The Iraq War in Retrospect

The Iraq War has been called many things, “immoral” being among the leading adjectives for it. Was it altogether immoral? Was it immoral to remain in favor of the war after it was (purportedly) discovered that Saddam Hussein didn’t have an active program for the production of weapons of mass destruction? Or was the war simply misdirected from its proper — and moral — purpose: the service of Americans’ interests by stabilizing the Middle East? I address those and other questions about the war in what follows.

THE WAR-MAKING POWER AND ITS PURPOSE

The sole justification for the United States government is the protection of Americans’ interests. Those interests are spelled out broadly in the Preamble to the Constitution: justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty.

Contrary to leftist rhetoric, the term “general welfare” in the Preamble (and in Article I, Section 8) doesn’t grant broad power to the national government to do whatever it deems to be “good”. “General welfare” — general well-being, not the well-being of particular regions or classes — is merely one of the intended effects of the enumerated and limited powers granted to the national government by conventions of the States.

One of the national government’s specified powers is the making of war. In the historical context of the adoption of the Constitution, it is clear the the purpose of the war-making power is to defend Americans and their legitimate interests: liberty generally and, among other things, the free flow of trade between American and foreign entities. The war-making power carries with it the implied power to do harm to foreigners in the course of waging war. I say that because the Framers, many of whom fought for independence from Britain, knew from experience that war, of necessity, must sometimes cause damage to the persons and property of non-combatants.

In some cases, the only way to serve the interests of Americans is to inflict deliberate damage on non-combatants. That was the case, for example, when U.S. air forces dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan’s surrender and avoid the deaths and injuries of perhaps a million Americans. Couldn’t Japan have been “quarantined” instead, once its forces had been driven back to the homeland? Perhaps, but at great cost to Americans. Luckily, in those days American leaders understood that the best way to ensure that an enemy didn’t resurrect its military power was to defeat it unconditionally and to occupy its homeland. You will have noticed that as a result, Germany and Japan are no longer military threats to the U.S., whereas Iraq remained one after the Gulf War of 1990-1991 because Saddam wasn’t deposed. Russia, which the U.S. didn’t defeat militarily — only symbolically — is resurgent militarily. China, which wasn’t even defeated symbolically in the Cold War, is similarly resurgent, and bent on regional if not global hegemony, necessarily to the detriment of Americans’ interests. To paraphrase: There is no substitute for unconditional military victory.

That is a hard and unfortunate truth, but it eludes many persons, especially those of the left. They suffer under dual illusions, namely, that the Constitution is an outmoded document and that “world opinion” trumps the Constitution and the national sovereignty created by it. Neither illusion is shared by Americans who want to live in something resembling liberty and to enjoy the advantages pertaining thereto, including prosperity.

CASUS BELLI

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the armed forces of the U.S. government (and those of other nations) had explicit and implicit justifications. The explicit justifications for the U.S. government’s actions are spelled out in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq of 2002 (AUMF). It passed the House by a vote of 296 – 133 and the Senate by a vote of 77 – 23, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 16, 2002.

There are some who focus on the “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) justification, which figures prominently in the “whereas” clauses of the AUMF. But the war, as it came to pass when Saddam failed to respond to legitimate demands spelled out in the AUMF, had a broader justification than whatever Saddam was (or wasn’t) doing with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The final “whereas” puts it succinctly: it is in the national security interests of the United States to restore international peace and security to the Persian Gulf region.

An unstated but clearly understood implication of “peace and security in the Persian Gulf region” was the security of the region’s oil supply against Saddam’s capriciousness. The mantra “no blood for oil” to the contrary notwithstanding, it is just as important to defend the livelihoods of Americans as it is to defend their lives — and in many instances it comes to the same thing.

In sum, I disregard the WMD rationale for the Iraq War. The real issue is whether the war secured the stability of the Persian Gulf region (and the Middle East in general). And if it didn’t, why did it fail to do so?

ROADS TAKEN AND NOT TAKEN

One can only speculate about what might have happened in the absence of the Iraq War. For instance, how many more Iraqis might have been killed and tortured by Saddam’s agents? How many more terrorists might have been harbored and financed by Saddam? How long might it have taken him to re-establish his WMD program or build a nuclear weapons program? Saddam, who started it all with the invasion of Kuwait, wasn’t a friend of the U.S. or the West in general. The U.S. isn’t the world’s policeman, but the U.S. government has a moral obligation to defend the interests of Americans, preemptively if necessary.

By the same token, one can only speculate about what might have happened if the U.S. government had prosecuted the war differently than it did, which was “on the cheap”. There weren’t enough boots on the ground to maintain order in the way that it was maintained by the military occupations in Germany and Japan after World War II. Had there been, there wouldn’t have been a kind of “civil war” or general chaos in Iraq after Saddam was deposed. (It was those things, as much as the supposed absence of a WMD program that turned many Americans against the war.)

Speculation aside, I supported the invasion of Iraq, the removal of Saddam, and the rout of Iraq’s armed forces with the following results in mind:

  • A firm military occupation of Iraq, for some years to come.
  • The presence in Iraq and adjacent waters and airspace of U.S. forces in enough strength to control Iraq and deter misadventures by other nations in the region (e.g., Iran and Syria) and prospective interlopers (e.g., Russia).
  • Israel’s continued survival and prosperity under the large shadow cast by U.S. forces in the region.
  • Secure production and shipment of oil from Iraq and other oil-producing nations in the region.

All of that would have happened but for (a) too few boots on the ground (later remedied in part by the “surge”); (b) premature “nation-building”, which helped to stir up various factions in Iraq; (c) Obama’s premature surrender, which he was shamed into reversing; and (d) Obama’s deal with Iran, with its bundles of cash and blind-eye enforcement that supported Iran’s rearmament and growing boldness in the region. (The idea that Iraq, under Saddam, had somehow contained Iran is baloney; Iran was contained only until its threat to go nuclear found a sucker in Obama.)

In sum, the war was only a partial success because (once again) U.S. leaders failed to wage it fully and resolutely. This was due in no small part to incessant criticism of the war, stirred up and sustained by Democrats and the media.

WHO HAD THE MORAL HIGH GROUND?

In view of the foregoing, the correct answer is: the U.S. government, or those of its leaders who approved, funded, planned, and executed the war with the aim of bringing peace and security to the Persian Gulf region for the sake of Americans’ interests.

The moral high ground was shared by those Americans who, understanding the war’s justification on grounds broader than WMD, remained steadfast in support of the war despite the tumult and shouting that arose from its opponents.

There were Americans whose support of the war was based on the claim that Saddam had ore was developing WMD, and whose support ended or became less ardent when WMD seemed not to be in evidence. I wouldn’t presume to judge them harshly for withdrawing their support, but I would judge them myopic for basing it on solely on the WMD predicate. And I would judge them harshly if they joined the outspoken opponents of the war, whose opposition I address below.

What about those Americans who supported the war simply because they believed that President Bush and his advisers “knew what they were doing” or out of a sense of patriotism? That is to say, they had no particular reason for supporting the war other than a general belief that its successful execution would be a “good thing”. None of those Americans deserves moral approbation or moral blame. They simply had better things to do with their lives than to parse the reasons for going to war and for continuing it. And it is no one’s place to judge them for not having wasted their time in thinking about something that was beyond their ability to influence. (See the discussion of “public opinion” below.)

What about those Americans who publicly opposed the war, either from the beginning or later? I cannot fault all of them for their opposition — and certainly not  those who considered the costs (human and monetary) and deemed them not worth the possible gains.

But there were (and are) others whose opposition to the war was and is problematic:

  • Critics of the apparent absence of an active WMD program in Iraq, who seized on the WMD justification and ignored (or failed to grasp) the war’s broader justification.
  • Political opportunists who simply wanted to discredit President Bush and his party, which included most Democrats (eventually), effete elites generally, and particularly most members of the academic-media-information technology complex.
  • An increasingly large share of the impressionable electorate who could not (and cannot) resist a bandwagon.
  • Reflexive pro-peace/anti-war posturing by the young, who are prone to oppose “the establishment” and to do so loudly and often violently.

The moral high ground isn’t gained by misguided criticism, posturing, joining a bandwagon, or hormonal emotionalism.

WHAT ABOUT “PUBLIC OPINION”?

Suppose you had concluded that the Iraq War was wrong because the WMD justification seemed to have been proven false as the war went on. Perhaps even than false: a fraud perpetrated by officials of the Bush administration, if not by the president himself, to push Congress and “public opinion” toward support for an invasion of Iraq.

If your main worry about Iraq, under Saddam, was the possibility that WMD would be used against Americans, the apparent falsity of the WMD claim — perhaps fraudulent falsity — might well have turned you against the war. Suppose that there were many millions of Americans like you, whose initial support of the war turned to disillusionment as evidence of an active WMD program failed to materialize. Would voicing your opinion on the matter have helped to end the war? Did you have a moral obligation to voice your opinion? And, in any event, should wars be ended because of “public opinion”? I will try to answer those questions in what follows.

The strongest case to be made for the persuasive value of voicing one’s opinion might be found in the median-voter theorem. According to Wikipedia, the median-voter theorem

“states that ‘a majority rule voting system will select the outcome most preferred by the median voter”….

The median voter theorem rests on two main assumptions, with several others detailed below. The theorem is assuming [sic] that voters can place all alternatives along a one-dimensional political spectrum. It seems plausible that voters could do this if they can clearly place political candidates on a left-to-right continuum, but this is often not the case as each party will have its own policy on each of many different issues. Similarly, in the case of a referendum, the alternatives on offer may cover more than one issue. Second, the theorem assumes that voters’ preferences are single-peaked, which means that voters have one alternative that they favor more than any other. It also assumes that voters always vote, regardless of how far the alternatives are from their own views. The median voter theorem implies that voters have an incentive to vote for their true preferences. Finally, the median voter theorem applies best to a majoritarian election system.

The article later specifies seven assumptions underlying the theorem. None of the assumptions is satisfied in the real world of American politics. Complexity never favors the truth of any proposition; it simply allows the proposition to be wrong in more ways if all of the assumptions must be true, as is the case here.

There is a weak form of the theorem, which says that

the median voter always casts his or her vote for the policy that is adopted. If there is a median voter, his or her preferred policy will beat any other alternative in a pairwise vote.

That still leaves the crucial assumption that voters are choosing between two options. This is superficially true in the case of a two-person race for office or a yes-no referendum. But, even then, a binary option usually masks non-binary ramifications that voters take into account.

In any case, it is trivially true to say that the preference of the median voter foretells the outcome of an election in a binary election, if the the outcome is decided by majority vote and there isn’t a complicating factor like the electoral college. One could say, with equal banality, that the stronger man wins the weight-lifting contest, the outcome of which determines who is the stronger man.

Why am I giving so much attention to the median-voter theorem? Because, according to a blogger whose intellectual prowess I respect, if enough Americans believe a policy of the U.S. government to be wrong, the policy might well be rescinded if the responsible elected officials (or, presumably, their prospective successors) believe that the median voter wants the policy rescinded. How would that work?

The following summary of the blogger’s case is what I gleaned from his original post on the subject and several comments and replies. I have inserted parenthetical commentary throughout.

  • The pursuit of the Iraq War after the WMD predicate for it was (seemingly) falsified — hereinafter policy X — was immoral because X led unnecessarily to casualties, devastation, and other costs. (As discussed above, there were other predicates for X and other consequences of X, some of them good, but they don’t seem to matter to the blogger.)
  • Because X was immoral (in the blogger’s reckoning), X should have been rescinded.
  • Rescission would have (might have?/should have?) occurred through the operation of the median-voter theorem if enough persons had made known their opposition to X. (How might the median-voter theorem have applied when X wasn’t on a ballot? See below.)
  • Any person who had taken the time to consider X (taking into account only the WMD predicate and unequivocally bad consequences) could only have deemed it immoral. (The blogger originally excused persons who deemed X proper, but later made a statement equivalent to the preceding sentence. This is a variant of “heads, I win; tails, you lose”.)
  • Having deemed X immoral, a person (i.e., a competent, adult American) would have been morally obliged to make known his opposition to X. Even if the person didn’t know of the spurious median-voter theorem, his opposition to X (which wasn’t on a ballot) would somehow have become known and counted (perhaps in a biased opinion poll conducted by an entity opposed to X) and would therefore have helped to move the median stance of the (selectively) polled fragment of the populace toward opposition to X, whereupon X would be rescinded, according to the median-voter theorem. (Or perhaps vociferous opposition, expressed in public protests, would be reported by the media — especially by those already opposed to X — as indicative of public opinion, whether or not it represented a median view of X.)
  • Further, any competent, adult American who didn’t bother to take the time to evaluate X would have been morally complicit in the continuation of X. (This must be the case because the blogger says so, without knowing each person’s assessment of the slim chance that his view of the matter would affect X, or the opportunity costs of evaluating X and expressing his view of it.)
  • So the only moral course of action, according to the blogger, was for every competent, adult American to have taken the time to evaluate X (in terms of the WMD predicate), to have deemed it immoral (there being no other choice given the constraint just mentioned), and to have made known his opposition to the policy. (This despite the fact that most competent, adult Americans know viscerally or from experience that the median-voter theorem is hooey — more about that below — and that it would therefore have been a waste of their time to get worked up about a policy that wasn’t unambiguously immoral. Further, they were and are rightly reluctant to align themselves with howling mobs and biased media — even by implication, as in a letter to the editor — in protest of a policy that wasn’t unambiguously immoral.)
  • Then, X (which wasn’t on a ballot) would have been rescinded, pursuant to the median-voter theorem (or, properly, the outraged/vociferous-pollee/protester-biased pollster/media theorem). (Except that X wasn’t, in fact, rescinded despite massive outpourings of outrage by small fractions of the populace, which were gleefully reflected in biased polls and reported by biased media. Nor was it rescinded by implication when President Bush was up for re-election — he won. It might have been rescinded by implication when the Bush was succeeded by Obama — an opponent of X — but there were many reasons other than X for Obama’s victory: mainly the financial crisis, McCain’s lame candidacy, and a desire by many voters to signal — to themselves, at least — their non-racism by voting for Obama. And X wasn’t doing all that badly at the time of Obama’s election because of the troop “surge” authorized by Bush. Further, Obama’s later attempt to rescind X had consequences that caused him to reverse his attempted rescission, regardless of any lingering opposition to X.)

What about other salient, non-ballot issues? Does “public opinion” make a difference? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Obamacare, for example, was widely opposed until it was enacted by Congress and signed into law by Obama. It suddenly became popular because much of the populace wants to be on the “winning side” of an issue. (So much for the moral value of public opinion.) Similarly, abortion was widely deemed to be immoral until the Supreme Court legalized it. Suddenly, it began to become acceptable according to “public opinion”. I could go on an on, but you get the idea: Public opinion often follows policy rather than leading it, and its moral value is dubious in any event.

But what about cases where government policy shifted in the aftermath of widespread demonstrations and protests? Did demonstrations and protests lead to the enactment of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s? Did they cause the U.S. government to surrender, in effect, to North Vietnam? No and no. From where I sat — and I was a politically aware, voting-age, adult American of the “liberal” persuasion at the time of those events — public opinion had little effect on the officials who were responsible for the Civil Rights Acts or the bug-out from Vietnam.

The civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t yield results until years after their inception. And those results didn’t (at the time, at least) represent the views of most Americans who (I submit) were either indifferent or hostile to the advancement of blacks and to the anti-patriotic undertones of the anti-war movement. In both cases, mass protests were used by the media (and incited by the promise of media attention) to shame responsible officials into acting as media elites wanted them to.

Further, it is a mistake to assume that the resulting changes in law (writ broadly to include policy) were necessarily good changes. The stampede to enact civil-rights laws in the 1960s, which hinged not so much on mass protests but on LBJ”s “white guilt” and powers of persuasion, resulted in the political suppression of an entire region, the loss of property rights, and the denial of freedom of association. (See, for example, Christopher Caldwell’s “The Roots of Our Partisan Divide“, Imprimis, February 2020.)

The bug-out from Vietnam foretold the U.S. government’s fecklessness in the Iran hostage crisis; the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon after the bombing of Marine barracks there; the failure of G.H.W. Bush to depose Saddam when it would have been easy to do so; the legalistic response to the World Trade Center bombing; the humiliating affair in Somalia; Clinton’s failure to take out Osama bin Laden; Clinton’s tepid response to Saddam’s provocations; nation-building (vice military occupation) in Iraq; and Obama’s attempt to pry defeat from the jaws of something resembling victory in Iraq.

All of that, and more, is symptomatic of the influence that “liberal” elites came to exert on American foreign and defense policy after World War II. Public opinion has been a side show, and protestors have been useful idiots to the cause of “liberal internationalism”, that is, the surrender of Americans’ economic and security interests for the sake of various rapprochements toward “allies” who scorn America when it veers ever so slightly from the road to serfdom, and enemies — Russia and China — who have never changed their spots, despite “liberal” wishful thinking. Handing America’s manufacturing base to China in the name of free trade is of a piece with all the rest.

IN CONCLUSION . . .

It is irresponsible to call a policy immoral without evaluating all of its predicates and consequences. One might as well call the Allied leaders of World War II immoral because they chose war — with all of its predictably terrible consequences — rather than abject surrender.

It is fatuous to ascribe immorality to anyone who was supportive of or indifferent to the war. One might as well ascribe immorality to the economic and political ignoramuses who failed to see that FDR’s policies would prolong the Great Depression, that Social Security and its progeny (Medicare and Medicaid) would become entitlements that paved the way for the central government’s commandeering of vast portions of the economy, or that the so-called social safety net would discourage work and permanently depress economic growth in America.

If I were in the business of issuing moral judgments about the Iraq War, I would condemn the strident anti-war faction for its perfidy.