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Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War: Round 5 By: Slate
Slate | Friday, January 30, 2004

(This is the Round 5 of Slate's symposium. To see Round 4 Click Here)

Slate's Panel:

Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, which is forthcoming in the spring.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of Longitudes and Attitudes.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. His most recent book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate and is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon.

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In An Uncertain World.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.


From: Christopher Hitchens
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: The Price of Victory
Friday, Jan. 16, 2004, at 8:06 AM PT

Rightly deposed

A short answer to Fred Kaplan's question of Wednesday: If the James Risen story in the New York Times is correct, which I have no reason to doubt, it is still written upside down, or at least would read just as well if printed that way. In other words, one might as well make a "disclosure" out of the fact that Saddam was in close touch with his own thugs concerning the movements of jihadist ones: movements of which he was very well aware.

On its own, that would now surprise nobody. Nor does it contradict anything we know already. My own analogy for the Baathist/al-Qaida collusion has always been that of a Hitler-Stalin pact: a cynical agreement on common interests and common enemies by ostensible and actual rivals. The analogy would break down a bit in point of relative scale: Saddam used to have a state machine, and the jihadists (at least after the fall of Kabul) did not. But that doesn't affect the argument very much. At all times—the case of Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan might be another example, or the less Islamist Abu Nidal network—Saddam wanted to be the one using, not the one used. And he wanted control. He was an absolutist dictator, before we forget.

The statements made by al-Qaida spokesmen come out the same way: They don't support Baathism, but they did strongly support Saddam against the coalition and they did and do want to make Iraq into a site for holy war.

The leaked document on this relationship from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which contains a great deal of information that has not been contradicted, shows the same pattern. Deniable Iraqi envoys were sent to seek accommodation and understanding, at arm's length, with the newest and most serious anti-American force in the region. How could it have been otherwise? It was the Mukhabarat's job to do such things. (And sometimes to undo them, as when they murdered Abu Nidal in the run-up to the invasion.) It's only a few weeks since the New York Times breathlessly informed us, in another upside-down disclosure, that Iraqi middlemen seeking to avert an invasion made an offer, among other things, to surrender a certain Mr. Yasin—wanted for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and ever since that date a resident of Baghdad. The main effect of that report was to tell the paper's readers, for the first time, of the existence of this very fascinating connection.

One still reads ignorant stuff about how "secular" the Baath Party once was. This ignores at least a decade's worth of ostentatiously jihadist propaganda, the building of mosques with militaristic names, and the writing of a special Quran allegedly in Saddam's own blood. To say nothing of open and boastful military and financial support for the jihadist suicide-murderers in Palestine, i.e., for the enemies of the more secular PLO. I dare say someone could now write an exclusive story for the New York Times saying that private letters showed that Saddam Hussein was never really sincere about his personal conversion to Islam. And I would believe that report, too.

Very occasionally, I feel sympathy for the anti-intervention forces. They can quite pardonably claim that they don't know quite which protean Bush/Cheney/Powell/Rumsfeld case they are debating, or which is today's prowar headline or justification. But the same applies in reverse. For example, once I finish arguing with someone who says that a thousand Osamas will spring up to replace the killed Osama, I turn to confront someone who angrily says that Bush hasn't killed Osama yet (which the first contestant can presumably not desire, unless he desires a thousand Osamas). And one can become dizzy, as between those who feel that there are too many American forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who denounce Washington for sending too few.

I myself thought it was plain enough, when I spoke to Jacob's point about "cost," that I was alluding not merely to Iraq but to the whole front between ourselves and the jihad and its state allies. But perhaps I should have taken more care to bodyguard my remarks. (And I certainly didn't say that such a matter was "irrelevant.") I believe nonetheless that such a cost-accounting is impossible. At what point could it have been determined in advance that the fall of Saddam Hussein was worth X or Y? At what stage would cost have dictated discretion? Would halfway to Baghdad have been cheap at half the price? How was the "cost" of allowing continuing Baathist rule to be calculated? Have we really overspent in Afghanistan? Who would decide how the investment necessary for the demolition of the Taliban had hit diminishing returns? And when? And how would the money have been better spent "at home"? There is such a thing as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. (Fred Kaplan comes closer to genuine bargain-basement reasoning by declaring boldly that he will endorse any policy that can be guaranteed as a painless victory in advance. Or that he might have done so until recently.)

Of some interest are the predictions made, by both Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, on precisely this point. In well-reported speeches and sermons, and in one instance in a tape-recorded exchange with a U.S. ambassador, both men predicted with boastful certainty that Americans would soon weary of the cost of combat and retire from the field, either because of "body bag" considerations or because of the general decadence produced by Judeo-capitalism, hedonism, corruption, impiety, etc. It seems to me to be of the very first importance, for reasons of morale and of strategy (as well as the imposed necessity of rehearsing and improving our tactics and soldiery by means of practice) that these predictions go into the dustbin of history as among the stupidest and vainest things anyone has ever said. I don't know how to quantify such a necessary attainment, but I do know that the contrary example would come in at a very high price indeed, and be very dearly bought for no comparative advantage.


From: George Packer
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: What We Got Wrong and Why
Friday, Jan. 16, 2004, at 8:25 AM PT

Among the many thoughtful posts in this week's conversation—including Fareed's on Thursday—one of the best came from a reader. His or her point was that for Tom and Fareed especially, but to a lesser degree for others among us, the war's justification was practical and experimental: It might have certain good effects in the region and in the larger war on terrorism, or it might not—but avoiding action altogether was less tolerable than taking the risk of war. And, this reader went on, once the justification was put that way, on a practical and experimental basis, the ultimate verdict on whether or not the war was the right thing depends on how things go in Iraq and the region. In short, as Chou En-Lai said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, it's too early to tell. But just because the outcome is still to be determined, and the job will require enormous imagination, flexibility, local knowledge, and staying power on our part, success or failure will depend in large part on whether Americans manage to summon these mental qualities. As Christopher wrote in his book on Orwell, what you think matters less than how you think—and how this administration thinks isn't reassuring. For example, it's very difficult for me to imagine a symposium called "What Did We Get Wrong and Why?" being held at the American Enterprise Institute, where so much of the Bush foreign policy has been incubated, let alone at the White House. On the other hand, I'm encouraged by this conversation in Slate and by how the participants thought. I hope it continues in other guises. Thanks for the chance to join in.

George Packer


From: Fred Kaplan
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Bad Dictator Analogies
Friday, Jan. 16, 2004, at 12:28 PM PT

Christopher Hitchens' historical analogy—Saddam is to Osama as Stalin is to Hitler (or should it be "as Hitler is to Stalin"?)—is more than a bit strained. But if the comparison is valid, then it follows that invading Iraq in response to 9/11 was like invading the Soviet Union in response to Nazi Germany's aggression against Czechoslovakia. Christopher also knows better than to accuse me of endorsing, as he puts it, "any policy that can be guaranteed as a painless victory in advance." As he well knows from our conversations at the time, I was (and remain) an avid supporter of the war in Afghanistan, which—given the Soviet and British experiences in that country over the years—was by no means foreseen (by me, him, or anybody else) as a sure thing.


From: Paul Berman
To: Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Hitler, Stalin, Hussein
Friday, Jan. 16, 2004, at 1:21 PM PT

A final footnote on the arcane topic of Hitler and Stalin. I do think we have reason to keep these historical figures in mind. Saddam's Baath was founded in 1943 under a Nazi influence. (This ought to give the Germans a reason to ensure Baathism's final defeat in Iraq, even if Bush has treated Germany with arrogance.) Later on, Saddam added an influence of Stalin to the Baathist idea. Fred Halliday has pointed out that Saddam's birthplace in Tikrit is a mere 450 miles from Stalin's birthplace. (This might give the Russians a reason to help out, too.) Saddam has the unusual quality of being able to claim descent from Hitler and Stalin both. He is himself the Hitler-Stalin pact.

This arcane fact goes to the heart of our modern predicament—the reality that large political forces exist that have demonized entire countries and populations and have worked up a cult of mass killing. The war against these political forces has been bungled by the strategists in Washington. But, as George and other journalists have shown, many heroic people are doing everything they can do to undo those blunders on the ground in Iraq. What should liberals and Democrats do at home in the United States? Everything we can to help those people. Their success and our safety are one and the same.


From: Jacob Weisberg
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Final Words
Friday, Jan. 16, 2004, at 2:11 PM PT

Thanks to all seven of you all for contributing to what has been, at last for me, an illuminating and at times agonizing conversation. All week, I've found myself persuaded back and forth by your various arguments. And I very much second George Packer's commendation. The spirit of rigorous self-criticism is alive and well here, if nowhere else among supporters of the war.

For my part, I have indeed changed my mind this week. I no longer think I was correct to support Bush's invasion of Iraq last March. That's hard for me to say, since as I noted at the outset, I've itched to depose Saddam Hussein by violent means, since 1991. But Bush was the wrong president to do it, and last year was the wrong moment—based on problems I didn't perceive clearly enough because of my impatience to see our unfinished business in Iraq finally completed.

The first factor impelling me to change my mind is the emerging picture of the dishonesty involved in getting the public to support the war. Members of the Bush administration truly thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as did the vast majority of its critics. But the administration contributed to the general misapprehension by suborning intelligence, exaggerating evidence, and amplifying unreliable data in ways that, as Ken Pollack has depicted, amount to deception. They did this because, absent a powerful fear of Saddam's WMD, the American people would not have supported the invasion. A democracy must not be led to war on the basis of deceit, even if the unarticulated reasons for going war remain persuasive to many of us.

I don't fault myself much for being wrong about the weapons. Perhaps I should have been more suspicious, but if Ken and other experts couldn't see through the flaws in the Bush administration's evidence, I don't see how I could have. It was a very strong argument for war that turns out to have to be almost completely wrong.

The other reason I have changed my mind is that, as I indicated yesterday, I don't think it stands up well to cost-benefit analysis available at the outset. I think that the benefits could have outweighed the costs if the Bush administration had proceeded multilaterally and on the basis of prudent contingency planning. But it should have been possible to see a year ago that Bush was going to proceed in precisely the self-undermining way he did. Unilateralism was the president's policy. The liberation fantasy that caused so much additional damage to the already wrecked society of Iraq was the obvious underpinning of the Pentagon's postwar plan.

Here I do fault myself, for not better recognizing the evident character of this administration. Another president might have taken us to war in a basically prudent and honest way. This one was not competent to do so. Facing a continuing tragedy in Iraq, but no emergency, we should have waited for a leader capable of reasoning about our security priorities and working more effectively with countries we need as allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

Mistake or no, we must all live with the consequences of our decision. One point we all seem to agree on is that America must stay and finish what it started. A functional, democratic state in Iraq that exerted a positive influence on the region would go a long way toward vindicating the liberal hawks. I'm less optimistic about this outcome than Tom Friedman. But if such a nation emerges, no one will be more pleased about it than I. 

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