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Attempting to think about Iraq

by William Grosso
Mar. 31, 2003

I've been really distressed lately, about the Iraq war. It seems to me that there were ways to avoid the war, and that the debate which occured in this country was a confusing debate, which mostly focused on the wrong issues.

This is my attempt to think things through.

First. Let's stipulate a few things, just to get them out of the way:

Now, there are three basic justifications being given for the war:

  1. Humanitarian. This is the "let's free the Iraqi people from their shackles" argument, in all its forms.
  2. Self Defense. This is the "Iraq would eventually use chemical and biological weapons against the US.
  3. Dominos of Freedom. This is the "Freeing Iraq is the cornerstone of a profound change in the mideast, and will lead to a wave of regime change that will improve the lives of everyone in the area" argument.

The question is: are any of these any good? Let's look at them in order.

The Humanitarian Defense.

This one fails in the short term for a very simple reason: the war will cost some $75 billion. The question is not whether Iraq will be better off as a result of the war (we've stipulated that it will be), but whether we could do better things (from a humanitarian perspective) with that $75 billion. And the answer is: yes, we could do much better. You don't have to think very hard to find problems in the world today where the money could make a profound difference.

Of course, I'm being simplistic here, and assuming Saddam wasn't about to spread his evil past his borders. It seems reasonable to assert that he was "mostly contained" (e.g., he could send rogue agents out to cause emotionally significant but statistically neglible events to occur, but that he wasn't about to invade other countries again) though. That is, I'm assuming we know the scope of Saddam's evil, and it's not that big compared to the other problems we could solve (or at least work on).

In the long term, it's a harder question. Suppose we no longer have to enforce the sanctions (costing $x a year). That money gets freed up. And suppose that Saddam and his regime are no longer draining the Iraqi economy of all vitality (so that not only Iraq is helped, but the Iraqi people become more productive members of the world's economy). Maybe this is such a good thing that making war on Iraq turns out to be the best humanitarian investment. I doubt it, and I think no-one seriously believes it, but I also have to say I've never heard anyone seriously do a cost-benefit analysis of the war on Iraq from this perspective.

I find that last point particularly disturbing. If you're going to claim humanitarian reasons for the war, aren't you obligated to say why this use of funds is the best use of funds from a humanitarian perspective? I haven't seen any attempts to do that, and my conclusion is that, while the war will be good for Iraq, the humanitarian effects won't spread beyond the Iraqi borders and aren't particularly impressive, given the amount of money being spent. The humanitarian argument is mostly an emotional red-herring.

As a side note, I also find the idea of sending the US Army out on a large-scale humanitarian mission disturbing. It's one thing to tell a soldier to fight to defend the nation (that's in the job description), it's quite another to tell someone to fight on behalf of a third party for humanitarian reasons (that's not what the soldiers signed up for).

Self Defense

This argument basically says that the world changed after 9/11. That terrorism (terrorist tactics) and modern weaponry are so potent a combination that we are obligated to eradicate potential combatants. It's an interesting claim, and one that scares me because it relies on such an overwhelming assumption of knowledge: in order to make this claim effectively, you really have to know a lot, and be very confident of your deductions.

But, it seems to me that the proper response to an event like 9/11 is a combination of the following three things:

  1. Immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Whomever did this, must be punished. And punished in a large-scale and somewhat irrational way, so that people understand the basic point: actions have consequences and actions like 9/11 have enormous consequences (think Rome and Carthage. Did Rome really need to salt the earth? No. But, what the hell, it made the point clear). I think the ongoing work in Afghanistan, and the continued hunting of terrorists, satisfies this.
  2. Long term investigation and destabilization. It's not enough to retaliate locally. You need to press the investigation and disrupt the organizations that planned and arranged for the attack. And I think the US has been doing a good job at this as well.
  3. Make sure that conflicts stay at the right level and prevent conflicts from escalating Every conflict has its natural level, and an appropriate set of participants. And almost every conflict starts out small (Hannibal Lecter, in the Silence of the Lambs, points out to Clarice Starling that coveting beings at home: we first begin to covet the things we see every day. So too with conflicts: conflicts begin with daily interactions, and local ones. Friction followed by border skirmish followed by .....).

    It follows that, if Iraq had chemical or biological weapons, Iraq would use them locally first (and, indeed, such weapons were deployed against the Kurds, to crush an uprising). It also follows that, from the point of view of self-defense, the problem is mostly a local or regional one. The countries in the area mostly likely to be affected are the countries with the most at stake, and are the countries that ought to be taking ownership of the problem. US policy ought to encourage local ownership of problems, not rely on the US military as a cudgel to solve them.

    As an added bonus, nearby countries are likely to be much better at assessing the problem (they understand the culture much better, frequently speak the same language, have significant ethnic overlaps, etcetera). When they take action, they'll have greater knowledge and be more confident of their deductions.

    This dovetails nicely with my basically isolationist beliefs-- I would much rather problems be solved at the regional level than at the global level.

Dominos of Freedom

I haven't seen any serious arguments for, or against, this. It's mostly brought up in the tail end of debates, as a sort of ginsu-style added bonus. "And, if you act now, we'll throw in the eventual liberation of Iran and Syria via popular actions at no extra cost."

As you can tell by my summary, I'm skeptical of this argument.

Got Information?

I'm not sure there are any conclusions here. I don't know how much the sanctions were costing each year to enforce, and that matters for a cost-benefit analysis of the humanitarian effort.

If there were evidence (or even strong arguments) that Iraq was planning on invading its neighbors in the near term, that would sway things as well (and I know of very little evidence about that).

In addition, if Syria really was helping Iraq hide chemical weapons (as some reports have indicated), then that's an indication that war was probably a right decision as well.

And, of course, now that we're in it, there's really no option but to win it. And then evaluate whether it was a good idea, and vote appropriately.

William Grosso is a coauthor of Java Enterprise Best Practices.

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