Monday, January 26, 2004

Drudge bites Dean, and the return of... THE QUESTION

The new attention-grabbing Dean meme has got Matt Drudge's attention, because he's linked to the article in red cyber-ink. It says in part:

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean said Sunday that the standard of living for Iraqis is a "whole lot worse" since Saddam Hussein's removal from power in last year's American-led invasion.

"You can say that it's great that Saddam is gone and I'm sure that a lot of Iraqis feel it is great that Saddam is gone," said the former Vermont governor, an unflinching critic of the war against Iraq. "But a lot of them gave their lives. And their living standard is a whole lot worse now than it was before."

Dean is claiming that Iraqis are not better off. His reasons, as given in the article, are vague (no, actually they're nonexistent), so I tend to view this more as blowhard rhetoric than as a substantive jab at current policy. Let him come forward with a raft of facts and figures, and I'll be more likely to listen to him. I do give him points for posing this question out loud, though. If anything, I think it actually supports Donald Rumsfeld, who in his leaked memo asked for "metrics" to determine our progress in the war on terror. Until solid metrics are developed, people on either side of the issue can claim whatever they want.

Dean's claim may attract attention because we're all sensitive to this topic. The rightness or wrongness of our project in Iraq is very much a function of how well we, in the long term, implement our nation-building plans.

I wrote an essay last year, on July 20, called "The Question We're Not Supposed to Ask." There's a link to it on my sidebar (in the "Sacred and Profane" section), but the link doesn't seem to be working on this PC (fucking Blogger), so allow me to reprint it here.


Are they better off?

The answer from most warbloggers, conservatives, and others who supported Gulf War 2 is an unqualified YES.

The question, of course, refers to the state of the Iraqi people. Under Saddam, they suffered horribly, and as days go by, we hear more and more reports of mass graves, of bulletholes in dirt-filled skulls. The Saddam government was, itself, one huge WMD. We found THAT one and eliminated it.

You should know, though, that I personally was against the war, but not for pacifist reasons. Europe pissed me off before and during GW2, just as it pissed off the pro-war crowd (I use the term "pro-war" cautiously, to indicate supporters of THIS military action, not of war in general). I'm glad Saddam is gone. I agree and accept that Saddam's govt had links to al Qaeda (we've got documentation now, plenty) and the dreaded French. I agree we've made mistakes in the past by not pursuing Saddam beyond our stated objectives in 1991. I don't think the current uranium flap is much more than a flap.

But one of my main worries going into this war was the question of unintended consequences. Many conservative bloggers & pundits were and are convinced that this is a cowardly question to ask. After all, isn't freedom worth the risk? Don't the Iraqi people deserve a taste of what we enjoy? In the same breath, such people mention "national self-interest" as one of our reasons for going to war. I think self-interest is a perfectly valid reason to go to war; it doesn't need to be decorated with specious moral arguments that arise only on certain occasions.

But "self-interest" is precisely what motivated me to think about unintended consequences. The Iraq that seems to be forming in front of us is bearing all the hallmarks of deplorable theocracy. Islamic law is to be written into/reflected in the permanent constitution, eventually, and many of the once-oppressed Shiites are becoming more vociferous about where they want Iraq to go.

One of the first religious acts performed by the Shiites after Saddam's fall was a pilgrimage that involved men beating themselves bloody with swords. This, to me, does not bode well. It's right in line with the unintended consequences I've been considering. Without a massive injection of Western secularism, I don't see how, in the short or long term, our experiment in Iraq is going to work in our favor.

In a sense, it's too late to complain. We're in it now. But whether we, as a people, have the stamina, attention span, and money to pull off what really needs to be done is doubtful. And whether, in ten years' time, the Iraqi people will still be unequivocally "better off" strikes me as, at best, an open question. How do you measure happiness? How do you measure security? By what standards?

For me, the jury is still out, and will be for a long time. In the meantime, I do agree with the conservatives who've complained about the gloom-and-doom nature of worldwide journalistic coverage, which has often taken a Chomsky-ish turn. That's why I read around, and I expect you, Dear Reader, to do the same. Meantime, I think we need to watch the behavior of those we liberated and ponder carefully whether they are worthy of the freedom they now have. Sounds cruel, sounds cold, but that's keeping our own interests at heart.

As always, feel free to write in [, "hairy chasms" in the subject line]. Or leave a comment.


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