Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Absolutely Horrible

In much of the debate about the war in Iraq many commentators have said that going to Iraq was either a good or bad choice. Because of the nature of conversation this is perfectly natural and perfectly acceptable, but it does hide a bit of the reality of international, national, and heck all politics really, but especially international. International politics is rarely a matter of unqualified good and unqualified bad decisions, it is a matter of better decisions, worse decisions, and the constant possibility of monumentally horrible consequences even from the right choices. In the debate about Iraq we should always remember that the choice for invading Iraq was never as simple as whether to go or not, it was whether to leave Saddam in power and let his rule play out to its fulfillment or end, or to invade. Ultimately I think the choice made was wrong, but in considering the matter we must look carefully at the alternatives.

In retrospect, Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, he likely would have cooperated with terrorists if the opportunity raised itself but it was unlikely he would have become much of a leader for him given his crippled economy and weak military. He did not pose a short or medium term threat to us, only in the possibilities of the longer term did the chance of a threat arise. Given the alternative of leaving him in power, he would rail against the US, he would give support to Palestian suicide bombers and likely some other terrorist groups but not in a major way, he might attempt to rebuild his military but with a crippled economy and continuing sanctions and endemic corruption this would be very difficult, especially given his own mismangement of his military. Geopolitically he would remain a minor source of destabilizing but not a major one.

Looking between the two choices, from a threat assessment point of view leaving him in power was the better alternative given that there is an inherint risk of destabilizing a country in the democratizing process even in the best of situations (let us remember that even in the US after the Revolutionary War (a fairly bloody affair despite claims to the contrary), we had a mass exodus of loyalists and several years of pretty unstable government under the Articles of Confederation which sparked a sizable revolt, and we were in danger of subversion from several foreign powers including Spain and Britian). Especially given what we know now.

But let us look at the moral perspective. The current situation is pretty disasterous, much violence, much chaos. But like I said, it isn't a matter of good or bad but better or worse. Leaving Saddam in power wasn't good either from a moral perspective. Saddam had attempted genocide before, against the Kurds he had used chemical weapons and done a mass killing campaign which decimated the population especially the male population and especially coupled with refugees fleeing the country. But leaving him in power would he have done it again? If he could, most likely yes, especially given the pro-American bent of many of the Kurds and his need to rally Arab nationalism to secure his position within his country and internationally. He was sponsoring a highly murderous group in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that was destabilizing the area. But could he have attempted genocide again? No. In truth, our no-fly zone and support of the Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan had made it highly difficult to enforce his will there even if he was to be incredibly ruthless about it. In truth he would not be able to attempt genocide against the Shi'ites either because there are simply too many Shiite Iraqis.

But that doesn't mean his rule would not be horrible. He would continue torturing, continue terrorizing, continue his tryanny for the forseeable future. Even though his country was weak, it was stronger than the power of its people (this isn't meant as an insult to the Iraqis but rather an assessment of Saddam's highly effective efforts to paralyze non-governmental organizations, keep his people divided and paranoid (this was actually a large cause of much of the sectarianism we are seeing today, it is possible, although this is a debatable point, if during the somewhat lighter rule and more prosperous times of the pre-First Gulf War era might have been less prone to this sectarianism and perhaps had we freed the Iraqis (and it is a matter of freeing them instead of granting them liberty, liberty is a natural right that was taken away from them, not something to be given) during the First Gulf War, perhaps the current situation could have been avoided), and maintain a strong internal security structure. He was a monsterous tyrant, one of the worst in the world (although probably in terms of monstrocity of the tryant (although perhaps not severity of the situation), North Korea has it worse off), and it seems to me, although this is a debatable point, that given his lack of care for his own population, no international pressure short of military intervention could really change matters. And so he would remain. Given that dictators who can live very luxuriously when they don't have serious opposition, this could mean another 30 or so years of tyranny. Of course then there's succession. If a dictator does not have a clear successor, a less ruthless, weaker, or less capable ruler might arise and that might lead to a collapse of the dictatorial system. However, Saddam did have two clear candidates for succession and had clearly established one as his favorite, his sons. This suggests that there would most likely not be a huge struggle for leadership after Saddam's death and even if one of his sons died, the other could still take his place.

By most accounts, one of his sons, the older one, was somewhat unstable, and might, might have been destabilizing to the government, but given the weak state of the anti-governmental forces outside Iraqi Kurdistan, even this would not have led to the end of tryanny and given the cruelty of his unstable character, things would not get better and could very well get worse. His other son, the one most likely to be next in line, was more stable, but just as if not more ruthless. His reign would be just as brutal, and he would care just as little about his people giving him a cushion against international pressure. This could lead most likely to another 30 or 40 years of tryanny, during which a rebuild of Iraq would be possible, however, matters this far in the future are conjectures for futurists must always remember that crystal balls always have a bit of haze to them.

The end result would be most likely another 50 or so years of absolute tryanny. But again 50 years is a long time things could change, however given that Saddam and his sons are for the most part, ruthless, smart and internally powerful, all the components for an indefinite tryanny are there. A possible objection to this perdiciton is that most tryannies don't last this long, but my answer to that is, most tryannies lack to some extent ruthlessness (most tryants to some degree, somewhere in their hearts care about their people and this often leads to their downfalls because then they respond to needs for economic growth or mercy), intelligence (although there are various kinds of intelligence, many tyrants while they might possess the intelligence to rise to power, they lack the intelligence to maintain it for long periods of time), or internal power (during the Cold War and immediate aftermath this was especially true since either the US or the Soviet Union almost always picked some anti-governmental force to support)). Then there must be the consideration of what would the democratization of Iraq be like after Saddam. If a good ruler emerged things might be alright. But sectarianism was not decreasing during Saddam's time it was increasing, and it would have kept increasing if Saddam remained in power, the democratization of Iraq might have ended up more brutal than even now, althoug here we must remind ourselves that this is a matter of extreme conjecture. That is the sad alternative.

Is the current situation better? In the short term and possibly medium term (depending on how long the chaos lasts), no. The current chaos is worse than Saddam's reign for many, if not most, people. In the long term, probably, the nation is not so divided that it would altogether collapse and it has a clear ethnic majority that currently and for the forseeable future has more power than the minority and so matters will eventually settle down. Will there be genocide though? It is possible, but given that there are sizable areas with Sunni majorities, and the Sunnis while weaker than the Shi'ites are still considerably powerful, furthermore divisions exist between the Shi'ite, while not numerous enough to create indefinite chaos in Iraq, although numerous to create short and possibly medium term chaos in Iraq, it is enough to make Shi'ite politicians interested in courting Sunni leaders for political support. Genocide is still possible, but highly unlikely in my view, although this is debatable.

However, countries should not invade each other simply because they believe that it is better for the people of that country, even if they are right. Especially given the considerable ideological component of the word "better" (some people say it is better to be poor and free, some people say it is better to be rich and oppressed, some people say it is better to be poor and oppressed but have cultural integrity, the first group is right by my book, and that's the only book that counts, but my point is that people disagree about the word), it is generally not a good idea, although this is a debatable point and I do admire the idealism of those who disagree with me on it (if you don't catch it here I'm arguing against the Cold War as well as any potential new Cold Wars). The problem is that this causes considerable international chaos by essentially creating a global war fought potentially everywhere (although some places will be "hotter" than others). Every government will have to look over its back for a potential revolt. Paranoia will spread and this will encourage even those defending liberty to resort to measures that undermine freedom. Among those less fond of liberty reprisals for even whiffs of revolt can be brutal and at times, genocidal. Military intervention, or considerable support for rebels everywhere where people are seen as oppressed, while perhaps in the long term good (after the Cold War ended freedom and even economic growth has spread immensely), in the short and medium term, a short and medium term that could last even 70 years (the approximate length of the Cold War), things can be in some cases be absolutely horrible (see the Khmer Rouge where approximately 1/3 of the population of Cambodia was slaughtered, and yet during different times the regime was supported by the US and the USSR).

So overall, the invasion of Iraq was not the right choice. Countries should only be invaded if there is an imminent danger or perhaps an imminent threat of genocide. But things would not have been good for Iraqi people by any stretch of the word if Saddam remained in power, or if a similiar tyrant takes hold. And yet things are not good now. Leaving Saddam in power was more likely the better alternative, but it was not a good one. It is still a sad one. That is the nature of so much of international politics, when even the most ethical and even correct of people must make choices involving trade-offs that cost thousands of lives or leave a people oppressed for decades. It is sad, very sad. But this world is often not kind to those who dwell in it.

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