Weighing the Pros and Cons of War, Rationally and Morally

Jeffrey Goldberg says that the arguments against invading Iraq made in Slate’s pages this week have been made by people “with limited experience in the Middle East” and adds that “their lack of experience causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Well, as someone who has spent only a week in the Middle East, I suppose I’m not really qualified to dispute this claim, but I’d nonetheless like to try.

Note the binary way in which Goldberg frames the question—”loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Of course, none of the people he claims have made this argument actually puts it so simplistically. They realize that Arab opinion isn’t monolithic. Obviously, America will be both loathed and respected for invading Iraq, and the question is who will loathe us and who will respect us.

What is the answer? Here’s my guess: Some of the people who loathe us as a result—or whose loathing is intensified as a result—are the kind of people who will work hard to kill lots of Americans. (Meanwhile, the people who respect us as a result are probably people who weren’t going to do us much harm anyway.)

The Persian Gulf War is instructive here. We kicked butt—and, lest anyone miss the point, we left troops in Saudi Arabia afterward. I’m sure lots of Arabs—maybe even a large majority—respected America as a result. But, if standard accounts are to be trusted, one Arab named Osama Bin Laden was so incensed by the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia that he went off the deep end and put the tormenting of America at the top of his agenda. As a result, 3,000 Americans died in New York a decade later. I assume that, before the Persian Gulf War, Goldberg would have assured the American public that the war would lead America to be “respected, rather than loathed.” We now know that this view would have been naive.

Of course, there’s one difference between the coming Iraq war and the previous Iraq war. Now there’s Al Jazeera, so a much larger number of Arabs will see video images of Muslim corpses than last time around. Does Goldberg think this will make us universally respected? Then how does he explain the appeal of Osama Bin Laden’s recruiting videos? They show image after image of Muslims suffering at the hands of Americans or Israelis—Iraqi babies that the narrator says are starving under American-backed sanctions, Israeli soldiers shoving Palestinian women, etc. Apparently not all displays of power breed universal respect. And increasingly, a few disrespectful men will be able to kill a whole lot of people.

That’s why I focus my concern not on Saddam Hussein—who I believe is thoroughly containable—but on his weapons of mass destruction, which could get into terrorist hands. (Although, as I argued earlier, it is highly unlikely that he would give such weapons to al-Qaida, a group that files him under “long-term enemy.” Goldberg asserts confidently but without elaboration—just like Donald Rumsfeld!—that Iraq has “harbored” al-Qaida fugitives, but that’s a long way from giving them a nuke. Besides, if you define “harbored” vaguely enough, lots of countries have harbored al-Qaida members.) The growing threat of weapons of mass destruction getting into terrorists’ hands is the reason I said eight months ago that I could support an Iraq war with a genuine purpose of getting at its weapons of mass destruction, whether by force or (ideally) by forcing it to accept weapons inspections. I said we should insist on a new round of inspections—”more robust and intrusive” than the first round—as the only alternative to war. The administration didn’t start insisting on such strengthened inspections until a few days ago—one of many signs that the essential purpose of Bush’s war is not to shore up the strength and stature of international weapons policing, but rather to effect “regime change.”

Goldberg succeeds in establishing that Saddam Hussein is the nastiest leader on the world stage today. Then again, there’s always someone who holds that title, but America hasn’t ever made that a sufficient cause for war—not even when the person is “by far” the nastiest on the stage. One reason is that American foreign policy has generally been in the hands of people who consider the consequences of their actions. Goldberg, in contrast, doesn’t even address the possible downside of war—except, obliquely, in his aforementioned assurance that war in the Middle East won’t breed any hatred.

I suspect Goldberg is proud of the absence of cost-benefit calculations from his analysis. His is a moral argument—he uses the words “moral” or “morality” five times in his post, with a dollop of “evil” thrown in for good measure. Of all the annoying undercurrents and overtones of the pro-war rhetoric, this is the one that annoys me the most: the suggestion that those of us who are clinically weighing all the possible downsides and upsides of war, rather than spending all our time marveling at how evil Saddam is, are being something other than moral. When I think about war in Iraq, I think about the long-term results in terms of human suffering and human fulfillment. I consider that a morally grounded framework. The fact that, within that framework, I try to be rational, rather than employ the Iraq hawks’ tone of pre-emptive outrage (a tone that is also used on the anti-war left), is not something I’m ashamed of. I agree that Saddam Hussein is a terrible man. The question is how you end his terror without creating lots more terror.

Speaking of trying to keep the Iraq debate rational: Goldberg says Saddam Hussein has “committed genocide.” My dictionary defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” Obviously Saddam hasn’t “committed genocide” in this strict sense of the term. Has he, like Hitler, so clearly tried to commit it as to put himself in a special moral and legal category? God only knows whether Saddam’s mass murder of Kurds was, in his mind, the first step toward ridding the world of Kurds, or was even the expression of deep-seated anti-Kurdism. I personally suspect it was just an act of political calculation by a man completely lacking in scruples, a man who would have been just as happy to kill members of any other ethnic group—or of a multiethnic enclave—if they had been the threat du jour. In any event, I would urge Goldberg to use language carefully when advocating an invasion that will lead to many deaths.

Finally, I’d like to compliment David Plotz. He says he favored war against Iraq long before he had found a rationale for it. I suspect there are millions of Americans in this boat, but David is the only one I know of who has admitted it. Now he has found a possible upside of war, and he hopes it will outweigh the downside. David, I hope you’re right. And I compliment you, also, on acknowledging that there’s a downside. America needs more Iraq hawks like you.

—Robert Wright writes “The Earthling” column for Slate.