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War talk

Last week, Slate published a list of various more-or-less known people's views on the prospect of war in Iraq. It's kind of a long list, and for me at least got pretty tedious by the end. It's not that I feel all that overwhelmed by or sick of all this war talk, I think; it's just that so much of it is based purely on politics, and so little on facts.

There's good reason for that, of course — no one really has the facts. It's inevitable that whether or not you trust George Bush and his administration will be a large factor in whether you agree that war is necessary, because there just isn't all that much else to go on. (Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. was helpful, but not completely convincing (especially if you didn't already trust the administration to begin with).) The opinions all seem to come down to, "Yes, I believe that George Bush honestly believes Saddam Hussein is a threat to world security," or, "No, I don't trust Bush, and I think he's making all this up to [choose one or more:] give free oil to his buddies/win reelection/avenge his daddy/prop up his raging ego." Are these interesting? No, not really; there isn't really any good argument you can make one way or the other for most of them. (Sorry, circumstantial evidence just doesn't cut it.)

What's more, answers to the question, Is war in Iraq a good idea, have a number of permutations. Is that a question about what the U.N. should do? What Bush should do? What you or I, as citizens of the world, should support or oppose? Or you or I should support as members of particular geopolitical groups? When stating their opinion, people inevitably tend to only answer one of these questions, and not always the same one. And the answers to each are all different. Even if there were a consensus on the answer to each actual, well-defined question, we still might all sound like we disagree.

Ideally, of course, we would all agree that one or another of those sub-questions was the relevant one. Presumably, that one would be the broadest one: what we as citizens of the world should support. And the answer would be decided by our knowledge of the relevant alternatives — how the world would be in 10 or 20 or however many years if there is a war; and how it would be if there isn't.

If we agree that that's the right question, then the only worthwhile arguments for or against war will be those that help understand those alternatives; everything else is liable to be politics. But even if we were to agree on the question, we'd still be a long way from an answer: Who could possibly know what the world will be like, either way? There are far too many variables, and too many of them are incalculable.

In principle, you should always be able to decide what you think about something, based on whatever evidence you have available to you. (In principle, it is also a good thing to change your view as you learn of additional evidence.) So I have a belief about the possibility of war. But given how little evidence it's based on, I don't see how it's interesting; there's nothing compelling about it.

(I happen to believe that there is a genuine risk that Saddam could acquire nuclear weapons one way or another, and that, were he to do so, at best there would be virtually no hope for stability in the Middle East for decades. I also do not believe that, with Saddam still in power, the West could afford to lift sanctions or remove weapons inspectors, and that the collective costs of Saddam's continued rule, to the world and to the Iraqi people, over time, would be substantial, and would ultimately outweigh those of a (hopefully brief) war. So I suspect war, horrific as it is, is preferable to the alternative. But of course I don't really know any of those things; I don't know the actual likelihood of Saddam acquiring nuclear weapons, and I also don't know that a U.S.-led war in Iraq wouldn't also result in serious long-term hardships within Iraq, or destabilize the entire region (presumably by upsetting a government or two) for decades to come.)

And I don't know that anyone could really answer that question. Bush, and his colleagues in the U.N. Security Council, will have to decide one way or the other, and one can only hope that they know more about this, and the likely relevant outcomes of each alternative, than I at least do (and that they seek an honest answer to the important question).

So I don't think the question to talk about, standing here on the sidelines, is whether Bush and the U.N. should go to war. Bush is right that the uninformed opinion of the world's public isn't high up on the list of appropriate considerations for a decision like this; we just don't know enough about it to help. And this is simply too important a question to derive an answer purely from one's political beliefs; at some point the world's interests must outweigh one's personal wishes for a certain result in the next election.

What we can and should be focusing on, I think, is not the decision itself, but how the world's leaders are going about making it. We can see it going on, on TV and in the papers every day; and we can see whether the world is acting together, for the world's best interests, or if various individual powers are driving it apart to further their own. The process itself can and will have its own repercussions on world affairs. And as thinking, speaking (and publishing), and voting members of the world community, we not only know a thing or two about the likely consequences of a failed process, they are in fact largely up to us.

February 24, 2003 12:59 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

it's difficult to dispute that saddam has chemical weapons and needs to be removed, but i say war should be avoided. if war and triumph, then what? protracted foreign occupational gov't led by a u.s. general? i see more enemies and a financial and human-life drain ... no way to stabilize the region and make friends. can someone tell me why the u.s. can't camp out indefinitely? attack only until attacked? the only way to "win" is to enlist the world community, arabs included, and do the sneaky, subverted things that will foster a coup. it's cheaper than the ravages of war, we'll keep/make more int'l friends, and it's far less horrific and anachronistic than an all-out preemptive offensive invasion. it's an earnest question. am i missing something that u alls got from your private educations?

Posted by dan on February 24, 2003 2:49 PM

the only way to "win" is to enlist the world community, arabs included, and do the sneaky, subverted things that will foster a coup.

I imagine that's already being done to whatever extent it can be -- and the threat of imminent military action is no doubt being used within this sort of effort as well. But it's not clear how likely it is that the strategy would work; by all accounts, Saddam has a pretty tight grip on the reins of power. I agree, though, it'd be a far preferable strategy, if it worked.

(See also this report in the Guardian, alleging that Saddam arrested his own defense minister out of concern for his lack of loyalty.)

Posted by M on February 25, 2003 12:03 AM

I'm going to zero-in on a sub-theme of this post:

But given how little evidence it's based on, I don't see how it's interesting; there's nothing compelling about it.

But isn't it simply a fact of the world that sometimes you have to make decisions based on incomplete evidence? Maybe you're only addressing the kind of armchair punditry that goes on in the mediasphere, and if so that's understandble, though it still seems limiting.

Moreover, though & on the other hand, isn't it when the evidence is most disputed, that is, most incomplete, most circumstantial, that debate becomes most important?

Or maybe I'm simply skimming too quickly. Feel free to say "stfu why dont u red what i say heh. stfu."

Posted by claxy on February 25, 2003 11:59 AM

But isn't it simply a fact of the world that sometimes you have to make decisions based on incomplete evidence?

I absolutely agree that someone's going to have to make a decision. I just don't know that, with what you and I and the rest of the civilians in the world know, we can say what that decision should be ourselves. There are too many unknown variables.

If we can determine some of those variables, that's worthwhile, of course. But drawing overall conclusions about the war -- saying, we should, or we shouldn't -- doesn't seem useful to me; it only amounts to so much stabbing around in the dark. (But I do think there is something useful we can do, which is, let the world leaders arrive at the decision (based on information we simply don't have), but say what we think of how they go about it.)

Posted by M on February 25, 2003 12:20 PM

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