Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Iraq as a Mirror

I've been sitting on this for nearly a month. Given the proximity of the election, I decided it was now or never. I cleaned up the end a bit, so it should feel more like it has a proper conclusion now...

I've actually been meaning to write this up for quite some time, but I've been ultra busy, so it's been on the back burner. Briefly – I've found myself dissatisfied with the debate over how well things are going in Iraq.

If I may indulge my literary license to exaggerate just a tad for dramatic effect: On one side, you've got people convinced that Iraq is teetering over the edge of chaos, that it is an utter Hobbesian basketcase, and lest we forget, It's All Bush's Fault ©. We shouldn't have even gone there, the Iraqis would've been much better off with Saddam still in power. On the other side, people argue that things in Iraq are just peachy, what with new schools and roads and public works being constructed left and right, an election that will duly take place in January, and that aside from a few bumps on the road, the Iraqis are on the verge of a Jeffersonian democracy.

Like I said, that's an exaggeration of the cluster of opinions you find on this very polarizing issue, though if you listen to how the two sides characterize each other, you'd think that this was, in fact, the nature of the debate. Like many issues, the Iraq War is subject to profound misunderstandings of the other side, and what is worse, partisans on both sides wearing blinders to alternative opinions that do not neatly fit into this either-or perspective. There is an emotional investment here too. Pro-War partisans invested a great deal in their (sincere, I believe, all the way up to Bush himself) desire to see freedom triumph in the Middle East, not only out of the same concern Americans typically feel for oppressed peoples, but also out of the hope that a free Iraq would generate counter-memes to the Islamist fundamentalism meme that proliferates throughout the region. This investment, unfortunately, makes it difficult to process the real difficulties of their adventure. It's one thing to keep one's eyes on the prize; it's quite another to ignore the stumbling blocks.

Anti-War partisans, likewise, have an investment in seeing the failure of the enterprise. Many, I suspect, would love to be proved wrong about their opposition to the war, but I think far more comb the headlines looking for vindication of their views. It's not that they consciously want to see failures in the forms of causalities, beheadings, and bombings, but rather something more basic to many of us, regardless of ideology – confirmation that they were right all along. What news out of Iraq conforms to that picture is what they take to be the essence of the current situation, just as the pro-war partisans mostly see what news conforms to their pre-formed views. I'm thinking of something very Kantian here, where the partisans on both sides process their perceptions according to how their minds are wired before the war ever happened, rather than for what the situation actually is in itself.

I don't think this is a very controversial overview of that debate, at least, among people who aren't really committed to either sides of the pole, who are just observing the debate as one would observe the back and forth of a tennis match. But the question remains – how are things really going in Iraq? What's my perspective?

One of the factors creating so much ill-informed opinion and debate about this issue is that the partisans lack perspective. And by that, I mean something a little more profound than it probably sounds at first glance. Judgments of “good” and “bad” are relational judgments at their most basic. If I hang out with midgets, I will be judged “tall.” If I hang out with the Houston Rockets, I will be judged “short.” Such a judgment depends on the frame of reference. And for something like “good” and “bad,” we would need some criteria by which to judge the success or failure of the war, as well as some theory of value. By what standard do we judge the war's success or failure?

And this is one reason why this debate gets divisive and polarizing. Although some common ground is shared between partisans on both sides, my sense is that there are very different standards of value that frame the evaluations of the war. On one hand, one can value peace as an end in itself, or at the very least as a value instrumental to other important values like safety. On the other, one can hold that tyranny is never to be tolerated, and that war can be a potent force for good when it challenges the perpetuators of tyranny. Thus, the capture and imprisonment of Saddam Hussein becomes thrilling news to pro-war partisans, to be celebrated. The same event illicits reactions ranging from shrugs of indifference (as in the case of Howard Dean) to bitter cynicism on the other side, which sees only a corrupt President using images of a humiliated, unnecessary foe to his own political gain.

Although this may ostensibly cast the anti-war partisans in a negative light, given that their pessimism can be traced to the same “peace at all costs” mentality that guided this century's pro-war whipping boy, Neville Chamberlain, there is a sense in which this casts both the pro-war partisans and the Bush Administration itself in a very bad light. Of course, people may have opposed involvement in World War II for any number of ideological reasons – sympathy for the Nazis, belief in appeasement, America-First-ism (at least, before Pearl Harbor). So you'd expect a similar breakdown along ideological lines on whether the war is going well or badly. But with World War II, there is a sense in which one could put ideology aside and look at the basic tally of who is winning which battles, and track the progress of the Axis and Allied powers in gaining and losing ground. Once France was fully liberated from the Nazis, and the Battle of the Bulge turned back, even anti-war partisans would have to concede that the war was going well for the Allies. They might bemoan what they'd characterize as unnecessary carnage and loss of life on both sides, but judgment could be rendered on non-ideological lines in terms of who was winning.

The thing I find troubling about the Iraq War is that there is no simple way to gauge the war's progress in such non-ideological terms. On one level, you could argue this puts the pro- and anti-war partisans on an equal footing, but on another, this creates a special challenge to the pro-war side in the same way that people who affirmatively propose new policies or changes have the burden of proof that their plans will work. It is a distinct disadvantage of the Iraq War as a pursuit that there are no obvious, decisive standards by which to judge whether the US, Great Britain and their allies are winning in Iraq, which leads to the conclusion that the ends and goals of the war were poorly thought out. I can grant the argument that everyone was fooled into thinking Saddam had WMD – hell, I recall quite distinctly even many anti-war partisans using that “fact” as reason to not go to war, because those WMD could be used against our troops. But with the absence of WMD, whomever's fault that whole mistake was, one major standard of measurement and evaluation is now gone. We can't gauge our success by how many WMD's we find and destroy.

Against the anti-war partisans, it should be noted that pointing to a given terrorist action or a beheading also fails to offer any coherent standard by which the war should be judged. This is what I will call the “Timothy McVeigh Factor.” A foreigner could easily look at the United States during the 1990's, and judge that between the Rodney King riots in LA, the Columbine shootings, the Unabomber's campaign and the Oklahoma City bombing, things in the United States were rapidly going downhill. Such a judgment would be incorrect by most standards. Crime rapidly declined in the 90's, and by and large most people were far safer walking the streets of LA or New York in 2000 than in 1990.

A similar principle is in effect with judging how well things are going in Iraq, with holistic judgments about the well-being of Iraqis across the entire country being obscured by the sensationalistic, symbolic acts of a tiny few. Those few, it should also be noted, understand the implications of this principle, which is largely why they do it. They lack the means and support to pull off a large scale attack against US forces, or to undertake any actions that would make it remotely conceivable that they could seize control of the country. So instead, they go for the small scale stuff that inspires massive media attention, and get far more bang for their buck by driving support for the war down, increasing the likelihood of a pull-out, creating the perception of a worsening, hopeless situation, even while their material support and military prowess are laughable.

I think there are standards, ultimately, that pro- and anti-war partisans can point to to justify their opinions. But the whole discourse, to the extent there really is one and not just a bunch of people talking past each other and living in their own worlds, is impoverished precisely by the lack of such a standard. And this standard needs to be made explicit. I have to wonder if this isn't at least a strong part of the reason why when writers, intellectuals and leaders within both parties actually visit Iraq, they return with a more nuanced, better understanding of Iraq, but almost never do I hear of anyone changing their mind. Sean Penn did not suddenly drop his opposition, realizing that the Iraqis were happy that Saddam was finally gone. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens post-visit is just as pro-war as ever, even if it is a more informed pro-war stance. This is why I think the Iraq debate is 95% framed by people who look at Iraq and see what they want to see. One's stances on how well the war is going will probably tell you far more about that person than about how well the war is actually going.


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Tuesday, October 25, 2005 2:40:00 PM  

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