August 14, 2005

Idealism for Iraqis

Orin Kerr has an interesting idea about the debate over Iraq. He says that, assuming everyone in the debate wants the best for the US and Iraqi democracy, the division over the wisdom of the war in Iraq will bring us different interpretations of the same two options of staying or leaving now. Some people will believe that if the US stays the results will be good (option 1) while others believe staying would be disastrous (option 2). Some believe that if the US leaves now the results would be positive (option 3) and others think it would be horrific (option 4). The following is a comment I made to his post.

I don't think I've heard many people believably advance the idea that 3) is a likely outcome. The real debate is between anti-war people, who rank pessimistic leaving over pessimistic staying, and pro-war people, who rank optimistic staying over pessimistic leaving.

Although personally the aspect of the war more interesting to me is whether the Iraqis are seen as irrelevant or valuable. Most pro-war people, genuinely or not, characterize the Iraqis as valuable to defend. Most anti-war people characterize the Iraqis as irrelevant (not worth American dollars or soldiers). The opposite would be pro-war people unmoved by any Iraqi hardships before or after Saddam, and anti-war people who claim the Iraqis would benefit from withdrawing US intervention.

It's easy for somebody pro-war to claim to care about the Iraqis, since it costs nothing (except ethical consistency, if the beliefs are not sincere) to use it as one of many arguments for the war. It's very difficult for somebody anti-war to claim to care about the Iraqis, since in all likelihood the Iraqis would be all kinds of screwed-over if we left too soon (echoes of 1991 and the hundreds of thousands of Shi'a murdered when the US let Saddam put down the uprisings).

The combination of my four-choice-set and your three-choice-set (if 3 is excused as too improbable to be genuinely believed) is that the pro-war side has all the idealism. Since most of the leave-now arguments rely on pessimism about the war and not idealism about leaving, the pro-war arguments about fighting for freedom and democracy win the idealism award in that match-up. And since it's so difficult to claim to be motivated by love of humanity or liberty by consigning Iraqis to chaos, theocracy and terrorism, the pro-war people can easily continue to tout the benefits to regular Iraqis and again win the idealism contest.

Of course, simply being idealistic doesn't make you right, but the opposite (a stunning lack of ideals or idealism) suggests that baser interests like partisanship or amoral self-interest are at play.

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