Tag: war in iraq

Libya, Limited Government, and Imperfect Duties

Glenn Greenwald observes that we’re hearing a familiar false dilemma from advocates of intervention in Libya—the same one that was trotted out so frequently in the run-up to the war in Iraq: Either you support American military action, or you must be indifferent to the suffering of civilians under Qadaffi. Bracket for a moment the obvious empirical questions about the general efficacy of bombs as reliable means of alleviating suffering. What I find striking is the background assumption that whether the United States military has a role to play here is taken to be a simple function of how much we care about other people’s suffering. One obvious answer is that caring or not caring simply doesn’t come into it: That the function of the U.S. military is to protect the vital interests of the United States, and that it is for this specific purpose that billions of tax dollars are extracted from American citizens, and for which young men and women have volunteered to risk their lives. It is not a general-purpose pool of resources to be drawn on for promoting desirable outcomes around the world.

A parallel argument is quite familiar on the domestic front, however. Pick any morally unattractive outcome or situation, and you will find someone ready to argue that if the federal government plausibly could do something to remedy it, then anyone who denies the federal government should act must simply be indifferent to the problem. My sense is that many more people tend to find this sort of argument convincing in domestic affairs precisely because we seem to have effectively abandoned the conception of the federal government as an entity with clear and defined powers and purposes. We debate whether a particular program will be effective or worth the cost, but over the course of the 20th century, the notion that such debates should be limited to enumerated government functions largely fell out of fashion. Most people—or at least most public intellectuals and policy advocates—now seem to think of Congress as a kind of all-purpose problem solving committee. And I can’t help but suspect that the two are linked. Duties and obligations may be specific, but morality is universal: Other things equal, the suffering of a person in Lebanon counts just as much as that of a person in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Once we abandon the idea of a limited government with defined powers—justified by reference to a narrow set of functions specified in advance—and instead see it as imbued with a general mandate to do good, it’s much harder for a moral cosmopolitan to resist making the scope of that mandate global, at least in principle.

An analogy with private ethics seems instructive. Most people would probably agree that the well-off have some obligation—as a matter of personal morality, if not “social justice”—to use some portion of their wealth to help the less fortunate. But with respect to humanity in general, we generally treat this as an “imperfect duty,” to use Kant’s phrase. That is, someone might well say: “You really are so rich that you ought to be giving a larger percentage of your income to charity.” But as we scarcely expect anyone to contribute to every worthy cause, any dispute here would properly be about what is an adequate total amount to give, and what general priorities that giving should follow. Someone who gives far less than they could easily afford might be charged with “not caring enough about the badly-off” in general, but it would be bizarre to charge someone with indifference to the plight of Steve in Albuquerque if their (otherwise adequate, by whatever standard you accept) charitable giving did not include an earmark to help poor Steve with his medical bills. Steve’s friends and relatives might owe him a specific duty of assistance, but for everyone else, the only legitimate question is whether they’re doing as much as ethics requires on the whole. With that in mind, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait seems to me to be rather missing the point in this blog post:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there’s no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children’s health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we’re covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Chait is surely right that our failure to intervene in other cases, or to prevent global suffering by other means, doesn’t exactly prove anything about this case. Perhaps those other cases are different, for either practical or moral reasons, or perhaps we simply fail to act in many cases where we ought to. But he’s surely wrong—and I think tellingly wrong—to reject the implicit demand for a general principle to govern those interventions, whether military or otherwise.

Stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that Americans do have some collective obligation to prevent suffering elsewhere in the world, and that this obligation is properly met, at least in part, via government. (Perhaps because governments are uniquely able to remedy certain kinds of suffering—such as those requiring the mobilization of a military.) Given that we have finite resources, surely the worst possible way to go about this is by making a series of ad hoc judgments about particular cases—the “how much do I care about Steve?” method. The refusal to consider whatever global duty we might have holistically is precisely what leads to irrational allocations—like spending billions to protect civilians and rebel troops in Libya when many more lives would be saved (again, let’s suppose for the sake of argument) by far less costly malaria eradication efforts. Unless there’s an argument that we have some specific or special obligation to people in Libya—and I certainly haven’t seen it—then any claim about our obligation to intervene in this case is, necessarily, just a specific application of some broader principle about our obligation to alleviate global suffering generally. The suggestion that we ought to evaluate this case in a vacuum, then, starts to seem awfully strange, because if we are ever going to intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons (rather than to protect vital security interests), then the standard for when to do so has to be, in part, a function of the aggregate demands whatever standard we pick would place on our limited resources.

Reading between the lines slightly, here’s what I suspect is behind Chait’s rejection of a more holistic approach. (I hate putting words in people’s mouths, and encourage people to read the full post and judge for themselves, but I don’t think I’m stretching very far here.) Politically, we seem to be rather perversely amenable to pursuing putative humanitarian goals when this entails dropping bombs at massive cost—at least in cases that trigger our collective attention for whatever reason—than we are to more prosaic (and less lethal) interventions, even when these save more lives at lower cost. Chait infers—perhaps correctly—that Americans would reject any general, cost/benefit sensitive principle of intervention that could possibly justify action in this instance. Since Chait thinks Americans aren’t sufficiently willing to risk lives and money on behalf of foreigners as a general matter, but will occasionally go along with an insanely expensive intervention in particular stirring cases, he’d rather not have to generalize explicitly, because the ad hoc approach gets us closer to the level of assistance he thinks is morally required than any politically viable neutral rule.

Those of us who cherish the principle of limited government sometimes conflate it with our specific conception of what the limits should be—we have in mind a particular set of functions that government is uniquely qualified to take on, for one reason or another. But implicit in these last few paragraphs, I think, is a distinct and more abstract argument rooted in a particular ideal of democratic deliberation—one that is in theory equally compatible with any number of different views about the proper role and functions of government. We all know that individuals often make quite different choices on a case-by-case basis than when they formulate general rules of action based on a longer view. We routinely make meta-choices designed to prevent ourselves from making micro-choices not conducive to our interests in the aggregate: We throw out the smokes and the sweets in the cupboard, and even install software that keeps us from surfing the Internet when we’re trying to get work done. Faced with a Twinkie or a hilarious YouTube clip, we may predict that we will often make choices that, when they’re all added up, conflict with our other long-term goals. Marketers, by contrast, often try to induce us to make snap decisions or impulse purchases when, in a cool hour of deliberation, we’d conclude their product isn’t the best use of our money.

Following a diet or a budget is one form of choice; so is the impulse buy or the fast food snack. The meta-choice about which kind of choice to make depends on a judgement about which best comports with one’s ideal of rational autonomy given the facts of human psychology. A marketer who hopes to trigger an impulse buy can legitimately say he’s giving consumers what they choose, but there’s a clear sense in which someone acting in accordance with a general rule, formulated with a view to long-term tradeoffs, often chooses in a more deliberative and fully autonomous fashion than someone who does what seems most appealing in each case unfettered by such rules.

Something analogous, I want to suggest, can be said about democratic deliberation. A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

War in Iraq Not Over

President Obama will not declare “mission accomplished” in his prime-time speech on Iraq tonight, nor should he. He should not claim that a flowering democracy has been created in Iraq. He should not make unrealistic predictions about the long-term prospects for that shattered country.

The war isn’t over for the 50,000 U.S. troops left behind in Iraq. The president should recognize the sacrifice of all our troops, who have performed admirably. The war won’t be over for Americans back home until every last man and woman in uniform returns home safely from a conflict that has claimed so many lives and consumed so much treasure.

The president should reaffirm the strategic rationale for the drawdown set in motion by the Bush administration in consultation with the Iraqi government. Leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for another seven years will not make Americans safer. U.S. troops should not try to fashion a functioning state in Iraq. That task is the responsibility of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people. Likewise, our troops should not serve as Iraq’s police force.

As our troops work hard to execute their mission, however, a rising chorus of voices is working diligently against the ultimate goal of U.S. withdrawal and Iraqi self-sufficiency. Some people are advising the president to leave a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq, essentially arguing that the United States is the rightful guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty, and that the Iraqis simply can’t be trusted with security matters. The president has wisely turned aside such recommendations in the past, and should do so again.

DADT Debate

Last week military analyst Stuart Koehl had a piece at the Weekly Standard opposing the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). I wrote a response, and he posted a rebuttal. I recommend reading those pages before continuing here.

Koehl first makes the point that he was writing about “combat effectiveness” and I only addressed “readiness.” His point being that readiness is a black and white evaluation on paper – is the unit up on personnel and equipment, and have they completed necessary training prior to entering the fight? Combat effectiveness is only measured when the bullets start flying, and then in subjective terms. In response to this, I would simply reiterate everything I said in my initial response and replace “readiness” with “combat effectiveness.” We are both discussing personnel issues that impact morale and unit cohesion, and these are the intangibles that make readiness translate into combat effectiveness. My responses on the specifics below bear that out.

British and Israeli Experiences

Koehl continues to claim that the success of the British and Israeli militaries with gays serving openly does not translate into a combat effective American force where DADT has ended. I will address this on several fronts.

First, Koehl says that the British and Israeli armies have not experienced a sustained High Intensity Conflict (HIC) in recent decades, and that the Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) experience they have is not indicative of what their combat effectiveness would be in a HIC environment. For the uninitiated, HIC would be a conflict between two nation-states with uniformed armies, and LIC is all of the stuff going on now – counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and the like.

Before I get to the HIC/LIC differentiation Koehl makes, it is worth noting that we know exactly what the United States would do with regard to gays serving in the military in HIC, since we saw it in World War II. Gays served honorably throughout the war (which wasn’t all HIC, plenty of partisans fighting around the world) while their comrades suspected or knew of their sexual orientation, and were then discharged at high rates afterward.

With regard to success in LIC not translating to success in HIC, I think Koehl gets it exactly backwards. From a personnel standpoint, HIC is a lot less stressful on the force than LIC. Taking on a uniformed force in a stand-up fight that is resolved relatively quickly is less of a test of combat effectiveness than a long counterinsurgency campaign against an enemy that melts back into the population. Compare the British experience in the Falklands with their involvement in Afghanistan. Compare the Israeli incursion into Gaza in Operation Cast Lead (a high-intensity phase of an otherwise low-intensity conflict) with their occupation of Lebanon. Compare the initial invasion of Iraq to the subsequent counterinsurgency.

When you are restructuring your force to provide more “dwell time” between deployments, that is a sign that you are coming close to, as Koehl puts it, “stress[ing] combat units to the breaking point.” To say that gays may serve openly without ill effect in LIC, but that we should hold off changing our policy because we may someday have World War III against China and her allies, is ignoring the fact that combat effectiveness is tested in both low- and high-intensity conflicts and more in the wars we are fighting than in the ones we could hypothetically fight.

Koehl also dismisses the British and Israeli experience due to their smaller militaries. In terms of raw numbers, they are smaller than ours, but the per-capita rates defeat this argument. Yes, the British armed forces are smaller in absolute terms, but proportionally are only about a quarter smaller than the American military (overall population of 61 million versus 307 million). With Israel, it flips the other way. A nation of 7.3 million with over 175,000 active service members (and twice that in the reserves) has a much higher per-capita ratio of service members to the total population. Dismissing them as a “commuter” force is unpersuasive as well. When you are deployed, other soldiers’ significant others may just be a photo on the wall. When your military is fighting on home field, you will see more of your comrades’ personal lives.

Women in Combat

Koehl devotes part of his original article making a parallel between keeping DADT and excluding women from combat arms positions. He says that there will always be a small percentage of women who can equal men in the physical demands of combat, and the only reason to exclude them from combat units is the undesirable influence eros will have on combat effectiveness.

Once again, I think this is completely backwards.

First, we may be excluding women from combat arms branches, but we are certainly not excluding them from combat. The lack of a front line means that all units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan can come under sudden attack. Women are rising to the occasion. Take this combat medic who received the Silver Star for braving enemy fire to save members of her unit. Or this military policewoman who responded to an ambush by clearing two trenches and killing three insurgents in close combat. Women are serving with distinction and the units they serve in do not show reduced combat effectiveness by virtue of their presence.

Second, I think that the exclusion of women from the most physically demanding branches is appropriate and constitutional. While some women can max their physical fitness test and generally keep up with the boys, adding women to light infantry units does not make sense unless they can keep pace in the one area where women are particularly disadvantaged – moving under a heavy load. Paratrooper planning weights for combat remain around 145 lbs. Integrating women means that your battlefield calculus for foot movement is seriously impacted – can you maintain your desired rate of movement given combat load, terrain, weather, and visibility? If the answer to this is no, then integrating women in those units is a mistake. There is a serious argument that we put too much gear on the average soldier, but it’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon.

Women coming to the infantry would have to take the physical fitness test under male standards and road march without slowing down the unit. Would the military hold true to that standard if women were allowed in the combat arms? No. Is it discriminatory not to allow them in those branches? Yes. But I strongly believe that it would pass constitutional muster under the intermediate-level scrutiny used for gender-based discrimination claims.

Conclusion

Koehl admits that gays “have served in every army in every war since we began recording the history of warfare.” If that is the case, and if we can change policy without impacting American readiness – and yes, combat effectiveness – as the British and Israeli experiences show, then resistance to ending DADT seems less a matter of national security and more a political football.

Ending DADT, Again

Stuart Koehl has a piece at The Weekly Standard against ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). He presents a comprehensive set of arguments based on readiness, that ending DADT will hurt the effectiveness of the force.

I disagree, and it’s worth pointing out that he is quick to dismiss the fact that other first-rate militaries have allowed gays to serve without damaging readiness. As he puts it:

But history provides plenty of evidence that homosexuality does undermine unit cohesion.  The current practices of other armies are an experiment in progress, which should not overturn empirically proven policies.  There are also significant differences between those armies and the United States military.  The first is scale—the entire British army is barely the size of the Marine Corps, while the Israeli army is very small unless fully mobilized.  Neither the British nor the Israeli armies undertake extended overseas deployments of the length or scale of the U.S. military; Israeli army is very much a “commuter” force, with most troops living at home unless serving in the field—which is only an hour or so from home.  As a result, neither has any experience with homosexuals serving in the field for extended periods.  Finally, neither the British nor the Israeli armies have experienced anything approaching an extended, high-intensity war, so neither has any idea what effect homosexuals in the ranks might have on combat effectiveness.

Israel certainly has experience with an extended, high-intensity war. Since its birth it has faced the threat of invasion and terrorism, and the forecast for the last few decades has been scattered machine-gun fire with a chance of rockets by mid-afternoon.

Except for the United States, Britain remains the largest donor of forces to Afghanistan (now America’s longest war), according to the ISAF website. This excellent dispatch from Michael Yon portrays them as a first-rate force. There’s even a female combat medic on patrol with Yon. I see no difference between American and British experiences in Afghanistan to support Koehl’s claim.

Setting aside the official policy, American commanders have historically looked the other way during war to allow gays to serve in their units. As I said in this post:

Sergeant Darren Manzella served as a combat medic, and his chain of command investigated the claim that he was gay. Manzella provided pictures and video of him with his boyfriend, but found “no evidence of homosexuality.”

The story makes clear that Manzella gave them plenty evidence of homosexuality, but it didn’t make any sense to get rid of a good soldier in a critical field when he wanted to continue serving and there was a war going on.

Gays are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am certain that many of their brothers and sisters in arms suspect or know that they are gay, and don’t care. Ending DADT will not harm military readiness.

GOP Congressmen: Most Republicans Now Think Iraq War Was a Mistake

In a Thursday panel at Cato on conservatism and war, U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) and John Duncan (R-Tenn.) revealed that the vast majority of GOP members of Congress now think it was wrong for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003.

The discussion was moderated by Grover Norquist, who asked the congressmen how many of their colleagues now think the war was a mistake.

Rohrabacher:

“I will say that the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake. …Now that we know that it cost a trillion dollars, and all of these years, and all of these lives, and all of this blood… all I can say is everyone I know thinks it was a mistake to go in now.”

McClintock:

“I think everyone [in Congress] would agree that Iraq was a mistake.”

Watch the clip:

It’s the End of 2009. Where Are Our Troops?

This is not the change we hoped for. President Obama rose to power on the basis of his early opposition to the Iraq war and his promise to end it. But after a year in the White House he has made both of George Bush’s wars his wars.

Speaking of Iraq in February 2008, candidate Barack Obama said, “I opposed this war in 2002. I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home.” The following month, under fire from Hillary Clinton, he reiterated, ”I was opposed to this war in 2002….I have been against it in 2002, 2003, 2004, 5, 6, 7, 8 and I will bring this war to an end in 2009. So don’t be confused.”

Indeed, in his famous “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow” speech on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination, he also proclaimed, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now we will be able to look back and tell our children that … this was the moment when we ended a war.”

Now he has doubled down on the war in Afghanistan and has promised to keep the war in Iraq going for another 19 months, after which we will have 50,000 American troops in Iraq for as far as the eye can see. If McCain had proposed this sort of minor tweaking of the Bush policy, I think we’d see antiwar rallies in 300 cities. Calling the antiwar movement!

President Obama’s promises are becoming less credible. He says that after all this vitally necessary and unprecedented federal spending, he will turn his attention to constraining spending at some uncertain date in the future. And he says that he will first put more troops into Afghanistan, and then withdraw them at some uncertain date in the future (“in July of 2011,” but “taking into account conditions on the ground”). Voters are going to be skeptical of both these promises to accelerate now and then put on the brakes later.

The real risk for Obama is becoming not JFK but LBJ – a president with an ambitious, expensive, and ultimately destructive domestic agenda, who ends up bogged down and destroyed by an endless war. Congress should press for a quicker conclusion to both wars – and should also remember the years of stagflation and slow growth that followed President Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state.

Cause for Alarm in Iraq, or Just a Ripple?

Najim Abed al-Jabouri, former mayor of Tal Afar, has a piece in the Times that seems like cause for alarm:

Both the military and the police remain heavily politicized. The police and border officials, for example, are largely answerable to the Interior Ministry, which has been seen (often correctly) as a pawn of Shiite political movements. Members of the security forces are often loyal not to the state but to the person or political party that gave them their jobs.

The same is true of many parts of the Iraqi Army. For example, the Fifth Iraqi Army Division, in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, has been under the sway of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Shiite party that has the largest bloc in Parliament; the Eighth Division, in Diwaniya and Kut to the southeast of the capital, has answered largely to Dawa, the Shiite party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki; the Fourth Division, in Salahuddin Province in northern Iraq, has been allied with one of the two major Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

More recently, the Iraqi Awakening Conference, a tribal-centric political party based in Anbar Province (where Sunni tribesmen, the so-called Sons of Iraq, turned against the insurgency during the surge) has gained influence over the Seventh Iraq Army Division, which was heavily involved in recruiting Sunnis to maintain security in 2006.

Hadi Mizban/Associated PressHadi Mizban/Associated Press

Now, via Spencer Ackerman, we find out that there may be support for al-Jabouri’s fear that “these political schisms are partly responsible for coordinated terrorist attacks like those on Sunday or the so-called Bloody Wednesday bombings of Aug. 19, which killed more than 100.”  61 Iraqi army and police officers were just arrested in connection with Sunday’s blasts, part of the effects of which you see over there on the side of the post.

Al-Jabouri writes ominously that

in a little more than two years, the United States drawdown of forces will be complete.  In that time, the Iraqi security forces can go further in the direction of ethno-sectarianism, or they can find a new nationalism.  True, the status quo offers a temporary balance of power between the incumbent parties, likely providing relative peace for the American exit. But deep down, ethno-sectarianism creates fault lines that terrorist groups and other states in the Mideast will exploit to keep Iraq weak and vulnerable. The better alternative is to reform and gain the confidence of Iraqis. The people will trust the security forces if they are seen as impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties, and if they embody the diversity and tolerance that we Iraqis have long claimed to be a defining characteristic.

President Bush was making a good point in 2005 when he said on al Arabiya that “the future of Iraq depends upon Iraqi nationalism and the Iraq character – the character of Iraq and Iraqi people emerging.” I think this overall point is right and fundamentally unanswered, at least according to al-Jabouri.  Barbara Walter, one of the leading academics studying civil wars, wrote in August that Iraq would likely melt down if U.S. troops left, worrying about what she called “the settlement dilemma”:

Combatants who end their civil war in a compromise settlement – such as the agreement to share power in Iraq – almost always return to war unless a third party is there to help them enforce the terms. That’s because agreements leave combatants, especially weaker combatants, vulnerable to exploitation once they disarm, demobilize and prepare for peace. In the absence of third-party enforcement, the weaker side is better off trying to fight for full control of the state now, rather than accepting an agreement that would leave it open to abuse in the future.

Finally, al-Jabouri’s “better alternative” seems to amount to praying for a miracle.  It’s not clear what can make Iraqis come to perceive sectarian security forces as “impartial on divisive political issues, loyal to the state rather than to parties,” and fundamentally national rather than sub-national.  (Perhaps I was suckered once again by Bill Kristol when he told me in January of this year that George W. Bush’s greatest achievement was “winning the war in Iraq.”)

Given the enduring sectarianism and the relative weakness of Iraqi nationalism al-Jabouri describes, it could be interesting or even scary to see what hatches out of the egg we’ve been perched atop for the last six and a half years.

Update: I neglected to include a link to Nir Rosen’s detailed Boston Review piece on the changing nature of inter- and intra-sectarian political allegiances in Iraq.  It’s definitely worth reading, for people interested in the issue.