A Neocon Has The Prerogative To Change His Mind

Francis Fukuyama defends himself against his critics over his stance on the war in Iraq. While I disagree with Mr. Fukuyama that the war was a mistake, he doesn’t spare much criticism of the anti-war side either:

In my view, no one should be required to apologize for having supported intervention in Iraq before the war. There were important competing moral goods on both sides of the argument, something that many on the left still refuse to recognize. The U.N. in 1999 declared that all nations have a positive “duty to protect, promote and implement” human rights, arguing in effect that the world’s powerful countries are complicit in human rights abuses if they don’t use their power to correct injustices. The debate over the war shouldn’t have been whether it was morally right to topple Hussein (which it clearly was), but whether it was prudent to do so given the possible costs and potential consequences of intervention and whether it was legitimate for the U.S. to invade in the unilateral way that it did.

Here’s where I have problems with Fukuyama’s argument: he argues that the United States invaded Iraq on a unilateral basis. First of all, that is simply untrue. Over 30 nations provided troops, logistical support, or other forms of aid in the toppling of the Hussein regime. We also know that the nations most opposed to war in Iraq – France, Russia, and China – were all deeply involved in illicit business transactions with the Hussein regime, including the sales of banned arms and military technologies. The UN itself was heavily involved in illegal skirting of sanctions and bribery being paid to high-ranking UN officials like Benon Savon. The entire system had every reason of self-interest to prevent the removal of the Hussein regime.

Fukuyama agrees that the removal of the Hussein regime was a moral position to take. Does he honestly believe that the UN would act as a fair and impartial arbiter given their complicity with the Hussein regime? Does he think that the “multilateral” route would have done anything to ameliorate the horrendous conditions in Iraq? It is quite clear that the “multilateral” approach of working within the narrow framework of international institutions like the UN is toothless and ineffective – and the lack of progress in stopping Iran’s nuclear program is further proof of just how toothless those institutions have become.

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair did not have to go back to get a second resolution in the Security Council. They did anyway, and Dominique de Villepin vetoed it before even the Iraqis could. Fukuyama’s belief in the value of multilaterialism simply doesn’t match with the realities of the international system. Fukuyama may have an argument as to the costs versus the benefits of military action against the Hussein regime, which I’ll address later.

Fukuyama then argues:

The Iraq Survey Group and the U.S. military have released hundreds of pages of documents on Iraq’s prewar WMD programs showing that, at times, Hussein believed he possessed biological weapons that didn’t exist and that, at other times, he led his most senior commanders to believe he had WMD capabilities that he knew were entirely fictitious. His government was so corrupt, incompetent and compartmentalized that it is far from certain that he would have succeeded in building a a nuclear program even if sanctions had been lifted. Nor is it clear that a breakdown of the sanctions regime was inevitable, given an energized United States and the very different political climate that existed after 9/11.

Except there’s a lot of wishful thinking there again. All one has to do is again look at the situation in Iran – would Dr. Fukuyama argue that a multilateral approach to stopping Iraq’s WMD programs would be any more effective than they are with Iran? The only thing that Saddam Hussein truly feared was American action. International pressure had already proven to be utterly impotent towards him, and especially when he had three members of the Security Council in his back pocket, what did he truly have to fear from the feckless IAEA and Mohamamd al-Baradei?

Furthermore, that is another retrospective argument. The true state of Saddam’s government was unknown to US policymakers at the time, and the operative assessment wasn’t that he might restart his WMD program at some point, it was that he already had WMDs and the motives to use them. Those assumptions may have been wrong, but even Dr. Fukuyama argues that they were hardly unwarranted at the time:

(I know that many on the left believe that the prewar estimates about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were all a deliberate fraud by the Bush administration, but if so, it was one in which the U.N. weapons inspectors and French intelligence were also complicit.)

Fukuyama can’t argue based on 20/20 hindsight. Our policymakers had to make their decisions based on the information they had at the time, which was sketchy and incomplete. No smart policymaker would make a decision that gave significant benefit of the doubt to a madman like Saddam Hussein. Assuming that Saddam couldn’t pose a threat was not a safe assumption to make in the lack of any concrete and confirmable evidence of full disarmament. Even Dr. Blix said that Iraq was not fully cooperating with the UN inspectors and had not complied with the mandates of UN Resolution 1441.

Furthermore, in order for a threat to be credible, it couldn’t be open-ended. Saddam only complied when it was clear that the US had sufficient forces in the region to destroy his regime on a moment’s notice. That troop buildup couldn’t be sustained forever, and if we had started withdrawing troops it would have signaled to the Hussein regime that it was just business as usual – another impotent threat that could be safely ignored. We had to give Saddam a clear timeframe for compliance elsewise no progress would have been made at all.

Fukuyama’s strongest argument is that ultimately the invasion of Iraq wasn’t really in our interests – that Saddam was contained and posed no threat to the US or its interests. However, that case is also nowhere near as strong as Dr. Fukuyama would like to believe. We know beyond a doubt that Saddam Hussein was sponsoring terrorism, and there’s intriguing new evidence that the target of those terrorists were US interests. Again, Fukuyama’s argument also rests on knowledge we did not possess in 2002 – mainly that Saddam may not have had the WMD stores identifed by UNSCOM in 1998 by 2002.

This argument also ignores the question of what would happen had the Hussein regime fallen organically – or had Saddam been deposed by one of his even more bloody-minded sons. What would have been the regional reprecussions of such an event? Iraq would have been likely to have become a complex humanitarian disaster, Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish interests would all have been harmed by the collapse of Iraq into tribal states, and the conflict could have easily spilled over into neighboring countries and provoked a regional conflagration the likes of which we have not seen in decades. Allowing that to happen would not have been in our national interests by any stretch of the imagination.

There is little doubt that Fukuyama is not disingenous in his opinions, and he’s hardly a member of the Bush-deranged left. His views of the situation are considered ones, which puts him well above most critics of the war – and even he acknowledges the intellectually vacous nature of many anti-war arguments.

At the same time, the decision to remove the Hussein regime was made based on the knowledge we had in 2002, not what we know today. Our intelligence was not nearly as accurate as we believed it to be – which is part of the nature of intelligence. Fukuyama is right that the moral case for removing the Hussein regime was a strong one – he is also right in criticizing the Bush Administration for not making that case more clearly and more strongly. Could the US have shamed the Security Council into action by highlighting the human rights abuses in Iraq? It may have helpled, but then again, the UN also stood by in the face of the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Our choice came down to either taking out Saddam using an ad hoc coalition of nations, or hoping that the doctrine of containment would work and that Iraq wouldn’t give WMD materials to terrorists. Given those choices, our decision to invade Iraq was justified by the information on hand. Had we known what we know today, that decision-making process may have been radically different – but so would our knowledge of how complicit the UN really was in supporting the Hussein regime’s bloodshed.

Fukuyama ends with a very salient point about the state of politics in American today:

Many people have noted the ever-increasing polarization of American politics, reflected in news channels and talk shows that cater to narrowly ideological audiences, and in a House of Representatives that has redistricted itself into homogeneous constituencies in which few members have to appeal to voters with diverse opinions. This polarization has been vastly amplified by Iraq: Much of the left now considers the war not a tragic policy mistake but a deliberate criminal conspiracy, and the right attacks the patriotism of those who question the war.

This kind of polarization affects a range of other complex issues as well: You can’t be a good Republican if you think there may be something to global warming, or a good Democrat if you support school choice or private Social Security accounts. Political debate has become a spectator sport in which people root for their team and cheer when it scores points, without asking whether they chose the right side. Instead of trying to defend sharply polarized positions taken more than three years ago, it would be far better if people could actually take aboard new information and think about how their earlier commitments, honestly undertaken, actually jibe with reality — even if this does on occasion require changing your mind.

While Fukuyama is right to decry the often mindless partisanship present on both sides, the fact is that if one takes in new information, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that he argues for. We can’t turn back the clock to 2002 and change our minds then. We acted based on the information we had, not the information we have now. Our choice then was the right one, and I still believe it to have been the right choice even now.

We know that Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant, that he was sponsoring terrorism, and that Iraq was a powderkeg waiting to go off. Three years out, is the world better without Saddam Hussein in power? Better without the A.Q. Khan network proliferating nuclear technologies throughout the globe? Would the push for democracy in places like Kuwait and Lebanon exist without the fall of that terrible regime? It’s hard to argue that any of those things would have happened organically on their own.

Petty politics has obscured most people from making a rational calculus on this war – even public intellectuals are not immune to the simplistic sloganeering that has replaced rationality in our public discourse. However, the judgement of history will outlive us all, and that judgement will be made on a totally different basis free of the temporal concerns of today’s politics. In the end, I believe that history will judge our actions – and that history will be written by the free people of a Middle East that is no longer a haven for autocracy and fanaticism. The only way to win this war is to change the conditions which spawn terrorism, and we cannot do that by relying on impotent international institutions as Fukuyama would have us do.

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