Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Contra Prager


"All those who support the American war in Iraq should make a deal with anyone opposed to the war," writes Republican polemicist Dennis Prager in his latest column. "Offer to answer any 20 questions the opponents wish to ask if they will answer just one: Do you believe we are fighting evil people in Iraq? That is how supporters of the war regard the Baathists and the Islamic suicide terrorists, the people we are fighting in Iraq. Because if you cannot answer it, or avoid answering it, or answer 'no,' we know enough about your moral compass to know that further dialogue is unnecessary. In fact, dialogue is impossible."

Nothing like a good challenge -- and since I suspect that, sooner or later, someone will take Prager's advice and ask me this question (for that matter, just about every question posed by advocates of the war to opponents of the war is a variant of it anyway), I might as well just go ahead and answer right back into the horse's mouth.

My answer is a qualified "yes." At least some of the people US forces are fighting in Iraq are evil, and any principled opposition to the war must perforce deal with the question of why and how fighting evil could ever be a bad idea.

Before I elaborate on my own answer, I'd like to dispose of the three answers which Prager holds the war advocate is likely to receive:

"The Bush administration is just as evil: for illegally invading a country that did not threaten us; for 'lying' to get us into Iraq; and because it is a war for corporate profits."

Such an answer would not be dispositive -- whether or not the Bush administration is evil tells us nothing about whether or not its opponents in Iraq are evil.

"Some of those we are fighting may be evil, but not all; some are simply fighting against foreign occupation of their country."

This is, I think, a given. Once again, however, it is insufficient: It still does not amount to a case against fighting evil.

"We cannot call anyone evil; only God can make such judgments."

I dismiss this answer out of hand -- not out of irreligiosity as such, but out of a sense of the response's absurdity. Whether or not there is a God, and whether or not He judges, is irrelevant. We live on earth, the exercise of judgment is a constant requirement of survival, and we are therefore going to judge.

As I said, my own answer to the question is a qualified "yes." In addition to noting that not all opponents of the US war on Iraq are evil, I hold that the creation of new evil is an improper and impractical response to evil.

There are many ways to put this, but two come to mind:

- The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

- The first step in getting out of a deep hole is to stop digging.

It is a matter of public record that the United States, at one time, supported Saddam's Ba'athist regime in Iraq as a regional counterweight to Iran.

It is also a matter of public record that the United States, at one time, supported a Saudi Arab by the name of Osama bin Laden in forming the core group of what later became al Qaeda as a means of bogging the Soviets down in Afghanistan.

When the US supports new evils against old ones, it is left with new evils to combat even if the new evils dispose of the old ones -- which they seldom do, at least completely. "Blowback" may not be readily quantifiable in every case, but there's no doubt that it is a real phenomenon ... and quite frankly, the Iraq war has turned into one of the most rapidly metastasizing cases of blowback we've seen yet. The US has effectively turned governance of southern Iraq over to Iran and left central Iraq in chaos, while at the same time empowering Iraq's Kurdish minority in ways which are, to a near certainty, going to result in increased, and increasingly violent, agitation for the creation of "Kurdistan" out of not just Iraqi, but Iranian, Turkish and Syrian territory.

That's the price paid for "victory" in Iraq -- a Pyhrric victory indeed, even if it eventually transpires, which it shows no signs of doing. Ba'athism has not been eliminated, and the primary impulse upon which it thrives, pan-Arabism, will almost certainly be strengthened over the long term by the continued US intervention in the region. Al Qaeda is almost certainly bigger, stronger, more proficient and more well-funded today than it was on March 19th, 2003, or September 10th, 2001.

In 2000, some libertarian-leaning individuals supported George W. Bush for the presidency of the United States based in part on his call for a "humbler" foreign policy: One which did not bring the United States into needless and pointless conflict or lead it to support "lesser" -- at the moment -- evils over "greater" -- at the moment -- evils. Whether one speculates that that call was insincere, or that 9/11 truly changed Bush's mind, or that political opportunism dicated abandonment of the call, the fact remains that George W. Bush has perpetuated and extended a foreign policy paradigm which he previously acknowledged to be faulty ... and the results are predictable.

We empower new evils by the manner in which we choose to fight older evils. That 9/11 is directly descended, as an historic event, from the marriage of US support for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and a decade of direct military intervention in the Middle East is true beyond any reasonable doubt. Our interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia obscure the evil of our foes to those in our path. By making ourselves the enemy, we allow our foes to successfully masquerade as the ally of our victims. Al Qaeda enjoys such support as it has on the "Arab street" almost entirely on the basis of US intervention in the region. Support for al Qaeda's core goal of imposing a Wahabe version of sharia law on the Islamic world is thin on the ground; support for al Qaeda's transitional goal of booting out the "western invader" is rife.

There are costs and benefits to fighting evil. Would anyone honestly argue that we have sufficiently addressed the domestic evils which vex us to an extent that we should regard ourselves as having a free hand to spend our blood and treasure seeking out new, distant evils to fight ... especially when the game is likely not worth the candle, and when the candle, once lit, threatens to burn our own house down?

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