The first four posts in this series were: 1, 2, 3 and 4. In this fifth and final instalment, my main purpose is to respond to a recurrent anti-war theme that I've not yet addressed anywhere. The post is long. If you want to read it, set aside some time.
The primary choice structure in early 2003 as the US and its allies prepared to invade Iraq was reasonably clear. To support the war was to endorse a course of action which held many uncertainties, but one point that was not in much doubt was that, should the war go ahead, it would mean the end of the Saddam Hussein regime. That offered at least the hope of an opening towards a more democratic Iraq and of the ending of what had been a decades-long tale of horror in that country. On the other hand, while to oppose the war was to invite a sequel with uncertainties of its own, it was likewise not in serious doubt that, if the anti-war movement succeeded in its aim, one outcome of that success would be to leave the Baathist regime in place for the time being, with all the negative implications this would entail.
Opinion, as everyone knows, divided over many things, including the uncertainties - among these the uncertain costs - attached to the first option. There has been an asymmetry, however, in the way the two choices (to support and to oppose) have been experienced, negotiated, lived, by their two sets of partisans. Starting from the enormity of suffering that was Baathist Iraq, supporters of the war could hope, albeit with varying degrees of confidence, for something positive vis-à-vis that starting point, according to the logic of a humanitarian and regime-change intervention. On the other hand, dismissing this hope as virtually bound to come to grief, opponents of the war found themselves commending a course of action to the manifestly grim consequence of which it is not easy to attach either the word 'hope' or the sentiment itself. That consequence was - or, rather, would have been - the prolongation sine die of a regime of quite exceptional nastiness: of daily brutality, systematic torture, the murder of opponents, and so on. To have been involved in supporting a course of action with such a consequence has been a moral burden which many - not all - of the war's opponents have been unwilling to bear.
They have needed some kind of alibi, or get-out clause, to protect themselves against the idea of having lent their efforts towards the survival of a regime like Saddam's. And they have needed it all the more because there was a perfectly viable third option available to them, in the middle ground, so to say, between the two primary options of supporting and opposing George Bush's war. For they could have done neither. This is just patently obvious, but it has never been explored in the debates since late 2002 over the Iraq war. In going-on two years now of intensive and wide-ranging discussion about this great, global parting of the ways, opponents of the war have resolutely - I'm inclined even to venture 'fearlessly' - failed to explain why, if they could not support a war led by the Bush administration and backed by the combination of reasons it offered which they found unsatisfactory, they did not opt to remain neutral, given that opposing the war worked to the benefit of a genocidal tyrant. If the war and the alignment it entailed were unsupportable to them, then the choice for people of democratic - whether liberal or socialist - and humanitarian commitments was surely staring them in the face, since to choose outright opposition to the war was to choose to help a regime which (I make so bold as to think) the vast majority of the war's opponents will have regarded as being at least as bad as, and I would hope rather worse than, the Bush administration.
Few, however, of those who couldn't bring themselves to support the war (speaking personally, it is none at all that I have come across, with a single lonely exception) embraced the option of not opposing the war either, of remaining neutral, of butting out. And many who did oppose the war have consequently needed that get-out clause against the knowledge of just what it was they would have succeeded in giving their voices and their energies towards prolonging had their view prevailed. Necessity being the mother of invention, they have found what they needed.
Regime change scenarios
They have found it in the notion that there was another foreseeable and proximate regime change scenario that the actual war blocked off. The real - indisputably available - 'third way' of not supporting the war without opposing it having been foresworn by them, they have found a different 'third way', by which opposing the war might not really be equivalent (as on a naive view it appeared to be) to giving one's efforts towards a prolongation of the Baathist regime - found it in the claim that their stance was (more deeply) opting for an alternative end to that regime.
Leaving aside more bizarre variants of this notion - like Robin Cook's recent suggestion on the BBC Today programme that the demise of the regime was near at hand anyway because... well, look at Saddam's deranged appearance at the moment of his capture - there are two main versions of the anti-war get-out clause. I shall label them in turn the HW and the NB versions.
HW: This first version amounts to the old self-emancipation idea, which has both liberal and socialist variants. It is that a people (or the working class, or any group) must liberate itself from tyranny and oppression. Indeed, in some renditions, only in this way can liberty truly arise. Just so, the Iraqi people had to do it for themselves, and they could have been expected to do it for themselves had it not been for the war. For everything that there is to be said for this type of scenario of liberation - and it is a great deal - in the context of the present argument it can be dismissed in short order. There is no question that the best, the politically most fruitful and authoritative, kind of emancipation from oppression is one that is achieved by the efforts of the oppressed themselves; but as applied to the pre-war situation in Iraq, this is merely hand-waving (see here and here). It is the invoking of an ideal process without any evidence whatever that such a process was imminent or, in truth, anywhere visible on the horizon.
Even so, I will repeat: there is much to be said for it - at levels of unfreedom and despotism falling short of a certain threshold. However, to insist on it for all cases, however dire, is a cruel joke. To insist, for example, that the inmates of the Nazi concentration and death camps, or the target population of the Rwandan genocide, or the people of Darfur right now, had not and have not to be rescued by outside intervention would be to cling to a terrible, deadly kind of 'self-emancipation' purism. Was Saddam's Iraq still on the safe side of the relevant threshold? Some people think so, but others (including me) think not. Whichever view one finds the more compelling, this variant of the theme under discussion merges with the issue of the limits of sovereignty and the criteria for humanitarian intervention - an issue I have already discussed in the present series. But it is clear, in any case, that it did not offer a real and ready alternative to the war that was in the offing; it did not offer an alternative relevant to the political present or the proximate future. Those waving their hands towards such an alternative merely gesture at an ideal picture in the hope of distracting attention, especially their own, from what it was their marching and other agitation would have achieved had it prevailed.
NB: I turn to the second version of the same theme. In this the focus is not on some hoped for, weakly waved towards, internal Iraqi process of national self-liberation; it is on an alternative war of intervention - an alternative to the one that in late 2002 and early 2003 was being prepared for, and in the event took place. Now, I'm going to leave entirely to one side here the question of whether a different US president - a Democrat: John Kerry or whoever - would have in fact gone to war, had (counterfactually) the war that did happen not happened, and had George Bush then lost the November 2004 election; as also the question of whether, if this different president had gone to war in Iraq, the war fought would have been the so-much-better war which is presupposed by its partisans. Those are both important questions, the answers to which cannot be taken for granted, and the fact that they cannot be taken for granted strengthens the conclusion I will shortly urge here.
But I'm going to leave them to one side because there's something more decisive to be noted in this alternative-war line of thought; which is that the undoubtedly key reservation entertained by the opponents of the rejected war was that it was to be prosecuted by the Bush administration - a political outfit, let us call it, in whose competence, honesty, motives, you name it, the critics had very little confidence (and that's putting the point generously). Well, in late 2002 and early 2003 when this whole argument began to unfold, the end of the Bush administration was some way off. It was possibly two years off; but no one could know this, not for a certainty, and not even for a probability. Definitely no more than six years off, though. Yes, that's right, six years. Six years is what an alternative-war scenario had to allow for if the key bad thing about the actual, rejected war, then looking imminent, was its 'Bushiness', and if the key desideratum of an alternative, supportable war was that someone else, not Bush, should be at the helm.
It would be an unfair caricature of this alternative-war perspective to say that it is like the argument of the (fortunately rare) type of socialist whose policy on crime is that there won't be any crime under socialism. But only mildly unfair. And it is not an unfair caricature at all to say that it is like arguing that the UN, being the much less than perfect organization that it is, cannot be entrusted with an intervention in Darfur until it, the UN, has been comprehensively reformed. This would not be favouring UN intervention (but just a different kind of intervention) to stop an ongoing genocide. For practical purposes, purposes of proximate, realistic political action, it would be opposing UN intervention.
In exactly the same way, opposing a war prosecuted by the Bush administration does not meaningfully translate into being in favour of another (kind of) war prosecuted by someone else, when that other (kind of) war could have been still six years away, with all the changes in international and regional circumstances which might have ensued in the meantime. In other words, this was not a real third option, somehow distinct from either supporting the war or opposing it, and somehow better than the latter because offering a much nicer outcome than the latter - an ideal war to remove Saddam rather than just leaving him in place. No, in the circumstances of choice prevailing, it was exactly what it appeared to be; it was opposing the war that promised the removal of the regime and thereby working for the latter's prolongation without foreseeable term.
There is, though, a milder NB version. In this, while Bush is still seen as the problem, the political realities to hand - like his happening to be the incumbent - are accepted, and the hope of negating or at least mitigating his administration's malign causality is invested in the idea of a UN-authorized, more multilateral war, this presumably influencing and constraining how the war would be fought, and for the better. To oppose the actual Iraq war wasn't to oppose any possible Iraq war, then, because 'we' would have supported the war had it been of this other UN-authorized, more multilateral type. Now, the argument had better be more than what I call the procedural one, because if that is all it was - that to be legitimate and supportable the war needed UN backing and the backing of other major international players like France, Russia, Germany - then the opposed and marching millions should precisely have been marching to ensure that the war received that backing from the UN, France, Russia, Germany, and so forth. I have already argued this point and won't repeat myself at length: but to say of a deliberative process in which you yourself are a participant that you oppose option Z because Z doesn't have majority support is to misunderstand what you are about, or it is to obscure what you really are about. I shall nevertheless return to this procedural version - that opponents of the war would instead have supported it had the war only been of another, UN-authorized, more multilateral, type - and put it to a different purpose.
If it is said, on the other hand, that the alternative war envisaged in this milder NB version had to be different not for purely procedural reasons but for substantive reasons having to do with the justifications given for going to war, which justifications the war's critics regard as not having been compelling enough, then this alternative-war scenario does not offer a genuine alternative at all. It is simply the argument that the WMD, threat-posed-by-the-regime, considerations were insufficient to justify breaching Iraqi sovereignty and bypassing the need for a further UN resolution; that in particular humanitarian and/or regime-change reasons didn't make enough of a difference to the case. It is perfectly possible to think, to have thought, this; but it is no kind of get-out clause holding forth the alternative of a different war. Like the other versions, it leaves opposition to the war exactly where, and as, it was. It leaves it as being just what it looked like, namely, opposition to a war that promised the end of an exceptionally brutal regime, and hence support for a policy which left that regime intact.
A late echo
There has been in recent weeks, since the January 30 election in Iraq, a kind of after-echo of this anti-war disinclination to face the fact of what opposition to the war in practice meant. I'm referring to all those voices which have responded to the success of the Iraqi election with something along the lines that, yes, they did oppose the war, but they have always favoured democracy and elections for Iraq, whether always as in forever, just by virtue of being democrats, or always as in since shortly after the fall of the Baathist regime - and unlike some (obviously dubious) people on the pro-war side who apparently haven't been so staunch. Now, there's an unobjectionable and indeed welcome form of something like this response. It is the response of hoping for, being happy about, supporting, all genuine progress in Iraq despite one's own opposition to the war that cleared the way for it. It is a kind of moving on.
What is rather less welcome is the willingness to take credit for results which could not have come about without the course of action you opposed, while simultaneously denying credit to those who actually pursued and implemented that course of action - above all George Bush and Tony Blair - as well as anyone who supported it. This is a kind of costless, take-responsibility-for-nothing attitudinizing, a gesture politics impressive only by its moral weightlessness. It is rather like the following: I oppose taking an extended holiday in New York, because I am terrified of flying, the only practical option in the circumstances (for whatever reason); and even though I know that I would enjoy it once I was there. Then, having been bullied by my holiday companion into going, and suffering unspeakable torments in transit for which I do not stop blaming her, I profess that I have never been opposed to the holiday and I feel thoroughly vindicated by it. She, on the other hand (I also maintain) has had little or nothing to do with the success of the holiday, though she sure as hell is responsible for my frightening journey.
Some of those same voices blandly willing to 'shoulder' any of the good things coming out of the Iraq war - the fall of Saddam and his regime, such progress as has followed from it - while protesting their own lack of responsibility for everything which has gone wrong, or been done wrong or been done worse than wrong (for did they not, after all, oppose the war?), are also the most clamorous in insisting that those who prosecuted or supported the war are answerable for every last cost of it, as computed, naturally, by themselves.
I want here to quote a passage written by Michael Walzer in 2002 in connection with the war in Afghanistan. Note that Walzer supported that war but not the Iraq war, and I do not cite his words to suggest anything to the contrary. His words are pertinent here nonetheless:
[T]hat war was never really accepted, in wide sections of the left, as either just or necessary. Recall the standard arguments against it: that we should have turned to the UN, that we had to prove the guilt of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then organize international trials, and that the war, if it was fought at all, had to be fought without endangering civilians. The last point was intended to make fighting impossible. I haven't come across any arguments that seriously tried to describe how this (or any) war could be fought without putting civilians at risk, or to ask what degree of risk might be permissible, or to specify the risks that American soldiers should accept in order to reduce the risk of civilian deaths. All these were legitimate issues in Afghanistan, as they were in the Kosovo and Gulf wars. But among last fall's antiwar demonstrators, "Stop the bombing" wasn't a slogan that summarized a coherent view of the bombing - or of the alternatives to it. The truth is that most leftists were not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were committed to opposin[g] the war, and they were prepared to oppose it without regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.The relevance of this passage to the present argument, Michael Walzer's own opposition to the Iraq war notwithstanding, is that the distinction he draws attention to in it is amongst a number of elementary distinctions - elementary within just war doctrine, elementary in ordinary moral thinking - which many of those who opposed the war are less than keen to dwell upon, if they even mention them. Here are three: (1) The distinction from the Walzer passage above, between deliberately killing civilians and killing them as an unintended consequence of attacking military targets and personnel. (2) The distinction between killing civilians and killing combatants. (3) The distinction between those killed by, or dying as an indirect consequence of, the actions of one side in a war, and those killed by, or dying as an indirect consequence of, the actions of the other side. My point is not to say that the deaths lying on one or other side of these distinctions do not matter. Of course they do. But in any serious and sober moral reckoning of human conflicts - wars, revolutions, civil wars - they matter in different ways to how responsibilities are to be assigned, and to arguments in justification and criticism. Simply to go for a bald figure, without such differentiations, lumping the whole on to one party to a conflict, is a partisan game and not a morally serious exercise.
A few left academics have tried to figure out how many civilians actually died in Afghanistan, aiming at as high a figure as possible, on the assumption, apparently, that if the number is greater than the number of people killed in the Towers, the war is unjust. At the moment, most of the numbers are propaganda; there is no reliable accounting. But the claim that the numbers matter in just this way, that the 3120th death determines the injustice of the war, is in any case wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing. And the denial isn't accidental, as if the people making it just forgot about, or didn't know about, the everyday moral world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder. This can't be true anywhere else, for anybody else.
And then beyond these three distinctions, there are two other points that don't get a lot of air time, if they get any at all, in the anti-war reckoning up of things. These are: (a) the costs of leaving Saddam's regime in place - in terms of the future numbers of tortured and murdered and maimed, in terms of what it would have needed to get rid of that regime an unknown number of years down the line; and (b) the appalling, the gigantic, human costs of the regime already, at the point when it was taken down. As to the first of these, naturally, I don't know with any confidence what the future costs would have been, but there are reasons to suppose they wouldn't have been small. As to the second, we do know something about the size of those costs but they tend, strangely, to be discounted in many anti-war approaches to the balance of costs and benefits of regime change.
Such historical reckonings of major conflicts are not an easy exercise at any time, and they often require a longer historical perspective. I have said more than once for my own part - see, for example, here and here - that the estimate of probabilities beforehand by those who supported the war was that it was unlikely to produce a state of affairs worse than the one the war was supposed to remedy. This may turn out to have been wrong, though one is bound to hope not. But, whatever the case, those who did support the war need no lessons in moral discrimination from people who make light of, if they deign to mention, the distinctions and other points I've just rehearsed here. And that is to say nothing of lessons in good faith and moral character, which some of them also like to dish out.
Since this post has been about alternative regime change scenarios, here finally is another one. It may look fanciful but it is no more so than those already considered, and indeed it grows out of one of them. As the US and its allies in late 2002 and early 2003 move towards a military intervention in Iraq, tens and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world mobilize, march, articulate their views through the media available to them. They do this to secure UN backing for the war, so that it will not be 'unilateral' or illegal or just George Bush's and Tony Blair's war; so that it will be our war; so that it will be a war supported by all democratic peoples to put an end to a political monstrosity that has survived into the new century; and a war to be held to our democratic norms and standards; and - now supported by the UN and France, and liberal editors and their progressive readers - a war in which universal opprobrium is directed against those doing everything they can to wreck the prospects of democratic transformation (opprobrium rather than a tut-tutting kind of 'understanding'), and not against those trying to bring this about, and in the aftermath of which men and women and money and expertise and materials pour into Iraq from every corner of the globe where there are the resources to offer something, in order to help rebuild the country and invest in its future. Yes indeed, friends, comrades and citizens, what would such a war and its aftermath have looked like? Well, maybe it is merely fanciful. But unlike the other alternative scenarios canvassed here, this one was at least in the power of the not-in-our-namers to try by their own efforts to bring about.