Andrew Sullivan has just posted a lengthy email from a correspondent about the US invasion of Iraq. Kudos to Sully for posting it, because, as he says, “I disagree with much of it. But I disagree with it less than I did a year ago.” Money quote:
I could have supported intervention in Iraq. Saddam was a monster. But not Bush’s intervention. If his Dad, and Powell, had put together a true global coalition, with a real commitment to pay the high price in money, manpower and years necessary to free Iraq, secure the peace and rebuild the country, yes, I could have supported it. But I knew GWB and his team would never accomplish those ends, because those ends were not his ends. His ends, and his means, speak for themselves. All the rest is lies.
Many of us who opposed the invasion undoubtedly conflated two emotions: our strongly-held feelings about Bush in general, and a rejection of the rush to war. Bush certainly evoked powerful negative feelings, based on his illegitimacy, his lack of vision and intelligence, and the way his puppet-masters cynically exploited divisive social issues to cover up the looting of the country for their fellow plutocrats. But that didn’t mean that we were wrong when we came to the conclusion that Bush was not acting in good faith about going to war. Nor does it necessarily mean that we were against war under all circumstances. I myself am no pacifist: I supported the first Gulf War, and – reluctantly and controversially – the Falklands campaign. But this wasn’t about “war in general”, or even whether Saddam was a monster or not: it was about this war, at this time, conducted by these people, in these circumstances, for these ostensible reasons.
I think that where people like Andrew Sullivan and the former editor of the Economist get it wrong is that they frame the question as “in principle”: Are you in principle in favour of overthrowing Saddam? Such questions are always presented as simple dichotomies â€” yes/no, black/white, good/bad â€” and are assumed to be logically prior to the “how” questions, the in practice. But this is simply a way of allowing the ends to justify the means: you commit yourself to a course of action, and must hold to it however badly it turns out. Why not, instead, judge each fully articulated proposal for action (and inaction) on its own merits, with a full assessment of the consequences? (Yeah, utilitarianism – why not?) Reject the seduction of the false dichotomy, reserve the right to vote “none of the above” and demand that the principals go back to the drawing board and try again. Because it seems to me that only a neocon bigot could have accepted that the course of action proposed by Bush was the best possible, that it clearly addressed the standards for the moral and legal conduct of war established by the US at the Nuremberg Trials and subsequently by the UN, that there was a clear and present danger that could not have waited months or years until Afghanistan had been secured and Osama captured.
“Agreement in principle.” It’s the way the card-sharp sucks in the mark; once you agree to play, you can’t back out even if you see that the game is rigged. And then you salve your bruised pride by comforting yourself that the original choice was justified, instead of recognizing that, just possibly, there was no “in practice” available to justify the “in principle”.