Home/Daniel Larison/Iraq Wouldn’t Be Worth It Even If We Could Win, Because It Was Never Worth It In The First Place

Iraq Wouldn’t Be Worth It Even If We Could Win, Because It Was Never Worth It In The First Place

Quin Hillyer and Robert Dreyfuss square off over the question, “Is Iraq Worth Fighting For?”  Mr. Dreyfuss makes many arguments about the implausibility of victory that seem to me to be fairly sound (I have made more than a few of them myself), but Mr. Hillyer is correct that Dreyfuss doesn’t exactly answer the question at hand: is Iraq worth it?  Mr. Hillyer says yes, because he regards the fight as not only honourable and noble, but as being in the national interest.  That last point seems to me to be the most important. 

If there is/was a compelling national interest in success in Iraq, it might very easily be concluded that the fight is/was worthwhile.  That wouldn’t necessarily change any of the prudential arguments about whether the fight could actually be won (thus making the whole discussion a bit academic), nor would it address whether any of the pre-invasion goals were ever achievable, but it would mean that the fight had not been entirely without some legitimate purpose.  It might imply that Americans should even be willing to tolerate more American deaths in pursuit of a worthy cause, but even this hinges on practical questions of the likelihood of success. 

So, is Iraq worth it?  Is this war actually a just one?  Is this war in the national interest? 

In a word, no.  Quite plainly, I have always believed, and have argued since the beginning in whatever forum I could find before I had this blog, that Iraq was not worth one American life.  Not one.  That remains as true today as it was in 2002.  There is no real American interest that required or even hinted at the need for an invasion of Iraq, and I am convinced that the United States should never risk the lives of American soldiers except where some real American interest requires that risk.  There can be arguments over what constitutes a “real” American interest, but I would like to think that there ought to be a general consensus, at least among conservatives, that if there is no such interest our government has no business getting involved. 

I know what the foreign policy and political establishment types have said and what they continue to say about “threats” to this country from countries in the Near East, and they are almost always wrong.  They were spectacularly wrong about Iraq, but not simply in the obvious “bad intelligence” ways.  Almost every assumption they made about how Iraq supposedly threatened the United States was wrong.  In no conceivable way did it threaten the mainland U.S., nor was there any real threat to Europe, nor was there an uncontainable threat to Israel or the Gulf states.  A weak, fractured despotism that had been economically half-starved into compliance not only didn’t pose a serious threat to anyone, but couldn’t even begin to do so.  We might as well regard Zimbabwe as a major threat to the world by the standards used to judge Iraq to be a threat.  Whether these establishment folks are very bad at what they do, or whether they are dishonest, I cannot tell for most of them, but wrong they certainly are.  I say “almost” in these statements simply because I do not want to rule out entirely the possibility that they may, at some point, get something right.  But it has been a while since that happened. 

Besides, any invasion of Iraq was inevitably going to be a war of aggression, which cannot be squared with a commitment to international law or justice.  As it happens, the war is also unconstitutional and is being run by executive fiat, which ought to trump everything else in conservative circles, but I have long since given up hope of trying to convince war supporters of anything related to the Constitution.  People who believe the executive has broad, undefined “inherent powers” will believe just about anything. 

This is, I suppose, about as hard-line antiwar as you are likely to find, but the reasons for this position seem to me to be abundant.  There are three elements to my position: strategic, legal and moral.

For there to have been anything in the national interest that actually might compel the government to invade Iraq, at least one of the following three things had to be true: 1) Iraq was an uncontainable threat to vital resources or allies; 2) Iraq was an uncontainable threat to the United States itself; 3) Iraq was working hand-in-glove with Al Qaeda.  Some opponents of the war (rightly) never believed government claims about WMDs, and many correctly dismissed claims about Iraq’s links to Al Qaeda as being essentially inherently absurd.  (Interestingly, having pushed this falsehood as strongly as he could, watch how Feith now runs from this position as quickly as he can.)  This latter claim was entirely untrue as far as any meaningful or active cooperation between the two were concerned.  The WMD question was somewhat more vexed, but there were inspectors who correctly claimed prior to the invasion that the weapons had been eliminated and the programs shut down.  It is therefore not true if anyone should say that we did not have good reason to think government claims were false.  These claims, which were by far the most accurate, were simply ignored or brushed aside.

Success in its most optimistic, pre-invasion terms of a genuinely liberal democratic Iraq that would make peace with Israel and serve as a model for the region was not actually ever possible for many of the reasons antiwar conservatives gave before the war, but suppose for a moment that it was possible.  Wouldn’t that great dream have been worth it?  No, not at all.  Two reasons: 1) America should never, barring an attack or uncontainable threat from that country’s government, attempt to dictate through the use of force the political future of any other country; 2) even the most optimistic scenario of liberal democratic Eden serves no compelling U.S. interests. 

Does it actually matter to American security whether people in the Near East vote in their bad governments or not?  Well, no, it doesn’t.  Latin American countries are going hog-wild with democratic mass movements, most of which seem antithetical to U.S. interests and liberal values, just as would be the inevitable outcome of any kind of democracy in the Near East. 

I will have to assume that Mr. Hillyer is at least partly joking when he invokes the colour revolutions, since one of these was simply a jockeying for power between different clans (Kyrgyzstan), the other was a jockeying for power between different sets of oligarchs (Ukraine) and in the Georgian case it has raised to power a rather foolishly belligerent demagogue who likes picking fights with Russia over South Ossetia and who rallied his followers during the “revolution” at the birthplace of Stalin.  If this is the “light of freedom” spreading, I would prefer increased darkness.  That the Cedar “Revolution” precipitated the internal political upheaval that has been rocking Lebanon ever since and has worked to empower Hizbullah more than it already was would have to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm about its effects.  This is not just a matter of good revolutions going slightly awry.  These revolutions were never the great democratic movements that they were made out to be, if by democratic we mean anything remotely resembling our own system.  They were mob demonstrations of vested clan, sect or regional interests, and it is the political constitutions of these countries that have made these “revolutions” “fail” to live up to their promises, since most of the high-flown rhetoric serves simply as a screen for pursuit of power and the exploitation of the institutions of government for the benefit of their faction.  If democrats want to say that this is democracy and is desirable, they can, but I don’t see how that would encourage anyone to want to promote democracy.   

Let’s ask a different, related question: is it the proper business of the United States government to use its military so that people in other nations can be liberated from repressive governments?  Quite simply, no, it isn’t.  That isn’t what our government exists to do.  It should use its military to defend our country, any allies with which we may have defense treaties and vital resources.  It cannot be worthwhile to liberate other peoples because it is a kind of war that not only goes far beyond what our government is supposed to be doing and engages in conflicts that it has no right to involve our people in, but also because it quite clearly harms the United States in the process.

More basically, any such intervention is, by definition, an act of aggression by one state against another.  An intervention with the stated goal of regime change is even more obviously an act of aggression.  This has no justification in international law and clearly violates international law in its infringement on the sovereignty of another state. 

Aggressive war cannot be moral and it cannot be just.  To choose war, as our government indeed did, is to choose to unleash all the horrors of war on people who have done no lasting, grave or permanent harm to us.  They may or may not be wretched, awful people.  They may or may not be tyrants.  Whether they are or not is actually irrelevant to the question of whether our government has the right to commit aggression against another state.  The bottom line is that the attacked state has done nothing to deserve our attack on it.  How much less, then, do the civilians killed in the process deserve it?  How can a war of aggression ever be “worth” the moral stain and illegality that it entails?  How can unleashing hell on earth without cause ever be worthwhile?  It cannot be.  That is the answer Mr. Dreyfuss should have given. 

Update: In his response to Mr. Hillyer, he does make a few of these arguments as well.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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