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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Iraq -- the prisoner's dilemma

Crooked Timber pays entirely too much attention ot the ravings of Christopher Hitchens, if only to slag the man. However, a recent post on one of Hitchen's ineffably ignorant Slate columns regarding Iraq (a frequent subject of Hitchen's Slate columns, and proof that you can have a 100 percent failure rate in journalism and still find lucrative work, making it one of those soft industries, like filmmaking and politics, to whose compensation packages we can only aspire), provoking the usual comments pro and anti-war, once again made me think about the way the verb "support" has exerted an odd and malign hegemonic control over the discourse.

In reality, the Iraq war is a sort of prisoner's dilemma in which the rational response is to order one's preferences with reference to the chance of their being realized. "Support" of the war, and opposition to it, contains a disabling germ of confusion, since the vision of the victory that would end the war one way or another has never been clarified since the war started, and the meaning of that victory is impossible to predict. The more prudent course for the war opponent is to elaborate preferences according to the phase of the war.

For instance -- before the war, supporters of the war did their best to obscure the question of preferences. To revert to the prisoner dilemma model, it is as if they were all shouting for the prisoner in cell one to be silent, thus transforming a matter of probabilities and advantages into one of morality. Myself, I ranked my preferences between the coalition not invading at all -- most preferred -- and the American's invading unilaterally -- most disliked -- to range my realistic preferences around either delaying with the inspectors or forcing America to encumber itself with a real international coalition that could block its every move post invasion. On the question of deposing Saddam Hussein, I was all for that, in the absense of every other consideration. However, there were other considerations -- the failure of the Americans to stymie al qaeda, for instance. As to an overthrow that would minimize violence, maximize justice, and depose of Saddam, I didn't realistically see a way in the options on offer -- and certainly, of course, the larcenous Americans were a scary prospect.

Having the preference for a coalition helped me to see that the Bush strategy was to pretend to accede to coalition building while mounting such a campaign of threats and vituperation that any coalition partner would be powerless to stop what the Bushies had in mind. This happened. Nobody raised a finger to stop the Americans from attempting to elevate a convicted criminal to the leadership of Iraq, from dissolving the army, from guarding the oil ministry while the rest of the country was looted, from taking over the government of the country, from putting unpopular native patsies in governing bodies which Gunga Din himself would have had too much self esteem to have served on. Then there was the double plucking of Iraq. On the one hand, the taxpayers were plucked massively, as U.S. money poured into a consortium of the worst American corportations, War department leaches, GOP subsidiaries and the like. This was, of course, in the name of aiding Iraq. On the other hand, the Iraqis were plucked as their national treasury went into obscure gambits that ultimately benefited the same congery of corporate scoundrels.

At about the one year mark, then, my preferences were for world wide resistance to the Americans -- from the Iraqis, from the French, from the Iranians, etc. Again, however, just as wanting Saddam removed from power didn't entail "supporting" unilateral American action, supporting resistance to the Americans didn't mean "supporting" the insurgency.

All well and good, but do my "preferences" have an effect? Many people would say it is all bullshit. I think that is the real unrealism. Sitting in the Behemoth doesn't mean one is paralyzed. The promotion of the sense that American action in Iraq is wrong, unjust, and incompetently carried out was a minority view in May of 2003, but it has spread to achieve near majority status in the polls recently. How? Partly through harsh and unremitting attacks on the war by the left -- in blogs, in newspapers, whereever. There is a lot of curious anti-war worrying over the perception that the left is stabbing America in the back. To which I'd say: of course I'm stabbing America in the back! America, in this instance, is a giant dunderhead, and pricking the nerves is the only way to get his attention. Harshness and extremism have a tactical use. It frees people up by extending the range of their preferences. If people prefer to think America was well intentioned but misguided in this war, that is fine with me -- the misguiding that leads to withdrawal is the goal.

In terms of my preferences for Iraq --well, I do have them. In 2004, I was hopeful that perhaps some secularist middle would emerge -- neither pro-American nor theocratic terrorist. I didn't expect the liberal ideal, but I thought that it was possible that a coalition between Sistani Shi'ites and recovered Ba'athists might just be possible. It wasn't. If in fact a coalition had invaded Iraq, one strong enough to counter the Bush people, I think there would have been a chance for such a thing. But secularism is indelibly stained by the face put on it by the Americans -- the crook and the terrorist being the best patsies America could come up with. In the end, America shot itself in the foot -- without a strong secularist middle party, it was inevitable Iraq would drift into the Iranian orbit. The drift, which I think is inevitable, now has to be disguised in the American press. The press is very obediant to the idea that our withdrawal will be followed by a bloodbath, which ignores that our occupation is a bloodbath. It also ignores the fact that insurgencies in the Middle East are eventually put down with no help from the Yankees -- witness the Kurdish civil war in the nineties. No, below all of that is the suspicion that America's withdrawal will be the final stage in Iran's domination of the northern part of the Gulf. Personally, instead of fearing an American invasion of Iran, what we should be looking for are signals of American dickering with the final deal. That could well happen -- there is no allergy to private enterprise in Shi'ite theocracy. I imagine that the American death count -- and the Iraqi death count -- should be seen as a holding action while the Americans figure out how to deal with the unexpected result of their insane enterprise. Captain Ahab went down with the white whale, but we can always deal with the Whale and get the oil we need -- for a price.

We thought the U.S. should have been practicing detente with Iran since the mid nineties. Alas, it took thirty some thousand Iraqi dead and who knows how many Americans before it is all through to put us on this sensible course.

1 comment:

steve said...

Just read your comments over at Cooper's blog comments. Excellent and sharp critique of the role Hitchens has played in the prowar marketing campaign.

Steve Philion