Thursday, October 07, 2004

Another Exchange on Iraq

Lee over at Verbum Ipsum continues our discussion about Iraq with his characteristic clarity and reasonableness. Here are some excerpts with my most recent comments in purple.

Lee: I agree that the threat posed by Saddam qua sponsor of terrorism is hard to ascertain. However, I think what should be pointed out is that the stated reasons for going to war – i.e. Saddam’s ties to terrorism combined with the threat of WMD – have turned out to be based on false information. So, if nothing else, I think it’s safe to say that Saddam turned out to be less of a threat than we were led to believe (I don’t say deliberately misled; I don’t have the information to know if President Bush, et al. deliberately made false statements about Iraq’s WMDs).

BV: I tend to agree that Saddam turned out to be less of a threat than we were led to believe. (Leaving aside the possibility that the WMDs were moved to Syria or buried, etc.) So we were misled. But the crucial point, that Lee well appreciates, is that if A misled B it does not follow that A intentionally or deliberately misled B. Lee is far too intelligent to confuse false statements with lies or to argue that 'it was all about oil.'

Lee: I continued:…Since there are other groups and regimes that have supported, directly or indirectly, attacks on the U.S., it would seem prudent to have dealt with those before dealing with Iraq. I realize that reasonable people can disagree about the gravity of the threat Iraq posed, but I think at the very least one has to take into account the considerable opportunity costs of going to war in Iraq when we did. Was it really the best allocation of the resources that it has absorbed (and will continue to absorb for the forseeable future)?To which Dr. V responded:

I think one must also consider the other reasons for the war in Iraq, namely, the humanitarian reason; the enforcement of unanimous U.N. resolutions that that august body did not have the will to enforce; the need to put an end to an on-going war; the need to try the noble (if perhaps in the end misguided) experiment of bringing (more) democracy to the Middle East for the sake of the long-term stability of the region; the need to remove a dictator and his sons who was going to have to be removed at some time anyway, with removing him now while he is weak being better than later when he is strong; the sheer danger of allowing Saddam to develop nukes which he would be more than happy to give to terrorist groups for use in the U.S. and Israel. I submit that these reasons, taken cumulatively, add up to a very strong case for the war. I stress the cumulative nature of the case. Thus the first reason, taken by itself, is insufficient. It may that they are all insufficient, taken by themselves. But taken together, they are reasonably held to be sufficient.

Lee: While I think the cumulative case is strong, I think it would only be dispositive if allocating the necessary resources to a war in Iraq wouldn’t take away resources from more pressing matters. However good it may be to liberate an oppressed populace or enforce UN resolutions, the primary duty of the United States government is to see to the safety of American citizens.

BV: Lee here makes a good point about the primary duty of the U.S. government.

If going into Iraq has made it less able to do this, then it is derelict in this duty. It may be good for a man to give money to starving orphans in Africa, but not if by doing so he neglects his own children. That is, I regard this primary duty as exercising a kind of veto power over other ventures, however worthwhile they may be in themselves. One might add that given the seriousness of going to war, the gravity and certainty of the threat should be the paramount consideration. So, if the war in Iraq has resulted in resources being allocated to it that could have been used to deal with more pressing threats, then I think it was a mistake. I think given recent revelations, it’s reasonable to think that is indeed the case.Thanks again to Dr. V for taking the time to engage in civil and (I hope) instructive debate!

BV: I think this exchange with Lee shows how debate can be fruitful if properly conducted. I think we have both learned something and refined our positions. His point about the primary duty of a government being that of seeing to its citizens' safety is one that I did not properly consider. Of course, I could counterargue that it is in the long-term interest of the USA that Saddam be removed, whether or not he actually had WMDs at the time of the invasion: surely, if given the opportunity, he would reconstitute them. But now the argument gets murky and hard to decide, especially when you bring in such other facts as the impact of American decisiveness on people like Qaddafi who has recently been behaving himself quite nicely.

So perhaps the upshot is this. Although the war in Iraq was not a diversion from the war on terror as Kerry and others claim, it is nonetheless arguable that given what we know (or at least justifiably believe) now, the war in Iraq was ill-advised and led to a misuse of resources.

But the important question is what to do now. If we 'cut and run,' a bad result is assured. But if we 'stay the course,' there is a good chance of a stable and more or less democratic Iraq.