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December 17, 2009

Retrospective Justifications for Controversial Wars, Part II
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Spencer Ackerman and Eric Martin both strongly object to my post on “retrospective justifications” for the Iraq war, and call attention to one sentence in particular: “I think it’s undoubtedly true that Iraq – and the Middle East – is better off now than it was under Saddam and than it would have been had Saddam not been removed from power,” which, granted, could have been worded differently. Spencer:

Shadi says he wants to engage in a thought experiment about what would make the war retroactively justified. Yet he lists precisely none of these relevant considerations in his post. This is neither history nor philosophy. It’s blithe indifference to the overwhelming human costs of war masquerading as concern for human rights.

And when Eric Martin started off by saying that he “enjoy[s] immensely” my work, I knew that I was in for some trouble. He says I “whistle past one enormous and awe-inspiring graveyard” and “elide the enormous human tragedy" and later says that I am "unrepentant" (Hmm. I was against the war all the way through, so I'm not sure what it is I have to repent for).

Unfortunately, Spencer and Eric both seem to misunderstand the whole point of my post, which was that even though Iraq and Iraqis are better off now than under Saddam, this does not justify the war. Saying that Iraqis are better off is not the same thing as saying the war was justified, and it is precisely this “conundrum” that provokes a number of interesting questions, both philosophical and practical, about how we conceive the “just war.”

Many progressives, including those in the blogosphere, initially supported the war and, to their credit, admitted early on that they were wrong; their position evolved as they saw the horrors of war. It evolved precisely because they saw the consequences – tens of thousands of lives lost, untold destruction, and the pernicious effects the war had on our other interests in the region. So, the consequences are what caused many proponents of the war to turn against it.

But what if the consequences had been different? What if there was minimal loss of life; what if sectarian violence had remained limited; what if the transition to self-government had happened relatively smoothly, with the support of the vast majority of Iraqis; what if AQI never gained a foothold; and, finally, what if the insurgency never happened? Would they have turned to opposing the war, or would they have continued to support it? This is, and was, the problem with consequentialist (and retrospective) arguments against the war. They were based, too often, not on the war itself, but on what the war had become, but to oppose the latter is not necessarily to oppose the former.  


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That's a relief Shadi. Glad it was a misunderstanding, but since Spencer, Jay Sigger and I all read the post the wrong way, I'll blame the author for the confusion ;)

Quote "Unfortunately, Spencer and Eric both seem to misunderstand the whole point of my post, which was that even though Iraq and Iraqis are better off now than under Saddam, this does not justify the war."

To me what you are saying, and what prompted the posts you comment upon, is that "Iraq and Iraqis are better off now than under Saddam," which clearly is a statement devoid of empirical evidence. In other words, the devastation of the country, the multitude of innocent lifes losts, the size of the exodus of refugees, et cetera, this all is ignored by you. That is what people were trying to get across. Any justification is irrelevant to the huge costs the Iraqi citizens have paid. Whether the equation, including the points mentioned, ends up with a positive balance is highly doubtful and should be taken into account.

Actually, on re-reading this, I do still have a bone to pick.

My argument was with your statement that Iraqis are better off now.

My counterpoint was that the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis aren't really all that better off, considering they're dead. So, regardless of whether or not the war was justified (or could gain justification or denunciation by pointing to the consequences), your statement that Iraqis are better off is incorrect - and certainly not "undoubtedly" true.

Scenario: We drive to a bar, get blindingly drunk, and wrap the car around a telephone pole on the way home. We can agree that that was a bad idea.

"But," you ask, "what if the consequences had been different?" My answer is that a bad idea is a bad idea, even if you happen to get lucky.

I think that, other things being equal, peace is preferable to war. This means that the burden of proof is on those advocating war to show that it is a good idea under the particular circumstances at hand. So in 2003, I felt that Bush shouldn't invade Iraq unless he was prepared to present a plausible case that invading Iraq was in America's national interest. I stand by that, and would stand by that even if the outcome of the war had been better. Before leading the United States into a war, a President should think long and hard about it, and explain his reasons to the American people.

As far as I know from as early as April 2003 onward Blair's retrospective justifications and statements were beset by the most withering scrutiny.

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