle terrorism and weapons proliferation essentially with a small group of trusted allies….

France, in other words, is determined to dethrone the U.S. as the sole “hyperpower,” and they don't care about Saddam Hussein or Iraq in the context of that bigger issue, as they see it.  Given disunity this fundamental, how then is the world supposed to “contain” Saddam?  Meanwhile, dictators of trashy countries around the world appear to be attempting a “great breakout” towards acquiring nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.  As I say, in my view the world is entering a long period of war.

4.  Why do we invade a country that has not attacked us, and never threatened to attack us?  I don't like this new ‘since 9/11’ mentality of pre-emptive strikes against enemies who never attacked us.

You should recall the incident of the U.S.S. Stark back in 1987, when an Iraqi fighter attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Persian Gulf with missiles, killing thirty-seven American sailors.  (Or do you think that doesn't count, since it wasn't the U.S. homeland that was attacked?  I, for one, have never believed that incident was an accident.)  Then there are American prisoners he captured during the first Gulf War whom he tortured….

It's also naive, in my opinion, to think Saddam Hussein does not believe he is at war with the United States and wouldn't like to hurt us badly if he could.  If Saddam does consider himself at war with America (which I suggest is hardly disputable), then it's positively insane for the United States to act like it's just some little “Mouse that Roared” triviality that “big countries” can patronizingly ignore.

This, by the way, is the other similarity to Vietnam:  They never attacked us, either.

That's the only other similarity with Vietnam?  Surely there are others, if we only look hard enough!  Here's another: both were run by totalitarians who really don't warrant much pity for being attacked by the “big bad” United States.  North Vietnam was not some innocent little victim, it was an ally of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War, which was a real live (though fortunately, most times, “cold”) war, and those countries not only did not have our best wishes at heart, but plotted our destruction while pointing first hundreds and later tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at us.  North Vietnam, in particular, played its part in implacably conquering people and territory for the Communist Bloc.  If the northern part of Vietnam really had been just another nonaligned third world country, we'd never have given it a second glance, and everybody knows it.

Michael, this is not 1939.

And no year will ever be again….

Iraq is not an industrial power that can support a world class military.

Unfortunately, one doesn't have to be a world-class industrial power in this age of weapons of mass destruction to threaten mass destruction (or even just do it — without threats).

We have them contained…

A fond dream.  Saddam has entire departments of people watching (keeping tabs on and circumventing) the watchers.

… unlike the situation with Germany where the world ignored them while they attacked one country after another.

The world didn't ignore Germany.  The world talked about it endlessly, while doing their usual jealous political maneuverings in the League of Nations and national capitals — not very dissimilar to what's happening right now in the Security Council….  And I'm not reassured.

Saddam models his rule after Stalin and Hitler, but the similarities end there.

Don't you think there was a time when the same thing could have been said… about Stalin and Hitler?

He cannot even move his armed forces freely within his own country.

How long do you think inspectors (a pitiful few, in a large country) would stay there, once the quarter million U.S. troops are removed from the borders and the pressure is off Saddam?  Do you really think those troops should be removed, and lose the best chance since 1991 to get rid of him?  You're aware, aren't you, that taking out the troops would be seen all over the Arab world as a massive American defeat, right?  Such a defeat is the very thing (unlike American victories) that does generate recruits in large numbers for Al Qaeda.  Would you pull out those troops now?  You know they can't stay there forever?  More than a few weeks delay in onset of the war will make it insufferable for soldiers who have to wear chemical warfare protection gear.

The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ argument doesn't wash,

Arm waving does not remove the danger.  I disagree.

great nations don't make wars on the basis of could-be's.

Great nations solve problems as they need to be solved.  Civilization is not a suicide pact, and we under no obligation to march like lemmings over a cliff — while megalomaniacs shoot us down with weapons of mass destruction — just to follow ancient rules of procedure.  If nations are dangerous, let's deal with it, rather than fluttering endlessly outside their borders, fainting in shock whenever the phrase “regime change” passes the lips of the unlettered.  What is this “sovereignty” that makes it sacrosanct no matter how despicable and dangerous the dictator?

For example, when the Kosovo war was underway, erudite professors of international law argued that intervention was illegal under international law.  Now such law professors argue that intervention in Iraq “violates international law” — and use the Kosovo war as an example of already established international law!  I suggest that we need to create yet some more new international law — by invading Iraq and displacing Saddam.  Let's get on with it!

If the nations most directly affected by Saddam do not want this war…

The nation most directly affected by radical Islamic terrorism (which is what this war is all about, and to which Iraq is, without doubt, a major contributor and important element) is the United States, as of September 11, 2001.  Ties of Iraq to Al Qaeda are irrelevant.  Iraq is connected, without any doubt, to international terrorism.

… then we, as American citizens, have to severely question our government on their motives and intentions.  They do not look honorable to me.

Fine — and while you're questioning our own government's motives and intentions, how about also inquiring into the motives and intentions of other organizations capable of hatching dangerous conspiracies in the world:  Governments of nations such as Iraq and North Korea; groups sympathetic and allied with such governments, such as the Workers World Party, the Socialist Workers Party in Europe, and their front organization “International ANSWER,” which is running these “antiwar” demonstrations.  Don't you think the machinations of such groups in support of vicious dictators also deserve some “severe questioning”?  If not, why not?



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