Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Thinking it Over


If you have a steady diet of good and serious blogs like this one, it's easy to forget that the current mainstream arguments about the Iraq war are, at best, incredibly trivial - will in fact be seen in future as no less ephemeral than arguments about who should win 'American Idol' (and why). If you are under the age of 40 and contemplating the country and world you're inheriting or about to inherit (or over 40, for that matter), you are, alas, taking a decidedly Reality TV-view of this Iraq 'adventure' if you don't see it for what it actually is: the defining tragedy of a generation and more. Young Matt Yglesias bravely gives us one overarching perspective in a new Prospect article:

The [$1.27 trillion number - the proposed true monetary cost of the war] is so high as to defy human comprehension. All the numbers ending in “-illion” sound the same. But a trillion is what you get if you spend a million dollars a day … for a million days. That’s 2,737 years -- a cool mil a day, every day, in other words, until the Year of Our Lord 4743. Or, working backward, from the time when Homer wrote the Iliad up to now. The $270 billion in rounding error is worth another 750 years at the million-a-day rate. That takes us up to the year 5493 -- or back to when Moses fled Egypt.


What the President [promised] was the following: that regime change would curb nuclear proliferation, weaken al-Qaeda, and create a shining beacon of democracy. What happened? We eliminated a nuclear program that didn’t exist, encouraged Iran and North Korea to speed theirs along, offered terrorists a gigantic recruiting opportunity and training ground, and turned Iraq into a venue for chaos and civil war plagued by death squads and offering local despots a handy cautionary tale about the dangers of liberalization.

For $1.27 trillion, we have our hands full in a quagmire; the world hating us; worldwide acts of terrorism on the sharp rise; and much more. We could have done better. Much better. You might even say a trillion times better. Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to refer to the cost of an endeavor in terms of the opportunities that endeavor foreclosed. Iraq foreclosed advancing important humanitarian goals, killing and capturing terrorists more effectively, eliminating nuclear threats, and securing the homeland among other goals.

He goes on to suggest many other ways that money could be spent, including this 'inconvenient' little booger:

In a May 10 Washington Post op-ed piece, University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein argued that “the economic burden of the Iraq War is on the verge of exceeding the total anticipated burden of the Kyoto Protocol.” Sunstein’s argument, predictably, came under attack from the right, but in fact he seriously understated his case. The estimated $325 billion cost of Kyoto refers not to direct budgetary costs -- most academic studies have concluded that these would be extremely small. Instead, the figure refers to indirect costs to economic growth. This is a large price to pay, but as with the rest it’s significantly less than the economic impact of the war. On top of the $1.27 trillion in direct expenditures, however, Bilmes and Stiglitz also anticipate an additional trillion or so in indirect reduced economic growth. Without the invasion, in other words, we could have both gotten a jump on the emerging challenge of global warming and enjoyed higher levels of overall prosperity than we’re seeing today.

Readers of TIA, among other venues, will see no completely new factual information in this article, but the summing-up is irresistible, and one we all - conservative, liberal and otherwise - are insane to not face, and right now (one point of the piece is that we aren't spending a mere million a day, but between 33 and 66 times that, or more). You can quibble about what the real dollar cost will end up being, but there is simply no doubt that it will be astronomically high, both in terms of money and opportunity cost (of every kind). This was not a mere 'mistake', but a catastrophe. I repeat, this truth dwarfs all of our bubbliciously trivial attempts at 'ideology'. The Iraq war is a tragedy in terms of Neo-conservative no less than Liberal Internationalist goals, and most others, for that matter - excepting only than those of al-Queda itself.

This is where politics, the turd in the genepool, the 'core' competence human beings will do ANYTHING to avoid getting or thinking seriously about getting, insists on being dealt with. Keeping one's eye on the ball, drilling down into the sub-politics, 'real-world' strata of policy, is well and good - essential, in fact - but a little too comfortable sometimes: just as the body itself has its own imperatives which will not be ignored forever, so too does politics - gross and stupid though it is - insist on being dealt with. Ignore it, and it just gets worse. If you will indulge me, an anecdote...

Many years ago, I worked in a restaurant which specialized in meat. Each night before closing, several 55 pound 'rounds' of beef were put into slow-cook convection-type ovens for use the next day. One morning, after munching on our customary pre-shift fresh beef-round sandwiches, the guy unloading the massive plogs of meat noticed that whoever had put them into the incubators the night before had set the cooking temperature too low; lurking behind the normal-looking meat we all had just sliced off and eaten was masses of what looked like liver - grey-black, mushy and stinky: scientifically, overnight-rotted meat. The word came down from the 'team leader': we were all to immediately go to the toilet and purge ourselves of the tainted meal we'd just finished eating. With varying degrees of difficulty, we all did - all except for one young waitress, a late-teens redhead from out in the country working her first job. She was mortified, claimed to 'never' have vomited before in her life, and just 'couldn't do it'. A guy from India on staff lightly rubbed her shoulder and said, in a gentle voice, "Really, it's no big deal, just use your finger and simply lose it! Like 'bing'! and it's over!". Absolutely not. The more the pressure grew, the more stubbornly un-nauseated she became. The team leader finally said, in a firmer voice: 'Look. Would you rather puke now, or end up getting seriously ill or even dying later?' Faced with that choice, she nonetheless needed - in a gastro-internal variation of the old existential Jack Benny joke - to...'think it over'.*

The magnitude of this Iraq folly is truly nauseating to contemplate, and anti-peristalsis is no fun at all - a mini-death of sorts; but denial - morbid retentiveness, as it were - is much, much worse. Argue about the timing and nature of withdrawal and the contingencies concerning a permanent American presence in Iraq all you want, but if you're not The Decider (or Karl Rove), you're imposing patterns where, apparently, none exist. The comforting notion that, sure, Bush is inept, but 'institutional forces' won't allow too much disaster to happen, is already exploded. The 'Old Hand Cheney' salve?....also exploded - if anything, Cheney is even more dangerous. There are no 'buts' anymore. This is a major disaster and we ought to fear any 'proactive' plan these policymakers tease us with; we are guaranteed the most arbitrary of all possible worlds if they remain unfettered. If people of all ideological stripes, left, right and otherwise, can agree on nothing else, we ought all to at least admit to this devastating truth as a point of departure. And that reckoning has everything to do with the coming elections. Whatever your political persuasion, it ought to be clear by now that this White House needs oversight/guidence, or at least to be constrained. And clearly, politics is 'all they understand'.

Unfortunately, failure - in this case, political failure - most definitely IS an option. If there is a serious-minded conservative out there who can find any deliberate coherence at all in the Bush 'policy', and finds it preferable to the mere possibility of a countervailing force, let's hear it - although I would warn you that it's going to be a very difficult sell at this point. The other option? Just 'bing!' and it's over.

*[The young woman in question never did purge that I know of, and quit her job that day. I assume she didn't die, and I don't know how sick she did or didn't get.]

[UPDATE: Because I circumlocute so damned much, I want to make clear what I am advocating for and what I'm not. I'm not advocating for any particular course of action in Iraq in this post, even by implication - only for divided government in DC for the next two+ years. I want independents, moderates and conservatives who don't have the luxury of voting for a Hagel or a Lugar to vote for Democrats in November - or to stay home, at least. I want them to consider the strategic importance of divided government at this point. I want them to pull their heads out and look at how bad things really are; to acknowledge that the chance for an improvement in the performance of this WH vis a vis Iraq (and Iran) is infinitesimal - the margin of error, in fact. I want them to see the necessity of imposing some sort of discipline on this WH, and that '06 is the last chance to do it in an electoral way. Talking about specific courses of action is worthwhile, but ultimately kind of pointless until there's a little friction, some kind of tension, between branches again. I want them to see, at long last, that this WH has complete contempt for most of the rest of the US gov., particularly Congress, but also parts of its own branch. We're going to get some kind of new political consensus in this country anyway - however narrow - and we may as well start banging it together now. Drift is worse than enervating. It's not only billions of dollars we're wasting. The policymakers in DC now - Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld - are neither conservative nor moderate, and they can do a lot more damage in 2+ years.]

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