Could the Iraq War have been prevented?

In the comments to a post on Republican obstructionism, my old colleague Will Roberts proposes the following historical counterfactual: if the American left had been willing to fight harder and dirtier, they could have prevented or arrested the war in Iraq.

He goes on to propose a variety of actions that might have achieved this goal:

A million people showed up in New York — and at least half that number in DC — to commiserate about our powerlessness. We had immense wealth at our disposal. We had fame and access to the media. We had access to positions of economic, infrastructural, and governmental power. And all you can think of is assassinations?

Would it have destroyed the legitimacy of the anti-war movement if ten thousand people had burned down their own houses in protest? If 500 people had shut down I-80 in Pennsylvania for a week? If a thousand people had invaded the White House? If a few Senators had shut down the Senate? If all those anti-war actors had used every single public appearance to speak out against the war? If anti-war folks had joined the military in large numbers in order to disrupt military bases from within?

I have no idea if any of these things would have “worked.” But I think we all felt powerless from the get go, and came to an a priori judgment that there was nothing we could do that wouldn’t a) be futile and b) make things worse by causing more harm to us/the economy/our legitimacy/whatever. But that’s precisely the thinking that I’m both tired of engaging in and convinced does nothing but guarantee political impotence.

Right now, I am tempted and troubled by defeatism: basically, given the structure of American government, the political culture after September 11, and the various incentives and pressures that operate on American politicians, nothing that citizens could have done would have prevented our disastrous, unjust, and illegal “pre-emptive” invasion in Iraq. Each of the actions Will outlines seem likely to have provoked and empowered the hawkish politicians, supplying them opportunities to discredit the anti-war left and gather more support for their policy goals and objectives. I suspect that each of these strategies would have failed. Just shooting from the hip:

  • Arson is illegal, so the first twenty people who burnt down their houses would end up in jail, especially if they still had mortgages. (There’s a guy who demolished his house after it was foreclosed… same problem.)
  • The 500 folks who shut down I-80 would be met by 150 SWAT and end up in jail while moderates distanced themselves from the movement.
  • Post 9/11, I’m not sure how the left would have gotten 1000 people into the White House or what they’d hope to accomplish there…. It’s not like the war was actually being run from the West Wing, this is what the Pentagon is for. Plus, in the midst of their planning they’d be infiltrated by FBI/Homeland Security who would “discover” (or actually discover, given Will’s other recommendations) that the activists were planning violence and arrest them. This is basically what happened to the much less radical NYC Republican convention protesters.
  • It’d have been interesting if a few Senators shut down the Senate the way that the Republicans have begun doing, but this isn’t citizen engagement and actual Senators have shown themselves to always be more committed to re-election or retirement than their constituents’ causes.
  • Actors with “anti-American” opinions? A time-tested, bad strategy, which has always proven counter-productive.
  • Join the military? Now your body belongs to the Army and they can separate the activists and pack them off to the front lines with hooah patriots.

This list is better than an abstract call for concrete action insofar as it’s not a performative contradiction, but I don’t think Will offers any suggestions that seems likely to have succeeded, that couldn’t have been co-opted, and that wouldn’t, for instance, have won the 2008 election for McCain/Palin or justified major crackdowns that would have made things worse before they got disastrous.

What’s more, leftist violence in general would be no more successful that the rightist violence of the radical fringe among the Tea Party protesters. This is basically why Kantian/Rawlsian public reason is so seductive: even if you have radical goals and are willing to consider extreme methods, political liberalism still presents itself as the best strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.

However, I don’t really want to believe that citizens are as powerless as this, though wanting doesn’t make it true. So I ask: what could we have done to prevent or end the war? Some of this depends on how we describe this “we”: President Bush could have prevented the war, for instance, by the simple expedient of not launching it. The Republicans could have prevented the war by refusing to support it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented the war by handing himself over to a war crimes tribunal. But given that those actors were set in their course, what could the antiwar left have done?

I’m not talking about what the American antiwar movement actually did: protesting ineffectually while our politicians played patriots, supported the war, and waited five years to elect Barack Obama in the hopes that he’ll manage to withdraw American troops? (I say “hope” because even now it’s not clear if the conflict over election results will lead to violence and a longer duration of “peacekeeping.” But this waiting until we get the presidency back and he’s finished mopping up his predecessor’s mess certainly can’t count as “prevention.”) What could we–no–what should we have done differently?

Is Moral Progress Due to Moral Imagination or Condemnation?

Throughout the nineties, and to some extent in the last decade, there has been a certain brand of political thinker who just can’t imagine the motivation for cruelty. So alien is the concept that these folks (Richard Rorty and Judith Butler, for instance) have developed a deflationary theory of moral philosophy that simply advises us to identify with the Other. Perhaps driven by their emigration to literature and rhetoric departments, they advocated the substitution of fiction (think Precious or Slumdog Millionaire) for ethical inquiry. The novel and the memoir were meant to replace Mill and Kant.

On this topic, my friend Michael Sigrist at Ends of Thought writes that the latest has it wrong. Where Robert Wright and Steve Pinker hold that the moral progress we’ve seen has been due to our growing technological and institutional capacity to imagine ourselves as someone else and to understand that they suffer when we are cruel to them, Sigrist counters that any moral progress can only be attributed to the growth of norms of outrage and condemnation for cruelty. Though I think this is right, I would add that condemnation is a luxury, literally, in the sense that moral progress is a side effect of affluence, and the casualty of poverty.

Sigrist is certainly right in his evaluation of the moral psychology. The theory of moral progress through an ‘enlarged mentality’ enabled by increased access to images and narratives that force us to acknowledge the humanity of the Other is pure bunk. The impetus for decency does not come from imagined access to another’s mental states. Empathy just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

In cruel acts, I take pleasure in the fact that I can empathize with your pain, helplessness and humiliation, I put myself in your shoes, understand that you are suffering, and delight in being the agent of that suffering. Such cruelty is not a failure of moral imagination or empathy, but a result.

That’s obviously true. Cruelty is a pointless waste of effort if the perpetrator doesn’t even acknowledge the suffering she’s causing. Yet we continue to assure ourselves otherwise, because empathy combined with decency is an asset in our culture. We remind ourselves just how incomprehensible cruelty is, and that all evil acts are the result of a kind of ignorance. Thus we fail to comprehend it and are left in the dark about the very phenomenon under investigation. In fact, it’s really our failure to imagine the mindset of the torturer or the genocidaire that allows us to maintain this premise. I find it supremely ironic that proponents of moral imagination are so bad at it. In a way, it’s laudable. We tell ourselves that human beings are basically decent, because we want to signal to ourselves and others just how decent we are.

Unfortunately, I think that Sigrist is a little too Pollyanna-ish in his claim that cruelty has become truly rare, even though Steven Pinker is clearly right that the population-wide incidence has dropped off. Sigrist takes this a bit too far:

Only in the darkest depths of Hitler’s genocide in Eastern Europe or Stalin’s in the Soviet Russian Empire has anything approaching routine standards of ancient cruelty been witnessed by any living human.

This just isn’t true, but the error is illuminating. We don’t see that kind of routine cruelty IN EUROPE except under totalitarian regimes, but this mass cruelty has popped up throughout the globe in the last century with pretty jarring regularity. The genocide of ethnic minorities in Cambodia and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the brutal genocide of Tutsi minorities in Rwanda, the use of amputation as a terror tactic in Ivory Coast and Somalia, disappearances and political torture in Chile, Argentina, and South Africa, rape camps in Bosnia, the janjaweed in Sudan, our own use of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. (The worst thing is that in making this list I’m sure I’m leaving things out….)

It doesn’t really make sense for Sigrist to ignore most of these because they’re not acts of out-group cruelty: with the exception of the behavior of the Indonesians in East Timor and our own behavior in Iraq, they seem to prove his thesis: they are all examples of people who have had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other, people who ought, by rights, to have the requisite moral imagination to see that the people they were torturing and killing were human beings who suffered like themselves. Each of these moments are moments in which our condemnations broke down, when new allegiances formed new in-groups, deserving respect and especially revenge, and out-groups against whom acts of cruelty were no longer morally relevant or shameful.

If we’re looking for a generic explanation for these acts of cruelty, we’ll be doing a disservice to each of them, which is something a decent person generally shouldn’t do. But I think we’re obligated by decency to quell our desire to seem decent, and so I’ll repeat my claim (grounded in work done by Paul Collier) that condemnation-free cruelty occurs in transitional democracies where absolute poverty levels are too great:

We so want to believe that elections foster peace that we assume it must be true. Unfortunately, the effect of democracy on the risk of political violence depends on a country’s income. Above $2,700 per capita, democracies are less prone to violence than are autocracies. But most political violence happens in countries where income is far below that threshold; there, democracy is associated with a greater risk of bloodshed.

Rich countries that transition to democratic institutions after having created relative wealth simply don’t treat each other the same way as poor countries forced into elections and allegedly democratic institutions without any of the prerequisites like parties or a public sphere.

One reason that most human rights activists eschew any heavy metaphysics in favor of mobilizing outrage, is that there doesn’t seem to be any non-moral reason for moral obligations not to torture each other. Without a rational basis, we’re thrown back onto the moral imagination, which Sigrist rightly notes oculd just as easily lead to cruelty as decency. If it’s shame that does the work in preventing cruelty, and only condemnation can produce shame, the question is: what produces condemnation? What causes an in-group authority to condemn cruelty against out-group victims without actually inviting them into our in-group? Which comes first, the empathy or the condemnation?

Here it helps to note that all moral imagination theories are not created equal. Martha Nussbaum’s version of the moral imagination, as articulated in her essay “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible,” uses Henry James’ fiction to demonstrate the way in which ethical reasoning begins with examples and particular cases before it can work up to rules and principles. That’s a much better and more subtle claim than Rorty’s assertion that reading novels teaches empathy, but that teaching human rights doesn’t. Thinking about moral questions in a selfish mode leads to the development of principles with an obvious extension to others, and the challenges of generalizing our own rights-demands leads to a willingness to condemn. (This is what we call reflective equilibrium.)

Robert Goodin has also taken a swing at the role of imagination, in his case in the development of adequate prerequisites for democratic deliberation. He proposes a kind of internal dialogue with the imagined Other in his essay “Democratic Deliberation Within,” but he concludes that reading fiction or seeing news reports won’t do nearly the kind of work of actual encounters:

It is obviously far easier to imagine what the world looks like from the perspective of a black person or an immigrant or a person from some religious minority if you actually know people like that personally. [S]ocial mixing… constitutes a necessary first step towards firing the imagination in the ways that ‘democratic deliberation within’ would require.

This is known as the ‘contact theory’ and its been largely discredited in school desegregation, at least in the short term. ‘Social mixing’ doesn’t produce empathy all by itself, and at the margins it appears to exacerbate interracial mistrust. Because group members come to each other as competitors for the scarce resource of respect and deference, with ready-made in-group solidarities in the marked differences of race, national origin, or religious affiliation, predictable game theoretical competition results.

Though contact generally leads to an increase in negative judgments of out-groups, there is some evidence that a properly structured school with opportunities for dialogue may be able to trump the general distrust that attends busing. There is also evidence that affluent school districts where bused students suffer wealth inequalities do much, much worse. The structured opportunity for racial dialogue  requires more than just rubbing elbows, it requires students to exchange reasons and engage in full blown ‘external’ deliberation, and it requires moderation, with condemnation for hate speech so that the opportunities for dialogue don’t really model affective moral imagination at all: they model norm setting and rationality!

Obviously, I side with Habermas in these issues: the prerequisite for decency is a reasonably accessible public sphere where widespread agreement on normative standards can emerge. That space can’t work if participants are weighed down by absolute poverty or massive relative inequality. Deliberation is a luxury, available only in relatively affluent societies, which produces consensus on cruelty as shameful. Recognizing that forces us to confront just how contingent our anti-cruelty feelings really are. Predictably, the contingency of our decency standards is what drives so much of this attempt to identify a middle-ground theory based in moral psychology or speech act theory. The result of all this contingency is also predictable: such middle-ground theories inevitably fail. Without any effort to think consistently about what a right is, rights-claims and the attendant outrage can attach as a free-floating signifier to almost anything, including mutually incommensurable rights. Though deliberation can produce a widespread consensus on the existence of outrageous rights-violations, it ends up asserting a dogmatic overlapping consensus and treating theoretical disagreements, including efforts to point out its contingency, as if they undermine the anti-cruelty standards we’ve bought ourselves with our affluence. The terrible thing about these condemnations of further inquiry is that they just might be right: cruelty is entirely too easy to imagine if you are willing to try.

Army of Dude

This blog was posted over at metafilter and got deleted for being too political, but I like it:

Do you know what the light at the end of the tunnel is for us?
Yeah, food. When we’re on patrols and house clearing missions, what’s keeping us going is not the promise of freedom and democracy in Iraq. It’s the vision of hamburgers, fries and ice cream. I can live without a market based economy in the Middle East, but I can’t live without a toasted ham sandwich. Several times we have raced back to the base to get to the dining hall as it closed. Something to eat is the high point of the day. Imagine the low points.


A tale of revenge within the Shiite community in Iraq, from Jon Lee Anderson’s “Inside the Surge“:

Amar was a lifelong friend of Karim’s. Three months earlier, Amar and his older brother, Jafaar, had been riding in the van of a friend, Sayeed, when a group of gunmen hailed them. Amar recognized them as Mahdi Army men, and assumed that they were coming to say hello. As Sayeed braked, the car was riddled with gunfire. Amar crouched as low as he could, as the Mahdi Army men emptied their Kalashnikovs. He was unhurt, but Jafaar and Sayeed were dead.

That night, Amar told Karim that, at the morgue, he had sworn over his brother’s body to take revenge. He had vowed to kill a hundred Mahdi men—ten for each of Jafaar’s fingers. His mother, Um Jafaar, supported him, and begged Karim to help her son. He agreed. Continue reading Vendettas

Democrats are on the wrong side of Iraq consensus

There is a consensus forming about Iraq, and increasingly I suspect that the Democratic party is on the wrong side of it. The consensus is this: though we were certainly the cause of the current instability in the country, the violence is not principally directed towards American forces. In light of that fact, David Ignatius at the Washington Post has this suggestion: military triage. Continue reading Democrats are on the wrong side of Iraq consensus