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That’s not the point

Ezra attempts to answer a question that President Bush recently posed:

Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?

The problem here is that this is the wrong question to be asked. It’s a meaningless question meant to distract us from looking at the implications of how we went about removing Saddam from power and what it has cost us in money, lives, missed opportunities, and international reputation.

Who can possibly think that I would be better off not buying and eating food? No one, of course. But if you were to learn that my entire food budget was spent on Cheetos and vodka, would you think that this was a good use of my resources? What if you found out that I was spending so much on food that I could no longer pay for my mortgage? That doesn’t sound very smart, either.

Let’s play what-if for a second. Suppose we could turn back the clock to before Bush’s speech in fron of the UN, before we really started to beat the drums about Iraq. Suppose at that time we made a deal that Saddam would immediately step down from power and disappear from the earth as his army was disbanded, and in return we’d withdraw $150 billion from our Treasury and burn it. In other words, we’d achieve the end of deposing Saddam, which as time goes on seems to be the only justification for this adventure, and all it would cost us is the money we wound up spending anyway. No soliders or Iraqi citizens killed, “Old Europe” is still our buddy, and the fate of Iraq is left up to the Iraqis themselves. Is this preferable to what actually happened?

If so, then we can begin to discuss the real questions, such as “Did we do the right thing in deposing Saddam the way we did? Was the cost of our actions – in blood, in money, in everything – worth the results that we gained? Were there other goals in our war against terrorism that we should have focused on first before we dealt with Saddam?” Those are questions that don’t have answers anywhere near as easy as the one our President would like to ask. But if Don Rumsfeld can ask some tough questions about whether or not we’ve been doing the right things, then so can the rest of us.

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18 Comments

  1. Greg Wythe says:

    You’re half-right … it’s a question designed to distract, or more accurately re-frame the issue. But it’s fair to the extent that there was never a serious proposal put forth by many on the left to rid the world of Hussein. So I might similarly point out two fallacies of your “what if.”

    1. Hussein in exile would not serve the aims of building a democratic base in Iraq. As long as people knew Hussein was alive, they would talk less openly, challenge the existing fascist organizations less openly, etc. So the exile theory does not accomplish the same thing.

    2. Be that as it may, where was the serious proposal to offer Hussein exile? I know it was mentioned (I believe) in passing by many in the White House. But was Joe Biden or Bob Graham ever seriously pushing this angle? Also worth pointing out that Bush made references to a “self-change” scenario (whereby Hussein reforms his rule of power) that boggled the mind. So the White House was all over the map … but where was the serious counter proposal?

    Questions of the policy and actions taken are certainly fair game, and I think we likely share many of the same concerns/questions/etc even though we might disagree with whether or not Hussein should have been forcibly removed.

    The central element that I believe Bush’s question cuts to is this, however: What would the left (or at least those in opposition) have done to rid Iraq of a fascist tyrant?

    There are many serious shortcomings for how Bush handled this, but like it or not, the alternative offered was to do nothing (unless you want to show what continued inspections and a leaky embargoe constitute action) and those who did argue for a “third way” and suggest better approaches to ridding the world of Hussein run into this problem from those on the left: If you still wanted to get rid of Hussein, you were just as bad as Bush. I reference you Joe Lieberman as a case in point. But the central irony here is that even for the left, the issue seems to have come down to whether or not they wanted to be rid of Hussein. So is it really inappopriate to have that charge turned back around on those who disagreed with the policy? I don’t think its entirely beside the point.

  2. alkali says:

    But if you were to learn that my entire food budget was spent on Cheetos and vodka …

    Party at Kuff’s! Whoo hoo!

  3. The central element that I believe Bush’s question cuts to is this, however: What would the left (or at least those in opposition) have done to rid Iraq of a fascist tyrant?

    To which I (not a spokesman for “the left” or anyone other than myself) would ask “What is the Bush Administration doing to rid Cuba, Libya, Syria, Kenya, Belarus, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc etc etc of their fascist tyrants?”

    I don’t mean to be snarky here, but I still have to ask why exactly removing Saddam Hussein from power was our top priority. Why were we even talking about him when the Taliban was regaining strength in Afghanistan and North Korea was announcing that it had nukes? Why is it wrong to have believed that Hussein could be dealt with later, after more pressing issues had been addressed? Even Ken Pollack was saying that Hussein didn’t need immediate attention, and he was saying that before the invasion.

    You are right in that many Democrats have overlooked defense issues, that they had no coherent message in response to the Bush push towards Baghdad, and that this cost them in 2002. That doesn’t mean that they should allow Bush to continue to frame the debate.

    The alternative of “doing nothing” doesn’t mean doing nothing forever. It means simply that you can’t do everything at once. I did not then and do not now believe that everything else needed to take a back seat to invading Iraq, and I do not accept that this is an unserious belief to hold.

    For the record, even with all that said, I could have been convinced that Iraq really did need to be Job One. I’m not the least bit surprised that Team Bush has screwed the pooch from Day One and in every imaginable way on this, but that’s neither here nor there. I agree with you that the Democratic Party has collectively failed to produce and voice a coherent alternate vision on Iraq, that it cost them last year and may cost them next year. Where we probably part ways is that I believe that “doing nothing” – for now – could have been a strong and viable message.

  4. Michael says:

    So, Bush is proposing that the ends justify the means?

    Do we hit Pyongyang, Rangoon, Damascus, or Tehran next? Where’s Beijing on the list? Havana? Tallahassee?

    I’m absolutely convinced that the world is better off without Saddam, but I do not accept that the outcome is sufficient justification for the act.

    This seems like one of the philosophical questions about the death penalty. If the state makes a case that a criminal should be condemned, convinces the jury and appeals courts and puts him to death and it later turns out that the evidence for the crime doesn’t exist, is it valid to say “well, he was a wrongdoer, and we have plenty of evidence of that. He deserved to die and we got ’em, it doesn’t matter how”? I say no. The prosecution cannot say “close enough” afterwards.

    I expect my government not only to do the right thing, but to do it for the right reasons and as part of a regular course of open deliberation on the best choices.

  5. Charles M says:

    Greg asks:
    What would the left (or at least those in opposition) have done to rid Iraq of a fascist tyrant?

    First, Iraq was a socialist state, not fascist. But that’s just quibling.

    More fundamentally, why should the left have to do anything to rid Iraq of Saddam? As Kuff eloquently says, we really had more interesting, more dangerous fish to fry.

    Consider the situation in the runup to the war. Given the total absence of any substantiated ties between Iraq and 9/11, given the administrations earlier statements (Condi and Powell) admitting to the relative impotence of Iraq, given the unstable – and deteriorating – situation in Afghanistan even then, given the knowledge the administration had of the DPRK nuclear program even then, I have to ask how Iraq even came up in passing.

  6. “What is the Bush Administration doing to rid Cuba, Libya, Syria, Kenya, Belarus, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc etc etc of their fascist tyrants?”

    You say that like they’re not doing anything. 🙂

    Let’s take it as read that, as compassionate human beings, we’d all prefer it if no country was ruled by a tyrant. However, some tyrants terrorize only their own people, while some wish to spread that terror to their neighbors or the world at large (or specific parts of it — i.e., us). It is a positive American interest that Kim Jong-Il no longer rule North Korea. In terms of our security interests, we’re probably neutral on whether or not Alyaksandr Lukashenka remains in control of Belarus. Our small-l liberal and small-d democratic impulses make us want him out, but the imperative for us to take him out is much, MUCH, lower.

    In the subset of those countries where we have a positive security interest in seeing these guys out of power, we’re working diplomatically or behind-the-scenes (remember what we did for 12+ years against Hussein before going in guns blazing?) against them.

    So, the individual cases you mentioned —

    Cuba: Bush taking harder line on travel to Cuba
    Libya: Qadaffi’s being nicer to us lately. Wonder why?
    Syria: Bashar Assad’s quaking in his boots. Also, he’s ended the Baath party’s one-party rule.
    Kenya: new President elected Dec 2002, ended Moi’s 24-year reign.
    Pakistan: Musharraf has been more-or-less helpful to us. Realpolitik, don’t you know.
    North Korea: We’re putting pressure on them through the Chinese, since the Chinese are the only ones with leverage at this point. This has to be done quietly or the Chinese won’t go along (They don’t want to be “Bush lapdogs”).
    Saudi Arabia: Sigh. There’s hope there, but serious pressure will probably have to wait until Iraq is stabilized more.

  7. In the subset of those countries where we have a positive security interest in seeing these guys out of power, we’re working diplomatically or behind-the-scenes (remember what we did for 12+ years against Hussein before going in guns blazing?) against them.

    Fair enough, but Cuba’s been a security threat for 40+ years, North Korea for 50, and Libya since at least the Reagan Administration. So again, why did we need to invade Iraq but could continue “diplomatic action” on these guys? Yes, if the “intelligence” that was touted about Iraq had in fact been true, then there would have been a much stronger rationale for invasion, but again, we knew that North Korea had nukes before we invaded Iraq. Why was Iraq the higher priority?

    That’s been my question all along. Why Iraq now, and why Iraq first?

  8. Well, I think you hit on a good point about the quality of the intelligence Bush was getting. Based on what we had, you’d have to evaluate that Iraq was either the biggest or 2nd biggest (after NK) imnmediate threat to us, once the Taliban was defeated and Al Qaeda was on the run. Iran is also up there on the threat list, hence the reason he named those 3 as the primary AoE members.

    Each of these nations is subject to different pressures. We’d already been fighting Iraq for over a decade — it was time to finish the job (though we did give SH a last chance to surrender).

    In Iran, the mullahs are not in complete control, however much they’d like to be. There is a significant undercurrent, especially among the student population, for a democratic revolution. We need to support this in any way we can, else see Tianenmen.

    North Korea is the diciest to handle — the leaders are hanging on by a thread due to not being able to feed their entire population. As long as the army keeps getting fed, they’re OK, but that can’t last forever, especially if China were to cut off food and oil. According to our current intelligence estimates, which may of course be wrong, NK already has 1-2 nuclear bombs. Thus, we (or our SK/Japanese allies) are subject to nuclear blackmail. We cannot attack NK without being prepared to sacrifice millions. That’s not something we’re prepared to do at this point. That’s why we’re trying to get China to put the pressure on NK — China is NK’s (and Kim’s) lifeline right now.

    In summary, Iraq was the highest country on our “shit list” that we could do something about militarily.

  9. Michael says:

    Iraq was the highest country on our “shit list” that we could do something about militarily.

    Doug,

    Practically, I agree. However some state is always in this position on that list and I do not believe that we should be constantly at war. If that’s the sum total causus bellum, then no matter how good the outcome, it’s still unjustified war.

  10. Charles M says:

    Using the “quality of the intelligence Bush was getting” to dismiss the questions which have arisen over the decision to target Iraq is revisionist and verges on mendacity.

    The intelligence Bush was getting came primarily from the OSP which is not part of the formal (CIA/DIA/INR) intelligence structure. This rump organization cherry picked and relied heavily on Chalabli; in short, it engaged in faith based intelligence and was very, very wrong.

    Go read Hersh in The New Yorker. He says it a lot better than I could ever manage.

    Incidentally, Frum claims the axis was originally Iran/Iraq with the DPRK added to defuse the appearance of being anti-Arab. Some reason. They’ve got nukes but they’re on the list for PC reasons.

  11. Michael –
    Let us restrict the list to those countries which have expressed the desire to hurt us and have acquired or are seeking to acquire the means to do so (i.e., France isn’t on this particular shit list). With that stipulation, then I would say we do need to keep dealing with the countries on that list (militarily or otherwise) until the list is a null set.

    Charles M –
    The “questions” over whether to target Iraq have not “arisen” recently. They have been raised repeatedly by both sides since 9/11. The answers that Bush gave to these questions were based on the intelligence he was getting. You say the bad intelligence came from OSP; the Senate Intelligence Cmte. report about to come out looks like it will blame CIA.

    All presidents have to choose from conflicting intelligence reports. I don’t blame Pres. Bush for wanting to err on the side of action rather than caution after 9/11. We are at war, you know.

    All that said, while it is now seen that some specific intelligence about various sites in Iraq was faulty, that DOES NOT MEAN that Iraq did not have and was not pursuing WMDs. David Kay’s report shows that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It will take years to figure out the truth as to the extent of his WMD program. I’m prepared to be surprised either way — possibly it was all an elaborate ruse on Saddam’s part, or maybe he had secretly stockpiled a lot of really nasty stuff that we didn’t even suspect.

    Finally, as to Frum, he has said (sixth item) that the axis is not and was not intended to be limited to 2 or 3 nations. It is possible that originally the president was going to name just Iraq & Iran and was persuaded to add NK for some international flair; it’s also possible, as any good MOBster knows, that the “Rule of 3” is a very effective presentation device. Two’s not enough; four’s too many.

  12. Not Geniuses says:

    He’s Smarter Than Me

    Charles Kuffner has some great comments on my post making fun of Bush’s questions “Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?” I highly suggest everyone, particularly Kashei, reads them, he…

  13. jesse says:

    I don’t blame Pres. Bush for wanting to err on the side of action rather than caution after 9/11. We are at war, you know.

    Somehow, I wouldn’t think that the lesson of a massive intelligence and military failure caused in part by having the wrong focuses in terms of world affairs would be to potentially massively overcommit to something that may or may not be a real problem, thereby leaving you that much less prepared to deal with *real problems*.

    What you’re saying is essentially nonsensical – we need to take whatever action we can whenever we can, regardless of the consequences. You’ve taken Charles’ question, and instead of answering it, made the exact statement that he’s questioning.

    All that said, while it is now seen that some specific intelligence about various sites in Iraq was faulty, that DOES NOT MEAN that Iraq did not have and was not pursuing WMDs. David Kay’s report shows that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It will take years to figure out the truth as to the extent of his WMD program. I’m prepared to be surprised either way — possibly it was all an elaborate ruse on Saddam’s part, or maybe he had secretly stockpiled a lot of really nasty stuff that we didn’t even suspect.

    Actually, we’re starting to see reports that conclusively state Saddam could not have had, at the very least, a nuclear program. We’re also seeing a sea change in rhetoric from Kay himself, as well as the Bush team – we’re no longer looking for WMD, we’re looking for the intent to start or maintain programs eventually capable of producing WMD, which opens the search up the the point where vials of non-weaponized, legally obtained botulism are evidence of a terrorist plot to destroy the United States.

    If it is your position that the military overthrow of Iraq superceded all other issues in the world, fine – however, you still haven’t made that case to the rest of us.

  14. What you’re saying is essentially nonsensical – we need to take whatever action we can whenever we can, regardless of the consequences.

    I don’t think you’re stating my position quite correctly. 🙂

    We need to take whatever action we can, when we can, when we judge that it will further our goals.

    After the “massive intelligence failure” that led to 9/11 (I’m not sure what military failure you’re referring to, unless it’s not responding militarily to previous terrorist attacks), we find ourselves at war with what have been termed “Islamofascist” terrorists. That is, subscribers to a certain extreme brand of Islam that holds that all unbelievers must be converted or killed, and that all civilization outside of Islam must be destroyed.

    Our primary goals after 9/11 were:
    1) Strike back directly at the organization responsible for the attacks, and the state/government that was sheltering them — Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
    2) Through whatever means available, eliminate the support for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations given by states.

    Goal 1 was taken care of in short order. Goal 2 is still being worked on. Iraq was the easiest target of the terrorist-sponsoring states, since we already had control of its airspace and large military bases on its border. (Not to mention a state of war already existed.) Also, based on (at least some) of the intelligence we had, Iraq was probably the second-closest (after NK) to acquiring nuclear weapons, and already demonstrably had chemical weapons.

    A secondary goal that some would argue is the key to eventually winning the war is to reform Arab society. If possible, establish a functioning, secular, pluralist democracy in an Arab state. This goal has a much higher chance of success in Iraq than in Afghanistan — Iraq is already a mainly secular state and has a much more modern society than Afghanistan, which is still largely tribal in nature.

  15. Brandonimac says:

    Very interesting discussion.

    Doug, you make a great case — the best that can be made, in my opinion.

    I go back nevertheless to Charles’ challenge: even if we agree on the ultimate goal (dealing with terrorism), was the action taken (invading Iraq, especially in the manner chosen) the best way of achieving that goal?

    I can’t believe it was, in part because the cost (economic, military, and diplomatic) is proving to be inordinate while the benefit remains uncertain. I’m sure there was a better way, although I’m not entirely sure what it would have been.

    This points to another issue. I understand why someone would complain that those who disagreed with this war have the responsibility to suggest alternatives. The fact is, however, that only a very few people are ever in a position to know enough about geopolitics to construct significant alternatives.

    In metaphoric terms, the players in the administration are in the driver’s seat, and the rest of us are just backseat drivers.

    Now, what role should backseat drivers play? If they clearly see the better path to take, they should speak up. But what if they only see that the path the driver is following will lead to a bad end? Should they keep quiet unless they are sure that there is a better alternative?

    In most cases I don’t think so. I say leave it to the driver to come up with a better solution. And if the driver in question is continually unable to do so, well, I say get a new driver.

  16. And I guess this is where we have to agree to disagree. We’ll see if the country wants a new driver in just about 12 months.

    My guess is no — Bush has done a good enough job responding to terror that even a complete failure to find significant WMDs in Iraq over the next year won’t hurt him. Additionally, the economy is forecast to grow 5-7% over the next year, and jobs will probably start picking up in the first half of next year. (I know my company is hiring like gangbusters right now.)

  17. LonghairSteve says:

    Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with George Bush in control of 20% of the world’s oil supply? ENRON

  18. Not Geniuses says:

    He’s Smarter Than Me

    Charles Kuffner has some great comments on my post making fun of Bush’s questions “Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?” I highly suggest everyone, particularly Kashei, reads them, he…