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Comments regarding the war in Iraq

Peter A. Taylor
(some older stuff posted on May 27, 2007)

I've had some very similar conversations with several people regarding the war in Iraq, so I am writing my thoughts out and posting them here. This started out as an email, "Why Iraq? Why not tell?" on 8 May 2004. If you're looking for stuff on the Battle of Manzikurt (part of the fall of the Byzantine Empire), jump down to the bottom.

Thoughts on why Dubya wanted to invade Iraq, and why he hasn't articulated his reasons more clearly:

There are several possible reasons for invading Iraq.

  1. Containment (ie. sanctions) didn't appear to be working in the long term. Sooner or later, Saddam or his sons were going to get nukes.
  2. Too much of the military was tied up unproductively in Kuwait, with no end in sight. The US was in a fistfight in Afghanistan while one foot was caught in a bear trap in Kuwait. (More "fistfights" to come.)
  3. Flypaper. Invading Iraq converts an "asymmetric" anti-terrorism problem in the West into a relatively conventional military campaign fought somewhere else.
  4. Geography. US Army units in Iraq can threaten Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  5. One of the root causes of terrorism is the failure and hopelessness in the Arab world (and to a lessor extent, in the non-Arab Muslim world). The underlying disease is tyranny, and Saddam's buttocks happened to be the most convenient place to inject the antibiotic. Alternately, the disease could be seen as largely cultural, but dealing with it still requires at least one regime change.
  6. Salami tactics. Several terrorist-sponsoring regimes have to be changed, including Saudi Arabia, and it is far easier to do them one at a time. This could be because of a shortage of military, intelligence, nation-building, or diplomatic assets, or it could be a hard power vs. soft power problem. The US has hard, military power, but the Saudis (and various other thugs) have soft, economic power. The object is to change regimes in several OPEC countries without tanking the US economy by having them all stop exporting at the same time. Iraq was the logical next step after Afghanistan because we were already engaged there, it was thought to be relatively close to getting nukes, and it was not exporting much oil.

    Note the fallacy of ambiguity in the "It's all about oil" claim. The implication is that the US is trying to get oil without paying for it, but the arguments that are used to support this claim merely show that oil is relevant as a weapon. Oil is strategically important, as it was in WWII, but that's not the same thing as saying that the US is motivated by greed.
  7. It establishes a precedent that causing the US too much grief is dangerous (a point which apparently was not lost on Libya).

Any of these reasons are plausible to me. The next question is why didn't Dubya articulate his reasons better. This is particularly important because demonstrating consistency and resolve is critical in discouraging the less fully committed idiots in places like Fallujah, and inducing more caution in places like Tehran. It's hard to convince people we're serious when we won't explain our motives.

  1. Christopher Hitchens suggested that Dubya doesn't want to admit the US' degree of fault in having created the problem.
  2. Keep 'em guessing. If the real reason for invading Iraq is 2, 4, 5, 6, or 7, then it's important that the Iranian and Saudi governments be kept in the dark about how much danger they're in until we're ready to depose them*. This means that Dubya can only articulate strategies 1 and 3, which are mosquito-swatting strategies, but neither of which really drains the swamp.

If Dubya doesn't explain himself, he might lose the election. If he does explain himself, it might mean losing the war, or winning it with a vastly increased amount of bloodshed.

Peter Taylor
"Saudi Arabia delenda est."

* Update, 2-3-2013: Note Richard Fernandez' metaphor of an "engagement queue". If a US president thinks that there is a queue of enemy governments that needs to be fought, it makes a lot of sense to me that it would be in the best interest of the US to keep the nature of this queue, and even its existence, secret.

I have a foreign policy. I just don't happen to think it's wise to tell the world what your foreign policy is.   —   Ronald Reagan

Here are some more comments from an email on 19 Mar 2006. This is one I'm particularly proud of because I was sorely tempted to engage in sarcasm. I resisted the temptation, wrote a straight reply and got some nice compliments for it. Part of the reason I have never sent my $30 in to the Church of the Subgenius is because there have been too many times when I have been rewarded for not using sarcasm.

> However, I don't see how you can compare Iraq to any portion of WWII.

Iraq is the second phase of a long war that I am calling "The War That Dare Not Speak Its Name" (TWTDNSIN). There are a number of similarities:

  1. There is a potential for massive loss of life. WWII killed about 62 million people. TWTDNSIN involves 1.2 billion Muslims whose loyalties are unclear, and Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, with Iran on the way. Iraq would have had them had Israel not intervened in the early 1980s. The distinction between military and civilian targets has been blurred.
  2. WWII could have been prevented (at least the European theater, with the Pacific theater ending much sooner). When Hitler first came to power, Czechoslovakia could have defeated Germany singlehandedly. France could easily have done the same in March of 1936 when Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles by reoccupying the Rhineland. The French weren't sure that the Germans wouldn't fight, and if they did fight, there could have been thousands of casualties. In retrospect, French Socialist Premier Leon Blum strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. Pol Pot killed about 2 million people between 1975 and 1979 (after the US bugged out of South Vietnam), so there are accusations that the US Vietnam antiwar movement also strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. Nowadays, in TWTDNSIN, squeamishness over conventional war could easily lead to nuclear war.
  3. The reasons why WWII was not prevented were basically the result of ideological blinders (self-deception). Hitler had published his intentions in Mein Kampf. According to Paul Berman, Blum felt that French warmongers and industrialists wanting to profit from war materiel were more dangerous than the Nazis.
  4. Military strategies can be counterintuitive (invading Morocco after being attacked by Japan), involve deception ("the Saudis are our friends"), and look nothing like police work. The Army Air Corps did not extradite Admiral Yamamoto, they intercepted him and killed him.
  5. Oil is a strategic weapon. Japan attacked the US because FDR cut off much of their oil supply, and the Army Air Corp did everything it could to choke off Germany's oil supply, with considerable success (Germany couldn't get enough gasoline to train their pilots towards the end). Now the shoe is on the other foot, and the US appears to be trying very hard to avoid being at war with more than one OPEC country at a time. I don't mind paying $50/barrel for Canadian oil and seeing it spent on health care and high definition TV sets. I do mind paying the money to Saudi Arabia and seeing it spent on Wahhabi madrassas, or to Iran for nuclear weapons.
  6. Propaganda is extremely important. Germany couldn't defeat the US, but for a long time their propaganda helped keep the US neutral. Similarly, the Tet Offensive was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, but it was a propaganda victory, and that was ultimately far more important. Al Qaida and their state sponsors appear to be trying to emulate the Viet Cong.
  7. The sides in the war are complicated. Germany and the USSR started out as allies in invading Poland, and the US was neutral. Later Germany attacked the USSR, and the US supported the USSR, but there was a huge amount of friction between the latter two countries. Germany and Japan were notoriously racist, and shouldn't have been able to get along, but they had common enemies, and that was more important. Similarly, bin Laden is trying to unite all Muslims against the West, and Bush to unite everyone against bin Laden, but the West is divided into "red" and "blue" factions that seem to be more interested in fratricide than winning a war, and bin Laden's potential sympathizers are divided along multiple, often violent, fault lines (secular, Sunni, Shiite, Arab, a host of other ethnicities, and innumerable tribes). The Saudis, Pakistanis, and Egyptians are fighting terrorist groups that they are simultaneously or were recently supporting.
  8. There are some very nasty moral dilemmas involving the tension between wanting to fight cleanly versus wanting to fight effectively. Would you bomb Hiroshima? Would you treat Japanese and German POWs the same? Would you overfly Turkey to bomb Romanian oil refineries? What do you do with someone like Khaled Sheik Mohammed? How do you deal with someone like Pablo Escobar? How do you trade off between getting blood on your hands and getting blood on someone else's hands?

One way in which WWII was very different from TWTDNSIN was in the impossibility of portraying a law enforcement model as a reasonable alternative to outright war. It was clear that Admiral Yamamoto was acting under orders from the Japanese government. There was no plausible argument that FDR could have appealed to the League of Nations to put pressure on the Japanese government to have Yamamoto arrested. But terrorism can be viewed in a number of different ways:
  1. Terrorism is being practiced despite the best efforts of the relevant governments. Where there are conflicts of interest or various other obstacles to the prevention and pursuit of terrorists, gentle diplomatic pressure or concessions can solve these problems. This is probably a fair description of Turkey.
  2. As Richard Fernandez put it, "Terrorism is an externality of rotting societies." Terrorism is the result of social problems. The relevant governments are not actively promoting terrorism, but they are either unable or unwilling to solve the underlying social problems (ie. government corruption, unemployment, etc.). This is arguably a fair description of Egypt, but I think that's being overly generous.
  3. Several of the relevant governments are deliberately supporting terrorism or otherwise doing things that encourage it. This could be because (A) they are following Machiavelli's advice and using foreign conflicts to distract their restless populations from domestic problems, (B) they are trying to fight wars against militarily superior enemies, or (C) they are trying to maintain plausible deniability of the fact that they are at war. I see Saudi Arabia in terms of 3A, pre-9/11 Pakistan in terms of 3B, and Iran in terms of 3C.

I think the law enforcement paradigm is fine if we're talking about Turkey, but I don't see how it can possibly work in Iran. We would basically be asking the Iranian government to arrest itself.

> I'm not sure if you didn't misunderstand my statement on revenge.
> People were justifiably upset about 9/11 and wanted us to find those
> responsible. Unfortunately, many people want revenge in any
> manner....the go git 'em attitude. While many others believe it's
> better to find those responsible and bring them to
> justice.....otherwise, we create another war....something I believe most
> people prefer to avoid if possible.

I look at the WTC ruins and ask, "What would Mohammed Atta have done if he had had access to nuclear weapons?" My impression is that lots of other people have asked themselves the same question. This isn't about anger or even justice, but simple practicality. I have seen cold, calculated discussions of "punitive raids," but these have been intended to produce specific practical results rather than to satisfy voters' emotional needs. I have seen rants by a few blowhards, and lots of dark humor, but I have not seen any evidence of significant numbers of people wanting indiscriminate "revenge in any manner." Do you see actual evidence of this, or are you merely speculating about what could possibly cause someone to come to a conclusion that you find counter-intuitive?

> > Does that in any way invalidate the strategic or the
> > humanitarian arguments for taking Saddam out?
> So, if we are going to invade a country to be humanitarian, then you
> could probably make a list of countries all over the world we should
> invade. I think that would be pretty insane of us. Why pick one (Iraq)
> over the others?

We didn't invade for humanitarian reasons, we invaded for strategic reasons. Humanitarian arguments carry some weight, but not an infinite amount of weight. Sometimes this weight is on the side of pacifism and sometimes it is on the other side.

> > Do you judge the rightness or
> > wrongness of an action by the action itself or by your beliefs about the
> > emotional state of the actor? And how confident are you of these beliefs?
> I'm pretty damn confident of my beliefs. What justifies war? Have we
> not learned from history? Have we not advanced as a civilization? If
> we were to go to war in the name of righteousness, then we should've
> blasted the hell out of Viet Nam and every other country we could since
> WWII. What makes war righteous? This sounds a bit like the Islamic
> fundamentalist idea....their terror is right because that is what they
> believe is righteousness.

I highly recommend George Orwell's essay, "Notes on Nationalism" (click on "nationalism" on the left).


Here are some additional essays I recommend (July 2005, more of this here):

Steven Den Beste has a strategic overview of the current war:
HTML version
PDF version

Steven Den Beste on the current war as a three-player game

Haim Harari with an Israeli view of the terrorism problem

The Battle of Manzikurt: Porphyrogenitus discusses the Battle of Manzikurt (Byzantium vs. Seljuk Turks) [link rot] as a scary historical analogy for the red state vs. blue state conflict. The commander of the Byzantine reserve forces was a political rival of the commander of the main forces, and withdrew his forces in the middle of the battle. Search for the paragraph heading "The Historical Consequences" or "Manzikurt" (aka Manzikert) near the bottom of the page.

More stuff from 2006-02-08 on the analogy between modern America and the falling Byzantine Empire:

Porphyrogenitus writes (at above link),

One could draw a - very rough - parallel between "blue County" and "red County" America; use a County map rather than a State map and the contrast is starker than with a State map. ... Military deployment decisions were made on the basis of political rather than strategic need.

Update: The above link is broken. Here is a similar discussion. Again, search for "Manzikurt".

Dan Melson writes,

They are trading in the well being of us all in exchange for the hope of capturing power, much as the Ducases of Byzantium and with much the same results should they succeed (There are eerie parallels between the Ducases and the Kennedys, IMHO).

Paul Markham (long) writes,

The newly ascendant civil bureaucracy, however, were largely excluded from investing in Anatolia, and began buying up estates in the west, effectively splitting the Empire into an old money, Anatolian party and a new money, western bureaucratic party.

I see the current red state v. blue state conflict as a "religious" conflict between Christians and watered-down Marxists, as opposed to the Byzantine conflict, which seems to have been about property rather than religion.

I also wrote an essay called "The Care and Feeding of Scapegoats" that discusses "Progressivism" in religious terms.

There is a tendency for new religions and intellectual fashions to catch on faster in cities than in rural areas. The word, "pagan," comes from a Latin word for "rural," and reflects the fact that Christianity became popular in cities while the older religions were still popular among people who lived in the country. The Byzantine empire was also divided along urban vs. rural lines, and these divisions were a large part of the reason why it fell. The modern US is similarly divided between the "blue" urban counties where Progressivism, represented by the Democratic Party, is dominant, and "red" rural counties where Christianity, represented by the Republican Party, is dominant.

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