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Why war is essential ... on this occasion

This version 6 July 2003, originally written on 28 February 2003

It is time, I think, to try to deal with the antiwar arguments on detailed basis. As my jumping off point, I have chosen a set of antiwar arguments put forward by 24601, and broken them up into short statements which I will attempt to address one by one.

[The anti-war argument is simply] that the costs of war outweigh the benefits at this point in time. When the cost of government action exceeds the benefits, then the government should not act.
I agree with this fully. Indeed as a general rule, a rational person should not act when the costs exceed the benefits. I would go a bit further with respect to government action: it should not be undertaken even if the benefits do appear to exceed the 'costs', because governments routinely: However, there will be times when the benefits may well outweigh the costs. For example, a direct invasion of Australia by a foreign power. This likely war with Iraq falls somewhere between those two in my view.
Costs include billions of dollars, thousands of lives, potential regional instability, potential increase in terrorism, uncertain consequences (such as the creation of the next Osama).
It is here that we run into difficulty. Each of these costs can at best be estimated (the dollar value, loss of life) or guessed at (instability, increases in terrorism, new Osamas). Even the estimates depend entirely on how the war happens to play out. A quick war may be reasonably cheap. US weapons and military intelligence may be of sufficient quality to limit civilian casualties to a very small number ... or we may be misestimating Saddam's hold on his people, the depth of his bunkers, the ferocity of the Republican Guard, in which case the thing could spin out to hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. I think the former is more likely, but it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of the latter.

It is on those other matters that are the subject of guess work (otherwise known as psychological and sociological analysis) that I suspect we differ. I will deal with those in a moment, but I first wish to dispose of the following as an argument for the war:

The benefits are an improvement in the wellbeing of Iraqis.
The wellbeing of Iraqis is not our collective problem. As you point out, a libertarian would have no problem (in principle, although we may think it ill-advised) with any number of Australians choosing to join together voluntarily and organising an expeditionary force to solve that, or any other problem in the world, whether by regime change or by charitable works. Just as the government shouldn't require its people to fight in the guise of 'doing good', it shouldn't pay foreign aid, or subsidise charities who look after foreigners (or locals). You are perfectly correct in the following sentence:
I think that it's not our role to be the world's moral enforcers and that they would be better off with us simply trading freely with them.
Another benefit is our US alliance, which I don't think would be hurt by us not joining their attack.
This is a judgment call. I think our abandoning the US at this point probably would probably have bad repercussions for the alliance. But, I don't think our support will realise any particular trade advantages, either. The US Congress is entirely domestically focused when it comes to trade policy.

The principle advantage of the US alliance is that it provides for cheap defence. We spend, I think, around 1.9% of GDP on defence. The US around twice that, with a much bigger GDP upon which that percentage is levied. Although there is a great deal of cynicism about the US, I think that its implied guarantee of protection means we don't have to foot the bill for a really credible territorial defence.

Another benefit is reduced WMDs for terrorists, but terrorists have numerous sources of which Iraq is not the best or most likely and there are no tangible links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda.
Perhaps perversely, I do not consider WMDs to be the major issue here. There is much focus on WMDs because of the theoretical number of deaths they can cause. But organising delivery mechanisms to realise the theory, at least sufficiently to cause more civilian deaths than were managed on 11 September 2001 with a couple of mundane aircraft, is not easy. Particularly with biological weapons, unless some new fast-moving horror disease is developed (as in, for example, Stephen King's The Stand), there is ample time for a death-limiting response to be organised.

No, the major danger is the shift in terrorist tactics that has been gradually appearing since at least 1983 and horribly realised in 2001: the suicide terrorist. Here no help is required from Iraq, other than the funding that Saddam has provided to the terrorists' families. This change threw all terrorist doctrine out the window. Previously it had been a rational response to hijackers to co-operate, get the plane on the ground and let the special forces of whatever interested country kill all the hijackers. This is no longer the case.

So the terrorist danger remains suicide missions.

Since I don't think we should embark on national wars to help the undoubtedly oppressed Iraqis, nor to stop the transfer of WMDs to terrorists, why do I support this war? Because I think that a withdrawal from this war at this point threatens the liberties I hold dear, and would seek to broaden and deepen.

Whinge as we might about the proliferation of petty (and not so petty) infringements on our freedoms, places like the United States and Australia still offer the world a vision of liberty and prosperity far beyond that enjoyed by most people on this planet. I would like us to increase our liberty and prosperity, not take many steps backwards into 'security' and the necessary semi-police states required to give the appearance of achieving that.

It is here that we reintroduce those matters I left above. Namely, the three of 24601's 'costs' of the war effort that I have labelled guesses. To remind us, these were:

Regarding the first, the fact is that there is no potentiality to it. The region is now unstable. It has been unstable since at least the end of the First World War. To the extent that there was stability under the Ottomans, it was the stability of stagnation. Should there be war, instability may increase, or decrease. If the former, it is most likely to be caused by two groups: those seeking to better taste some of the freedoms we enjoy in the West, and those who seek to place themselves as the next generation of political strong-men.

But if the war does not proceed, there will be instability anyway. Saddam will be emboldened to continue, perhaps enrich, his course of internal abuse and external ambition. Let us say he waits until, eventually, the US has largely withdrawn its invasion force (it must eventually). Could he not then retake, say, the embryonic Kurdistan without fear of significant opposition? He would calculate, probably correctly, that the US wouldn't just ship all the troops back.

Those genuinely democratically inclined people in that region would know for certain that they could look for no help from the West in their ambitions for freedom. They would give up, or turn to their own form of terrorism against their governments. Travelling westerners would become easy targets for anyone seeking to make a political point through assassination, the impotence of the West having been firmly established. The government of Saudi Arabia, knowing that things have 'settled down', will be able to resume its enjoyment of power and personal hedonism, while buying off the religious with handsome funding of terrorist fronts. Those Islamacist groups who think they might have the numbers to pull a coup may well give it a go.

As to the second, the 'potential increase in terrorism', this depends on your reading of the psychology of terrorism and the people of the region. The Left seems to largely accept the argument that there is a degree of legitimacy in the terrorist's complaints against the West. That, in other words, if not justified, terrorism against the West is at least understandable given all the nasty stuff we've done to them (subjected them to colonial control, 'stolen' their oil, supported their authoritarian regimes, supported Israel, kept troops stationed in their holy lands and so forth). As it happens, I oppose all those bracketed things that the West is accused of, except for stealing their oil. This accusation assumes that those people would have done something useful with it if western companies had not provided the capital funding to exploit it. The claim of theft is, of course, utterly refuted by the demonstration during the early 1970s by the OPEC nations that they indeed had full control over their oil resources.

Still, opposing those historical and current factors does not mean accepting them as the causes of current terrorism. Terrorism comes not from normal people. Potential terrorists are born. Practicing terrorists are manufactured. They are manufactured not by injustices, but by an ideology that places violent action over consideration of others' rights. The radical Islamacists take that a step further, they exalt the violent act and promise heaven as a result. Was the development of that ideology caused by the West? No, even though it was encouraged from time to time (for example, the appointment by the British in the early 1920s as the new Mufti of Jerusalem of an extreme anti-semite who, perhaps more than any other single individual, was responsible for the awful situation around Israel that still exists today).

So long as terrorism seems to be blessed by Allah, it will continue. But faith tends not to continue strongly, except amongst rare individuals, when it is a proven failure. The war against Iraq, successfully conducted, will be a step towards proving that this violent faith (Islamacist rather than traditional Islam) is a failure. Just a small step. But a retreat from war against Iraq will be a huge reinforcement of that faith.

Will the war result in 'uncertain consequences'? Bloody oath! My argument, though, is that this uncertainty is a far better outcome than what I consider to be 'likely consequences' of a retreat from war.

Consider, for example, the oft-heard argument that we ought to do something about Iran or North Korea before dealing with the trivial threat posed by Saddam. A retreat from Iraq will make it impossible to do anything about those situations. Effective diplomacy isn't just talk, it is talk backed by the possibility of action. Iran, North Korea, Burma, Libya -- the leaders of all those nations will be quite certain, if we retreat from Iraq, that they have nothing to fear, nothing at all.

And they will be quite right.

© 2003 - Stephen Dawson