Another view of the war

by Russ Roberts on October 6, 2005

in Terrorism

In a recent post, my co-host Don explained his reasons for opposing the war in Iraq.  I disagree with his reasoning but accept part of his conclusion.  First the disagreement.

I don’t understand how the failure to find weapons of mass destruction makes the war unjustified.  It’s not like Bush made up the idea of WMD.  Saddam Hussein is the guy you ought to be mad at.  Saddam Hussein acted as if he had or was working on nuclear capability.  He’s the guy who employed nuclear scientists.  He’s the guy who convinced the UN that he wanted nukes.  He’s the guy who resisted weapons inspections.  He’s the guy who said you can look over here but not over there.  Why did he do all these things?  Either because he actually had nuclear capability or was close to it, or because he wanted to fool people into thinking he was more important than he was.  He managed to fool Bill Clinton, the United Nations, George Bush and Israel into thinking he had a desire for WMD.  It appears now to have been something of a ruse.  Probably.  Should Bush have ignored the behavior of Saddam on the grounds that the whole thing was probably a hoax to enhance his self-image? I don’t think so.  That certainly turned out to be a mistake with Osama.  His talk wasn’t cheap.

Second issue is whether the use of US military power makes us hated.  It certainly makes us hated by other leaders who as a result of US influence have less influence.  But what about the man and woman in the street?  Does the average Syrian hate the United States for weakening the power of the Syrian government because of an apparent willingness on the part of the US Army to throw its weight around?  Does the average Iraqi hate us?  Does the average Libyan?  Does the average Egyptian?  (I know, I know, it wasn’t much of an election, but is it all window-dressing?)  I have written previously that it is very hard to answer those questions in nations run by thugs.  In a thugocracy, truth-telling is rare.  People dissemble, play to the cameras and say what they think will protect them from the thugs with the guns.

Wouldn’t anyone resent a big bully who always throws his weight around?  Sure, if he’s a bully.  And the US military has done some nasty things, some intended, some unintended.  But the mere fact that it’s big and aggressive isn’t enough for people to hate us.  We have to do bad things.  A lot of times, people are glad when the US army shows up.   They’re glad in New Orleans.  They were glad in Paris in 1945.  Are they glad in  Baghdad?  I have no idea.  Let me say that again.  I have no idea.  And neither does anyone else who lives here and watches the nightly news and reads the papers. There just isn’t enough information.  The fact that people are willing to die to kill their fellow Iraqis and sometimes some Americans tells me a lot more about those people than it does about the masses who are at risk from those attacks.  That millions of people waited in line to vote under risk of death tells me something about how the masses feel.  (And btw, I share Don’s disdain for Americans who romanticize voting over more important rights we have.)

Finally, Saddam wasn’t linked to 9-11.  Let’s accept that as true.  But I think he would have liked to have been part of it if he could have kept his fingerprints from showing.  He would have liked to have bankrolled the next attack.  We know he paid Palestinian families if their kids killed Israelis.  What would he pay to get someone to kill Americans?  In that world, what should we do?  That is the world we live in, unless you want to trust that all of his anti-American talk was just talk.  The biggest threat facing the United States right now isn’t another 9-11.  It’s something worse, something more destructive, more technologically sophisticated that would requires the resources of a nation state but that could be executed without the fingerprints of a nation state.   How much effort should the US expend to convince nation states that we frown on efforts to create such devices?  I don’t know the answer to that.  But I think we ought to be aggressive in preventing such attacks, just like we should have been more aggressive in preventing 9-11.  I think it is a very good thing for the people of the United States that the thugs of the world are afraid of us.

The tough question for me is how afraid we want them to be.  Deposing all of the world’s thugs and creating democracies isn’t a strategy.  Even trying to do it ONCE as we are trying to do in Iraq, is probably too much–too expensive (in lives and money) and unlikely to succeed.  Too expensive and too many unintended consequences.  This is where Don and I agree.  There’s no reason to think we’re very good at creating democracy.  I agree with Don that the underlying conditions haven’t changed.  The biggest one is the mischief caused by all that oil controlled by a central authority.  Then you can throw in a few ethnic and religious disagreements  Add a lack of respect for the power of republican government (the value of a Constitution) and stir.  You get a big mess. 

Can anything good come of it?  I doubt it.  I’d spend some money to give it a shot if I thought the money might help even a little.  But American lives?  Doesn’t seem worth it to me at this point.  Right now, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like we should have deposed one thug, destroyed his palaces and then gone home.  That would have sent the right signal to the rest of the world that thugs who give evidence of building a nuclear arsenal combined with anti-American rhetoric get punished.  But this democracy thing almost certainly exceeds our grasp.  But could we really have killed or deposed Saddam and walked away?  Hard to imagine.

I also worry about hubris which is another of Don’s themes.  I don’t think the US military ought to go around trying to save the world because our heart’s in the right place.   It’s not a meaningful model given how governments and armies behave in practice.  And Don’s right that lies get told and people let other people die because it’s hard to admit you were wrong.  All of that stuff sickens me, too.

So what’s a classical liberal to do?  Get rid of all foreign aid.  Stop pretending the UN is a force for good.  Open our borders to trade unilaterally and encourage other nations to do the same.  That’s easy.  But what do you do to protect Americans from terrorism?  That is not so easy.

One answer is to cut our military spending by 80%, bring all troops home and announce to the world that we have no military or foreign policy ambitions.  If we withdrew from the world, militarily, would the world leave us alone?  I don’t know.

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