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What is the Lesser of Two Evils In Iraq?


To be honest, PI has kept a low profile around issues of Iraq, numberous reasons, among them better more informed bloggers are able to make better more informed arguments in their posts and little point in me regurgitating them. However, I was watchin the Mclaughlin group over the weekend and was struck by a stark question.
As the deathtoll in Iraq approaches 2,000 soldiers dead, is the current situation the lesser of two evils?
In throwing out the question there was the Blairesque list of deadly stats;
100,000+ citizens dead which is a contentious issue in itself (report, criticism Iraq BC)
~30,000 insurgents in Iraq linked to militant islam in some way and training in Jihad
2,000 U.S. soldiers dead
Little or no water or power in areas of Iraq
and on I'm sure you have most of these details by now.
By now, many on the left and right have divided the ground between adopted a variation of about four stances (1.staunchly pro, 2.staunchly anti, 3.pro first now not sure, 4.anti first now supporting 'our boys'). Yet beyond all the wingnut talk of unfettered freedom and reformation of the universe and leftwing talk of disaster, destruction and war-crimes, there lies a deeply contentious issue to be argued about.
Moving from positions of intractible differnce to engage with the following question is imperative if any of the wests lessons from Iraq are to be learned by us all. The question is;
Is the current state of Iraq the lesser of two evils?
I dont wish to make is so crude a questions as is it better than when Saddam was around? I think the question stands on its own merits.
Since this is the question at the heart of a PHD thesis not so much a post to a blog, I briefly wish to scoot through some arguments and turn it over the 'we, the people' to consider how and why wars get perpetrated in our name.

The first point that gets raised in an argument from the above question, is that Saddam was going to pose a larger global threat that that posed by the burgeoning group of Iraqi insurgents. Well, perhaps, if Saddam were capable of attaining WMD it would undoubtedly pose a threat. As one can see from here, there were numerous cases of dodgy evidence flying around in the build up to the war. We know now, that Saddam has little or no real weapons to his name. Attaining them, it has been argued, would be a project of five to ten years in length.
However, i would prefer to unpack this premise in order to focus on points I think are valid to both sides of the case. The whole concept of invading to pre-empt Saddam's use of WMD is based on a number of assumptions regarding the rights of states. Basic International Law tends not to authorise pre-emptive striking as a basis for war, much the same reason we dont tend to allow it as a defence for murder (unless you live in florida). The threat posed by Saddam's notional piles of WMD were adequete basis for war, irrespective of intent, actually verified stocks and materials etc.
The above premise presents the logic of this war in rather more self-interested terms than it is now couched in. The matters implicitly included in above arguments is that the Iraq war is a war of agression against Saddam and his regime. The goal then must be some form of secure state, secure society and adequete basis of ensuring peace in the global system. Thus the war must be about diffusing conflict with a state with WMD.
So why was it necessary to ignore the North Korea model and choose the Vietnam model? Why treat a threat from WMD as one from Communism? And if one doesnt accept those premises as correct, the basis of making the claim its better than Saddam with WMD seem facetious rather than relief at increased security.

Speaking of insecurity brings me to the next point, one advnaced by the left as their own critique and shot down by a various coalition of types 1,4 and occasionally 3 (above).
The argument being; the whole Iraq war was a vehicle off imperial hubris and has exposed us ever more to that it tried to defeat, namely, terrorism. Well these premises seem to be saying that Saddam is the lesser of two evils, thus seeing Leftists tagged as lazy totalitarian loving traitors etc. Well, its easy to see where a taunt like that arrives from but is the argument itself fair to make? Implicit again in the premises is the belief that all U.S. action abroad is wrong and an act of imperial interference. That view of the U.S. in terms G W Bush would be proud of is blunt and ill-considered. Many instances of U.S. response especially in times of crisis show it to be a state capable of benign action but equally with a powerful choice open to not doing so.
Many would point to such factors as a vindication for rubbishing the argument to begin with.
The U.S. acts in both benign and malign manners, discerning which one the Iraq war falls under is a toughie.
There is form in both cases, yet believing before seeing is no basis for saying this is another act of US imperial agression. Also the premise makes a number of implicit assumptions on the manner of international law. It doesnt apply to the US in all cases because the US is powerful enough to say so. That is basic fact, taking shot at it over war in Iraq on the basis of this is again implicit in argument 2.

It is the latter parameter of the second argument that should really be the crux of this argument. Whether the current status of Iraq is better or worse than the status quo under saddam, ought to be considered in terms of tow aspects. The first is the position of both 1 & 2 that it is better or worse relative to us in in the west i.e. whether we are better served by Iraq being the way it is now or the way it was then.

Allied to three should be considerations of the most important and often most forgotten aspects of war, its effect on civilians. Discussion on the current state of Iraq is most deeply effected by the status of all those struggling toward normality in the country at the moment.
Reports in media this weekend, suggest that popular attitude is in support of Insurgent attacks on occupation forces (hat-tip: Free Stater).
The status of people in Iraq, chronicled in great detail and with great interest by the likes of Rory Carroll before his escape from the city of Bahdad, is variously reported as tolerable, bad, miserable but rarely excellent, improving steadily and other superlatives that we in the west long to hear, need to hear, to be secure in the rightness of this war.
Who has benefitted thus far from the process of removing Saddam? Who has lost? How great have those gains and losses been and how great their potential increase?

We can from observation and memory, cite by rote those who fall on either side of the fence between the first two arguments, however as I have argued, they seem to be superficial positions to adopt to answer the question posed.
If we are to truly make progress in Iraq, both at home and in the country itself, a more honest approach to our argument is one informed by arguments 3&4.
The points in this regard are far more subjective and difficult to ascertain. However it is precisely for that reason that debate will forge a better idea of the way out of Iraq.
The debate about which is the lesser of two evils, is not some attempt to rake up the past, living in an argument past its sell by date and failing to sell papers any more. It is a genuinely important premise, neccessary in forming future policy in Iraq, necessary in preparing ourselves for events like 9/11 and 11/3 7/7. It is a responsible approach to honest risk assessment and honest account of deeds done.
If it turns out that Iraq is better off, then lessons need to be learned, successful principles and procedures abstracted and made to work in the interests of others elsewhere. However if the settlement is the contrary then the question to ask is not, why dont we put back in Saddam, but why when support was so strong for the development of democracy, when apathy for a dictator so high in a state, did the war fail to reap the reward for the Middle East and the West alike.
If the reason and morality were so insurmountably correct then why has Iraq gone so badly wrong? Perhaps the morality cited and the morality acted upon were not one and the same? Perhaps they were.
If we are to ask whether the current state of Iraq is the lesser of two evils, it is not sufficient to fall back on comfortable arguments which have been rehashed and driven to a dead end by ideologes in both sides. Engagement with this question informs areas from troop levels, to International Law, from Geneva Convention relevance to the matter of international Terrorism. We have to ask questions of our conduct to learn lessons in them, we must examine the action of others to see how war affects them on the ground. In making our decision falling back to saying Saddam was better is a damning failure and must be avoided at all costs.
I dont pretend to have gone anywhere near answering the question, I have laid out some positions I think are fairer to focus upon than others which are disingenuous.
I challenge many however, who have adopted clearer positions than I, focussed more time on it than I and more aware of the ins and outs than I, to engage with this question honestly.
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  1. Blogger Kevin Breathnach | 6:02 p.m. |  

    I find your emphasis on intellectual honesty in this piece is an admirable one and one that must be disseminated no matter what the debate.

  2. Blogger Cian | 1:04 a.m. |  

    Im as likely as any to fall back on the comfy certainties in arguing about iraq, WMD, terror, oil they are all there. I dont think the approach will bring us nearer creating a thriving and genuinely free society in any state let alone Iraq if we arent honest.
    now awaiting haunting comment as evidence of my hypocricy ; )

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