Through my dear friend, Kate Marie at "What's the Rumpus" I've been cued in to an essay by Tyler Cowen on "consequentialist" arguments for and against war (at "Marginal Revolution," http://www.marginalrevolution.com/
marginalrevolution/2005/08/iraq_and_conseq.html). Cowen asserts that the consequentialist argument against war is flawed by a failure to assess its "marginal product," or the difference between the ills that the invasion will produce and the ills that would result from a failure to invade:
"Today we see many signals that things are going badly. But most of those signals also imply that things would have gone very badly under the alternative scenario for Saddam's fall. A civil war, for instance, may well have happened anyway, albeit later."
This argument is freighted with some weighty assumptions. Firstly, Cowen's suggestion that civil war "may well have happened anyway" is far from obvious- quite the contrary. Since the creation of Iraq in 1920 its government has seen at least half a dozen changes of regime, some of them quite violent, without engendering civil war. The closest was the uprising immediately following the first Gulf War, but as that would not have occurred without US encouragement it can hardly serve as a gauge of "likely counterfactuals." The current civil war has broken out under the peculiar circumstances of the Coalition invasion, and to suggest that this policy has only catalyzed the inevitable is a distortion.
Cowen continues this line of reasoning:
"One might argue that U.S. participation makes an Iraqi civil war much worse than otherwise (perhaps the presence of U.S. forces motivates insurgents). But I don't find this convincing. First, a civil war could be much worse without the U.S. presence (keep in mind the alternative scenario also involves many years of continued sanctions, or what Saddam would have done without sanctions, plus further suffering under Saddam). Second, the correct cost of the war -- at least to the Iraqis -- would be this difference in outcomes, not the current absolute level of badness."
The argument that civil war is exacerbated by the US presence is not convincing unless one pauses to examine a few facts. An indisputable byproduct of the Coalition invasion has been the immense surge of power and influence for Al Qaeda and other radical Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq. The humiliation of the Ba'ath regime combined with the crippling of the Iraqi state's internal security structure have given radical Sunni Islamists a strategic purchase in Iraq that they never enjoyed there before. Because these jihadists have little stake in the survival of the Iraqi state or the integrity of the Iraqi nation they may ultimately wreak more havoc than any combatants in a wholly "homegrown" civil war would cause, if such a war had broken out in the first place.
Cowen himself tries to finesse this point:
"The pro-war right seems keen to argue that much of the insurgency is foreign fighters. This in reality weakens their case, as it opens the possibility that the U.S. role drew in these forces. Insofar as the insurgents are Sunnis, fighting for domestic control, it is more likely they would have been fighting anyway, with or without the U.S. involved. That would strengthen a consequentialist case for the war."
Unless Cowen is determined to ignore the evidence that much of the insurgency is carried on by foreign fighters, then right here the "consequentialst case for the war" is sunk. There is absolutely no evidence that foreign fighters would flock to Iraq in the absence of the Coalition presence. It did not happen in 1991, nor did non-Iraqi Sunnis flock to Iraq to fight against invading Shi'ite hoards during the Iran-Iraq war. Cowen's assertion that Sunni Iraqis "would have been fighting anyway," moreover, ignores the fact that Sunni Iraqis would certainly not have thrown their lot in with radical Islamists had the Coalition never invaded. Foreign fighters are infiltrating Iraq and (as in the case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) are increasingly taking a lead role in the domestic Sunni insurgency. This is not the natural result of domestic Iraqi politics, but transpires entirely because the Coalition invasion has transformed Iraq into a staging area for international Islamist "jihad."
Cowen's final summation departs the realm of logic altogether
"There is of course the separate question of what is good for the U.S. and for other countries besides Iraq. If you think Iraq will go badly no matter what, those considerations may well be decisive. But it sounds selfish and defeatist to cite those arguments alone, so we are again left with anti-war cases which do not make complete sense."
Why consideration of the welfare of the world beyond Iraq should be "selfish and defeatist" is a puzzlement, but even should it be so why, when combined with the assessment that "Iraq will go badly no matter what," it amounts to an argument that "[does] not make complete sense" is a total wonder. Even if one should grant that the situation in Iraq will definitely be no worse due to the Coalition invasion (a conclusion that the facts do not support), all things being equal it makes sense to oppose the war because of the harm it will bring to the world at large. The blood and treasure lost by the US and its allies is the least consideration in this regard- the strength that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are steadily gaining from the Iraq conflict and the opportunity cost of having US power hobbled by an uncontrollable military commitment are both grave threats to the security of the world.
Finally, the most glaring logical error in Cowen's calculations is his assumption that consequentialist arguments "against invasion" may only be assessed against those "for invasion." This presumes that invasion was the only proactive course of action open to the US and its allies, a proposition that is of course ridiculous. As I have argued in previous posts, it was at best blind hubris to attempt to force another nation to reform before first reforming ourselves in fundamental ways that would aid the situation. US dependence on Mideast oil helped keep despots like Saddam Hussein in power, breaking that dependence might have helped loosen his grip. Even had that not proven true, a US free from oil dependence would have labored under fewer political handicaps if and when invasion was deemed "necessary," greatly increasing the chances for successful post-war reconstruction. For this reason alone the US was obliged to at least attempt such a course of action before unleashing the destruction of war.