The Always Controversial Iraq War

(from PS12: Intro to IR)

An email question with response.

The Question


The argument for war in Iraq that you made in class on Monday was based off of one key assumption. A government should always further the interests of its own people above all others. As a liberal thinker I take issue with this assumption. However, this is where there might be a small hole in the case for war. How does this war help the American people? The way I see it, this war just alienates us on the international scene, futher destabilizes an already unstable region and topples the only secular government in that region. I would be very pleased if you would clear up my confusion.

Thanks in advance,
[name removed]
Poli Sci 12

The Response


I did mention that the primary responsibility of a government is toward its people, but I would also agree that there are moral limits on what it should and should not do with respect to others. The question then is to what extent can one trample on the interests of others when pursuing the well-being of its own citizens. I don't think that I would agree that there is no acceptable threshold and that a government should treat its own citizens and others equally. I think it's a matter of finding the right balance. What is 'right' depends on the moral frame of reference.

Having said this, let's see whether the war is helping the American people. There are two issues here: (a) how the war is making things better (if at all), and (b) what would things have been without it. The first is perhaps easier to argue than the second in the sense that (b) involves making a counter-factual claim: since the war did occur, we cannot be sure what would have happened in its absence. So (b) is always quite vague whether you argue for or against it.

Does the war destabilize the region? I am not sure that it does. Prior to it, the US and Britain had to maintain very expensive presence to keep the no-fly zones. This presence required billions of dollars and bases in places like Saudi Arabia, which were destabilizing by themselves. After all, many Muslims feel it's offensive to admit unbelievers into the land with the holiest sites. The stalemate with Saddam in Iraq was both costly and destabilizing itself. I do not think it would have been prudent to do this indefinitely. Now, with US troops in Iraq, one does not need the bases in SA, and so it was possible to get rid of them, perhaps removing one of the major grievances.

On other other hand, of course, now you have a US force right in the middle of the Middle East, which is probably even worse for many. The real test is not going to be that, however, but what is going to happen to Iraq. In the end, if Iraq does not disintegrate into civil war, it would be huge booster for the US.

The reason for that is that I firmly believe that the populations there have more reason to hate their own governments than they do to hate us. But these governments being what they are (viciously repressive), such dissent is impossible. Further, governments encourage anti-US propaganda because it deflects criticism from them. A success in Iraq would doom these regimes, and in time we'll see more pluralistic governments coming to power. I don't necessarily think that they have to be Muslim. We should not forget that Americans are quite religious as a nation and yet maintain separation of Church and State, and have done so almost from the very beginning.

A successful model would be contagious. IF it succeeds, and that's a big 'if'. There's hope, but there's also evidence that the US government has seriously underestimated the problems it would confront in the country. Still, there's hope. Saddam's regime was secular, but Saddam destroyed an excellent society. Before him, the Iraqis were among the most educated in the region, and then he led them into an eight-year disaster and eradicated all free thought. However, the country does have secular traditions and it's not like it was radically religious before him. So it is not far-fetched to believe that it won't suddenly turn that way. Not to mention that the Kurds and the Sunnis probably won't agree to an Islamic Shia state without a fight, and with US presence, the Shias are unlikely to press for it. The hurdle are the next 5-6 years, which is probably how long it will take for the country to start functioning again in a way that would convince sufficient majorities of Shias not to wreck it with civil war.

In the long run, therefore, there are huge benefits to be reaped from a Saddam-free Iraq. It does not have to be a friend to the US, but it almost certainly will not be an enemy. That's good enough in part because it may also free us from having to support odious regimes like Saudi Arabia or small but rich kleptocracies like Kuwait. With a relatively stable and prosperous Iraq (and hopefully soon less religious Iran), there will be breaks on what any regime in these countries would be able to do.

We do need non-enemies in the Middle East because we depend on a stable world economy. Unfortunately, a lot of the world economy depends on cheap transportation, that is, it depends on oil. Europe and Japan are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations with the supply of Middle Eastern oil. We are much less so but Europe and Japan are so important economically that if they go down the drain, we won't be slow to follow. For the next 25-30 years, the world economy will depend on Middle Eastern oil, and so our own well-being crucially depends on some stability there.

Morally, I think it was right to get rid of Saddam anyway, but of course, that's no reason to bear the costs. However, it would appear that the US was willing to stay, if necessary, indefinitely there until the guy dropped dead somehow. However, 9/11 changed that. From this point on, one could not, in good faith, tolerate a risk that a guy like Saddam posed. The risk does not have to be great, mind you. Do we care whether there was a 5% or 85% chance that he was involved with helping terrorists directly or, by promising payments to families of Palestinian terrorists, indirectly keeping up the flames of the conflict that seems to be producing much of the extremism?

No, we should not care and the reason is simple: we thought, erroneously, that low-tech terrorists were not sufficiently threatening, and so failed to take precautions. This cost us 3,000 dead civilians in peacetime (more than the soldiers who died at Pearl Harbor, by the way). The number could have been ten-fold. The reason 30,000 more did not die in NYC was not because the Saudi terrorists did not try to kill them but because firefighters and police officers managed to evacuate most of the people before the towers collapsed. So we should be treating 9/11 as the attempted murder of 30,000 civilians.

Everyone (except people in the Middle East who cheered in the streets) would agree that this is a terrible price to pay for whatever real or imagined problems US policies have caused elsewhere. But the real question is this: what sort of risk should we be prepared to tolerate in the future given 9/11? This is no longer a hypothetical question, we now have historical proof what can happen. That's why if there was only 5% chance that Saddam was somehow linked to terrorism of the sort that bred the al Qaeda types, then we could no longer contain him and hope for the best. That's because if the best did not happen, the worst would be terrible.

Now, I do not know why the Bush administration chose to emphasize the fact that Saddam presented a clear and present danger. I think that even if he was not a present danger, he was still a clear one. Yes, a war in Iraq would cost the US billions, but if it would save 30,000 of its own citizens from being incinerated, then so be it. What about the cost to the Iraqis? In the long run, the Iraqis are better off without Saddam, no doubt about it.

But was it worth the tens of thousands of casualties, especially civilian? It's a hard question to answer. From our perspective, the US government has a clear duty to protect its own civilians, even at the cost of others. From Iraqi perspective, some may say that this was a small price to pay for liberty, and others would probably prefer to have remained under Saddam, who, by the way, was murdering them by the thousands anyway. I think that while the war was grievously costly to the Iraqis, it will probably save many lives in the longer run.

Does the war alienate us from the other countries? Sure, from some. It actually brings us closer to others. Consider this: it alienates us from other Middle Eastern regimes. That's good. We should be distancing ourselves from medieval caliphates anyway: look at the untold damage that supporting these regimes has done to us. It alienates us from the Europeans... perhaps. Yes, the Europeans are vocal, but then again they have a shared system of values with us. The Europeans will always come around when push comes to shove if America is threatened directly.

Many Europeans view the US as a cowboy on the loose, but that's a mistaken impression and it has a lot to do with the eclipse of Europe as the center of military power. Leaving the British aside because they are still close to us, both in word and deed, let's look at the rest. The French, one should remember, terrorized Algeria for years before getting kicked out of there. These friends to the Muslim world recently instituted a law that bans Muslim head scarves for girls in public schools. The people who harp about US support for Israel seem to forget that the 1967 war was fought with French planes, not American ones, as was the 1956 Suez adventure. Chirac may spend months canvassing the Middle East but in the end America has done a lot to protect Muslims, both within its borders and without. The problem is that knowledge is getting drowned in the din of propaganda spun abroad.

What about the Germans? The Germans don't have an army worth talking about, so they will always depend on the US for their protection. Ditto for the Japanese, although maybe they are beginning to move away from that.

In the end, there seem to be two reasons Europeans can afford to dislike America. First, they know that America would do what it has to do anyway, and so one loses nothing by engaging in ankle-biting as long as it's not excessive. It seems that some have now concluded that France's behavior was a bit excessive, so Europe will be making amends soon.

Second, they dislike America much for the same reason Third World people do: they think that America does not deserve to enjoy what it has. Why? Because it's a country with no history, with no culture. It's a crass capitalist society of uneducated backward people. Trust me, this is how Europeans view the US. The common joke is that America is the only country that managed to leap from barbarism to decadence without going through civilization. The stereotype is so strong, it's absolutely amazing how supposedly educated Europeans can hold it. But then again, the average European is just as ignorant as the average American.

In the end, in this view, America should not be enjoying its position, it should be humble and consult with its well-meaning more intelligent and civilized European allies who will instruct her in the proper ways of running the world. They, of course, should know having slaughtered millions while learning to do it. But the resentment there is just the same: it's a sense of relative deprivation and injustice. And it has nothing to do with what the US does or does not do, but a whole lot with a profoundly anti-democratic elitist thinking that still permeats European society.

So, what about the countries that we are drawing closer to. First, Russia. Some may not like it, but the truth is that Russia is far more important than France. It's nice to maintain better relations with them, and they know the problems we are facing given that they have to deal with religious unrest and terrorism themselves. Second, China. Again, the Chinese may be unhappy that America is running around doing things like keeping Taiwan out of reach, but on the other hand, they liked the US getting them into the WTO, and they like trading with the US very much. They also have their own problems internally, and understand that sometimes one has to do unpleasant things. Third, Pakistan. That's a dangerous country and it would become extremely dangerous if the president is toppled by fundamentalists. Keeping Pakistan secular is paramount for this means keeping the nukes out of the Muslim world. Finally, the Central and Eastern European countries are still staunchly pro-American (which is among the reasons why the French are so upset, they think that all of them should be humbly begging for admission to the EU). These are important friends because they would probably welcome and support US presence there, meaning that we can withdraw from the troublesome 'friends' in the West.

So it's not clear to me that in the balance America has actually lost that much. It's just that the European side is extremely vocal, and for some reason much of US elite, especially the academic one, tends to be pro-European, so they complain about it all the time. Well, I am European, I love Europe, I love its culture and history. And I think the French and the Germans are making a terrible mistake, but I am also hopeful that they will turn around. As I said, there are some signs of that happening. The worst they can do is upset America and cause it to abandon championing European integration and defense. Instead of appeasing them, maybe we should be a bit more firm and politely point out the simple fact: they need us more than we need them.

A lot of the problems come from American support for Israel, but that's another issue that is a bit complicated to deal with right now.

In the end, you certainly cannot please everyone, and perhaps neither should you try.

Hope some of these notes are helpful.

Branislav L. Slantchev
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093-0521