The Ends of Empathy: A Response

HW seems to be arguing that the debacle in Iraq can be laid at the feet of shifting war aims, the corollary of which suggests that a modest war merely to remove (or otherwise disable) the Baathist regime and neutralize any nuclear threat would have been possible or morally acceptable. I could not have supported such a war. It is common sense that if the regime is toppled it is axiomatic that those who do the toppling inherit a great deal of responsibility to sort out a post-toppling political order. And American tradition – rightfully – insists upon the institution of democratic governance (in rhetoric if not, alas, always in deed). So it was inevitable that any war aim that includes the toppling of one regime would require us to put another, nominally democratic, regime in its place. How could it have been otherwise? A more modest war aim is a chimera.

HW writes that a leftist would have trouble making the argument that Iraqis and Arabs in general are incapable of democracy and therefore the idea that we should topple the Hussein dictatorship is dangerous foolishness because it will bring only violent struggles of power and civil war. And he is correct, a leftist would have trouble making this argument. But I think this point is rather irrelevant. Rather, the critical question surrounding the democracy rationale for war against Hussein is whether it is ever a good idea to take up arms for the purpose of extending democratic governance to a land that has not known it.

This query then branches in two directions: Is it feasible? Is it moral?

On the matter of feasibility I think it is feasible to impose democratic governance on a foreign nation. It requires a huge investment of time, lives, and money. It requires, in short, a colonial presence and, as Niall Ferguson has most eloquently argued, Americans are not prepared to pay that cost or bear that burden. (This is, for the most part, a good thing – but that is another discussion entirely.)

Nor is democratization a sufficient rationale for taking up arms (at least on such a massive scale). The use of military force is warranted, and sometimes demanded, in response to large scale humanitarian suffering. But we cannot allow “humanitarian intervention” to become merely a more palatable label for the unaccountable exercise of unilateral power for self-serving motives. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that “intervention” in practice means an inevitably bloody and destructive war. Semantics should not obscure this reality. And it is this bloody reality that I think makes it immoral to intervene military for the purpose of democratization.

Furthermore, HW contends that the war aims were largely accomplished – (“Saddam Hussein was removed from power, the infrastructure of his regime and military was destroyed and his threat to the security of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Gulf States was eliminated, along with his ambitions to secure nuclear weapons and sponsor terrorist attacks. Of course, a further outcome was the power vacuum created in Iraq, but that’s irrelevant to “victory” as defined here.”) . This strikes me as absurd. (Though HW took care to couch “victory” in quotation marks.)

The Hussein regime is gone and it will not come back, but to claim that the resulting power vacuum is “irrelevent” to the previously cited war aims of securing Saudi Arabia, Israel, or the Gulf States seems to me fallacious. The prospect of intra-Muslim violence within countries across the region is heightened by the escalating sectarian bloodshed within Iraq. Furthermore, the Sunni dictatorships that America has traditionally considered friends are imperiled by the rise of a Shia crescent with Iran at the fore. And can all of this really be considered an advantage to Israeli’s security? (Is there any doubt that Hezbollah was emboldened to take provocative actions this summer by the shifting balance of power in the region?)

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