This post is a reply to Norman Geras’s comments on the Iraq War. I linked to these comments a week ago. The post is more widely a defence of the position of those of us on the Left who supported military intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein and who continue to hold that view.
Referring specifically to the civilian death toll in Iraq, Norman wrote: "I am bound to acknowledge that, though I never expected an easy sequel in Iraq, much less a 'cakewalk', I did not anticipate a failure on this scale, and had I done so, I would have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it."
That is not my position. Foreign policy, as Fareed Zakaria has written in the context of the Iraq War, is not theology: it requires that we weigh costs and benefits. But on those grounds I supported the war three years ago, and I support it now with the benefit of hindsight. This post explains why I disagree with Norman, using what I believe are ethical and political premises he would share. (I should also gently correct The Guardian’s Diarist, who describes Norman as my mentor. Norman is a thinker whose scholarship and commentary on the ethical dimensions of politics I regard with respect. I have, however, held interventionist and Atlanticist views on foreign policy for very many years longer than I have known Norman, and we come from different traditions on the Left.)
Norman’s position is coherent, but predictably his reflections have elicited condescending dismissal from some writers who are – I use a euphemism here – not his intellectual equals. More serious, Norman might have been the type of thinker referred to by Matthew Parris in his Times column at the weekend. Naming several prominent supporters of the Iraq War (whom he termed British ‘neocons’, though few of them are neoconservatives), Parris remarked:
Our British neocons have invested heavily in this ill-fated craft, and the wreck is total. How shall they be saved? Never fear. They’ve been working on the elements of a rescue plan. By Christmas all will be singing from the same sheet. All together, now, warrior-columnists and soon-to-be-former Cabinet ministers: one, two three….
“The principle was good but the Americans screwed up the execution.”
Oh diddums, guys. Damned awful luck. You had this fantastic plan for invading a foreign country and harnessing a grateful populace behind your ideas for rebuilding an Arab nation along better lines — and then along come the Americans and make a mess of it. Now why in Heaven’s name would they do a thing that? Vandals.
Funny, because I don’t quite recall most of you saying it at the time….
In fact many who supported the war have been saying this for a long time. In my book Anti-Totalitarianism, which I wrote in the spring of last year, I summarised our criticisms:
To say the Bush Administration has made innumerable errors in its conduct of war and occupation is commonplace but not trivial: it is true and important. But the first error, from which much else has flowed, was to plan for occupation after Saddam’s fall in a fundamentally non-serious manner. Elections were delayed; security was inadequate; the failure to secure Baghdad was a disaster; infrastructure was ignored; abominable tortures were practised at the Abu Ghraib prison, to which there was a shamefully complacent response; and the civilian death toll appears to have been substantially higher than the war’s supporters generally expected.
Parris’s failure to follow the arguments of those he criticises is a secondary issue, though. More important is his assertion that:
The strategy failed because of one big, bad idea at its very root. Your [i.e. our] idea that we kick the door in. Everything has flowed from that. We were not invited. We had no mandate. There were no “good” Iraqis to hand over to. We had nothing to latch on to, no legitimacy.
If Parris is right, then we supporters of the war were wrong from the outset, and wrong in principle. This is a widespread view but is quite an extreme one nonetheless. Norman puts it this way:
Were we therefore wrong to support the war, those of us who did? In terms of what we hoped and what we thought likely, we obviously were - given how things have actually turned out. But on the basis of what could have been reliably foreseen, I think it's harder to say that. Only if the disaster was always foreseeable as the most likely outcome would I be convinced of it.
It is not difficult to conceive of an altogether more benign history of post-intervention Iraq. Two of the weightiest thinkers in the Democratic Party on foreign and military affairs, Kurt M. Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, discuss this issue in a new book Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security (2006, pp. 56-7). They strongly criticise the Bush administration’s negligence in postwar planning, which they attribute to “the administration’s desire to rally domestic and international support by portraying the Iraq war as a relatively easy undertaking”, and explain why it need not have been like that:
There are … several powerful counterarguments to the claim that post-Saddam Iraq was destined to be chaotic. First, porous borders and large unprotected weapons caches were to a large extent preventable. A more complete Phase IV [i.e. postwar planning] operational blueprint would have done much to secure them through better planning and, quite probably, more troops. As the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador Paul Bremer, later argued, “The single most important change . . . would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout.” Bremer claimed to have “raised this issue a number of times with our government” but to have been overruled.
Second, although violent resistance from hard-core Baathists and jihadists was perhaps inevitable, the willingness of Iraqi “fence-sitters” to take up arms against the coalition out of frustration appears to have increased over time. Indeed, while estimates of the strength of insurgencies are never reliable, it is nonetheless striking that the Iraq resistance was estimated to number only 5,000 hardened fighters in mid-late 2003 but later thought by some U.S. officials to approach 20,000 in size by mid-2004. Wasting those precious first weeks and months gave this third group — the fence-sitters — a perceived rationale to take up violence too. It created a dynamic in Iraq in which high levels of street crime combined with the growing insurgency increased the population’s insecurities, which then also impeded economic recovery activities. With the security environment and the economy both stagnant, dissatisfaction grew, and the resistance thus had more potential recruits to draw upon.
Finally, opinion polls in the occupation’s early months showed a general happiness among Iraqis that Saddam was gone. That translated into a certain goodwill towards occupation forces, or at least a willingness to tolerate their presence as a necessary means of ensuring stability. Wasting this moment of Iraqi cooperation was to lose something that could never be recovered thereafter. This was not just a matter of winning a popularity contest. The general population’s willingness to provide intelligence on the resistance, always a key ingredient in any successful counterinsurgency, is also always a function of the perceived risks of doing so. Citizens are more likely to provide information when convinced it will help defeat an insurgency; they are less likely to take such risky steps if they see the tide of battle favoring the rebels. If a major effort had been made to nip the resistance in the bud, that effort could have developed self-perpetuating momentum.
None of these arguments is conclusive, but, especially when taken together, they are highly suggestive: Establishing early momentum would have made a huge difference in the subsequent course of the coalition’s counterinsurgency operation.
Predictions of a ‘cakewalk’ in Iraq were frivolous. But the chaotic state of Iraq today was neither the inevitable nor even the probable outcome of intervention. Norman’s support for intervention three years ago was at minimum (and I would put it much more strongly) a reasonable judgement about the benefits and costs of war compared with containment. Norman understands that we have an obligation to remain in Iraq till certain conditions (on which I set out my views in this post) are met, and that the cost of defeat would be huge. Nonetheless, he considers with hindsight - referring to but not depending on the Johns Hopkins researchers’ conclusions about civilian deaths in Iraq - that on one criterion about which he can be certain our intervention has failed. He would on these grounds have withheld support for the war if he had foreseen that outcome.
This much I agree with. I wish the intervention had been handled with a seriousness that it lacked, and I am outraged at the unwillingness on the part of the Bush administration to acknowledge its failures. I fear that our minimal aim of leaving Iraq with a constitutional government possessing as far as possible a monopoly of the means of force may not be achieved. (For one thing, that depends on the Maliki government’s being able to disarm Shiite militias whose leaders sit in the government.) Like William Shawcross, who writes in The Spectator this week, I acknowledge that “the sectarian chaos and bloodshed are far worse than anyone who supported the overthrow of Saddam (as I did and still do) expected”. But I reject the inference Norman draws. The Iraq War was a just and necessary intervention, which enables - rather than secures - an incomparably better alternative to leaving Saddam Hussein in place.
In the passage from my book that I cited above, there are two things I would write differently now. First, I would state more strongly the fact of the substantial number of civilian deaths. Secondly, I would add – which is not the same point - that Iraq is one of the most violent societies on earth, and Iraqis face significantly greater risk of violent death on the streets than they did three years ago. I stand, however, by every argument I then advanced for supporting the Iraq intervention. One gracious but sceptical reviewer of the book, Steven Poole in The Guardian, wrote: “How many civilian deaths would have been acceptable? No one ever answers that question.” (I have just received, coincidentally, a review from the Journal of Peace Research, September 2006, which makes a similar point. The reviewer, Nicholas Marsh of the Oslo International Peace Research Institute, says my book is thought-provoking but that it “fails to provide any sense of how one should weigh the benefits of democratization against the inevitable costs of warfare”.)
I will respond to the question, even if I can’t answer it in the form in which it’s put. The reason no one answers that question in that form is that it involves values that are incommensurable (i.e. not measurable on the same scale). As the philosopher Michael Walzer – whose thinking has greatly influenced Norman - has put it, in the context of the first Gulf War (“Justice and Injustice in the Gulf War”, in But Was it Just?: Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, ed. David Decosse, 1992, p. 7):
Certainly, we want political and military leaders to worry about costs and benefits. But they have to worry. They can’t calculate, for the values at stake are not commensurate – at least they can’t be expressed or compared mathematically, as the idea of proportion suggests. How do we measure the value of a country’s independence against the value of the lives that might be lost in defending it? How do we figure in the value of defeating an aggressive regime (the invasion of Kuwait was not the first, nor was it likely to be the last, of Iraq’s aggressions) or the value of deterring other, similar regimes? All values of this latter sort are likely to lose out to the body count, since it is only bodies that can be counted.
Walzer, who supported the first Gulf War and opposed the second, maintains that the notion of proportionality in warfare has value and truth, but it is a “gross truth” that does not enable us to make useful discrimination in most cases. In recent British political debate, it has in my view had little utility. For example, in July the Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, argued in the same article that Israel’s intervention in Lebanon was disproportionate and that a protracted conflict would be tragic for the region – when the speediest way to end the conflict was presumably for Israel to win it quickly by using superior force. I realise that not everyone will agree that Israel’s aims were justified, but my point is that proportionality does not precede the issue of the justice of war aims. Our judgement of proportionality depends on an estimate of the justice of a cause and the costs of not taking military action.
Norman clearly has similar premises. He says: “Sometimes there is a justification for opposing tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost. Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers. The same impulse was at work in my support for the Iraq war.” But in citing the war against Nazism, on which almost everyone bar the politically naïve and the politically malevolent agrees, he blunts the force of the point. The war against Nazism was a case sui generis, for Nazism was barbarism without limit and there can be no serious debate about the consequences had we failed to defeat it. Moreover, the evil of allowing it to prevail was so great that fighting it was morally required even though in 1940 our defeat seemed certain. (There is a plausible historical counterfactual. Lord Halifax might have succeeded Chamberlain as prime minister and negotiated a deal with Hitler whereby British neutrality was rewarded with our keeping intact the empire.)
The proportionality of means can only be judged properly with reference to the character of the enemy we face and the threat that it poses. In 1940, the evil and the threat were such that even the principle of non-combatant immunity was superseded by the moral requirement to defeat Nazism. Walzer believes obliteration bombing of German cities would have been justified in 1940 and 1941, though not later, on grounds of what he calls supreme emergency (“Emergency Ethics”, in Arguing About War, 2004, p. 46).
Yet supreme emergency is too restrictive a criterion for assessing the justice of warfare. I say this not on ethical grounds but on historical ones. Let me take another example that Walzer cites, in which the military means employed were horrific, and on which I fiercely reject his conclusions: the defeat of Japan in WWII.
Walzer states: “The Japanese case is sufficiently different from the German so that unconditional surrender should never have been asked. Japan’s rulers were engaged in a more ordinary sort of military expansion, and all that was required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown” (Just and Unjust Wars, 1977, pp. 267-8).
The outcome of this principle, if it had been applied by Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman, would have been disastrous: emboldening of the ‘war party’ within the Japanese Cabinet; continuation of Japan’s imperial subjugation of Asia, which was in itself a humanitarian catastrophe; and the likelihood of having to contend with future Japanese expansionist ventures. We can, even on a shorter timescale, say with a high degree of probability that the strategy of the Allies - including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – caused fewer deaths than any realistic alternative course. One of the most important of Japan’s wartime officials and Emperor Hirohito’s closest adviser, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Marquis Kido Koichi, later assessed that surrender in August 1945 saved “twenty million of my innocent compatriots” (cited in Robert J. Maddox, Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision, 1995, p. xi).
Those considerations do not resolve ethical argument about the conduct of war (which at Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki involved our side's violating the principle of non-combatant immunity). But that is the point. Civilian deaths in warfare have immense bearing upon, but do not answer, the question of the justice of any particular war. We must have regard to historical considerations as well. Underestimating the costs of a pacific policy – as Walzer does in the discussion I’ve cited – can be at least as disastrous as overestimating the benefits of war. Underestimating the costs of failing to topple Saddam Hussein is what we interventionists have consistently identified as the weakness of the anti-war case. It is a weakness also in the position that Norman now holds.
Presumably because our argument involves a counterfactual – what would have happened if the West had pursued containment and deterrence rather than force – it is rarely discussed in public debate (and I do look for it). I stated the point very briefly in a Guardian article on the third anniversary of the war:
Mistaken ideas have consequences, even when the inference drawn from them is a counsel of inaction. Had we not overthrown Saddam, Iraq today would be far from tranquil. Many argue that the absence of WMD shows that western policy had been working. It was in reality unravelling fast, and few opponents of war treated the problem seriously.
Saddam allowed intrusive inspections only because of the threat of force. Containment of his regime would have meant continuous military deployment in neighbouring states and the no-fly zones; intensified economic sanctions; inspections coercive enough to withstand Saddam's intimidation and fraud; and the support of France and Russia. Even with personalities of greater competence than Hans Blix and higher morals than Jacques Chirac, that commitment would have been inconceivable. Of the permanent members of the security council, only the US and UK could have been relied on.
Containment was not working. This matters greatly to the justification of the war, at the time and in hindsight. The alliance of Leninists and Islamists who make up the misnamed Stop the War Coalition was of course unfazed by the approaching failure of containment, because it saw in those policies evidence of Western imperialist designs. But many critics of the war sincerely wished for the downfall of the Baathist regime and made no excuse for its brutality. Let us leave aside for the moment the question of how that might have been achieved through non-military means, and consider the circumstances in which it would have had to come about.
In an article in The Times this week, the columnist Tim Hames, a supporter of the war, reasoned this way about the outcome:
The problem has not been the Bush Administration underestimating how much Iraqis might come to loathe the West for the “occupation” but a failure to grasp the extent to which, thanks to Saddam, Iraqis had come to fear and hate each other.
That inter-communal hatred is the present cause of Iraq’s troubles. American soldiers have died in tragic numbers this month not because of any so-called insurgency that wants to drive the US out of Iraq but because they have been attempting to prevent rival religious and sectarian militias from killing their enemies. The effort to hold together a central government in Baghdad (a drive, ironically, designed to reassure the defeated Sunnis) does not command sufficient consensus to sustain it.
This is not quite right. It absolves the Bush administration of blame that it merits. One of the most illuminating discussions of postwar Coalition strategy I have seen is by a young lawyer, Noah Feldman, who served as Constitutional Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003. He argues, in his book What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (2004, pp. 78-9) that Iraqi associations formed around denominational identity arose after the overthrow of Saddam because the Coalition failed to establish collective security for Iraqis:
It would be perfectly correct … to blame the invasion for creating a situation in which a pervasive sense of insecurity quickly descended upon Iraqi life, necessitating in short order the formation of protection associations other than the state. In that indirect but nonetheless decisive sense, the Coalition, specifically the United States, played a major role in the rapid emergence of denominational identities in the immediate postwar period. The United States did not invent those identities, nor did it intentionally reify them; but it produced an environment in which it was necessary for Iraqis to invent them. Had there been half a million US troops on the ground, it is highly likely that there would have been little looting, no comparable sense of insecurity, and therefore a reduced need for denominational identities to become as dominant as they quickly did.
Tim is wrong to identify “the problem” without reference to US failure to establish order, and to the murderous coalition of Baathists and Islamists lauded by some commentators as the “resistance”. But he is right in one important respect. The bloodshed in Iraq reflects the absence of a functioning state. That is a terrible indictment of Coalition strategy. But it is also a challenge to those who opposed our intervention, or – as in Norman’s case - retrospectively withhold their support for it. Regime change in Iraq without Western intervention would have ensured the burgeoning of forces of theocratic barbarism and no countervailing authority. Some commentators attribute the violence of these groups to the presence of Coalition forces in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s declaration of ‘total war’ on Iraq’s Shiites presumably will not disabuse them of that view – but it ought to. In these circumstances, we would have found it a short transition, chronologically and qualitatively, from a rogue state to a failed state, with appalling consequences for Iraqis and for the region.
I carefully said that “many” critics of the Iraq War sincerely favoured the downfall of Saddam. Not all of them did, even outside the totalitarian fringe occupied by the Stop the War Coalition. I mean this not as an insult but as a description of a particular and politically mainstream position regarding Iraq. Some of the most prominent critics of the war, such as Brent Scowcroft, come from the realist school of foreign policy. They would argue that a strong state, even a grossly oppressive one such as Baathist Iraq, would be preferable to an anarchic non-state. The intervention in Afghanistan would be supported on this view, because it replaced a weak state with at least the prospect of a stronger and constitutional order. But in Iraq we have created a situation in which no one has a monopoly of the means of violence. This is a severely destabilising influence on the region, and has given an opening to our direct enemies, Islamist fanatics of the type that planned and executed the attacks of 9/11.
This is an influential argument, and a superficially plausible one in that everyone can see that Iraq is now on the verge of civil war. It is not a position shared by Norman Geras, and for good reason. The reason that Norman would certainly cite is the scarcely imaginable human cost of treating a gangster regime such as Saddam’s as a state actor comparable to other states. Notoriously and disastrously, the Reagan administration aided Iraq in the 1980s on this premise as a counterweight to Iran. But there is another reason, which is that a declared policy of realism often has scant grasp of political reality. One point the much-reviled neoconservatives have correctly identified is the association of Islamist terrorism with the perpetuation of autocratic states in the Middle East. Denied an outlet in politics, dissent emerges in the only part of society open to it: religious fanaticism. Opposing autocratic states – allowing that some are more malign and pose greater risks than others, but opposing them nonetheless – is essential to our security.
In the case of Baathist Iraq there was another important consideration. It was one that the US and British governments comprehensively mishandled: the question of the missing WMDs. Out of appalling intelligence and political ineptitude, the issue has been relegated to a question of the veracity of our political leaders. It is a lot more important than that. In 2004 Rolf Ekeus, the first chairman of UNSCOM, wrote in Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an important assessment of a highly influential IISS report on Iraq’s WMD programmes (link requires fee).
Ekeus had previously argued that: "My feeling is very clearly that the Iraqi policy long before the war was to build capability to develop its capabilities to produce weapons for the situation, for the conflict situation, not to produce for storage and create a problem of storage management." In the IISS article he drew a further inference that gives a different complexion to the issue of WMD from the one usually presented in British political debate:
[T]he Iraqi policy, as reported by UNSCOM to the Security Council, [was] that after its WMD arsenals had been destroyed in the mid-1990s, Iraq was not interested in producing biological and chemical weapons for storage. Iraq viewed these weapons as tactical rather than strategic assets – only the latter would have required long-term storage. Instead, Iraq was aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately, should the need arise.
[T]he continued inspections [i.e. after the war, by the Iraq Survey Group], especially as they are led by an experienced UNSCOM expert, may shed light on what Iraq’s sizeable teams of weapons scientists and experts had been doing from 1998 up to the war. Could the ramshackle civil agriculture and health industries have contained capabilities for production of fresh biological and chemical warfare agents to be brought out “just in time” in case of a renewed conflict with Iran or the need for repression of internal opposition?
We don’t know the answer to this. We do know that the international inspection regime, even under a porous system of containment that I have argued was failing, would never have found out. UNSCOM itself reported that Iraq in December 1997 would not volunteer information to the inspectors, but would only verify information held by the Commission. Astonishingly, the UN Secretary-General – a civil servant, not a policymaker – responded with a review of the activities of UNSCOM and the IAEA, rather than an unwavering insistence on Iraq’s adhering to the terms of UN Security Council Resolutions. As one authority on WMD, Professor Graham Pearson of the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, has written after recounting this sorry record, in The Search for Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (2005, p. 242):
It is indeed a sorry state of affairs when the Permanent Members of the Security Council lose their resolve to address the dangers posed by a state which seeks to maintain a weapons of mass destruction capability and the Secretary-General effectively puts the UN organizations, UNSCOM and the IAEA, in the dock rather than the uncooperative and non-compliant state in Iraq. This led to the problems with Iraq being protracted and, it can be argued, to the eventual war in 2003 as had the Security Council being [sic] resolute and firm throughout and prepared to take military action in the last resort, it is possible that Iraq would have cooperated with the United Nations as it was intended to do throughout.
The system of containment and inspections could not cope with a despot of Saddam Hussein's turpitude and duplicity. If Saddam had remained in power, our knowledge of and influence over his regime would have been nugatory. The regime would in all probability have endured, first because of its unspeakable brutality – in the aftermath of the first Gulf War the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions were snuffed out with the loss of some 50,000 lives in the single month of March 1991 – and secondly because of the dynastic succession of Saddam’s monstrous sons. We cannot make a reliable judgement on the consequences of allowing a state like this to persist in its internal repression, external aggression and flouting of UN requirements. But there is one thing we can say with certainty. In the last few weeks we have gained an insight into the probable future military capabilities of North Korea and Iran. The fact that we no longer have to worry about the military capabilities of Saddam Hussein and his family – not just now but maybe thirty years into the future – is a gain that may be greater than any of us can now conceive of. For that reason, among others, I insist that regime change in Iraq was right and immensely important.
In the last fortnight or so I have received quite a large number of invitations to appear on radio and television to argue the case for the Iraq War. I realise this is no reflection on my cogency; the programmes’ researchers state frankly that they have severe difficulty finding anyone willing to represent the pro-war view. I have appeared on some of these programmes debating, respectively, allegedly progressive and also High Tory opponents of the Government’s foreign policies. One thing on which my fellow interviewees and I, and everyone reading this, will be able to agree is that if the defence in the broadcast media of Tony Blair’s foreign policies is left to me, then Tony Blair is in trouble. I appeal to anyone reading this who may have influence in government circles to take this issue seriously. The case needs to be made. If we lose the argument at home, we shall fail to sustain our obligations in Iraq.