Thursday, August 04, 2005

Consequentialism and Iraq

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.

5 comments:

Kate Marie said...

Daer Madman,

I'm confused by your assertion that radical jihadists would not seize the opportunity and flock to an Iraqi Civil War in the absence of a coalition presence, as you have argued elsewhere that Zarqawi and his cohorts have been attempting to disrupt the Baathist regime (to which they are ideologically opposed) for years.

Second, why do you assume that a "homegrown" civil war would wreak less havoc than a civil war abetted by Al Qaeda and foreign fighters? Is there some empirical evidence that "homegrown" civil wars wreak less havoc or are less costly in human lives than other kinds of wars?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

Zarqawi was in Iraq even before the Coalition invaded, but it is unlikely that any other scenario could have given him the power and influence he wields now. While the Ba'athists retained power Sunni Islamists like Zarqawi were squeezed between the Ba'athists, who hated them for being Islamists, and the Shi'ite Islamists, who hated them for being Sunni. This did not prevent diehards like Zarqawi from still attempting jihad in Iraq, but it did preclude them building up any significant base of power. A civil war in the wake of Saddam's fall (a contingency which I would still argue was far from a certainty) would likely see most Iraqi Sunnis throw their lot in with the Ba'ath party as, in the words of Garrett Morris, it had been very very good to them. Only the humiliation of the Ba'ath by the Coalition and the crippling of the Ba'ath security network could create the space within which radical Sunni Islamism could thrive in Iraqi society, and only the presence of US soldiers in Iraq could provide Zarqawi and his confederates with so many foreign recruits- the US presence has given radical Sunni Islamism a much higher profile in Iraq than it has ever enjoyed before. Osama and his ilk have never been able to sell their ideology very widely in the Arab world- that is why prior to the Coalition invasion of Iraq they had centered their operations outside the Arab world, in central, southern, and southeast Asia.

I never contended that a "homegrown" civil war would produce less destruction, only that "homegrown" combatants might cause less mayhem than the foreign jihadists who now carry on much of the insurgency. Iraqis naturally have a stake in their own nation, they may be swayed by political tactics that have no purchase among foreign-born fanatics. The murder of Sunni members of the constitutional committee seems evidence of this to me- anyone who was open to a negotiated settlement would want to have a hand in the political process, they would not cut off all avenue of political resolution by assassinating those with whom they share the closest affinity within the nascent government. The murder of diplomats is another index of this reckless destructiveness- why would a domestic insurgent want to alientate his own nation from the diplomatic community for the long term, why would they want to burn bridges with governments from whom they might seek aid in the future? If we look at other insurgencies- say Vietnam. True, the Viet Cong did launch an attack against the US embassy in Saigon, but the US was perceived as the direct enemy of the insurgency. Other countries' diplomats and journalists were generally left unmolested, because the VC always perceived itself as being ready to take up the reins of power and join the international community. Islamists like Zarqawi follow a radically eschatological doctrine that leaves no space for such concerns- their one aim is to bring down the Iraqi state, they have little interest in what replaces it except that it manifest what they perceive as Koranic principles.

Kate Marie said...

Dear Madman,

Since, as you say, most of those joining Zarqawi's jihadists in Iraq are foreign-born, and since there are signs of discord and strife between the jihadists and the remnants of the Baathist regime, why do you suggest that radical Sunni Islamism is "thriving" in Iraq?

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Kate Marie,

I never said that "most" of the jihadists in Iraq now are foreign fighters, I don't know that that is true. "Thriving" is a relative judgement- radical Sunni Islamism has more power in Iraq now than it has ever had before. Last year Sunni jihadists were able to turn the towns of Falluja and Ramadi into simulacra of the Taliban regime between April and November, a feat that as of yet had never been accomplished in the Arab world.

I don't believe that Al Qaeda or its allies will, in the long view, develop a permanent strategic purchase in Iraq. Once the Coalition pulls out (sometime next year, I would guess) radical Sunni Islamists will form one faction in the subsequent civil war, but they will ultimately be pushed out of Iraq as they had been prior to the Coalition invasion. Still, they will have done a great deal of damage and will leave a legacy of "Iraq veterans" to swell the ranks of terror cells that the world will have to contend with for decades to come.

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