Sunday, November 14, 2004

War of Liberation

John Quiggin wades into the merits of describing the Iraq war as a "war of liberation." To summarize it, he agrees that Iraq qualified as a "war of liberation," but then gives several reservations to the premise of a "war of liberation" itself:
"The problem, rather, is with the whole idea of a “war of liberation”. Just as with the Christian doctrine of “just war”, the doctrine is so loose that it can easily be claimed by both sides in the same war. Most wars of liberation, like most wars of all kinds, have done more harm than good.
Another important observation, particularly relevant in the case of Iraq, is that, even if you conceive of a war as one of liberation, it is almost always necessary to ally yourself with people who have less noble aspirations. Nationalist Iraqis, seeking only the withdrawal of the occupying forces, have inevitably co-operated to some extent (how much is not clear) with terrorist jihadis, who want to use Iraq as a base for their own global operations. Supporters of the American war effort find themselves in coalition with all sorts of unsavory parties, from thugs like Allawi and (until a few months ago) crooks like Chalabhi, to anti-Muslim crusaders in the West. As a rule, the least scrupulous members of a coalition are the most successful in pursuing their goals."

These are all valid concerns. More than valid, actually, they are concerns which must be addressed seriously and comprehensively at the outset of the war. Is this really a "war of liberation," or is it a pretext for US realist interests? Who are we allying with, and are we going to be forced to cut a deal with the devil? How can we insure that the local populace won't turn against us? The fact that these questions exist does not, in itself, knock down the justification for "wars of liberation" in principle. The fact that these questions were ignored, however, is a powerful indictment of how the Bush administration chose to prosecute this war.

One of the sadder, and more dangerous, consequencs of Bush's bungling the war is that it might taint any further US humaniterean interventions in a way Somalia never could. Already, pro-war liberals such as myself have come under a lot of fire for their position. We are accused of being "Bush-lite," "sellouts," "imperialists," or worse. Politically, the risk that Democrats will attempt to become a party of isolationism and foreign weakness is great, though not inevitable. More important than political ramifications for any one party is the prospect that the US will partially or entirely withdraw from the global sphere. Obviously the US will never totally cut itself off from the world, we're far too intertwined and have too much at stake in global institutions to be able to practically do that. But an America that refuses to take military action to defend the world, or that foists that obligation entirely upon the UN and regional actors, is very feasible. This is a scary possibilty. Neither the UN nor any regional body has shown the political will, past propensity, or pragamatic capability to defuse conflict situations. The risk is that the world will intervene "just enough" to satisfy its obligations and soothe its conscience, while never devoting the resources necessary to actually stabilize restless warzones and rebuild shattered communities.

A world in which the global elites ignore the pain and suffering of the periphery is a world that will forever be buffetted by terrorism and backlash. The "fingers in the dike" that are preventing 3rd world resentment from exploding into a spate of violence against their more fortunate cohorts are twofold. The first is the overwhelming power disparity between the two regions. This hedge grows weaker every day, since WMD proliferation and terror tactics can neutralize traditional military power gaps. Jack Snyder, Professor of International Relations at Columbia University's Institute of War and Piece Studies points out that
"Precisely because America is so strong, weak states on America's hit list may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer to its power. Despite America's aggregate power advantages, weaker opponents can get access to outside resources to sustain this kind of cost-imposing resistance. Even a state as weak and isolated as North Korea has been able to mount a credible deterrent..."["Imperial Temptations," The National Interest No. 71 (Spring 2003)
The relatively cheap availabilty of the components of WMDs makes nuclear/chemical/biological blackmail a reasonably foreseeable tactic by nations who otherwise could be marginalized or ignored. The prospect of even one nuclear weapon being set off on US soil probably will be enough to at least deter any overtly hostile US actions. And the use WMDs by non-state actors (like Al-Qaeda), who cannot be easily retailiated against and certainly can't be destroyed by a WMD counterattack, should be a sobering prospect. If proliferation becomes a reality and WMDs break loose from their relatively narrow (current) containment, US military hegemony will no longer be enough to protect us from harm.

The second "finger" is the perception, however frail, that the world does care, at some level, about the plight of the global periphery and will work to alleviate it. International institutions such as the UN, where the lowliest nations stand as equals with the US, Britian, and other powers, have done much to convince the global poor that they too are members of the world community, and as such they will be cared and provided for. If the US is seen as abandoning what--to the rest of the world--is a solemn commitment to work for the betterment of mankind, a sense of betrayal will quickly emerge, likely to be followed by resentment and hatred. With nothing to lose, the global poor will increasingly attack the US and the West as a protest against unfair and inequitable global policies. US withdrawal from global affairs is thus doubly dangerous: It increases the propensity of people to commit terrorism, while at the same time severely hampering our ability to maintain our military hegemony (by engaging in aggressive counterproliferation efforts).

This helps explain some of my outrage toward President Bush. When I tell local Republicans that I oppose Bush because I support the war in Iraq and an interventionist US foreign policy, they tend to stare at me agape. But it really is a perfectly sensible position. If one believes that actions such as the invasion in Iraq are (hopefully rarely) necessary actions to take in order to maintain a secure and just world, the fact that President Bush has made it unlikely that the US will ever take such an action again should be profoundly troubling. Somehow, the US is going to need to salvage its international credibilty in order to continue taking such actions, but Bush's needless arrogance and refusal to admit any error has made this well-nigh impossible. And if Iraq, God forbid, ends in a failure, no amount of US diplomacy or incentives will convince the world that such interventions are valid or advisable. President Bush's policies have put us on the edge of disaster, and unfortunately his tunnelvision and removal from reality only hasten the approaching catastrophe.

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