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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

remember, remember

It has been a long time since I bothered with Norman Geras’ blog, or others in the supposedly left pro-war camp. But I did go to the Geras blog tonight, and found a reply to Madeleine Bunting’s op ed in the Guardian. Bunting's article is a j'accuse, directed against the pro-war intellectuals -- the belligeranti.

Geras’ reply comes in several parts. Here are three of the Iraq parts:

“Ingredient 4 This one concerns the distribution of blame. It's totally forthright, but only in one direction: '[T]he most catastrophic blunder in half a century of British and American foreign policy. Ill-conceived and spectacularly badly implemented...'; 'the politicians who made the decisions, who lied, and ignored and manipulated expert opinion are still in power and still uttering the same meaningless platitudes.' As for the daily carnage being perpetrated by political forces actively opposed to any democratic process and bound by none of the recognized moral constraints in their choice of methods and targets, here Bunting is coyly indirect. It's just 'blood and brutality' and 'nightmare scenarios', and even then it's because (borrowing the words of Zalmay Khalilzad) 'we have opened a Pandora's box'. But even if 'we' are to blame, in Bunting's judgement, for having done that, why does she have no word of blame to direct at anyone else, as if there were no other forces - former Baathists, just for example, jihadis - determining where Iraq is headed? The anger is all reserved for 'the politicians who made the decisions' and so forth - as if there were just one culpable party.

Ingredient 5 Is there any positive side to what has happened in Iraq? Is Bunting pleased at least for the Kurds? Who knows? She offers no word to enlighten you. Is it at all material, as far as she's concerned, that despite everything 'Iraqis have continued to say by decisive margins that, on balance, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was still worth it'. Given Bunting's way of drawing up a balance sheet on Afghanistan, one shouldn't expect her to say anything about this when it comes to Iraq, and she doesn't.

Ingredient 6 And that brings us to the heart of things here - the heart of things being that Bunting doesn't allow that the differences over the Iraq war were a matter of judgement, in which not all the considerations pointed in the same direction. The only look-in this gets from her is this: 'One can understand the eagerness to topple Saddam might have blinded some into backing a recklessly foolish war.' You see, it 'blinded' us. It couldn't have been, could it, that for people of left and liberal outlook this was a genuine and extremely powerful consideration - to terminate the rule of a genocidal tyrant, to close down the torture chambers and the murderous processes feeding the mass graves? Writing as if there was only ever one arguable or legitimate side of the story, as if the future was from the start completely transparent, and as if there were no human costs in not going to war against Saddam, is a piece of the purest demagogy, if it isn't (as it usually isn't in such things) outright dishonesty. In this latest piece of hers, Madeleine Bunting speaks for all those in the anti-war camp who have simply silenced the 'other' considerations, disallowing that they carried any weight. They have been, unfortunately, many. There were ways of opposing the war, ways that did not indulge in this silencing, this disallowing, and these can and should be respected. The Bunting-style concoction is something else.”

This is the kind of intellectual sleight of hand that we can expect from the belligeranti as the death spiral plays itself out -- the irrelevance of American power, the unpredictable direction of Iraqi violence, the shedding of all credibility by the Coalition. In essence, the belligeranti re-writing of history will make everything depend on the moral rightness of wanting to “terminate the rule of a genocidal tyrant, to close down the torture chambers and the murderous processes feeding the mass graves.”

Unfortunately for this argument, it makes no sense. America and Britain could as well have invaded Indonesia in 1990 – after all, Suharto murdered easily 500-800 thousand Indonesians in 1966 and 1967, and if I wished to divide those by the years, I could easily come up with a per year figure of deaths. But the latter would be a lie, just as Geras' remark about Saddam Hussein is a lie. There is no evidence that Saddam Hussein was feeding the mass graves in 2003. To have smashed him in 1991 would, indeed, have prevented that – but not to have smashed him then casts as much doubt on the moral dimension of the invasion as would be cast if we invaded Serbia today for having invaded Bosnia in 1992.

That Geras clings, still, to the idea that 2003 was 1991, and that invasion was the only way to stop the ‘feeding of the mass graves” is merely the usual farce. But I’d like to concentrate on Ingredient 4, since one of the things that will slip by in the coming battle of recriminations is how much the pro-war party did, actively, to worsen the situation once Iraq was invaded. The mistakes here came fast and thick, and are indicative of the stew of intellectual corruption in which these characters are steeped. A small bill of particulars would go like this:

1. The de-legitimation of secular democracy. The first and most lasting damage done to post Saddam Iraq by the neo-cons and the war supporters happened indirectly. Even as Iraq was being invaded, the Pentagon flew a known swindler, Ahmed Chalabi, with the nucleus of a paramilitary (the first of so many) to Iraq. Not one war supporter I know of blanched. None protested that putting the face of a criminal on the American supported Iraqi force was a tremendous mistake, and would wound any attempt to create a democratic faction in Iraq. Imagine, if you will, gathering a party to support feminism and putting a former rapist at the head of it. Imagine appointing Ken Lay the head of the SEC. Imagine appointing George Bush to some commission to repair New Orleans. In all of those situations, the grotesque disparity between the record of the person so appointed and the ostensible purpose of the organizations to which they were appointed would have immediately created an outcry. Chalabi, the first of a number of sinister American clients in Iraq (Allawi having, perhaps, an even worse record), was placed in Iraq as though it were the most normal thing in the world. This should reveal, pretty much, the massive bad faith of the pro-war side’s ostensive and gaudy “concern for the Iraqi people.” It was the typical colonialist gambit of finding a criminal for a dark skinned, conquered population that can keep enough order to allow looting to proceed in a peaceable manner.

2. The next opportunity for the pro-war crowd to actually make a difference was in the first couple months of the occupation. Those months planted the terrible seeds of what has come after. The refusal to consider immediate Iraqization of the government; the appointment of sub-competent Americans to positions of authority in Iraq; the attempt to redo the Iraqi economy to the benefit of the U.S.; the disbanding of the army; the laissez faire attitude to looting. At no point did the pro-war people flinch. Even when the policy was clearly insane – the disbanding of the army was, obviously, insane, and LI wrote about it as early as May 30, 2003, to say so – the pro-war people never raised a single peep. Of course, what we wrote then was not the CW it is now, but it was pretty easy to guess. But of course, that isn't all. When Halliburton came on the scene like a devouring locust, Christopher Hitchens wrote a column praising the company. For some reason, he didn’t write a column recently, about the Pentagon overruling their auditors and allowing Halliburton to collect 200 million dollars in gouged profits. Surely he should have. The whole attitude of the pro-war party was either smug or organizing themselves in absolute lockstep behind the Bush plan.
3. As the occupation got under way in earnest, and it was evident that an insurgency was taking place, the pro-war people did their best to lie about this. It took months for them to unglue themselves enough from following every jot and tittle of the pronunciamentos issuing from the Bush white house to even notice that something might have gone a teensy bit wrong. Instead of operating, then, in terms of their supposed love for erecting a ‘liberty loving’ Iraq – which would clearly require internationalizing both the coalition force and the governing structure, kicking out Bremer, and speeding up the transition to an all Iraq government – they continued the childish and stupid project of spitting at the French – what they were hired for in the first place, I suppose. This was probably the last chance to transition from the occupation into an Iraq that could have connected with the strong traditions of its pre-Saddam past. However, this was certainly not in the interests of the Americans, who were determined to knock down one of those traditions – Iraq’s seminal role in nationalizing oil and starting OPEC – and so this never happened.

4. After that, of course, the crimes come thick and fast – the air strikes, the massacres of crowds, the outlawing of Sadr, the attacks in Najaf, and the crowning war crime of sacking Falluja, all celebrated by a crowd that now had wandered so far from supporting anything but colonial oppression in Iraq that they had simply become a joke. A joke whose main indignation was directed at George Galloway. The disgusting left in pursuit of the irrelevant left.

5. So, let us not forget what the pro-war group has wrought. And let’s not get caught up in pointless conversations about the worth or non-worth of toppling Saddam Hussein, since regime change and occupation are two different issues -- one did not have to flow into the other, after all. That they did -- that it was obvious that the bogus D.C. warriors were going to invade to stay -- delegitimated the attack in the first place. But the questions should be separated, anyway, for maximum clarity. The question is the worth or non-worth of the occupation of Iraq, and the guilt, the indelible guilt of the pro-war intellecutals is built on that dark and bloody ground.

ps -- I exempt, from the above five points, Johann Hari -- one of the few belligeranti who actually consulted something other than his own moral superiority when writing about Iraq. While disagreeing with Hari's notion of feedback - especially the curious reverence in which he holds obviously flawed polls of the Iraqi people -- at least he has a notion of feedback, and it extends beyond what is being cleverly expressed on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or the latest Hitchens screed in Slate. LI understands the moral grounds that would move someone like Hari, or even Geras, to support an invasion to knock out Saddam Hussein. But a morality so doped up on its own righteousness that it mainly functions to produce a smokescreen of invective and sophism behiind which a gang of corporate hustlers and imperialists are trying to impose an unpopular order on an unwilling populace soon passes into immorality. Hari, to his credit, realized this early on.


Amerigo Sciurofascista said...

The phenomenon of cruise missile liberalism and "reluctant, yet decent" support for things to which one is ideologically wholly opposed can't have escaped Geras's attention. All good reds are raised on such tales. Contempt for intellectual scabs is stronger than for people who cross picket lines. Is this some way of angling for a gig as a media personality? There's a limited market for that and the competition is pretty fierce. He could wind up mud-wrestling with Hitchens or commenting on the Long Island Lolita scandal.

roger said...

To tell you the truth, Mr. Scruggs, there is a pottering around, planting flowers in the garden note to Geras' personality that makes one want to pull punches -- he isn't an obnoxious imposition on the landscape, like Hitchens or Nick Cohen, but a befuddled old guy whose impulses are decent, but whose logic is enfeebled. However, his post is such a good example of bad reasoning that I had to hang this post on it.

Amerigo Sciurofascista said...

Be careful around those feeble, pottering duffers, Roger. It's a schtick. One of them will slash you with a pruning hook while grumbling about the sorry state of his mulch. You're safer around the louts who vomit on their own shoes and then look at you accusingly.

roger said...

Ah, Mr. Scruggs, some commentator long ago gave me the Mr. Crankypants award -- but I can see you are competing for it! Trampling on the toes of those white haired guys with the rose clippers -- next you are going to challenge me to say bad things about the sacred Rebeless-in-Chief herself.

Although I believe Geras wrote some excitable stuff in some strange venues and does like to tut loudly over his Guardian, he is not, I think, a talking head, emitting that soul destroying baloney that has done so much to make the last six years unbearable -- yes, we are drowning in old cold cuts, man.

Paul craddick said...


I don't know Norm personally - but I enjoy an occasional, cordial correspondence with him. I definitely respect him as a thinker, whatever our differences (which, I note, are not insignificant - for example, he calls himself a 'liberal Marxist').

You know that I consider you a friend, a valued interlocutor and worthy intellectual opponent ... but really, this piece of yours is a hatchet job.

The most surprising thing about your critique is its exemplification of the ignoratio elenchi fallacy. One of Norm's central points comes at the end of #4, which you duly quote and then proceed to ignore: "But even if 'we' are to blame, in Bunting's judgement, for having done that [opened a Pandora's box], why does she have no word of blame to direct at anyone else, as if there were no other forces - former Baathists, just for example, jihadis - determining where Iraq is headed? The anger is all reserved for 'the politicians who made the decisions' and so forth - as if there were just one culpable party."

But your laundry-list of alleged sins by Bush and Co. - according to which, in your view, the 'pro-war Left', as enabler, is similarly to blame - is a prime specimen of that one-sided criticism because of which Norm takes Bunting to task! Thus you don't explicitly address a fundamental question at-issue - the distribution of blame - and simply bulldoze on ahead w/ a supplement to Bunting's litany of woe. And the "colonial" jibe cuts both ways, I'm afraid; your patronizing solicitude for the noble savages in Iraq, for whom only the big, bad invaders can "spoil" democracy, would be merely funny, were it not a case of being hoisted by one's own petard.

The fallacy of accent makes an appearance as well, when you take Norm to mean (or, logically, to have to mean) that literal "mass graves" (holes filled w/ bodies) were being enlarged, continually, through 2003. It's simply enough to say that Saddam, as a practitioner par excellance of state terrorism, bore a primary responsibility for the deaths of large numbers of his captive subjects, throughout his ugly reign. A prime example is his behavior vis-a-vis the oil-for-food program - enriching himself and his sycophants, while letting Iraqis die for want of food and medicine. Logically, it's simply enough for Norm to say something like the following. Saddam had a wanton disregard for those nominally under his care, having caused the deaths of over a million of them. The 1990's showed that nothing - and many expedients were tried - could get him to change his fundamentally murderous ways. When a decent nation was finally willing to force Saddam to give up the ghost, that was an action worth supporting - better late than never.

roger said...

Paul, I did as much hatcheting as I could.

Hey, Geras might well be a nice guy. But his list is bogus, and I wanted to say why it was bogus. Since I didn't think, actually, that Bunting presented a specific list of the amazing and terrible actions of the pro-war intellectuals, I laid it out myself.

That was my point, which I thought was pretty clear.

As to addressing the "shared blame" -- blame for what? The insurgents were to blame that they didn't cooperate in turning Iraq into Singapore? That is precisely the sort of mindset -- one that abstracts into unreal moral issues when it comes to practical issues, and then descends to practical issues when it comes to moral issues, that I was attacking. The moral superiority of the coalition side begins and ends with deposing Saddam H.

As for "my patronizing solicitude for the noble savages in Iraq" -- so far from being patronizing, I used the elementary methods by which we all get along in the world after we have passed through adolescence -- projecting certain commonalities of vision and bias on the other. One of those commonalities is that by and large, people don't like being led by criminals. And another is that association with criminals, or unpopular types, can defeat a cause. That is not only not patronizing, it is what is said about Americans -- how often have I read that the anti-war movement shouldn't associate with Michael Moore because he is unpopular. So what is your claim -- that the Iraqis didn't know the guy was whisked out of Jordan in a cartrunk, after the biggest financial crime in Jordan's history?

I think it is the end of your comment where the justifications fray. If we grant that Saddam H. was not filling the mass graves in 2003, then we do have a practical issue -- the timing of the intervention. One could be against the invasion and still hold it out as a possibility; one could be against the invasion, and still believe that a series of moves -- including, most notably, open collaboration with Iran from 2002 onward -- would have set the coordinates for overthrowing Saddam. But to pretend that there was only one moral case, or to speak in Geras' words as though it didn't matter when those graves were being filled -- that there was, in fact, no emergency situation - is frivolous, and it de-legitimated the moral case for the war from the beginning -- since it misrepresented the moral harm that would result from Saddam staying in place while a more effective and less costly method of squeezing him out were tried. This is just one of several ways in which the pro-war party also de-legitimated itself in the U.S. and Britain -- you don't start a "generational" conflict by keeping information from people that is bound to get out; you don't keep it going by telling lies about what is happening. There's a conservative bloggewr, Belgravia Dispatch, that actually has figured that out, and has a post on it today. I wonder, Paul, what you would think of it.

Now, I notice that you don't go through my bill of particulars at all. That is all right -- you have other things to argue about -- but just as I chose to ignore Geras' idea that there was any responsibility for such as Bunting, or myself, or any anti-war intellectual to address the insurgents -- our purpose was to, at first, internationalize the occupation, and after the first incredible months of the occupation went by, to work with might and main to withdraw -- so to (this is a long sentence!), you chose to ignore all of the items I produced. Since the pro-war crowd has been particularly incessant in how they are "supporting" the people of Iraq, I thought I'd list the sins of commission and ommission to show that, far from it, they were enablers of bad policy, of exploitation, and the putting in place of conditions that will probably lead to the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of Iraq in the next couple years, vide Basra.

And, of course, if I were to extend this, I would say that doing things like supporting the dissolution of the army in the way it was done did more to help the insurgency than any one move --so, yes, the pro-war people even, inadvertantly, helped the insurgency with their mindless inability to criticize a single jot of the occupying "plan."

So, anyway, that's what I'd say in defense of my hatchet job. And, seriously, I don't think you are so non-realpolitik that you believe the decent nation giving up Saddam should do it at the cost of all of its interests (not to speak of my doubts about its motives -- put lets grant the nobelest ones, for the nonce). If the principle is - a state should do the moral thing, regardless of the cost, Iraq has turned you into a Great Society guy -- and that is a plus. I'd be happy if that is your new idea about sate power, and who knows -- WWII revolutionized the GOP enough that they preserved the New Deal and added to it in the 50s. But I doubt that this war will have such benificent affects.

roger said...

Oops -- not decent nation giving up Saddam, but decent nation getting Saddam...