Blogs > Liberty and Power > Unintended Consequences Not Unforeseeable

Sep 12, 2004 6:45 pm


Unintended Consequences Not Unforeseeable



While the Kerry and Bush campaigns trade charges of who is the ultimate flip-flopper, one thing these two gents agree on is to stay the course in Iraq. Today, James Dao in the NY Times asks:"How Many Deaths Are Too Many?." Dao recalls:

In the fall of 1965, the death toll for American troops in Vietnam quietly passed 1,000. The escalation in the number of American forces was just underway, the antiwar movement was still in its infancy and the word"quagmire" was not yet in common usage. At the time, the Gallup Poll found that just one in four Americans thought sending troops to southeast Asia had been a mistake. It would be three years before public opinion turned decisively, and permanently, against the war.
Four decades later, the passing of the 1,000-death benchmark in another war against insurgents has been accompanied by considerably more public unease. Polls registered a steady increase in the number of Americans who believe the war in Iraq was not worth it, peaking at over 50 percent in June. Americans, it seems, are more skeptical about this conflict than about Vietnam at roughly the same moment, as measured in body counts.

The difference, historians and experts agree, is that the"stark experience of Sept. 11 and the belief among many Americans that the fighting in Iraq is part of a global conflict against terrorism have made this war seem much more crucial to the nation's security than Vietnam ..." Death and destruction on continental American soil, coupled with the fact that there is no military conscription, have made Americans much more patient with the Iraq situation. There are other differences too. Dao writes:

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson began a huge escalation of the Vietnam War that eventually brought American troop levels to over half a million. By 1968, the weekly death toll was over 500. No such escalation is envisioned in Iraq, where the deadliest month was last April, when 134 troops were killed. And though the 1,000-dead milestone was reached faster in Iraq, it seems unlikely the toll will keep pace with Vietnam, where it exploded after 1965, reaching over 58,000 by the war's end.

But the death tolls don't tell us the whole story. As I was reminded by the McLaughlin Report and other Sunday morning talk shows today, in addition to the 1000+ Americans killed in Iraq, and the 20,000+ US medical evacuations from that country, the possibilities for civil war are real. Tikrit, Fallujah, Karbala, Ramadi, and Najaf are effectively under the control of insurgent forces. Kurds in the North, who have had de facto"self-rule" since the 1990s, are now battling for control of oil-rich Kirkuk, outside Kurdish territory. The Shi'ite majority, which suffered under the Sunnis during the reign of Saddam Hussein, will not stand by if the Sunnis try to reassert power. The Sunnis, however, remain the predominating influence in the central and northwestern regions of the country. Baghdad, of course, is in a class by itself.

A civil war in Iraq could be a devastating blow to US"nation-building" efforts. (On the various scenarios of"Iraq in Transition," see this periodical put out by Chatham House, formerly the Royal Institute of International Affairs.) It is for this reason that presidential historian Robert Dallek suggests,"the crucial point" in Iraq will come when the US"feels it is not going to achieve its goals." But pursuit of those goals does not take place in a historical vacuum; this is a post-Vietnam generation, after all. Should the feeling become widespread that the situation is unwinnable, leading to less patience among the American electorate, and fewer military re-enlistments, a dramatic shift in the US approach will be forthcoming.

Dao reminds us, however, that

there has been significant public opposition to virtually every war America has waged, except World War II. One-third of the nation did not back the American Revolution, historians say. Congress chastised President James Polk in 1848 for starting an"unnecessary and unconstitutional" war with Mexico. New Yorkers rioted against the draft during the Civil War. The Socialist Eugene Debs went to prison, and ran for president while there, for opposing the draft in World War I. A plurality of Americans thought the Korean War was a mistake during much of that conflict. But in virtually all those cases, dissent did relatively little to prevent bloodshed. Only in Vietnam, which caused the nation's largest and most sustained protests, can it be argued that an antiwar movement hastened the end of a war.

This has had an effect on both sides of the divide:

The government has sought to sustain public support for war by encouraging positive coverage of American soldiers while prohibiting photographs of returning caskets. And antiwar groups have treated returning soldiers with immense dignity - hoping to avoid the kinds of reports about abusive demonstrators that once embittered Vietnam veterans. But one lesson neither side could have gleaned from Vietnam was the impact of 24-hour cable television and the Internet, which have brought death in Iraq closer to home than network television did in Vietnam. In the process, they have amplified the horrors of war and, perhaps, speeded up reaction to it ...

All this points to the issue of those pesky"unintended consequences" that I alluded to here. But"unintended consequences" are not always unforeseeable ones. Many of us on the antiwar side of the divide warned of these very real effects for months prior to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. For me, at least, it was never a question of Hussein's moral legitimacy. His regime, which had benefited from US support and sanction back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, was immoral. But as the winds of war were gathering strength in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, I thought then, as I do now, that it would have been possible to contain any Hussein terrorist or weapons threat. That the threat was not as"grave" as the administration proclaimed makes containment, in my view, all the more preferable.

But that is now a moot point. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq now threatens to unleash unruly antidemocratic cultural and political forces that might yet make the Hussein regime a picnic by comparison.


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Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 9/14/2004

John Arthur Shaffer writes: "Does anyone really argue that these states can be transformed without a major reformation in Islam? The separation of church and state is a necessary condition for freedom and pluralism. This will take centuries to occur. The war in Iraq has been a huge recruiting tool for radical Islam."

I agree that there will need to be a major reformation in Islam (though it is clear that more "secular" variants are possible among Islamic-inspired states). It took centuries to secularize the Western mind, and I can't imagine it not taking a very long time for this process to take hold in the Islamic world.

But in the age of WMDs, humankind doesn't have time to wait centuries for this process to occur. The best that can be done is to neutralize any "direct," "imminent" or "grave and gathering" threats to US security, and to seek ways to increase points of cultural exchange in the long-run. Today's technology should facilitate this process to a certain degree, but it's no substitute for short-run strikes against known Al Qaeda operatives seeking to inflict further harm on US targets.

I've also maintained, however, that the US will have to affect a major shift in its political and military involvement in the Middle East; alas, that is not likely to occur any time soon for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is economic. See here for further thoughts on this subject.


John Arthur Shaffer - 9/13/2004

Does anyone really argue that these states can be transformed without a major reformation in Islam? The separation of church and state is a necessary condition for freedom and pluralism.

This will take centuries to occur. The war in Iraq has been a huge recruiting tool for radical Islam.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 9/13/2004

I think that the essential point here is correct; this is a long-term cultural and political trend, but I don't think it is inexorable, and I do believe that there are potentially powerful movements afoot that could act as an internal bulwark against those trends. The young generation's turn against the mullahs in Iran is a case in point. It remains to be seen if that internally generated movement bears fruit.

To answer Andre: I don't know of anybody here who advocated doing nothing in response to the terrorist attack on 9/11. I advocated military action in Afghanistan, even if I've been less enthused by the ways in which warlordism has returned, along with a re-empowered Taliban and a Narcostate. The Iraq invasion and occupation, in my view, has emboldened the very fundamentalist elements that Jonathan points to above.

The point, however, is that from the very beginning, the Bush administration acted on the neoconservative premise that the cultures in the Middle East had to be changed if the US was to affect a permanent alteration in the terrorist dynamic. Now, superficially, that's true. But as Jason suggests above, there is an arrogant self-centeredness, a potentially fatal hubris, at work: Cultural transformation is not something that can be imposed from without. Politics can influence culture, but new political institutions cannot simply be grafted onto indigenous cultures.

I fear that the chickens being hatched in Iraq will eventually come home to roost in ways that will significantly affect "the timing and form of the Islamist problem."


Jason Pappas - 9/13/2004

You are right in your characterization of Iraq. However, the “secular socialist” nature of the state hides the underlying cultural reality. It is in these “secular socialist” states that Islamism grows unseen. Often, Islam is the only institution that is exempt from total repression. The Mosque becomes an organizing point against the dictatorship. On the surface it seems like the dictator has the country under control but he is feeding the Islamist beast. Let’s remember how this movement started in “secular socialist” Egypt. Let’s also remember that even a dictator like Saddam had to start paying lip-service to Islam.

Let me make sure my point isn’t missed. Islamism is an indigenous movement that arises from internal forces and it is growing regardless of what we do or don’t do. Let’s shed our arrogant self-centered analysis and realized that we are not the subject matter here. We are a scapegoat necessitated by internal cultural developments that will exist and continue to exist.

I’ll grant you that our involvement affects the timing and form of the Islamist problem. A detailed analysis will show the effects on which particular fraction advances, how the Islamists rally their core base, and other logistics. But the long-term trend is not altered by how we divert the cultural gusher.

This suggests a policy of avoiding futile nation-building – but not because of our importance and the potent effect of our actions (intended or unintended) – just the opposite.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2004

Mr. Zantonavitch,

I'd be more inclined to take the rest of your comments seriously if you hadn't grossly mischaracterized Iraq as an 'islamic' state on a par with Afghanistan. For its myriad other flaws, Iraq was a socialist despotism, not an Islamic one, with some of the commensurate social differences (like the legal sale of alcohol, practice of diverse religions and, oh yes, relatively social equality for women, not to mention a unity which transcended tribal and sectarian identities), but that is indeed the direction in which Iraq is now heading. Shall we invade again?


Andre Zantonavitch - 9/13/2004

I might also add that because of the two wars, and our forced enrollment at The School Of Hard Knocks -- closely affiliated with Whatssammatta U! ;-) -- libertarian and Objectivist thinkers have also been ~galvanized.~ Mankind is advancing theoretically and this is paving the way toward a terrific future which will now probably come about ~sooner~.


Andre Zantonavitch - 9/13/2004

At times, in the game of life, the simple and obvious answer is actually the ~correct~ answer. Over-analysis of a situtation or problem can lead to vast and even ~hopeless~ confusion. If we spend weeks on end discussing whether or not cirles are round, grass is green, and fire is hot, at the end of those (almost certainly wasted) days we may seriously ~not know~ the answer(!). As Aristotle said repeatedly: "Don't seek more certainty than the subject itself admits of."

Radical islamic vermin did something terrible on 9/11 and most "moderate" islamic vermin openly or quietly cheered. America ~had~ to do something in response. And it did -- in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the evil ones have more respect for us, we have more respect for ourselves, and the world is in much better cosmic balance.

The unintended consequences of ~not~ taking down those two dirtbag islamic states (that richly deserved it, and about which no-one is seriously complaining) would have probably been ~much~ worse. America and the West would have looked weak and scared, with freedom-fighters and civilization-lovers everywhere losing vast hope -- both in the current situation and in mankind in general.

Ultimately those two fairly easy, low-cost wars (and hopefully two or so ~more~) taught the West a great deal -- knowledge not obtainable any other way (certainly not via lame conservo-progressive theorizing). The fact that the Western liberal states today are VERY far from pure liberalism (as I define it) and ~hilariously~ inept at freedom-fighting is actually a trivial fairly point. We're learning about ~everything~ -- and the ~next~ time there's need for a war, we'll do much better. This includes a better post-victory plan, less looting, less toleration for insurection, quicker elections, less drug tyranny possibly, etc.

However ham-handed the Forces Of Good and freedom in the current "war on terrorism" the West and America -- on net balance -- have done fairly good. Our seemingly-hopeless, pathetic, moronic, sleezeball conservative and progressive friends in America and the West are ~learning~. Because of the war, Western liberalism is ~ascending~.

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