Thursday, June 15, 2006

the Derb says he's sorry

Thanks to a look-see over at the always-excellent Verbum Ipsum, I followed a link to an article at the conservative National Review, a site I almost never read.

The article in question is by noted pundit John Derbyshire, whom I generally avoid for his often pugnacious and dismissive style. I don't think the guy is half as smart as he thinks he is. For those following the debates over gay marriage, I'll note that Andrew Sullivan has done a good job of exploring Derbyshire's not-so-latent homophobia as well. (For the record, my favorite NRO columnist is the sterling Victor Davis Hanson. The man is civil, scholarly, and highly readable. Among conservative scholars, I'd say he's up there with the likes of Bernard Lewis.)

In the article, titled "Apologizing for Iraq," Derbyshire basically eats crow regarding his support for the Iraq war (by which he means the initial attack and the ensuing, years-long occupation/rebuilding effort). What makes me tear my hair out is that only now is he asking the same sort of questions that those of us who were against the war were asking to begin with.


1. "Let’s start from the fact that the whole thing, taken in one piece—attack plus follow-up nation-building effort—has been a huge negative for the USA. Is there anyone, really, who is glad we did it?"

2. "We are stuck there in that wretched place with no way out that would not involve massive loss of geostrategic face. Getting on for 3,000 of our troops have been killed, and close to 20,000 maimed. We’ve spent untold billions of dollars. For what?"

3. "Since the Iraq war was obviously a gross blunder, is it time for those of us who cheered on the war to offer some kind of apology?"

Of the three questions above, the one that makes me maddest is (2). For what, indeed? Let's charitably assume that this whole mess wasn't about oil-- an argument I have accepted from the conservative side, and which is borne out these days by the fact that Americans and other nations continue to suffer at the gas pump. As I've argued before, you can't rebuild infrastructure and enact a "Flypaper Strategy" at the same time.

So was this war about spreading democracy? Were we creating a democracy-quake in the Middle East that would, in the long term, reduce or eliminate terrorism? Conservative pundits have certainly trotted this out as a pet rationale for why we hit Iraq, but you don't have to be much of a historian to realize that the Middle East is rife with deeply entrenched problems-- most of them ethnic in nature-- that cannot be solved by what would be, at bottom, yet more Western tinkering and redistricting. Americans are prone to look to quick-fix solutions, but we're a long way from collectively realizing that this attitude can't necessarily be applied across cultures.

To be clear-- I'm not taking a cultural relativist stance here: I'm pretty pro-Western and feel comfortable judging certain beliefs and practices as backward and barbaric (if need be, ruthlessly applying that standard to my own culture, too). But precisely because of my pro-Western orientation, I don't see a Western cultural and axiological template as "one size fits all." Far from it.

Here's what Steven Den Beste-- one of brainiest conservative bloggers in the blogosphere-- wrote a long time ago with regard to why we're in Iraq:

D. The large solution is to reform the Arab/Muslim world. This is the path we have chosen.
1. The true root cause of the war is their failure and their resentment and frustration and shame caused by that failure.

2. They fail because they are crippled by political, cultural and religious chains which their extremists refuse to give up. The real causes of their failure is well described by Ralph Peters. Most of the Arab nations suffer from all seven of his critical handicaps, and the goal of reform is to correct all seven, as far as possible.

3. If their governments can be reformed, and their people freed of the chains which bind them and cripple them, they will begin to achieve, and to become proud of their accomplishments. This will reduce and eventually eliminate their resentment.

4. Their governments would then cease needing scapegoats.

5. Their extremists would no longer have fertile ground for recruitment.

6. This is a huge undertaking; it will require decades because it won't really be complete until there's a generational turnover. But ultimately it is the only way to really eliminate the danger to us without using the "foot-and-mouth" solution (which is to say, nuclear genocide).

7. The primary purpose of reform is to liberate individual Arabs. This is a humanist reform, but it isn't a Christian reform. There will be no attempt to eradicate Islam as a religion. Rather, Islamism as a political movement, and as a body of law, and as a form of government must be eliminated, leaving Islam as a religion largely untouched except to the extent that it will be forced to be tolerant. The conceptual model for this is what we did in Japan after WWII, where only those cultural elements which were dangerous to us were eliminated, leaving behind a nation which was less aggressive, but still Japanese. No attempt was made to make Japan a clone of the US, and no such attempt will be made with the Arabs.
VI. Stage 2: Iraq
A. Goal of Stage 2: we had to conquer one of the big antagonistic Arab nations and take control of it.

1. To directly reduce support for terrorist groups by eliminating one government which had been providing such support.

2. To place us in a physical and logistical position to be able to apply substantial pressure on the rest of the major governments of the region.

a. To force them to stop protecting and supporting terrorist groups

b. To force them to begin implementing political and social reforms

3. To convince the governments and other leaders of the region that it was no longer fashionable to blame us for their failure, so that they would stop using us as scapegoats.

4. To make clear to everyone in the world that reform is coming, whether they like it or not, and that the old policy of stability-for-the-sake-of-stability is dead. To make clear to local leaders that they may only choose between reforming voluntarily or having reform forced on them.

5. To make a significant long term change in the psychology of the "Arab Street"

a. To prove to the "Arab Street" that we were willing to fight, and that our reputation for cowardice was undeserved.

b. To prove that we are extraordinarily dangerous when we do fight, and that it is extremely unwise to provoke us.

c. To defeat the spirit of the "Arab Street". To force them to face their own failure, so that they would become willing to consider the idea that reform could lead them to success. No one can solve a problem until they acknowledge that they have a problem, and until now the "Arab Street" has been hiding from theirs, in part aided by government propaganda eager to blame others elsewhere (especially the Jews).

6. To "nation build". After making the "Arab Street" truly face its own failure, to show the "Arab Street" a better way by creating a secularized, liberated, cosmopolitan society in a core Arab nation. To create a place where Arabs were free, safe, unafraid, happy and successful. To show that this could be done without dictators or monarchs. (I've been referring to this as being the pilot project for "Arab Civilization 2.0".)

7. Not confirmed: It may have been hoped that the conquered nation would serve as a honey-pot to attract militants from the region, causing them to fight against our troops instead of planning attacks against civilians. (This was described by David Warren as the flypaper strategy.) It seems to have worked out that way, but it's not known if this was a deliberate part of the plan. Many of the defenders who died in the war were not actually Iraqis.

Den Beste wrote the above in July of 2003. I encourage you to read (or reread) the rest of his post. How do you think all this has held up over time? To be honest, I still agree with a good bit of Den Beste's assessment of causes and motives, and have long wished that Bush himself could have been half this articulate. But Den Beste's section on nation-building, our "democratic project" in the Middle East, has always, always rung hollow to me, and this was one of my central reasons for opposing the war. Without a clear strategy in mind, without clear goals, what could we hope to accomplish? If security in Iraq requires a greater troop presence, as many have argued, why are elements in the administration, such as Rumsfeld, agitating for troop reductions? Most important, what made us think we could resolve ancient problems in only a few decades' time? Did no one stop to wonder at the sheer enormity of such a project?

What does this mean for the long term? I don't know. I'm not sure that a simple withdrawal is either advisable or feasible at this point, but much depends on the experts' assessment of the seaworthiness of the fledgling Iraqi government (and, I assume, military).

[NB: Hillary Clinton, tapping into her husband's awe-inspiring powers of triangulation, has come out against a definite timeline for withdrawal. She seems to be one of the top contenders for a Democratic presidential nomination, and she's waving a quasi-hawk banner. Make of that what you will. Is she in it for the power? A female Palpatine? A Palpatina?]

I don't normally comment on geopolitics. It's not my field. But it seems to me that something I argued long ago remains true: America is a positively scary military power, thanks in large part to massive funding and advanced technology (as an American, I mean all that in a good way). Force projection-- as we saw at the beginning of the so-called "Three Weeks' War" in Iraq in 2003, is something we do well, even when other countries disallow use of their land and airspace. I hope we move toward a day when military bases become a thing of the past. We've got plenty of roving platforms in the form of aircraft carriers, submarines, etc. Getting somewhere in the world is literally a matter of hours. And besides, with some notable exceptions (such as a hypothetical all-out shooting war on the Korean peninsula), the wars of the future don't strike me as being of the type to involve massive armies.

In the meantime, I find that Mr. Derbyshire's apology is too little, too late.

Your thoughts are welcome. (This is politics, so keep it civil.)



Anonymous said...

I still think the war was a good idea. Biased reporting by the media has probably colored the spectacles of the citizens of most countries.

Some positive results: the combination of the cut-off of Saddam's funding to suicide bombers in Israel (at $10,000 US, he gave more than all the other Gulf states combined), and the Israeli wall, have helped to dramatically reduce the number of suicide bombings in Israel. Because there are fewer suicide bombings, Israel doesn't retaliate as much. Because Israel doesn't retaliate as much, there are fewer images of Israeli force on the news for the Arab street to obsess over. That's good news.

The decision by Libya to renounce weapons of mass destruction seems to have been related in some way to the Iraq conflict.

There is much good news coming out of Iraq, despite what the MSM will say.

On the other hand, the alternative to invading Iraq was to not invade. With Saddam shooting at the no-fly patrols and kicking the IAEA's weapons inspectors out of the country, he was an international good example of a bad example, and he showed up the weakness and corruption of the UN, the IAEA, and even the US in the process. This certainly cannot have helped the UN, the IAEA, or the US in their efforts deal with similar rogueish regimes. (For the record, I actually despise the UN).

At the same time, the Hussein regime, which was Sunni, oppressed the Shiite majority. The godlessness of the state produced a backlash that could only be put down by sheer force. Can we say for certain that that force would not have volcanically erupted later?

Nation building is never easy, and that includes post WWII Germany, where terrorism was used against the occupying Allied forces. It's still not clear to me that we should be gloomy about Iraq; I tend to be more on the optimistic side.

Anonymous said...

Den Beste is not the only one to take this sort of view:

The final chapter of the book is available online for free:

Certainly, everyone is entitled to their opinion in re: the war in Iraq, but it seems to me that the MSM-- motivated for the most part by their hatred of Bush-- has been extraordinarily successful with their nothing but negative news out of Iraq campaign. Even staunch neocons are finding themselves swept up in the hand-wringing.

I shudder to think how the US would have fared with Gore or Kerry in the White House.

I wish the following received a wider circulation among the leftists and the libs:

What the world would like the President to say

By Dennis Prager

Feb 4, 2003

My fellow Americans: After consulting with our loyal allies in Europe, speaking with United Nations officials, reading major American newspapers, listening to National Public Radio, consulting with Hollywood movie stars, and meeting with professors from our universities, I have changed my mind. They are right. I now realize that the most important goal America and its president can pursue is to be liked, hopefully loved, by mankind, and especially by France, Germany, China, and the Arab world. I now realize that we Americans who think in terms of good and evil are simpletons. We should think, as the professors do, in multicultural terms and, therefore, render no moral judgment over Iraq or any other nation except Israel. Who am I to declare any regimes an "axis of evil"? I now realize that it was arrogance to make such a judgment on three regimes governed by men whom I should have tried better to understand. Now that I realize America's primary goal is to be liked, I will never again call any regime evil. In fact, in consultation with the presidents and deans of our major universities, I have decided to rename the governments of Iraq, Iran and North Korea an Axis of Diversity. I now realize that the only reason I ever considered putting thousands of young American lives in jeopardy was because of oil. I was deluded in thinking that Saddam Hussein might use his weapons of destruction against vast numbers of innocents, or to think because Saddam erased a sovereign nation from the map in 1991, he would contemplate doing such a thing again. The French have taught me that the way to deal with people whom I used to believe were evil is by giving them business contracts. Yes, all these people knew better than I that I considered attacking Iraq only in order to obtain cheap gas for American SUVs. Even though it would have cost us far more money to topple Saddam Hussein than we would make from Iraqi oil. Even though I could simply have done what the French and Russians have done -- make deals with Saddam to buy all the oil we want. And even though we publicly promised that after Saddam, Iraqi oil will belong to the Iraqi people. Despite all that, the left somehow recognized that a war against Iraq was really only a way to enrich my oil buddies. The left, whom I used to foolishly identify with appeasing and defending evil, have opened my eyes. They are right that nothing America does is out of a sense of mission to lead humanity in confronting evil. That was all a cover up for our true motivation -- more wealth. That is why we alone stand by Israel -- for all that oil in the Negev. That is why we protect Taiwan -- for Taiwan's bounteous natural resources. From now on, our moral model must be the Europeans who shape their Middle Eastern policies so as to be loved by 200 million Arabs rather than by a few million Israelis. I now realize that America must be guided by Germany with its 100-year record of moral leadership; by France with nearly as long a record of standing up to evil; by our university professors, who almost alone in America understand that America and Israel are the world's villains; by the United Nations, which was so prescient in doing nothing during the Rwanda genocide and today provides more moral light with Syria on its Security Council and Libya heading its Human Rights Commission; by The New York Times and other newspapers that so insightfully attacked President Ronald Reagan for labeling the Soviet Union an evil empire; and by China, which I used to identify with cultural genocide in Tibet, but thanks to my new desire to be loved, I will now regard only as a huge potential source of love and cheap imports. My fellow Americans, I will no longer be calling you "my fellow Americans," but rather, "my fellow earthlings" or "my fellow citizens of the world." Nor will I conclude this or any future address by asking that God bless America. That annoys secular Europe, and if we aim to be loved, we can no longer speak in religious terms. Finally, given my new belief that America's task in the world is not to lead but to be loved, I have decided to step down from the presidency as soon as Congress and the states pass a constitutional amendment allowing Al Gore to be president. He, my predecessor President Clinton, and the whole Democratic Party have long believed that America's purpose is to be loved. They should be governing. My fellow world citizens, peace and love.

Dennis Prager is a radio talk show host, author, and contributing columnist for

Find this story at:

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree about the heavy prejudices of the MSM and think that conservatives at smaller publications (as well as rightie bloggers) have done a good job of doing the fact-checking that some news bozos haven't bothered to do in their rush to make a deadline.

However, the quoted paragraph from Prager's book, while a wonderfully sarcastic parody of the stereotypical leftie attitude, doesn't address the issue that rankles me: I deeply question the long-term benefit of what we're engaged in because I see us as attempting to change a region that cannot be changed in a few decades. I think the future is going to bear this out as we see no indisputably measurable progress in Iraq.

I cheer the establishment of a new (and hopefully more humane) Iraqi government, but wonder what power that governnment has, given that it ultimately must have the consent of the governed. Does it have that consent? Will it?

This problem actually extends beyond the war and touches on issues more important than politics, in my opinion. Americans are now agitating more loudly than ever for alternative fuel sources, and some companies are beginning to listen (as are the news media). Assuming we do finally release ourselves from dependency on other countries' oil, what will become of those countries? I already know Derbyshire's answer: he couldn't care less. As a student of religion (please don't confuse that with being a pacifist; I'm not a pacifist), I can't take that stance in good conscience.

War, rightly or wrongly, damages innocents. So do long-range economic and environmental policies. There's no yang without yin. Do we make ourselves independent of the oil countries, then leave those countries to rot?

In the meantime-- do you believe that our project in Iraq will ultimately result in a docile, US-friendly, democratic government free of Shiite ties to Iran? If you do, I hope you're right. We can't afford to see the current project fail, now that we've embarked on it. But I think we should never have taken this path to begin with.


Kevin Kim said...


I'm heartened by the positive results that have come of this war. I'm hopeful that the democratic project does work, but am far from confident that it will.

The situation in Iraq is not analogous to that of other prominent nation-building projects. I've argued this before on my blog: Japan, for example, remains quite Japanese. Even today, you can find Japanese people who admire Hitler-- I met some such folks in my Korean class at Korea University, and they were mostly undergrads(!). They were nice, decent classmates, but they saw nothing wrong with what Hitler had done, and even told me they thought of him as something of a hero. I'm not saying all Japanese are that way, but if that tiny slice of students skew that way in their opinions (I'd say about 3 out of 10 classmates), what does this say for the population at large, which still has trouble recognizing the damage it did to countries like China and Korea, and still contains militaristic elements even at the governmental level? Japan is by no means Westernized.

You didn't talk about Japan, of course: the example you brought up was Germany, but this, too, is disanalogous with Iraq, I think. The Germans are Western folk; nation-building (if that's the proper term for what occurred in Germany) was not a matter of attempting to implant an almost totally new set of cultural values while simultaneously attempting to deconstruct some of the old values. Westerners have enough of a shared intellectual history that they can both fight and harmonize with each other in ways that all Western parties find intelligible. Turning Germany around was a very plausible project (then again, the xenophobia we're seeing both there and in France is enough to make one wonder what direction Europe's headed in), but just how intelligible is the Western paradigm to the average Iraqi?

Granted, abstractions like "freedom" have appeal to any human being, but the devil is in the details. What would freedom mean to people of that culture? What, for them, would be the best system of governance allowing for the most comfortable and fulfilling existence for the maximum number of citizens? I'm afraid that many hawks blindly answer, "Why, the Western way, of course!"-- then advocate some form of cultural steamrollering without any appreciation for the time it takes a people to come to appreciate such values.

I don't think we can afford to have both a rebuilding project and the Flypaper Strategy at the same time. I'd like to see news that lots of infrastructure is being built and rebuilt in Iraq, that terrorist incidents are slowing to a trickle (in my unscientific observation of the news media, I've noticed no dips in the reports of bombing fatalities), and that Iraqis are embracing democratic values en masse, but I don't see this as likely.

My prediction: even more hawkish pundits will go the way of Derbyshire, perhaps going further than he does and adopting a line already espoused by some doves, the notion of "retreat with honor." (Conservative philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson has been advocating a full and immediate pullout for some time now. He cares nothing for the fate of the Iraqis.) I'm not sure how "honor" will factor into such a retreat: the Middle East will have more evidence of American spinelessness, doves will have new reasons to chastise the hawks for their garish waste of money and blood, and the Iraqi people will likely fall under a Shiite shadow cast by Iran.

I expect the hawks to go down fighting, though. Derbyshire at the very least said "I'm wrong and I'm sorry," even though his explanation of why he's wrong seems a bit squirrelly (notice the way he tries to cover his ass in the latter half of his article). Not many hawks will be quite so forthright, I think. They'll continue to see nation-building in Iraq as a worthwhile project. I'm forced to see it that way, too, because I have no desire to see us fail. But I've never been confident of our success, and think we could have prosecuted our war against Islamism in a very different manner (discussed in long-ago blog posts; I won't rehash those arguments here).

Another prediction: most if not all of our troop presence will be out of Iraq before 2012. Even the conservatives will have come around to the view that that's the way to go. Various conservatives (well, the hawkish ones, anyway) will have various reasons for adopting that view, but the result will be the same.

Shall I bet you an expensive steak dinner? Heh. We'll check back in 2012 and see how things are going.


Anonymous said...

Well, Kevin, I'd have to say that one can read about Iraqi infrastructure being rebuilt in the news. Stuff like that gets published in the WSJ from time to time, among other places. I think that's not so much the problem as these terrorist bombings. Like you, I'd like to see them slow to a trickle, too. Now that Zarqawi is dead, let's see how it goes. I think Al-Qaeda has not been happy with Muslim on Muslim attacks, which have turned the tide of popular opinion against them in many places.

As for Iran, there are signs that that country is headed for an internally-produced regime change, or civil war with some of the northern regions separating. I'm not sure I'd be willing to wager anything on a date.

Speaking of dates and wagers, let's agree to meet up in 2012 over a dutch-paid steak--I'm not sure when I'd predict troop levels to drop. For me, the most important thing is that the troops don't come home until their job is done--and I think it will be done, eventually.

P.S.: Nation-building. I'm not sure that nation-building necessarily has to involve the forcing of western ways of doing things on the nation being built. I'm still optimistic that Iraq is going to work out, and it will be a uniquely Iraqi success story.

On the other hand, I have much less optimism about Afganistan.

Have a great day!