Friday, December 01, 2006

stabbing ourselves in the back

Digby writes:

Josh Marshall is chronicling the rapidly emerging rightwing "stab in the back" meme in which George W. Churchill was betrayed by both the American and Iraqi people.

. . .

[I]f the current stab-in-the-back argument is that the American people should have supported the war more, perhaps the people who are making that argument should go back and look at what the American people actually thought at the time we went in. It's not something that couldn't have been anticipated. A majority backed the war if the US could get an international coalition together. Throughout the run-up polls said over and over again that Americans expected Bush to get UN backing. He did not feel he needed to do that, he lied repeatedly, invaded anyway and once the invasion began most Americans rallied because they felt they had no choice. They hung in longer than they had any reason to.

So Kurtz is essentially right. The public had never fully approved of the war in the first place.

I don’t know about this. It certainly seemed as though the American public, to the extent that you can talk about it as a coherent entity, strongly supported the war at the time we went in. Approval of the invasion was above 70% in March 2003.

I think the “stabbed in the back” analysis by the left right now is misguided. The American public might not be responsible for losing the war (to the extent that "losing the war" has any meaning in this context), but it’s harder to say it is not responsible for supporting the war in the first place. It would be nice if the American public had cared enough at the outset of the war to really find out what it was they were supporting. But the fact is that most didn’t. I laid out the case against war to a sophisticated, well-informed hawkish friend of mine before we went into Iraq. I said something along the lines of “We aren’t going in for the right reasons, therefore it is likely to go badly for the Iraqis. We are going to do this for our benefit, not theirs, and they are expendable, and lots of them will probably die as a result.” His response was that he didn’t really care how many Iraqis died. It wasn’t his concern. I was a little shocked, but I have to give him credit for saying what many others who supported the war thought but wouldn’t say—or would have thought, had they taken the time to think it through. I believe that many Americans, if feeling sufficiently threatened, feel little compunction about trampling however many non-American lives it takes to protect “me and mine,” which doesn’t typically extend to anyone outside of our borders.

There is little moral justification for this position, but it’s such a deeply-held, unspoken assumption of American foreign policy that it seems shocking when people put it into words.

This sentiment gives rise to statements like Jonah Goldberg’s classic paraphrase of Michael Ledeen before the war: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

This is why, with each new Lancet study calculating the number of Iraqi dead since the war began (who would not have otherwise died), the administration and its supporters attacked the researchers and said the numbers were too large to be taken seriously. First 100,000 was beyond the pale, then 655,000. The second Lancet study predicted with 95% confidence that 392,000 people had died—by this time 100,000 didn’t seem so outrageous anymore.

After the second study came out, the Bush administration said no, that’s too high, we think it’s more like 30,000, but they provided no evidence of this claim. I’m not aware of any comparable conflicting studies (Iraq Body Count uses a different methodology that, by their own admission, is likely to undercount deaths). So, the argument goes, the Lancet numbers couldn’t possibly be accurate, but we won’t provide any evidence for this claim because: (1) we’re worried what the real numbers will turn out to be, (2) we don’t really care what the numbers are, (3) you’re a dirty hippie, and/or (4) (insert serious argument here) . . .

Samantha Power wrote in A Problem from Hell (paperback, p. 381) that, before President Clinton sent in 200 troops to stabilize the Kigali airport so relief could be flown into Rwanda (well after the killing was finished), a U.S. officer called Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission there, to find out how many Rwandans had died. Dallaire asked why he wanted to know, and the officer replied, “We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

There it is in black and white; it doesn’t get any clearer than that, although the government and punditry don’t normally come right out and say it like that. The calculation presumably varies from country to country—a developed-country life would be worth more than a developing-country life, but only ever some fraction of one American life.

Now there are some decent justifications for prioritizing the security of people in your own community—on a smaller scale, if a parent doesn’t ensure the safety of her child, who will? Democratic systems of government are more effective than alternative systems largely because democratic leaders are responsive to the security demands of their constituents. But in an anarchic international state system, where you have extreme imbalances of power and wealth, these localized democratic mechanisms to ensure group protection have massive externalities which negate the underlying moral justification. You can’t kill thousands of “them” to save dozens of “us” (or none of "us" at all, as it turns out in Iraq) and claim to be acting according to any sort of morally defensible set of rules.

In the case of the US invasion of Iraq, you had a very powerful community using force ostensibly to protect itself, but with very little accountability to anyone outside of that community, and virtually no accountability to the community being invaded. So you had the secondary justification, largely post hoc, that what we were doing was “for their own good.” This was never more than window dressing, and even now, as other justifications for the war have faded away, it is still not the case that we are acting in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqis in any meaningful way. This is because our elected leaders are in no way accountable to the Iraqis, and whatever sense of obligation the American public feels toward the Iraqi people, it is nowhere near strong enough to actually cause American leaders to act on behalf of the Iraqis. Once the argument that our actions in Iraq are improving the security of the American public is finally disposed of, we will desert the Iraqis to their fate with surprising speed. The invasion and its consequences have killed hundreds of thousands—we quibble about exactly how many, but have so little invested in finding the truth that the discussion quickly fades from memory. Much more attention is focused in the US national conversation on the number of US dead—a precise tally of which is monitored daily—which by comparison is minute. How many Iraqis have died? How many more will die? Why did they die? Was it really necessary?

We. Just. Don’t. Care.

That’s what makes this “stabbed in the back” pushback vaguely silly. Who "lost" Iraq? Who "lost" Vietnam? The fact that those questions are seriously entertained shows that the national security debate is taking place on warped and twisted ground. We’ve learned very little since the Vietnam War, and the nature of the national conversation on Iraq makes me think it’s likely we’ll face this problem again before too long.

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