Two Left Feet

In response to my snide remarks about Amis and Hitchens, my PITC asks the following:

“I am getting the sense that you are dancing around a more full-throated denunciation of many of the champions of the Iraq War – premise and execution. This is the great analytical question (besides, of course, what the hell do we do now) is Iraq a debacle because of flawed execution, or was it foredoomed to fail for any number of reasons? Brzezinski made an interesting argument along these lines on the Newshour last week that Iraq will fail because it is out of sync with history, i.e. it is a colonial war in a post-colonial era.”

Now, this of course is an insult. As my crony in obscurity well knows: if there’s a full-throated denunciation anywhere about, the last thing I would do is dance around it (mixed metaphors are a different matter). But before I hop the next train to DC so as engage Evan in fisticuffs, let me address his point.

No, I’m not denouncing the champions of the Iraq war, not all of them anyway. I ultimately supported the decision to invade, however reluctantly, so that would make me something of a hypocrite. But I think the question of whether Iraq was “foredoomed to fail” is the wrong one. I don’t really believe in predestination so I don’t really understand the argument – no premise in the unsteady universe of politics and international relations is so absolute that it can foretell an outcome with certainty, which is why I find some of the smug denunciations from the invasion’s opponents so irritating.

I imagine if one went back, many predictions made by opponents of the invasion wouldn’t look so prescient or there’d at least be a few doozies in there. But in any event, the debate before the invasion centered on the question of whether the invasion and the notion of pre-emption was justified, not whether the United States would be able to sponsor a functioning democracy in post-invasion Iraq. Now I know there will be those who will instantly jump up on reading this and bury me in reams of evidence from all the clever people who knew how this was going to go. But let’s be serious for a moment. The contours of the debate pre-invasion were: whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (opponents said the evidence was weak and it could not be proved, which of course it couldn’t because Saddam Hussein spent a decade foiling confirmation one way or the other); whether Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship with Al Qaeda (the evidence for this assertion was always scant) or could potentially back Islamic militants (can anyone say “Saddam Fedayeen”?); and whether the United States had the right to take unilateral, pre-emptive action.

As far as I can recall, the invasion’s opponents didn’t take Bush’s democratizing pledge seriously (not that I think Bush did either, judging by how far down it was on the original war aims list and by his subsequent actions, or lack thereof). It was “all about oil,” remember? A war for Haliburton and so forth. The alternative of course would have been to actually challenge Bush’s premise and say “Iraqis and the Arab world in general are incapable of democracy. Hence a removal of a dictator from power will bring only power struggles and civil war.” That’s not an argument a leftist could make comfortably.

Rather, they made the Vietnam argument – the Iraqis as a people will see the Americans as colonial occupiers and resist. That’s not exactly what happened – the Shiites and Kurds initially supported the occupation while the Sunnis tried to destroy the elected government established with the aid of the Americans. Since this didn’t fit the leftist anti-war narrative or predictions we had a period where the likes of Cindy Sheehan and George Galloway tried to depict the Sunni insurgency as a legitimate anti-colonial nationalist struggle, further discrediting their position for me.

But to return to whether the Iraq intervention was “doomed” to failure, I again say it’s the wrong question. The invasion of Iraq was in fact a success in terms of its main war aims. 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.

Now, if you change your war aims after the invasion and suddenly say that the war is now about creating a unified and democratic Iraq, that power vacuum immediately becomes a huge problem (especially if you don’t have the troop levels, inclination, planning or competence to address it). Now you’ve staked success on the post-Saddam order being democratic, peaceful and grateful. That’s an immensely tall order, particularly if it’s a battle you never intended to fight. As I said, I don’t really believe in the “inevitable” failure scenario, but I will say that changing one’s war aims makes failure pretty much – hmm, what’s the word I’m looking for? – oh, yes: inevitable. (See Israel-Hizbollah War, Summer 2006. If your war aims keep shifting between: rescuing kidnapped soldiers; destroying Hizbollah utterly; dealing a mortal “body blow” to Hizbollah; killing Hassan Nasrallah; carving out a security strip; destroying Hizbollah weapons caches; and/or “securing the Northern border,” you’re going to look like you’ve lost no matter what, even if you kill an exponentially larger number of enemy combatants and manage to convince the UN to police your border within a matter of weeks.)

As for Brzezinski, I don’t know the meat of his argument but on its face I would disagree. The project for a unified and democratic Iraq failed precisely because it was not a colonial war. It would have been far easier to install some kind of provisional government friendly to US interests and get the hell out (or hunker down in bases). Or simply not worry about the aftermath at all, electing not to stake victory and reputation on what came after. I suppose the one sense in which Brzezinski’s argument holds water is in the fact that Iraq is a colonial creation, not a genuine nation. So to the extent that the goal of holding Iraq together is an attempt to hold together a colonial-era fiction, I suppose it’s a colonial war. But I doubt that’s how Brzezinski meant it.

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One Comment on “Two Left Feet”


  1. […] 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 […]


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