Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Debating Iraq

William Shawcross has a contentious opinion piece in the LA Times under the headline “Peace is not the answer,” in which he argues against the likes of Michael Moore and Jane Fonda that the U.S. needs to continue its military effort against the terrorists marauding through Iraq. I agree with some of the points he makes, but others strike as dangerously optimistic. Like this passage:

Iraq was always complex — it is now vibrantly so. Despite the terrorist campaign to kill it, the country has become a school for free expression and for government elected by the people. The dread silence of half a century has given way to millions of opinions — as in the U.S., or any society that sees itself as free.

Sunni negotiators have refused to accept the draft constitution. That is certainly a setback. Now Sunnis' grievances — many of which are valid — need to be addressed peacefully. Fortunately, political discussion never stops. Three hundred conferences on the constitution have been held throughout the country, allowing 50,000 people to express their views. The 150 new, uncensored newspapers, the scores of radio stations and half a dozen TV channels that have been set up are all talking about this and other matters of political progress.
This kind of talk reminds me of Bush’s speeches praising the constitution in Iraq as a sure sign of progress in that country. The advances that Shawcross mentions are all good things, but like Bush, he has a tendency to get caught up in symbolic victories, while conditions on the ground remain as bad as ever.

As I was reading through the Shawcross piece, I started making a mental list of things I’d need to believe to agree with his assessment that a continued U.S. military presence is justified in Iraq. Some of these points are probably redundant, and they are all underdeveloped at this stage. I’m sure Harwood will have some comments. I’ll probably have some amendments and additions of my own. If you think my comments are bullshit, post your own. If all goes well, this will serve as the opening round of a discussion that will span across several upcoming posts.

With that out of the way, here’s a list of things I need to believe before pledging my support for a continuing U.S. military effort in Iraq.

Most important, I’d have to believe that the presence of U.S. troops was stabilizing Iraq. I don’t expect immediate success in a military and diplomatic operation as complicated as this one, but I’d at least like to see a trend in the right direction. Unfortunately, the body count in Iraq suggests that the country is not on the road to stability. Of course there are other measures in addition to the death toll by which we can gauge progress in Iraq. The constitution, for instance, is clearly a step in the right direction, although it looks as though the most significant product of the constitution might be the disenfranchisement of Sunni Iraqis. And besides, the constitution was not a military victory, and not, in and of itself, a reason to advocate the continued presence of American troops.

Second, I’d need to believe that there is no better ways of stabilizing Iraq. Considering that U.S troops are a target for insurgent violent and a source of discontent for frustrated Sunnis, it appears that for all they added security they bring to region, their mere presence exacerbates tensions. Officially, Iraqi forces are slowly taking over control of their country, but this transition of power seems to moving along with no real deadline, much like the operation itself. No matter how long we wait and train Iraqi troops, they’re not going to be as efficient as U.S. forces.

One of the gripes of the Islamo fascist terrorist is that the U.S military effort is a project of Western Imperialism. Now, I agree with Shawcross that terrorists are by no means “freedom fighters” who deserve a place at the negotiating table. Let’s be clear that that these are reprehensible men who have perpetrated heinous acts of violence against their own people and American soldiers. Nonetheless, to disregard the fact that Western policy in the Middle East is a legitimate source of Muslim rage (not a justification for the product of that rage) is unwise. Like it or not, the incensed terrorist blowing themselves up in crowded squares see Iraq as the latest chapter in Western dominance of the Middle East. I’m not saying we should empathize with maniacs, but we should consider more carefully the implications of their skewed world view.

I’ll finish by steering the discussion towards an issue morality. I agree that we owe the Iraqis something. We deposed Saddam Hussein, who we bolstered years before when he was at odds with Iran, and left the country in a state of chaos. Simply walking away from that mess would be beyond irresponsible. Apart from our specific commitment to Iraq, one could argue that as a wealthy and militarily able nation, the U.S. has a responsibility to promote human rights and democracy in embattled nations. I agree with that too. So the United States has a moral commitment to Iraq. But somewhere along the line, we need to weigh our commitment to Iraq against our commitment to American soldiers, who were marched into the Iraq under false pretenses. How many American lives is success in Iraq worth? I’m not sure. But I’d like to see the people who talk about what we owe the Iraqis at least consider what we owe the Americans who are dying over there beside them.

Alright, have at it.

--Matthew McCoy