Friday, October 18, 2002
James Fallows in the Atlantic has a pretty exhaustive run down the implications of a war with Iraq. His assumptions: that we will go to war; that we will have virtually no allied support; and that we will win easily. He then asks: what next?
I think it behooves all of us who are pro-war to reckon with the issues he raises. I think he's right that a lot of those in the pro-war camp are blase about the aftermath, assuming that once the case for war is made, the argument is done. It isn't. As I've expressed before, I'm highly skeptical that Iraq will easily become a functioning democracy - heck, I'm skeptical that it will become a functioning state of any kind. I think it will be a ward of the international community for years if not decades. And the occupation will be a long-term drain on the U.S. Treasury.
But I still favor war. I favor war because the costs of not going to war are higher, far higher, than the costs of war and post-war occupation. I favor war because I believe that while the costs of war and post-war occupation will be high, the risks are over-estimated by "realist" opponents of war. I do not believe that the region will explode as a result of war, or that pro-American regimes will fall across the region. I do not believe that terrorism will be greater after a war with Iraq than before; indeed, I believe that backing down now will give great encouragement to the terrorists that will be far worse than any reaction to a war with Iraq. I do think that a strong American show of force followed by a clear commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq will give great encouragement to the pro-American forces in the region, particularly in Iran but also within the ruling cliques of countries like Egypt, where the case for staying friends with America, even if their people are restive, will have been made crystal clear. I also believe that the death or trial of Saddam Hussein will be understood by our enemies as a great defeat for them, and they will be weakened as a consequence. But I do worry about whether the pro-war party has thought through the post-war environment sufficiently. The United States can do this all alone, if we want to. The question is whether we have steeled ourselves for the cost the commitment entailed.
I worry about this for a particular and somewhat paradoxical reason: the war is going to be too easy. Twice before in American history, the United States conquered an enemy, imposed its will and reconstructed the enemy's society. The two instances were: the Civil War and World War II. In each case, the United States was fully mobilized for war, was engaged in combat for years, suffered significant losses before the war was over and achieved an unambiguous victory over the enemy's entire society. None of this will be true in Iraq: we will fight without anything like total social mobilization; we will win quickly and hopefully without many losses (the latter is hard to be sure about; what if Saddam has a bomb, and uses it? Or what if his nerve gas is a more effective battlefield weapon than Gregg Easterbrook thinks it is? But even so, the war will be over quickly); and we will win a victory over a regime without popular support - assuming we win it at all, for it is possible that Saddam will escape as Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden did. For all these reasons, America will not be reconciled to the heavy responsibilities and cost of reconstruction, and Iraq will not be reconciled to the justice of a long-term American presence. We will not be used to shouldering a heavy burden, and Iraq will not feel conquered, but liberated - liberated for each group to pursue its own sectarian vendettas or to struggle for the spoils of a fallen state. For these reasons, Iraq will look very little like Japan or Alabama. And yet our task will be rather similar.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the pre-Civil War period in American history. It seems to me that many of the pro-war faction on Iraq are as right on the merits and as naive on the consequences as the pro-war faction in the antebellum North. War with the Slave Power was inevitable; burning Kansas proved it beyond any question. The moral case for war was as strong as the strategic case, and vice versa. But many Northern supporters of war had little idea of what the war would mean in terms of social transformation and psychic cost; they romanticized the sacrifice of blood and the glory of combatting evil, not reckoning with the horrible evils of war itself. They were right on the merits, but their naivete discredited them in the post-bellum period, and contributed to the tragic failure of Reconstruction. We should not make the same mistake in Iraq.