War and Terrorist Recruitment

On first reading, I could have sworn Andrew Coulson was saying that it’s cheating to point out that the Iraq War is defeating its own stated purposes. The recent National Intelligence Estimate doesn’t matter because “efforts to create a free and democratic Iraq are ongoing — the war is still in progress”? Well, efforts may still be ongoing three years and 2,500 more dead soldiers hence; just when will it be permissible to point out that the Iraq war has given Al Qaeda a recruitment boost?

The second time through, my reading comprehension improved, and now I take Andrew to be objecting to something like the following syllogism:

If a campaign in the war on terror increases terrorist recruitment while that campaign is ongoing, the campaign has failed.

War X has increased terrorist recruitment.

Therefore, War X has failed.

OK, if that’s the argument on offer from “antiwar liberals,” then I agree that it’s a faulty one. You could use it to condemn the war in Afghanistan, which, I think on balance probably improved American security despite perhaps enhancing terrorist recruitment. And it doesn’t do the work it needs to do to refute the case for war with Iraq. After all, if Iraq turns into something that passes for a liberal democracy, and if that in turn causes a reverse domino effect in the Middle East, transforming other autocracies in the region into (relatively) free and open societies, and if that in turn dampens the terrorist threat by replacing hatred with hope–then the short-term costs in terms of enhanced terrorist recruitment will turn out to have been worth it.

And I guess that’s right. But if the mere description of that Rube-Goldbergesque chain of causation doesn’t make you skeptical about whether the benefits are ever going to outweigh the costs, I don’t know what will. After all, it’s really, really hard to turn societies into liberal democracies through military nation-building, especially when those societies, like Iraq, are poor, violently heterogeneous, resource-cursed, and lack an independent middle class. But the liberal part of creating liberal democracies—the part that we don’t know how to do—may be essential if you can’t be talked out of embarking on this sort of mad enterprise. Because given popular support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr in the Arab world, expanded suffrage all by itself may well make the problem worse.

Call it hindsight bias if you want, but it seems to me that the Wolfowitzian case for the Iraq war was never a promising bet. Even supposing the federal government had the world-transforming competence to reliably create liberal democracies by force of arms, I’m still not sure how that solves the terrorism problem. There was always something odd about conservatives jumping from “they hate us because we’re free” to “if we make them free, then they won’t hate us.” What was the evidence for that proposition? Even advanced liberal democracies produce terror threats.

But whether or not it was a bad bet from the start, it certainly looks like a losing proposition now, with violence raging across Iraq and no clear sign of the democratic future promised by the administration. Given all that as a backdrop, is it possible that antiwar liberals aren’t making the simplistic “recruitment up/war bad” argument that Andrew attributes to them? Isn’t it possible that they’re saying “given that the war is enhancing terrorist recruitment—and that there is no plausible account of how it’s going to dampen terrorist recruitment in the future—the Iraq War is a failure”? They may be leaving the parenthetical unstated, but perhaps they can be excused for doing so, given current events in Iraq and the failure of the war’s remaining defenders to construct anything like a convincing case for how this is all going to make us safer in the end.

The case that the benefits of the war aren’t coming has been clearly and abundantly made. By now it’s fairly well understood. If opponents of the Iraq War don’t feel the need to restate that case each and every time they point to things like the NIE, it seems to me less an error of logic than a sense that one shouldn’t belabor the obvious.