Tuesday, April 20, 2004

One could legitimately suggest that knowing if Bush was right or wrong to invade Iraq is irrelevant to deciding what to do now, but I strongly disagree. Those who feel it was a reasonable mistake might consistently feel that way, but those who feel there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the decision was made will probably agree with me that we must face the collective emotional or cognitive faults that lead to a wrong decision in order to make right ones in the future.

A few days ago I posted some of my attempts to understand people who feel Bush did the right thing in Iraq. Of course many of them have already done their best to explain it to us, but since the explanations given have seemed to many others besides me to be not merely flawed but obviously flawed, I took some time to think about things that might seem almost too obvious to mention to some of our adversaries, but only partially relevent to others. If I did my job well enough, at least some conservatives should have been thinking that if I understood all that I should agree with them on Iraq - and some liberals should have been thinking I was secretly a conservative troll. Any liberals who think so are mistaken - just as any conservatives who confuse believing we may be headed for disaster if we don't change course with hoping for disaster are mistaken. Of course, a few Americans actually do hope the occupation fails bloodily - but I haven't heard about any Iraqi-Americans in this group, no matter how they felt about the original invasion.

I'm still convinced not merely that the invasion of Iraq in the way we did it was a mistake, but that until we define the incompletely articulated emotions and beliefs behind that mistake, we will make other mistakes. First, there are two propositions we must not confuse.

1. Our enemies (and even perhaps some of our friends) mistake civilized forbearance for weakness.

2. Our enemies only attack us because they mistake the civilized forbearance we have displayed in the past for weakness, and as soon as they know that the strength they see is matched by a willingness to use it, they will stop attacking us - with bloodshed on both sides less in the long run than it would have been if we reacted more violently.

Many people seem to talk as if evidence for proposition one is the same as evidence for proposition two. Oddly enough, it doesn't work that way. Look at Israel. Some may mistake civilzed behavior for weakness - but this does not in itself prove uncivilized behavior is more effective even against the uncivilized.

The phrase Pax Romana - Roman Peace - is in some ways a misnomer. It wasn't merely a question of demonstrating that their army could not be beaten (when Rome was at it's peak) and that they were not afraid to use it, and then nobody attacked them or their allies. On occasion the Romans destroyed cities and massacred civilians. To be sure, this was not the automatic penalty for resisting Roman conquest. Terrorism and enthnic cleansing only befell repeat offenders, or those whose startegic position seemed to be a genuine threat to Rome.

What about Japan and Germany, whom the United States occupied and rebuilt after world war II? We could not have done it without the firebombing of Dresden, and the fact that the war had provided ample opportunity for all patriots who wished to die for their country to do so. There are many unique circumstances associated with that rebuilding - but none to contradict my main point, that history provides no comfort to those who believe we can stop the violence in Iraq by demonstrating we are not a 'paper tiger' without an actual huge slaughter of civilians.

Am I advocating despair over Iraq - or saying we should shed oceans of blood? Neither one. I believe we can still triumph in Iraq - but the first step is thinking about why we were willing to believe it would be so easy - and why the slide into a mindless escalation of violence is so easy. And no blaming Bush - a bad president is inevitable sooner or later, if mistakes have been made we need to think about what the rest of us do to hold him in check - and what principles guide us.

I discussed several posts ago some of the reasons why the idea of peace through strength - the idea that people will stop attacking us if we show we're have both irresistable strength and the willingness to use it - is very intuitive. I could have added chimpanzee politics as well. But what works for individual primates under certain circumstances simply doesn't work for nations under current circumstances.

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