Derbyshire’s war

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: “Supposing you could wind the movie back to early 2003, would you still attack Iraq?� 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 [1].

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

84 thoughts on “Derbyshire’s war

  1. Mark, not only did OBL and Al Quaida and Taliban remnants escape into Pakistan, but it is widely acknowledged, and I don’t think seriously disputed, that the Taliban had it’s origins in Pakistan where it was fostered by the Pakistani secret service.

    Milano803 chides you for not answering his questions but he has a well established tactic of ignoring any questions to him that are inconvenient if he so chooses.

    I raised these questions with him on 20 Jun and issued a reminder on 22 Jun.

    “A few simple questions for milano803:
    1. What nationalities were the hijackers in 9/11? Were there any Iraqis?
    2. Given that most were Saudis and Saudi Arabia is the source of Wahabism that promotes extremist ideas such as bin Ladens, would it not have been a more deserving target than Iraq?
    3. Given that the Taliban was largely sponsored by the state security service of Pakistan, would it not have been a good idea to take out the Pakistan regime too?�

    Saudi Wahabism and the machinations of the Pakistani security service have had much more to do with the rise of OBL and the Taliban than Iraq, Iran or anywhere else. It is however inconvenient for the US to go after these root causes and so the former client of the US, Sadam Hussein was made the surrogate recipient of the Texas gunslingers rage.

    To pre-empt a likely milano803 response I will repeat again my earlier statement:

    “milano and his ilk will no doubt infer from this that I support Saddam Hussein. I don’t and never have, unlike the US administration that sponsored and armed him in the 1980s. They are all mired in their own contradictions.”

  2. “The People can not be the same as “the United Statesâ€? or “the States.â€? Therefore, according to U.S. law, The People are not the same as “the United Statesâ€? (the federal government) or the States.”

    Here’s your mistake. The US Constitution is not a case of the federal government delegating power to the people. It is the opposite, it is the people delegating specific powers to the federal government, limiting it’s powers. It’s quite unusual in this respect. It’s the opposite of the Magna Carta, for example.

    Still no response to my question. Here it is again:

    “so any Taliban militia could easily just move into Pakistan and be off the hook?”

    This requires a yes or not response.

    “If war was declared against The Taliban government in Afghanistan (leaving aside for the moment that it wasn’t actually a government), then you couldn’t very well have gone after Taliban anywhere else.”

    could you or couldn’t you?

  3. Milano803 writes, “Here’s your mistake. The US Constitution is not a case of the federal government delegating power to the people.”

    Milano803, I know that. I’m pretty sure I know more about the Constitution than you do. Only someone who was pretty ignorant about the Constitution (not to mention international treaties like the Geneva Conventions) would claim, as you have, that the United States (the U.S. federal government) is declaring war on the GOVERNMENT of Germany is “the same thing” as declaring war on The People of Germany.

    I gave you the Tenth Amendment. You responded in a way (saying it just dealt with state governments) indicating you have never even read the Tenth Amendment closely (i.e., you completely ignored the important, “…OR THE PEOPLE.”)

    Obviously, you also haven’t read other amendments that form the Bill of Rights very carefully:

    1st Amendment: “…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    Why would THE PEOPLE need to “petition the government” if they were “the same thing” as the government?!

    2nd Amendment: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

    Perhaps to people like you, that refers to the National Guard. To ME (and I think most of the Founding Fathers) it actually refers to PRIVATE CITIZENS forming “well regulated militias” (i.e., NOT paid by the state governments).

    4th Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,…”

    If “the people” are the same thing as the government, there would not BE any “unreasonable searches and seizures”…because the government would be searching and seizing from itself.

    9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

    If “the people” is “the same thing” as the government, why would a 9th amendment even be needed.

    “It is the opposite, it is the people delegating specific powers to the federal government, limiting it’s powers.”

    Again, milano803, I’m (painfully) aware of that fact. I’m a Libertarian (or was, until the State of North Carolina dissolved our party). I support a more limited government than 99.5% of the U.S. population…including you, I’m fairly certain.

    “so any Taliban militia could easily just move into Pakistan and be off the hook?�

    Un-bleeping-believable. The answer is, *******NO********!

    Is that clear enough for you?! If there had been a congressional declaration of war on, “the Taliban government in Afghanistan,” that does NOT mean that the members of the Taliban government (or their military fighters) could, “easily just move into Pakistan and be off the hook.”

    But if members of the Taliban government (or their military fighters) went into Pakistan, it WOULD present a diplomatic difficulty. (Just as it HAS presented a diplomatic difficulty, even WITHOUT a declaration of war.)

    As I noted before, it’s ridiculous for you to claim that the President didn’t need any declaration of war at all to follow the Constitution, and then stand on your head and claim that if he had RECEIVED a declaration of war, he would have been completely prevented from waging that war as he saw fit, merely because of a single word in the declaration of war.

    By the way, YOU did not answer MY question: Under your legal theory, do you think it would be OK for the U.S. troops to be sent into Pakistan if the Declaration of War had the wording “Taliban government OF Afghanistan�?!

    This requires a yes or no response.

  4. bemused asks questions that milano803 has never answered. I’ll give my answers to the questions:

    1. What nationalities were the hijackers in 9/11? Were there any Iraqis?
    2. Given that most were Saudis and Saudi Arabia is the source of Wahabism that promotes extremist ideas such as bin Ladens, would it not have been a more deserving target than Iraq?
    3. Given that the Taliban was largely sponsored by the state security service of Pakistan, would it not have been a good idea to take out the Pakistan regime too?�

    1. As I recall, 15 Saudis, 3 from the United Arab Emirates, and 1 from…somewhere else. No Iraqis.

    2. In my opinion, no, the Saudi government would not be a more “deserving target” than Saddam Hussein’s government. And as I’ve pointed out to milano803 and others, it’s actually against U.S. law (specifically, the Geneva Conventions) to wage war against a country. U.S. law only allows waging war on governments.

    Why would the Saudi government not be a more “deserving target” than Saddam Hussein’s government? Well, several reasons:

    a) The nationality of the 9/11 hijackers is not really relevant, just as where they lived is not really relevant. After all, several of the hijackers lived in Germany…does that make Germany a “deserving target?”

    b) One major concern about Saddam Hussein was that openly sought–and even used–chemical weapons. He also openly sought nuclear weapons (it was a very good thing when the government of Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osirak

    c) Saddam Hussein openly sheltered suspected Islamic terrorists, including Abdul Rahman Yassin, who *admitted* to participating in the 1993 WTC attack, which attempted to topple one tower into another, killing tens of thousands of people.

    d) Saddam Hussein invaded his neighbors (Iran and Kuwait) and lobbed missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    3) No, it would not be a good idea to “take out” the regime of Pervez Musharraf. (And most certainly not without extensive consultation with the government of India.)

  5. No. The government of the USA declared war against the GOVERNMENT of Germany:

    Mark, I will defer to your quote and concede the point. Although I don’t think it weakens my point which was that there was no essential difference between the war in Iraq and the war in Germany that made the requirement for a declaration of war different.

    In terms of worldview, Australia actually comes off worse than the US under your scenario as it looks like the US does what it does on principle and Australia does what it does because it’s a toady.

    Milano803, I think you missed my point. The USA is being judged by world opinion. Australia is being judged by world opinion but also by US opinion. In terms of the long term diplomatic impact for Australia the former is likely to be less significant (because we are a low key player) compared to the latter (even though we are a low key player). I know that this is a rather macheavellian analysis of an arguably unprincipled position however I think it is essentially correct.

  6. Terje writes, “Mark, I will defer to your quote and concede the point. Although I don’t think it weakens my point which was that there was no essential difference between the war in Iraq and the war in Germany that made the requirement for a declaration of war different.”

    Yes, I agree completely with that. Under the Constitution, the Congress of the U.S. should have declared war on Saddam Hussein’s government before the war was waged by the President. Just like the Congress declared war on the government of Germany in WWII.

  7. Mark,

    Thanks for answering the questions that apparently milano803 dare not answer.

    I hold a somewhat different position to you but you seem to always get your facts right and even when I disagree with your opinions, I respect them as thoughtful and well argued.

    Regarding your answers to a couple of my questions, Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of Wahabism and I have seen it reported that the Saudi govt has ‘done a deal’ with the Wahabis to not interfere with them if they keep their terrorism outside of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia provides finance to all sorts of dodgy (to say the least) Islamic organisations in other countries. I would have though there was a good case for putting a large amount of pressure on the Saudi Government to curtail all of this.

    It is not so much that I think there was a strong case for any military action against Saudi Arabia as there being even less of a case against Iraq.

    To address your sub-points:
    a) It is rather the conspicuous absence of Iraquis I thought signifcant. It doesn’t really prove anything but one would have thought that if Iraq was really involved in 9/11 there would be some Iraquis implicated directly.
    b) This is all pre-Gulf War stuff. Iraq was being very effectively limited by the UN weapons inspectors. I suspect Sadam was playing a bit of a game in wanting the Iranians to fear he may still have some capacity, so he struggled to preserve some element of doubt.
    c) Need to do my homework on this but I recall a JQ post where he pointed to a lost opportunity to take out an Al Quaida linked base in the north of Iraq (i.e. not controlled by Saddam). The Kurds controlling this area were nominally US allies!
    d) This occurred during the Gulf War – nothing since.
    3. A rhetorical question and I largely agree with your answer. However, since the Taliban was largely a creation of the Pakistan state security service and there appear to be enduing sympathies if not links, I would have thought Pakistan would at least have been placed on notice. One should also consider that unlike Iraq, Pakistan does have nuclear weapons and also a track record in the proliferation of nuclear technology. It seems to indulge in dangerous behaviour and to have more potential as a threat than Iraq did afer the Gulf War.

  8. “As I noted before, it’s ridiculous for you to claim that the President didn’t need any declaration of war at all to follow the Constitution”

    there wasn’t a country to declare war on.

  9. Terje, The US and Australia are both being judged by:

    1) themselves

    2) each other , and

    3) everyone else in the world

    You could put any 2 countries in the world in the equation and the results would be the same.

    In terms of diplomatic impact, I agree, Australia will receive less attention because it’s impact is lesser. IIn terms of ability to impact international events, no one else has the same ability as the US. Put simply, no one else is the player we are.

    People who think the US was wrong to take action against Iraq, don’t say that everyone else who did was right to do so. It would be lovely for Australia if it worked that way, but it doesn’t. Will Australia suddenly be called upon to do things like sit in on the discussions with the European 3 on the Iran issue as the US is? No. Will calls suddenly come from all over the world for Australia to find a settlement of the Israel/Palestinian situation? No. Because without US participation, Australian participation wouldn’t mean much. Just the way it is.

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