The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


At Obsidian Wings, the reliably anti-Bush Hilzoy has a substantial post entitled "Failures of Will." Its argument has two main parts. The first is an attempt to deduce, from the observed failures of planning, that the Bush administration does not care very much about the Iraq war:

I think that it is absolutely true that if you really want something, you will not make fundamental or careless mistakes about it. And this is a test of how much people do want something: are they careless about the task of getting it, or do they work for it as carefully, as thoughtfully, and as hard as they possibly can?
... Because transforming Iraq into a democracy is a difficult enough task with careful planning, and anyone who cared about success would never have undertaken it without a serious, well-thought-out plan.
The second is an attack on Bush's supporters, who are claimed to have chosen vindication over victory:

The second crucial failure of will belongs to those Americans who voted for George W. Bush in 2004. By that time, his administration's incompetence in Iraq was absolutely clear, as was the fact that he had no intention either of doing things differently or of holding accountable those of his subordinates who had gotten things so catastrophically wrong. Even admitting any mistake at all seemed to be beyond him, at a time when his mistakes were obvious to anyone. It was therefore completely predictable that a second Bush administration would continue to screw things up as badly as the first.
People who genuinely wanted our invasion of Iraq not to end in catastrophe, therefore, ought to have voted him out, especially since whatever his faults, Kerry plainly was a responsible person who was not in favor of cutting and running.
The article is wrong in several ways, and its conclusions are direly overstated. Another Obsidian Wings contributor has written a substantive reply, addressing the most direct of its attacks. My concern here is more with Hilzoy's premises about the reasons for the invastion of Iraq, which I feel are so flawed as to be worse than useless.

A large part of the flaw in premises stems from a disagreement as to the meaning of international law. According to many opponents of America's allegedly unilateral ways, international law consists of consensus agreements, encouraging desired behaviors and opposing undesired ones with resolutions and possibly sanctions. Whenever it is stated baldly, this seems like a caricature; but it is not. To judge its veracity, one need only examine the reactions of its proponents to more robust enforcement of international law.

To me, and also perhaps to the Bush administration, the meaning is different. International law is either an expected set of behaviors of nations, whose violation brings consequences disproportionately outweighing any potential gain, so that the threat of enforcement need not be constantly tested; or else it is nothing at all. An international law of resolutions from the U.N. Security Council, whose violation is punished with further resolutions, is the latter.

A respected international law leads directly to a more peaceful world. [This is not necessarily a better world; if that law is based in realpolitik or on the nations are people too fallacy, then it will be a world of stable national boundaries circumscribing genocidal horrors.] But the respect of international law derives solely from the perception that it may be enforced.

Let us consider the actions of the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein which might be considered infractions of international law. This is very much in the eye of the beholder; to some, Donald Rumsfeld's actions in organizing the prosecution of the Afghanistand and Iraq campaigns, under orders from the Chief Executive at whose pleasure he serves, are "crimes" against some nebulous "international law". I hope to do better than that, but I cannot hope that my own perceptions will be universally accepted.

First, Iraq was more or less openly supporting Palestinian terror, by rewarding the families of suicide bombers. We would like to define international law so that this is a violation. This is the translation into action of the words "with us [the civilized and potentially peaceful nations of the world] or with the terrorists."

Second, Iraq was in direct violation of U.N. Security council resolutions, which are at present the nearest written approximation to the law we are seeking. Since these resolutions were not written by fools, they did not specify that Iraq must not possess unconventional weapons; instead, they explicitly denied the benefit of the doubt, and demanded that Iraq convincingly demonstrate that it was not developing such weapons. [Not only are nations not people, they are not protected by the U.S. constitution or the Anglo-American judicial tradition.]

Third, the Iraqi government was a bloody one, killing perhaps 20,000 citizens each year in peacetime. It is not clear whether this is relevant; there is no consensus on the desired international repercussions of domestic butchery.

Finally, the strongest punitive measures short of forcible overthrow were already being applied to the Iraqi regime, and had not produced the desired effect. In other words, the Iraqi regime felt that it was gaining something not only commensurate with the cost of the sanctions, but greater -- enough greater that it would risk invasion to preserve the imbalance. [We now know that the purported "sanctions" acted to both enrich and empower the governing regime, at some expense to the Iraqi people. Thus what was thought to be a sign of some great incentive to resist sanctions can now be seen as a desire to preserve them until they had run their course. I do not believe this point affects the conclusion here.] Thus the penultimate enforcement mechanism of international law was shown to be ineffectual.

Above I asserted that, for any law to be effective, the consequences of violation must be disproportionate to the potential gain. We now have an illustrative example. For suppose, as in the above case, that the cost of consequences is closely proportional to the potential gain. Then the violation will provide an expected gain unless the probability of enforcement is very high (so that the expected cost of the consequences is high enough to deter). [I have omitted risk aversion here, but including it would tilt the argument still further in favor of draconian enforcement.] [This is closely analogous to the situation in traffic property law. The penalty for speeding is not twenty minutes on the side of the highway, losing somewhat more time than you gained by speeding. The penalty for robbing a store is not a fine.]

The weaker the penalty, the more credibility is required. But credibility is not created from nothing; it is earned by acting. A world of weak penalties would require a feverish pace of sanctions for them to have any significant deterrent value; this would not be sustainable, and it would inevitably slide into a world of sham law, like that before Kosovo. Tony Blair stated this at the time, clearly and eloquently.

As the failure of sanctions became clear, it became necessary to choose whether to apply the one remaining tool of enforcement. There were two forces in the world which could feasibly remove the Iraqi government by force: the United States, and the United Nations (with U.S. backing). [Other powers, such as Russia, would have found it possible but not feasible, as it would require from them a relative commitment disproportionate to any gain.] The course preferred by almost all Americans, on the left and right, was for the United Nations to act. [I presume here that in saying "no war without UN authorization", rather than simply "no war", those against unilateral intervention were arguing honestly.] The credibility of that body had been greatly eroded by its non-intervention in Kosovo, and East Timor, and Rwanda, and Cambodia, and Uganda; its worse than uselessness in Sarajevo; its stubborn silence at the already-emerging Darfur genocide; and so on down the roll call of shame. Thus it was clear at the outset that persuading the U.N. to act would be a Sisyphean task. The United States, as the grownup in the room, began making its own military plans.

In the event, the United Nations proved as corrupt and refractory as its harshest critics could have claimed. Weapons of Mass Destruction, which it was hoped would be the lever to move this immovable object, were hyped by both sides -- for example, Dick Cheney saw them as a justification, while John Kerry found them invaluable for ass-covering. The American military developed to maturity its own plans -- plans which were focused on the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein, which was at the time the overriding goal.

Once it was known that the United Nations would not itself act, the importance of American credibility was precisely equal to the importance of international law. Without the one, the other could no longer exist. The immediate danger posed by Iraq was one of the risks of inaction; less defined but no less important was the question of how other dangerous nations, freed from any meaningful constraint, would then act. Opponents of action claim that the later failure of stabilization has made the region a powder keg; but inaction would have emboldened aggressors across the whole world.

Our treasure and the blood of our soldiers are buying not only a chance of freedom and safety for the people of Iraq, but also the restored credibility which alone can maintain some level of international order, and which only that blood can buy. Those who agitate for withdrawal are within their rights; but it is a matter of fact, not of opinion, that they are debasing that precious coin.

From the point of view of the Bush Administration, or of anyone dedicated to the defense in the medium term of a more peaceful world, the invasion of Iraq was mandatory. The planning naturally centered around how to effect it. The lack of postwar planning, which Hilzoy cites as a sure sign of casual incompetence, merely shows that the main impetus for invasion was not the postwar improvement of Iraq.

The best realist solution would have been to seek Saddam's rapid replacement with another secular dictator, protecting American credibility with minimal involvement in the region. This is a defensible, if amoral, view, and seems to have had significant support at the time, though its proponents have remained less dedicated to the cause than those of the antiwar faction.

The Bush administration, after acrimonious internal debate and without a well-formed plan, chose a more ambitious route. The lack of a plan was a major handicap, but not in the manner Hilzoy implies. An attempt to do something never attempted before, on a large scale and in the face of active opposition, can be expected to raise genuinely difficult problems. We quote Hilzoy again:

First, it is true of some things (like philosophy) that getting the fundamentals right is very difficult, and in those cases, I don't think it's true that if you really care about something, you won't make fundamental errors. You just won't make careless ones.
I think this is the applicable case.

Finally, we turn to the question of whether continued support for Bush was defensible after his many errors. This is, in fact, a very easy question. Let's start with a great quote from Rob Booth [via Alex Whitlock]:

Nancy Pelosi et al criticizing the GOP for abandoning their ideals is kind of like David Lee Roth criticizing The Police for abandoning their New Wave roots. He might be right, and it is sad that Synchronicity isn't as good as Outlandos D'Amour, but are you saying that if I buy the new David Lee Roth album it's going to sound like Regatta de Blanc?
John Kerry was at best a reluctant advocate of even minimal action against Saddam Hussein's regime. His victory, in a time of modest but steady prosperity, would have been widely interpreted as a rejection of Mr. Bush's foreign policy, which advocates of withdrawal and sham law would -- rightly -- have claimed as a major triumph. And we are to believe that he would have proven more determined than George Bush?

Most of those who voted against Mr. Kerry probably disagreed with a majority of his domestic policy prescriptions. It is unlikely that a President Kerry would have nominated either John Roberts or Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. And we are to disregard all this in favor of a weird double-bluff theory that Mr. Kerry was actually the tough one, that those spots he had shown along were really stripes if you just looked hard enough?

That would have been a far greater leap of faith than any the Bush administration has ever asked of us.