Monday, February 21, 2005

Where Are We Now?

Recent events, especially the elections in Iraq and the nascent signs of hope for a possible resolution of the conflicts plaguing that country they have provided, have forced some interesting questions to the fore as well as provided for a distillation of the issues attendant to a discussion of the merits of the invasion. Now, the bottom line is, since the possibility seems to be at least credible: If Iraq emerges as a stable, functioning democracy, was it worth it?

Under that hypothetical reality, there are still many pertinent arguments against the campaign, but it would be difficult to mount one based on human rights. How could one say that the Iraqi people would not be better off in a new democratic Iraq than under the truly vile Hussein regime. Of course, if Iraq descends into a protracted bloody civil war, or sets off a broader regional conflict, those human rights arguments would be resuscitated, but let's table them for now and consider the issues under a best case scenario rubric (perhaps a dangerous game to play considering the current administration's penchant for doing only this). I will also not be considering the WMD arguments and the al-Qaeda connections since both have proven to be illusory, and for the most part, were dubious and exaggerated prior to the invasion as well (especially the links to al-Qaeda argument and the suggestion of an
Iraqi nuclear program - the existence of which the US State Department, the UN, and most foreign intelligence agencies doubted strongly).

So, under the theoretical "New Iraq" the Iraqi people, particularly the Shiites and Kurds (and those Sunni who were outside the favor of the Hussein regime), will see their lives improve significantly. That, as I said, is difficult to dispute. But would this be worth it to the United States? If this is where the story ends, I think it would be hard to justify purely in its own right, as callous as that may sound. At a time when the federal government is cash strapped, at a moment in history when we need to be dedicating enormous amounts of suddenly scarce resources to defensive and offensive measures against al-Qaeda and other trans-national terrorist organizations, we are out approximately $300 billion and counting due to the campaign in Iraq, as well as the loss of valuable intelligence and other human and organizational assets diverted to Iraq (exact numbers are hard to come by, but the final bill for the entire process will likely eclipse that amount, especially if we factor in many years of occupation and support). The borrowing necessary to fuel this war, as well as the other fiscal policies such as the unprecedented massive war time tax cuts primarily accruing to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans, have created a crisis for the US economy, which might have very serious consequences for national security as well if a serious devaluation of the dollar ensues.

In addition, the armed services are stretched thin and facing
recruitment shortages (the first time ever the Marines have fallen short of their recruiting target), which has left us less flexible to deal with other exigencies such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, or any other problem area that might flare up. Remember, capacity is important beyond the actual use of the military in combat. By maintaining a credible threat, we can accomplish many of our goals simply through the deterrent effect of appearing capable of invasion, whereas now, our compromised posture is having the opposite effect - emboldening our adversaries and potential enemies by their lack of fear for repercussions. The above concerns say nothing of the approximately 1,500 US soldiers, 172 coalition soldiers, and 200-300 contractors who have sacrificed their lives to see this mission through (so far), or the thousands of Iraqi's killed in the conflict.

Into that pot, we can throw our frayed alliances and plummeting public approval ratings worldwide. All told, that is a very large price tag for toppling a tyrant. As I said, I don't want to appear cruel in examining the costs and benefits, but it is what we must do as a nation constantly.
Parade Magazine, an insert in the Sunday edition of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, recently compiled a list of the world's ten worst dictators (using input from groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International). It is a dastardly hall of shame for brutal despots and murderous regimes, but it was by no means an exhaustive list. Consider the fact that Fidel Castro didn't even make the cut, and neither did quasi-democratic leaders like Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, or the oft offending regimes in Iran, Syria, or Egypt. So, with all these regimes worthy of toppling, and with dire human rights calamities currently underway (such as the Darfur massacres), what is a unipolar superpower to do?

We can't invade each one, that is simply impractical. We must decide what we are capable of accomplishing, and whether it is worth the blood and treasure and the risks of destabilizing regions and creating a wider zones of conflict. These are case by case analyses, and so we must in many scenarios be willing to say that a certain level of human suffering might be tolerable because we cannot right every wrong when the costs are factored in.

With that backdrop in place, I would like to turn to some
recent statements made by the nation's intelligence leaders in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. These assessments serve to up the ante in terms of costs.

"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," CIA Director Porter J. Goss told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism," he said. "They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries."
It is with a tinge of wry bemusement that I read Goss's statements because I am reminded of the prevailing meme propagated by the right-wing punditry in the run-up to the presidential election: that the CIA was a rogue organization actively planning to undermine Bush's reelection bid. Every time a CIA report was released, or leaked, which claimed that the situation in Iraq was not proceeding according to the administration's public sanguinity, the report was pooh-poohed by the punditry who claimed that the underlying material was not factual in nature, but infused with bias that distorted the findings. David Brooks even went as far as to call the CIA "enemies" of President Bush - even more committed in their desire to usurp Bush than Democrats who, according to Brooks, were merely his "opponents." Brooks was speaking in the context of defending the appointment of Porter Goss, and endorsing Goss's subsequent purges of the "disloyal factions" within the Agency. So, what's the story now? Is Porter Goss an "enemy"? Is Goss a closet Clintonite? Is he selling a book? What does his wife do for a living? Is it safe to take his appraisals without a shaker's worth of salt?

But I digress. A closer look at Goss's statements reveals a theory about the incubator/training camp aspect of Iraq, coupled with the likely post war diaspora of trained terrorists, that Matthew Yglesias discussed
here. This is a passage that I have excerpted before, but since Goss has reinjected these subjects into the political discourse, and from a vantage point of a Bush administration ally, I think Yglesias's analysis is worth revisiting:

...denying al-Qaeda its Afghan sanctuary has done more than many appreciate to screw up its operations. Even with many leading personnel still at large, without even a vague address to report to, would-be jihadis couldn't really sign up. Thus, despite rising anti-Americanism and the continuing appeal of the Salafi jihad in principle, it was hard for the network to gain new nodes and grow new cells.

But now we need to add the growth of the Iraqi insurgency into the equation. Once again, as during al-Qaeda's Afghan period, a would-be jihadi knows where he needs to go. He knows -- as I know and as you, the gentle reader knows -- that you can fight Americans in Iraq. He knows that the jihad takes place primarily in the "Sunni triangle" and the "triangle of death" both in the vicinity of Baghdad. He knows that the Syrian border is said to be the source of most of the insurgency's external inputs of manpower, money, and materiel. In other words, once again if you want to join the jihad, you know what to do. But of course once you get to Iraq, if you do make contact with someone, he'll want you to fight in Iraq not in the USA. Thus, having created a new global locus for the jihad as part of the strategic error that was the Iraq War, we also get the side benefit of "flypaper." Basically, US civilian casualties are displaced onto US military personnel and Iraqis of various stripes.

So far, so good (or so bad). The real question, however, is what happens if the jihad in Iraq ends? It would be remarkably odd if we wind up killing every single jihadi before going home. Either we'll need to start pulling troops out with many jihadis still in the field, or else we'll start gaining the upper hand and many jihadis will make themselves scarce. Either way, a new generation of recruits will have signed up, new networks will have been formed, and when people depart Iraq (either because we've won, or else because we've lost) they'll go somewhere else and start waging jihad there. Most of the native-born Iraqis who've joined up for the fight against America will probably stay put in Iraq, but not all of them will. You still won't be talking about a huge number of people, but the flipside of the insight that al-Qaeda was never a particularly large organization is that al-Qaeda never needed to be a particularly large institution to mount attacks on the scale of WTC, Bali, Madrid, etc.
As Yglesias and Goss point out, the campaign in Iraq has had additional costs in terms of providing our jihadist enemies a training ground, a central hub of operations, a recruitment center, and a pool of talent. Unfortunately, some of these veterans of Iraqi jihad will emigrate to other locales bringing with them the know-how and radicalized ideology that they have picked up along the way. The more pollyannic proponents of the flypaper theory elide the fact that the proverbial flypaper does not ensnare all jihadists. Furthermore, flypaper is less effective if you are simultaneously creating conditions conducive to the breeding of more flies. More from the intelligence hearings:

"Our policies in the Middle East fuel Islamic resentment," Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate panel. "Overwhelming majorities in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believe the U.S. has a negative policy toward the Arab world."

Jacoby said the Iraq insurgency has grown "in size and complexity over the past year" and is now mounting an average of 60 attacks per day, up from 25 last year. Attacks on Iraq's election day last month reached 300, he said, double the previous one-day high of 150, even though transportation was virtually locked down.
This observation, coupled with the Goss/Yglesias argument, formed the basis for my own objections to the invasion of Iraq. I harbored no love for Saddam, and derive great pleasure from the fact that he will soon be on the receiving end of the justice meted out by the legal process underway in Iraq. That is an unmitigated good. I never believed the low balled cost estimates, but even the ballpark figures bandied about prior to the invasion were potentially acceptable (though not in conjunction with Bush's reckless fiscal policies). While I feared some of the dire humanitarian warnings (refugees, starvation, etc), the real crux of my misgivings stemmed from the fact that our image in the Muslim world needed repair, and could not withstand the invasion of a second Muslim country in a matter of months. Bin Laden, the quintessential propagandist, would use this unexpected "Christmas gift" to his advantage.

Whatever Osama Bin Laden's ultimate goals are, be they religious, political, meglomaniacal, etc., he is quite adept at using our unpopular policies to rally his co-religionists to the cause. For example, whether or not he truly cares about the Palestinian people, it matters little since he can so easily exploit the anger over this conflict to suit his purposes (aided by the fact that the violence of the second intifada begun in 2000 was beamed into Arab homes via satellite television which was simultaneously spreading throughout the region - with an emphasis on the crimes against the Palestinian people, and with a glossing over of Israel's suffering). There is a reason that, less than one month after 9/11 (taken from Gilles Kepel's book, The War For Muslim Minds):

In a videotape broadcast on October 7, Bin Laden sat with Zawahiri in front of an Afghan cave and swore to his television viewers that, "by Allah who raised the heavens without pillars, America [will] never know peace" as long as the Palestinian people continue to suffer.
That Iraq has aided Bin Laden's cause in terms of rallying support, aiding recruitment, and providing a new base of operations has been observed by various non-partisan think tanks, analysts, and policy centers such as the International Institute of Strategic Studies. These conclusions are not a stretch though. If the region in question is predisposed to be suspicious of American motives, and Bin Laden and the jihadists are issuing a drum beat of warnings about American imperialism an anti-Muslim crusades, invading two Muslim nations within a roughly year of each other lends credence to Bin Laden's far-fetched ravings. This factor must also be considered in any decision regarding Syria or Iran as well. One more invasion in such a short span of time could make Bin Laden seem prophetic. In addition to the fact of invasion, the atrocities and civilian casualties that inevitably accompany war (Abu Ghraib) have not served our cause at all. Bin Laden, on the other hand, has received a windfall.

This last point also ties into the manner in which we invaded Iraq. If we proceeded more cautiously, and perhaps put off the operation for several months, or years, it would have undercut the ability of Bin Laden to make as credible a claim of "crusade." Instead, we appeared rather impatient to commence actions, flouting the warnings and protestations of even our most trusted allies.

Unfortunately, the Muslims that were most in favor of our invasion (the Kurds and the Shiites in Iraq), were not a population that we needed to target in order to turn the tide of jihadism. Neither of these groups were in any way connected to transnational terrorist activities. Even Iraq's Sunnis were not known to be particularly friendly to the Wahhabist school of extremism (at least before the invasion). No Iraqi was among the 19 hijackers on 9/11, no senior leader of al-Qaeda was or is Iraqi, and Iraqis were not known to populate the ranks of jihadists battling in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, or Afghanistan. Of course, that could all change now that Iraq has become an incubator of sorts.

So again, the question will be asked: Was it worth it? The ultimate disposition will probably only be possible with the vantage point of retrospect many years down the line. It comes down to the real world potency of the erstwhile theoretical domino theory. If Iraq somehow sparks a wave of democratic change in the Middle East, that will certainly be placed on the side of the ledger listing the "pros." The evidence is not pointing in one direction or the other at this point, as it is still early in the game. However, even if Iraq does lead to democratic paradigm shift in the Middle East, the question must be asked whether this democratization will really undermine terrorism (
discussed here), and whether the long term benefits outweigh the short term costs we have incurred: financially, strategically, diplomatically, and in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. And it should also be asked whether invading Iraq was the only way to incite such change. What if the dominos could have been tipped through other less costly means?

If invading Iraq does not lead to a domino of democratization, and if that democratization does not undermine terrorism but instead in the process creates a new generation of committed and trained jihadists, then it will be hard to say it was worth the costs. We have risked much on what Francis Fukuyama called a "throw of the dice." Let's hope the Bush team doesn't crap out.

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