Quite a few people have commented in John Derbyshire’s apology for supporting the war in Iraq.
I haven’t seen anyone deny Derbyshire’s suggestion regarding his National Review colleagues who still publicly support the war that
If wired up to a polygraph and asked the question: â€œSupposing you could wind the movie back to early 2003, would you still attack Iraq?â€? any affirmative answers would have those old needles a-jumping and a-skipping all over the graph paper.
but then I haven’t looked hard. I’d be interested if anyone can point to any examples .
My main interest, like that of many others is in Derbyshire’s reason for recanting his support. While he wanted a war with Iraq, his idea was that the US should drop a lot of bombs, demonstrate that it’s a power to be feared and then leave, without wasting time on futile projects like nation-building. As lots of commenters have pointed out, Derbyshire’s position is worse, in moral terms, than that of most of those who continue to support the war.
It does however, raise some important issues that go to the heart of the debate between supporters and opponents of the Iraq war and the debate over war and peace in general.
In the leadup to the Iraq war, many different arguments were presented for and against going to war, and many different predictions were made about the likely consequences of war. People supported war for a range of reasons, some of which were logically inconsistent, and the same was true of people who opposed war. Many people made many predictions, many of which turned out to be wrong. However, there is a fundamental asymmetry here.
Among the supporters of war were people like Derbyshire, who wanted to reduce large parts of Iraq for rubble as revenge for the September 11 attacks (the absence of any proof of a direct link being, for many, part of the attraction), believers in the WMD threat who wanted to destroy the WMD threat and leave, militarists like Rumsfeld who wanted to use Iraq as a testing ground and permanent base for a new era of American military dominance, rightwing ideologues who expected to transform Iraq into a bastion of free-market economics and support for Israel, ruled by some pliant type like Chalabi, and decent leftists who who saw the invasion as a step towards a secular democracy that would bring the Iraqi left to power. While some of these groups might perhaps have reached a satisfactory accommodation, assuming a military victory, they could not all do so. Yet they all supported the war.
Of course, the opponents of war were a similarly disparate group, including isolationists and international realists who regarded it as an unproductive use of US state power, a large group (including most on the moderate left) who thought that the human costs of war would outweigh any benefits, opponents of a unilateral war carried out without UN support, advocates of national sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs and those opposed to any military action by the US.
The crucial difference is that, while the opponents of war might have disagreed violently about their reasons for their position, these disagreements made no fundamental difference to the policy that they supported. In debates over wars of choice, peace is the status quo, and is a fairly unambiguous concept. (Perhaps not totally unambiguous – if the inspections had been allowed to continue and nothing had been found, differences would no doubt have emerged about what to do next, but peace leaves options like this open whereas war forecloses them).
By contrast, the supporters of the war were giving their support to very different kinds of war and assuming that their own preferred version would be the one that took place. But if they were honest with themselves (as Derbyshire has been, at least retrospectively) they should have looked at their allies and realised that there was no warrant for this assumption. Instead, they committed themselves to war with a whole series of implicit conditions. Many of them, in recanting, have blamed the Bush Administration for not delivering the kind of war they supported, or for mishandling the war in various ways that reflect entirely different assumptions and objectives. But, they had no reason to expect anything different.
The same asymmetry arises in predictions about the war. Opponents of the war variously predicted a military defeat for the US, a long and costly occupation, tens of thousands of civilian casualties, millions of refugees, the emergence of a new dictatorship, civil war on religious and ethnic lines, a stimulus to terrorism and so on. Supporters of the war derided all of these predictions and projected a variety of rosy scenarios including a quick military victory, roses and sweets showered on the liberating troops, and so on. Apart from the initial victory, not many of the optimistic predictions have panned out, but, as war supporters have pointed out, plenty of the anti-war predictions have failed too.
But this is the wrong test, and presumes a symmetry that isn’t there. War is doing harm, and only under very special conditions can it produce enough good to outweigh this. This is the point of what used to called the Powell doctrine which allowed for discretionary use of force only with near certainty of success at low cost, clear and easily achieved objectives and a well-defined exit strategy.
Looking at the list of antiwar predictions, the realisation of any one of them would be enough to make war the wrong choice. As it is, several of them have been validated, and even some of those that seemed falsified, like the millions of refugees are now coming to pass.
Whatever the intentions of those who start them, most wars end up ruinous to both sides and even more to the people and land being fought over. The Iraq war has been no exception. There are occasions when there is no alternative, but we should be slow to go to war and quick to seek peace.
fn1. My only doubt on this concerns the reliability of polygraphs, but they serve well enough as a rhetorical device