Saturday, January 05, 2008

Iraq: The Best of Intentions?

The war in Iraq is a key flashpoint of American politics … and it should be. The war is a disaster. The American and British invasion of Iraq was both a massive failure of intelligence operations and, almost certainly, conducted knowingly under false pretenses. It was ill considered and poorly conceived. Moreover, its continuity trivializes the lives of those who are in the line of fire, civilians, “insurgents”, and American and international personnel. Moreover, the current conflict in Iraq can be traced back directly to the ineptness of the current American political leadership, their ideologically-induced blindness, and their callous disregard for even American lives. This war should be an embarrassing affront to any American citizen who honestly believes the ideals and principles upon which the United States was founded and for which most ordinary Americans stand. There is no other options: the United States government must begin an immediate withdraw from Iraq.

Easy to say? It is. I’m safe in Canada, a non-combatant, as it should be. I don’t have to answer to the US public for the utter waste of lives and resources. I don’t have to answer to the Iraqi public for the destruction of their country, the waste of their lives, the covert support for extremists in an effort to buy peace, the corrupt of the occupational administration, the disregard of the international community, and so on. There is a lot that the current administration of the United States has to answer for that it is almost ridiculous. So … yes, it is easy for me to say this because I don’t have to apologize for any of these wrong-headed, silly, corrupt practices that have guided the policy of the Bush administration with regard to Iraq. Note, by the way, that I am talking about the Bush administration and the pro-war sympathizers not the American people who don’t seem to want this war any more than anyone else. A supporter of the war might argue, however, that it is easy for me to say the US should leave Iraq because I am callous, because I am not considering the future. After all, the standard line runs now, even if the US was wrong to enter the Iraq, it can’t leave now or problems will get worse. What would happen, pro-war apologists ask grimly, if the US were to leave? Usually no answer is provided and we are left to imagine a worst case scenario.

Let me address this question (what would happen if the US were to leave?) and one other, perhaps more pertinent to this blog: what should Canada do with regard to Iraq. First, what would happen if the US were to leave? Is the US occupation of Iraq actually doing anything to promote peace? Is there any evidence that any Iraqi’s life has been saved by the US military occupation of Iraq? One does not want to count bodies as if ethical decisions could be made on the basis of body counts, but this is, in fact, the issue raised by the question: what would happen if the US were to leave Iraq? The implicit answer is that more people would die and, ergo, the US occupation of Iraq is legitimate because it is saving lives. Is it? Is there any evidence that the US occupation of Iraq has saved lives? If so, how many? I don’t mean a statistical “might happen if” model here, by the way (sort of like the kind used earlier this year to justify capital punishment as a life safer), but real evidence, empirical evidence that can show people whose lives have actually been saved by the occupation. That is: people who are alive today who otherwise would have died but for the occupation. And, after that, what would need to be done is to show that this number is greater than the number that would otherwise have lived if there were no occupation. The whole exercise, I admit, is morally offensive but then I didn’t make up the question -- the pro-war people did - I’m just trying to answer it.

The truth of the matter is this: we have no evidence that the occupation is doing any good. What we have is a belief that if left to their own devices, Iraqis are incapable of governing themselves and so the US must impose a government on them. That is not evidence. It is bias. It is a belief formed around a stereotype and, like any stereotype, it is worth exactly what any stereotype is worth: zilch.

If we ditch he biased imagine the worse case scenario argument and ask the proponents of the war in Iraq to actually provide evidence of their worst case scenario imaginings so we can assess them in light of evidence and reason (as we should do with any serious proposition) then what is, in fact, one of the key argument in favour of maintaining the military occupation of Iraq begins to falter in the face of a complete absence of evidence in support of it.

Second, we often hear from those who support the occupation that those who oppose it have done nothing to suggest alternatives. They are not, we are told, constructive. They are pandering to the enemy. They are suggesting a course of action that will embarrass the US. I disagree. Those who support peace have been -- as I am -- making clear and direct suggestions at to courses of action to follow. They are making suggestions that will improve the situation. They are putting forward argument that for the proponents of occupation to defend their arguments with evidence and reason so that, as a democratic society, the American public can assess them. The argument that the opponents of war and occupation, then, have offered nothing is, in fact, wrong. Those who support the war don’t like what they have to say but they are putting real ideas on the table that will hopefully advance the case of peace, help promote a better Iraq, and save American and Iraqi lives. Any suggestion put forward with these goals -- which, without evidence, I will take to be common self-evidently good objectives -- deserves consideration. To subject it to simplistic attack -- such as pandering to the enemy -- is to dismiss the idea serious debate can occur in a democratic society (like the US) and that what is needed is slogans as opposed to discussion. I, btw, reject this suggestion.

I’ve made two points so far: there is no evidence that the occupation of Iraq is producing constructive results and that those who oppose it have, in fact, put forward positive constructive suggestions that are intended to work in everyone’s interest (improving Iraq and saving Iraqi and American lives). The idea that what I am suggesting -- really re-iterating -- is easier to say then do is true (particularly for a Canadian) but one further point I have been trying to make is that this is not completely true. If we have confidence in American democratic institutions, if we are committed to saving lives, if we want to see a stable and peaceful Iraq, then what I am suggesting is not discourse but the grounds upon which these ideals can become realities.

Two other points are worth noting in closing that might also be subjected to the same accusation. First, peace will require that the US government give up one of its other objectives for Iraq: control over the government. Peace might actually bring an anti-US government to power in Iraq. This is not something one would wish for but it is a possibility. The US government needs to be willing to accept this possibility. It needs to be willing to accept the fact that it could be viewed negatively by a future Iraq government and that its control over that region of the world will be weakened as a result. This may be a price of peace. I will not provide any evidence to sustain my contention here because what I am saying is necessarily speculative but I would argue (if I had more space) that this is a price that the US should be willing to pay. In the short, medium and long run it is a small price that can be recouped.

Second, is there a role for Canada? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It would be easy to pretend that there is a role for Canada in training police forces, providing educational support, establishing humanitarian relief and providing medical support, etc., and there might indeed be a role for Canada in this regard. However, Canadians also need to be acutely aware that their own abilities to provide what Iraq needs are limited. We should take a public international stand for peace and for withdraw. We should endeavour to do what we can to support a future, post-occupation government, to promote stabilization, etc., but we also need to be aware of the fact that a lot of Iraqis may not want us. They may be tired of westerners telling them what to do and telling them that we know what is best for them. Iraqis may want to strike out on their own course. If so, this is something we would need to accept.
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