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Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War: Round 4 By: Slate
Slate | Thursday, January 29, 2004

(This is the Round 4 of Slate's symposium. To see Round 3 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: Fareed Zakaria
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Jacob Weisberg
Subject: Changing the Middle East
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004, at 7:48 AM PT

Since this is my first post I want to address Jacob's central question, that Fred and George have pressed so effectively. Given the costs, was the war worth it? I think it was. Many of the costs (ruptured alliances, the postwar mess) can be alleviated (through better planning, diplomacy, etc.). I don't minimize these and have been vocal in pointing them out. But they do not invalidate the entire enterprise.

I've often been associated with the "democratization spillover" argument, so let me point out that the elimination of Saddam Hussein has been a big plus for American national security. The most anti-American and expansionist regime in the Middle East has disappeared. An actual and potential threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait has been eliminated. A violent, rejectionist state has faced consequences. This has had a sobering effect on the region: See Syria and Libya's recent behavior. Given our interest in a stable Middle East, this is good.

Given our growing interest in a more decent Middle East it is even better. For the last few decades we have defined deviancy down in that region. Behavior that would be utterly unacceptable from other countries gets a pass because it's the Middle East. If we learned tomorrow that, say, the Brazilian government was supporting various terror groups, trafficking in chemical and biological agents, and allowing its media to glorify anti-American violence, we would be appalled. When it's Syria we shrug our shoulders and say, "It's the Middle East."

This is the real connection to 9/11. After 9/11 we came to realize that we couldn't let the Middle East keep festering in its dysfunction and hatreds. It was breeding anti-Americanism and terror. With Iraq in particular, business as usual was becoming increasingly difficult. Throughout this discussion we have assumed that there was a simple, viable alternative to war with Iraq, the continuation of the status-quo, i.e., sanctions plus the almost weekly bombing of the no-fly zones. In fact, that isn't really true. America's Iraq policy was broken. You have to contrast the dangers of acting in Iraq with the dangers of not acting and ask what would things have looked like had we simply kicked this can down the road.

I had been comfortable with the "Saddam-is-in-a-box" argument during the 1990s. But by the latter part of the decade the policy was collapsing. In 1996 Saddam invaded the Kurdish safe haven of northern Iraq, re-establishing his power in the area. In the next few years he repeatedly defied U.N. inspectors and busted sanctions. His neighbors—Jordan, Turkey, Syria—began illicitly trading with him. The French and Russians were openly working to get the sanctions lifted. Saddam adopted an increasingly bold negotiating strategy, refusing or reneging on various compromises that were offered him. In 1998 he stooped cooperating with the inspectors. In November 1999 he stopped exporting oil (under the oil for food program) so that he could send oil prices to their highest levels in a decade. On coming into office, Colin Powell, realizing how ineffective sanctions had become, tried to create a "smart sanctions" program that would target the regime and not the Iraqi people. The French and Russians scuttled it.

So, what we had by 2001 was a policy that was leaving Saddam strong but killing thousands of Iraqi civilians—by one UNICEF estimate over 30,000 a year, of which the majority were children under 5. This was not the containment of the Soviet Union. Iraq had turned into a gangsterland, on its way to becoming a Middle Eastern Chechnya. Its humanitarian crisis was broadcast every day across the Arab world and had enormous popular appeal. That is why, having no love for Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden listed it as one of his three grievances against America in his famous declaration of jihad.

Was a continuation of these trends—collapsing sanctions, total impoverishment, no inspectors, Saddam emboldened, and Iraq as the humanitarian cause of the Arab world—good for American interest and ideals? Particularly after 9/11?

George raises a very important question as to whether war is the best agent for democratization. No, it isn't. But there are certain places where change is unlikely to come from within—anytime soon. In particular in oil-rich countries, there is always enough money to pay the army, the secret police, and the torturers. That's why, over the last three decades, while dictatorships all over the world have tottered and tumbled, not one has fallen in the Arab world. Democracy doesn't always come at the point of a gun, but it often does take outside pressure to topple a bad regime—Germany, Japan, Eastern Europe, South Africa. And while external help can be suspect, sometimes outside pressure can help as it did in East Asia and Latin America.

The eggs are broken. Now we need to make a decent omelet. Of course George is right when he says that to succeed in Iraq we need greater popular legitimacy—and we could have gotten it in various ways. And he's right that democracy-building is long, slow, hard work—I've written much about that myself. I've read his intelligent accounts of all the problems in Iraq today. But would it really be easier to make progress toward a decent society had there been no war? And while I'm as sensitive as anyone to public opinion, please don't take too seriously the howls of Arab intellectuals, people who only a year ago hailed Saddam Hussein as their hero. They are reflections of a broken culture. If the goal is to make them happy, we will never achieve any progress in the Middle East.

The war against Iraq was a tough call. For me there was no single reason that was dispositive. But I believe that political and economic change in the Middle East is vital to tackling the war on terror. That, coupled with the humanitarian crisis, coupled with the security problem that Saddam posed, made me sign on to the war.

Yes, we could have tried to promote reform without a war—and we are. We could have better funded legal exchange programs in Egypt, helped women's education in Jordan, provided economic advice to Qatar—but would it have been an adequate and urgent strategy to address the virus that has infected the Middle East? In Iraq we have the possibility of helping a society break through the barriers of the past and set an example for the future. Of course it may not succeed, and things may not change in that region. Many of the Bush administration postwar mistakes make that outcome more likely. But one thing's for certain: If we hadn't tried, we can be sure that it would not succeed and nothing would change.

From: Fred Kaplan
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: The Glass Is Three-Quarters Empty
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004, at 1:15 PM PT

Fareed Zakaria makes the most eloquent and persuasive case for war. If we all get together again in five years and his scenario has come to pass, I will arrive at the reunion with mea culpa in hand. I turned against the war last March not out of pacifism, faith in the United Nations, or solidarity with France, but rather out of sheer skepticism—not only about the Bush administration's dubious motives and mendacious ploys but also (and primarily) about its ability to pull the thing off, particularly in the "postwar" phase (which our officials, in fact, so thoroughly botched that it has devolved into a second, deadlier phase of the war itself). In their diplomacy leading up to the war, Bush & Co. proved themselves so maladroit at dealing with long-familiar allies and entities, I figured they'd be hopeless at untangling the internal ethnic tensions that would boil to the surface after Saddam's lid was blown off.

Fareed lays out an enticing plotline in which the emergence of a stable state and a civil society in Iraq inspires progress and moderation throughout the Middle East. He points to steps that have already been taken in this direction by Libya and Syria—and I agree that these steps are, in large measure, a direct result of the war. However, I would argue that we are still at a very early stage of this story. Iraq could evolve into a viable, Western-leaning nation; it could devolve into a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism, à la Khomeini or worse; it could deteriorate into fragmented anarchy, even civil war. I don't see any one of these possibilities as more or less likely than the others. If one of the latter two scenarios comes to pass, the impact on Iraq, the region, and the rest of the world—and the United States' standing in it—will be devastating, the exact opposite of the noblest intentions.

I'm not dogmatic about this point. Fareed, you may be proved right. I hope you are. I guess the difference between us, for now, is that you see the glass as one-quarter full; I see it as three-quarters empty.

The Bush officials have changed their tune somewhat in the past few months. They seem now to realize, to some degree, the need for a more multilateral approach. Baker's trip to Europe (which I think was about more than debt-forgiveness) is an intriguing sign in this regard. What they are doing, diplomatically, in the Middle East is less clear. The Libyan gambit is promising, but it would be nice to see some pressure on other powers, not least Israel, too.

The Bush people also appear more responsive to the desires and demands of Iraqi leaders. (You don't hear Wolfowitz waxing on de Tocqueville much anymore; when it comes to what we all see as an acceptable political outcome, the bar has been considerably lowered, to accommodate a shift from fantasy to realism.) And the military leadership—thanks, mainly, to the new Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who rose through the ranks as a special ops commander and therefore knows the nature of "low-intensity conflict"—is adapting as well, attempting to strike a more effective balance between banging down doors and capturing hearts-and-minds.

Maybe it will work out. Maybe it won't. If it doesn't, the war will have unleashed forces far more damaging than might have been brought on by a continuation of containment, smart sanctions, and other, subtler pressures. Certainly I agree with you (and Tom Friedman, who has been making this point repeatedly in the Times as well as here) that the next few months are decisive and that the administration has got to start playing this game much more shrewdly than it has until now.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Cost-Benefit Analysis
Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004, at 2:04 PM PT

I'd like to bring the conversation back to the subject of the war's costs and benefits and the issue of whether the latter justify the former. Christopher Hitchens, in his post, asserts that such considerations are irrelevant. "One cannot know the price of anything in advance, but one can be determined to pay it no matter what, as in a struggle for one's own life or for the life of loved ones," he writes.

That seems to me an appropriate sentiment for a battle of national and moral survival, such as the fight against Nazism. But if anything is clear in retrospect, it's that the Iraq war was not a fight for our survival. The best arguments advanced for the invasion in this dialogue have been either bank-shot strategic or non-strategic humanitarian. Absent evidence of weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi sponsorship of al-Qaida, explicit self-defense doesn't come into it. And because choosing this war when we chose it was optional, a weighing of the costs and benefits is not merely appropriate, but the very heart of the decision. 

Dare I make a comparison to Vietnam? I'm not sure where Christopher stands on that war today, but I would argue that there was a price worth paying to prevent Vietnam from falling into Communist hands. Unfortunately, the acceptable price—in American lives, Vietnamese lives, public funds, distraction from other problems, social division, and so on—was far less than what we paid short of achieving victory. If we could remake that decision with the benefit of hindsight, I hope we'd all agree Vietnam was a mistake—not on grounds of absolute principle, but because the costs were insupportable.

Of course, one does not simply stop fighting a war, even an elective one, because the profit-and-loss tally shifts from arguably favorable to marginally unfavorable—an implication of Christopher's I accept. Indeed, cost-benefit analysis can say we shouldn't have invaded in the first place, but that now that we're there, we should stick. We have already incurred most of the costs of going to war in Iraq and reversing course now would only serve to increase them—a point Mickey Kaus made the other day in his blog, in response to something Fareed wrote in Newsweek.

But that still leaves the question of whether our initial decision to support the war was wrong based on what we knew, or ought to have known, back in March. Most of you seem to believe we did not make a mistake. This afternoon, I'm leaning toward Fred's view that we did.

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