Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hindsight Part II: Regime Change and Iraq


Someone – likely one of his profs – had given my son a collection of Christopher Hitchens articles relating to invasion of Iraq and the subsequent war. I'm guessing that the pieces were intended to show students the kinds of arguments used to argue for military action – that is, for hard power – approaches to foreign policy: don't like a foreign government ... well ... “regime change.” In looking over these pieces, what struck me was just how much Hitchens got wrong. Hitchens was, you might recall, one of the supposed principled defenders of US military action. He was no conservative ideology, had a history of opposition to the general trajectory of American foreign policy, and used reasons to make his points as opposed to scare tactics. He continued to criticize the Bush, Jr., administration and conservatives even while he argued for the hard power option. Reading his pieces is, therefore, instructive because we can see not how wrong Bush and his crew were (heck, who north of the border did not know they were wrong?), but how poorly the supposedly reasoned and ethical arguments for war have fared.

Hitchens argument for war strives to actually avoid words like “war” or “invasion” or “occupation.” One of his early pieces, in fact, speaks of helping the Iraqi “revolution” and in another he speaks of getting military forces out after interventions as quickly as possible. He also uses the euphemism “regime change.” These points can be important because Hitchens could claim that he never supported long-term occupation and was not in favour of war. One would have to have been pretty naive, however, to not know that war and this is the defence of semantics: “I never precisely used these exact words.” This is a fairly weak defence. It is the equivalent of hiding behind “small print.” It might win a point in a debating club but in terms of IR, defence by semantics won't fly here because everyone know what was being discussed. The US was not talking about providing, say, humanitarian aid to dissenters. They were building up forces for a full-scale invasion and occupation of the country. I don't know if Hitchens actually ever tried any of these linguistics tricks to avoid his own responsibilities, btw. I'm simply making the point that defence by semantics is, evasion of responsibility by technicality.

(Don't believe me, ask yourself how you might respond in this situation, one takes one's car to a mechanic, explaining it does not work. You ask the mechanic “can you fix my car?” He says “yes, it will be ready by 4 PM.” At 4 PM you arrive, pay the mechanic and get in your car to discover that it does not work. You point this out to the mechanic who says “Oh, yeah, there was nothing wrong with your car. It was the engine in your car that had the problem and you didn't tell me to fix that.”)

While avoiding words like “war,” Hitchens argument rests on a number of propositions. First, against those who argued “why Hussein? Why Iraq, there are a lot of bad governments out there. Why pick this one. Isn't this hypocrisy?” Hitchens says no. Hussein is different from other bad governments in that his government contributes to increased misery in neighbours. Not only is it repressive at home but its neighbours now live in fear. “Regime change” will solve this problem.

I do not want to argue Hussein was good. What I am doing is asking questions about the rationale for a war that cost tens of thousands of lives. The key question, then, is how does point one hold up?
The answer to this question is: very poorly because we now know that some of this was not true. Iraq's neighbours might have lived in fear but not of Iraq, which had been de-clawed by Bush, Sr., and international sanctions. Its military had become a joke – unable to put up little defence even fighting on its home turf -- and it had no connection to al-Quaeda. It had no WMD programme. In other words, the evidence seems against Hitchens on this point and in a fairly resounding way.

What is interesting is that Hitchens himself seems to understand this this is not a strong argument for intervention because he then tries to add to it. Not only should the US invade Iraq because the Hussein regime spreads fear outside its borders but that the US might as well invade Iraq because the government of Hussein was going to collapse anyway. Since it was going to collapse, well, chaos would ensue. So, since chaos could not be avoided, there is no reason to worry about creating chaos through regime change.

I concede this is a rather bizarre argument, but he made it up; not me. It has moral problems for sure. It is the equivalent of saying “gee, my neighbour's house is going to be robbed so I might as well go and take his stuff since he will be robbed anyway.” Even if one's neighbour was going to be robbed (and who can know this?), the fact that someone else is going to commit a crime is not a good reason for me to commit a crime. Think about this argument for a second and imagine how dangerous it could be. If someone wants to rob you (or beat you up or force you into slavery), all they have to do is contend that someone else was going to do it, so their crime is excused. Does this sound like an ethical decision making process to you?

Even if we could put these ethics problems aside, however, this argument still has problems because it contradicts the first argument. Iraq is such a menace to its neighbour that they live in fear but the government that inspires such fear is so weak that it is going to fall apart of its own accord. Is it just me? Does anyone else see the problem here? In his haste to justify military action, Hitchens tries to have it both ways: (a) this government is a threat, (b) this government is so weak (and, hence, could not be a threat) that it will fall apart.

Hitchens makes a number of other rather odd argument but I suppose the one that I found most interesting was that regime change in Iraq would have spin off effects, democratizing Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, and the gulf states. How did that work? Interestingly, he does not mention either Libya or Egypt, but he speculates the regime change in Iraq will even solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am not making this up, folks (anyone who wants the references can drop me a line) but I can understand how someone might think I am. Hitchens' argument is speculative here but he suggests that without Hussein, the Palestinians will no longer have a protector and so will have no where else to turn but peace. We know now, of course, that this is not what happened. We know that without Hussein, a large part of the Palestinian population turned to Humas. To me this shows not simply that some really outlandish best-case-scenario arguments that were more speculative then reality-based but that at least some of those supporting the invasion didn't know very much about the politics of the region on which they were commenting.

I don't, of course, mean to insult Hitchens. What I want to do is draw attention to how inaccurate arguments for “regime change” were. Hitchens has more to say but I think my point is at least on the table. The argument for regime change were based in slippery and naive language (“regime change” substituting for “invasion” and “occupation”), a contradictory logic that painted the Hussein regime as at once threatening and imploding, inaccurate assessments of military strength (and, hence, the ability to threaten) and a best-case scenario treatment of the results that now appears based more in a lack of knowledge then reality. Put together, a decade after the invasion, we can say that the arguments for invasion don't hold up very well.
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