Saturday, November 19, 2005

More on demonizing war dissent

In an earlier post, I discussed the "war critics are unpatriotic" meme. Now, there is another argument being made: that critics of the war, should they succeed, will be responsible for the death and misery and will befall the Iraqi people.

The Anchoress -- echoed by neo-neocon -- writes:
Right now, the insurgents are being vastly encouraged by what they read coming out of the mouths of Democrats and reporters, and even, sadly the Republicans. The message they are being given is: Just be patient. Just hold out a little while, and America will be gone, and you will re-gain control.


If America pulls out without victory - without the Iraqis being capable of defending themselves - then every death from insurgents or terrorists - all over the world - will have to be a death counted upon the heads of those who would not allow a serious War on Terror to continue and succeed, simply because to do so would "reflect too well" on a man they hate.

I myself strongly oppose a pullout before the Iraqis can defend themselves, but I think that the "their blood will be on your heads" argument is a below-the-belt tactic that should be off-limits in civil discourse. True, the Anchoress's ire is ostensibly directed at those who talk about a quick pullout, but how many war critics are really in that category? Not even many Democrats are backing John Murtha's 6-month withdrawal timetable; methinks the Anchoress's broad brush tars all those who talk about the need for an exit strategy, or criticize the conduct of the war in general, or raise too many questions about the way we got into the war.

What's more, the "blood on your heads" argument is too easily turned around. There is little doubt that at present, the war in Iraq has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis who would have been alive had the war not taken place. Yes, of course other Iraqi lives were saved from the killing machine that was the Hussein regime. But even an author who argues that the invasion, on balance, saved Iraqi lives admits admits that the Hussein regime carried out no mass murders after 1991 (his argument includes the premise that "events might well have been building to another round of mass murder"). Are all these excess deaths on the heads of those who supported the war? Or on the heads of those who trusted this administration with conducting a war it mismanaged?

Furthermore: what if we pull out and leave an Iraqi government securely in place, and then the U.S.-backed government turns into another dictatorship with a killing machine of its own? The Anchoress's post ends with an interesting observation:

This underreported story is why we cannot leave: 173 Sunnis freed from secret Iraqi torture bunker.

The story she links to is about the fact that U.S. troops recently discovered and freed 173 mostly Sunni Arab men beaten and malnourished in an Iraqi Interior Ministry jail. There is now a call for an investigation of alleged torture. In other words, the U.S.-backed government of Iraq is apparently torturing and terrorizing people. (For more on such allegations several months ago, see this article.) So it seems that now, the goalposts are being moved. Not only do we have to stay in Iraq long enough to ensure that the government we are backing is strong enough to defeat the insurgency; we have to stay long enough to ensure that the government we are backing isn't torturing and killing people. And how long is that?

If we go down the road of arguing that Americans who take a particular political position are stained with the blood of all those whose deaths may be attributed to that position ... well, let's just say that road has no end in sight. There is, for instance, a good argument to be made that the war in Iraq has diverted resources from Afghanistan, resulting in rampant chaos and bloodshed there. More blood on the heads of Iraq war hawks?

Let me make this clear: I think a lot of people in the anti-war movement are reprehensible. I believe many of them do hate American power, and would have been devastated had the war in Iraq been a success (both for the Americans and for the Iraqis). Many of them fail utterly to recognize the fact that it's the so-called insurgents (Michael Moore's "Minutemen"), not the U.S. troops, that are responsible for most civilian deaths in Iraq.

I also agree with The Anchoress when she says that, regardless of whether this was the right war or not, we are there now and we owe it to the people of Iraq to do our best to ensure their safety and freedom. But that is not a reason to delegitimize all criticism of the way the war is being waged (on the grounds that such criticism emboldens the insurgents), or all discussion of an exit strategy.

Furthermore, I take issue (once again) with the indiscriminate attribution of malign motives to war critics. Is The Anchoress really lumping Chuck Hagel and John Murtha together with those who don't want the war in Iraq to succeed because they hate Bush?

Update: Neo-neocon replies:

But I wanted to clarify something for Cathy (and others) about my own post: I am not talking about war critics in general. I was speaking of one thing only: those critics who want to leave Iraq before it is ready to defend itself. Those critics who want to set a timetable for that pullout. Those critics who, like Tom Hayden, truly do consider the Vietnam abandonment by the US as something of which they are very proud, and who've been planning almost from the start to attempt a repeat in Iraq. ... My main point is quite a simple one: advocating a pullout--or even a timetable for a pullout--without understanding or recognizing the probable consequences of such action is utterly irresponsible.

I think neo-neocon makes some excellent points here. I agree that we shouldn't set a withdrawal timetable. But I would add that most people who are advocating a withdrawal (a) are not suggesting a specific timetable, and (b) are not calling for a total abandonment of Iraq. Even John Murtha, for instance, argues that we should be emphasizing political solutions. I believe that he's wrong and that our military presence is still required; but I still don't think Murtha's position can be fairly described as "cut and run." As John Moulder points out in the comments on neo-neocon's initial post, the collapse of South Vietnam was brought about not only by the U.S. withdrawal, but by Congress cutting off all funding to South Vietnam. I think it's important to point out that while quite a few Vietnam war opponents in the early 1970s cheered for a Viet Cong victory, you will not find too many war critics today who would like to see the "insurgency" win.

One more thought. While I think that neo-neocon makes some very strong points, and I do not for a moment suspect her of wanting to demonize dissent on the war, I tend to be wary of arguments along the lines of "I'm not attacking all war critics, only those who criticize the war for partisan reasons/would rather see America lose than see Bush do well/do not consider the consequences of their actions." The reason is that, in the hands of some people, such disclaimers can become an easy "out" and an excuse for tarring all war critics with a broad brush. (It's a bit like, "I'm not accusing all affirmative action opponents of racism, only those who are against affirmative action because they secretly hate or despise blacks/because they want a return to white supremacy/because they fail to consider the consequences of going back to nearly lily-white elite universities.") Clearly, if someone makes irresponsible antiwar statements that include attacking our troops, comparing Bush to Hitler or Saddam Hussein, calling Zarqawi's insurgents "freedom fighters," or advocating an immediate pullout with no alternative plan, they should be condemned. What I found troubling about The Anchoress's statement is that, to me, it definitely came across as a generalized condemnation of all those who are advocating an exit strategy in Iraq.


peter hoh said...

Would it be patriotic to advocate never pulling out of Iraq?

Dean said...

But that is not a reason to delegitimize all criticism of the way the war is being waged (on the grounds that such criticism emboldens the insurgents), or all discussion of an exit strategy.

Carefully though out and well-balanced post, Cathy.

I don't have much time, but for now I'll just say that I have serious doubt that Iraqi insurgents give a shit what the American media says. The country is a dangerous mess, and they have bigger things to worry about, like an occupying force that many of them hate, and internecine rivalries that are getting bloodier and bloodier.

Rainsborough said...

Where fit in those who hate Bush because (they believe) he got us into a war that cannot succeed? (And did so arrogantly and highhandedly as well as recklessly.)
Question: anything is possible. Suppose Bush (and the U.S. and Iraq) get real lucky and the war succeeds bigtime--a stable democracy emerges in Iraq. Would it be any less true then that Bush went in believing that by August we could draw down 30,000 troops stationed on permanent bases agreed to by Prime Minister Chalabi? That the situation is now one that verges on disaster (even supposing it's escaped in the end)? Is it like this:
Bush did the right thing if we luck out. He did the wrong thing if we don't. We can't say whether he was justified or not in what he did.
Or it like this:
We can say now, war being the grave and inherently risky enterprise that it is, and things having gone as unexpectedly bad as they have, his decision was ill-advised.
We have to guess what Saddam's continued rule would have led to--possibly to outcomes even worse than those we now have to fear. But we know it wouldn't have led to his having nuclear weapons to brandish anytime soon.

Revenant said...

Are all these excess deaths on the heads of those who supported the war? Or on the heads of those who trusted this administration with conducting a war it mismanaged?

I suppose a decent case could be made that the deaths of those killed by US forces are on our heads.

But the idea that the deaths of those killed by insurgents and terrorists are on our heads doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Who here would accept the claim "the people tortured by US Armed Forces personnel are Al Qaeda's responsibility, not ours"? And for that matter, why would the responsibility for the insurgents' action pass to us and then stop? Why wouldn't it pass on along to Hussein himself, and from him to the Soviet Union (which armed and supported Iraq during the 60s-80s), and from them to, I don't know, Karl Marx or something?

It seems to me that the reponsibility for a killing should fall on the person who did the killing -- possibly on the person who ordered the killing, too, or who gave active support to it. But not on the people who "provoke" killers. The killers are moral animals just like the rest of us humans -- they didn't *have* to kill. They're people, not viruses or bacteria.

Anyway, I think setting any kind of public timeline for a pullout would be a horrible mistake. We should stay until either (a) the country is stable or (b) its stability requires our departure. I don't think we've reached (b) yet, and obviously we're not at (a) either. Our "exit strategy" should be to win the war.

michael said...

One good thing about all this pullout debate in the U.S. -- at least no one in Iraq can really believe anymore than we want to conquer the place for their oil. We obviously don't want the country, don't even want to be there, and are itching to get out. Not much of an empire!

Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Czarina Cathy the Great is right: in recent days, Dick Cheney and his phalanx of Pharisaic bloggers have raised the anti-anti-war rhetoric to new levels: from now on, anyone criticizing the conduct of the war or suggesting that a different administration could better conduct it will be deported to Abu Ghraib jail!

“Wobbly” Republican centrists and other moderates have become fair game for all forms of malicious personal attacks: “…it’s people like Gandelman [a centrist journalist] , who hope to claim for Democrats a strategic acumen they don’t possess—and who disingenously try to compare panic and a willingness to pander to an anti-war base (at the expense of our troops) to the kind of determined leadership that has withstood prolonged and vicious attacks by political opportunists …” says e-pundit Jeff Goldstein at

Reich-marshall Hermann Goering and Vice-Marshall Spiro Agnew held similar views: “these shameless pinko propagandists on the home front are de facto allying themselves with our enemies on the Eastern front” be it on the shores of the Volga river, the Mekong or the Euphrates! It’s Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clarke dejà vu all over again!

Or, as a famous Neocon nun (also quoted in Cathy's post) puts it: “Right now, the insurgents are being vastly encouraged by what they read coming out of the mouths of Democrats and reporters, and even, sadly the Republicans. The message they are being given is: Just be patient. Just hold out a little while, and America will be gone, and you will re-gain control”
See link below for more of her “edifying” example of patriotic theology:

In fact, every day that Allah makes, when he wakes up in the fetid Arabian morning, your average Abdul-Jahân Doe reaches for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New Yorker sitting on the breakfast cart next to the glass of freshly squeezed dates juice: Abdul relishes the writings and vulgar cum defeatist propaganda of Seymour Hersh and his collaborationist comrades of the mainstreammediapinkopolitburo …

Intellectual luminaries such as Kristol, Horowitz and Goldberg are right: lately, our own President has done a poor job of explaining the war and rallying support for it...We must pump up the volume on the president’s “forceful explaining” and hire yet another set of smart Madison Avenue communication gurus to better “market” our glorious global war for (the) freedom (of Neocon grandees and the ensuing use of disposable American kids as pawns in their totalitarian “geo-strategic grand game”)….Blahblahblah…Zzzzzzzzzzzz

I wish it were that simple. I mean how on earth can we “explain” rationally to the American people that our prescient president was chosen by Yahweh to spread democracy at gunpoint amongst “backward Mohammedans” of Sunni persuasion??

With all due respect for Ted Kennedy, John Kerry et al, the real “communication problem” of course is not that “a handful of desperate Muslim rebels in their last throes” read regularly the New York Times or listen to the eloquent harangues of democrat ranters on Capitol Hill!

Once again: the real issue at hand is simply that there are 1.4 billion of them out there spread from Dakar to Djakarta and from Bradford to Brussels- and unfortunately for Dick, Dubya, Donald & Co, 95% of them happen to be (angry) Sunnis just like the “desperate Baathist dead-enders” we’ve been “finishing off” with limited success across that little renegade triangle “over there” in Ayyraq.

So many Sunnis, So much gun-pointing work to do, so little time...

maryatexitzero said...

What's more, the "blood on your heads" argument is too easily turned around.

It has been turned around for decades. Critics of war focus only on the horrors of war. They avoid any mention of the genocidal results of totalitarianism and the disastrous results of isolationism. As a philosophy, pacifism is entirely blood-soaked. Recent history indicates that totalitarianism and genocide have caused more deaths than war - but you won't hear that reported in the press.

Years ago, the anti-war people were blaming deaths in the Sudan on Clinton's bombing of an aspirin factory. They press picked up that story and ran with it, ignoring the fact that people were dying in the Sudan because of the brutality of the Islamist government.

Should the world be blamed for its pacifist response to the current Sudanese genocide?

As Christopher Hitchens says in his essay, Consider the horrors of peace:

Any critique of realism has to begin with a sober assessment of the horrors of peace. Everybody now wishes, or at least says they wish, that we had not made ourselves complicit spectators in Rwanda. But what if it had been decided to take action? Only one member state of the U.N. Security Council would have had the capacity to act with speed to deploy pre-emptive force (and that would have been very necessary, given the weight of the French state, and the French veto, on the side of the genocidaires). It is a certainty that at some stage, American troops would have had to open fire on the "Hutu Power" mobs and militias, actually killing people and very probably getting killed in return. Body bags would have been involved. It is not an absolute certainty that all detained members of those militias would have been treated with unfailing tenderness. It is probable that some of the military contractors would have overcharged, and that some locals would have engaged in profiteering and even in tribal politics. It is impossible that any child of any member of the Clinton administration would have been an enlisted soldier. But we never had to suffer any of these wrenching experiences, so that we can continue to wish, in some parallel Utopian universe, that we had done something instead of nothing.

Or not exactly nothing. The United States ended up supporting the French military intervention in Rwanda, which was mounted in an attempt not to remove the genocidaires but to save them. Nonintervention does not mean that nothing happens. It means that something else happens. Our policy in Darfur has not just failed to rescue a stricken black African population: It has actually assisted the Sudanese Islamists in completing their policy of racist murder. Thank heaven that we are tough enough to bear the shame of this, and strong enough to forgive ourselves.

War is hell but the "peace" that comes from inaction and isolationism is literally, murder.

colagirl said...

Just about Rwanda, at least, I think Hitchens is pretty accurate....Nowadays, as I understand it there's a large body of opinion on Kosovo asserting that intervention was appropriate and necessary. However, back when the bombing began I clearly remember being on a proto-message board at my undergraduate institution and watching several board members (one in particular I remember; he was an English major) ranting furiously about "US imperialism" and how ignorant Americans didn't care about nonAmerican lives but simply liked to bomb and kill things, and other such similarly overheated rhetoric.

That's why I sometimes find the argument that we should have intervened in Rwanda a little disingenuous. I am pretty certain that any intervention we might have tried would have been met with the sort of "Western imperialism" and "blood-soaked butchers" and even "Americans don't care about the lives of brown people" rhetoric that gets trotted out on such occasions, perhaps from some of the same individuals that now say we should have gone in. This would have been particularly true if the intervention was successful in stopping the slaughter, I expect, because we would never have known how bad it was going to be. Ironically, in the end, I suspect that a successful Rwandan intervention would simply have been added to the already-lengthy list of the sins of American imperialism.

Rainsborough said...

Had Hussein remained in a power, he would have killed a number of Iraqis. The invasion and occupation prevented those deaths. Yet if we had invaded, nobody could even in the least blame the U.S., I should think, for those deaths at his hands.
So likewise, the invasion caused a certain number of deaths. But the war was fought largely within the confines of jus in bello, and it achieved a desirable end, the removal from power of Hussein.
What was not foreseen (hence not intended) was the quasi-civil-war and "insurgency" that began in 2003 and has intensified since. The vicious killing of the innocent is the responsibility of those who perpetrate it.
Do those who unwittingly and unintentionally brought about a situation where thousands are dying bear any blame?
As a legal matter, the British official whose duty it was to determine whether jus ad bellum permitted the war apparently judged that it did not.
As a moral matter, it's true to say that these thousands of deaths would not have occurred were it not for the invasion gone awry (the flourishing of the "insurgency"). It's also true that a large fraction of the deaths are attributable to the use of American force--"collateral damage." It's also true that the directed intended deaths of innocents, a large number of deaths, is the direct responsibilty of the Sunni "insurgents," who have widespread backing among the Sunni population.
My own conclusion is that the first question to raise about the war is whether it's increased the security of the American people. These moral issues are important, but the strategic question is primary and decisive. Yet again, if the answer is no, the war has no made us more secure against the real dangers we confront, that would seem to make the deaths attributable to our actions harder to justify.

reader_iam said...

I'm so glad you are revisiting this topic so soon. Once again--the embodiment of fairness.

I don't like this apportioning out of responsbility for death based on political stance. Not long ago, I came across a statement in which NGO's and human rights activists who didn't do enough to protest this war early somehow had blood on their hands because of the way its implementation has played out.

It's the over-the-top nature of the discourse from both sides that I find so discouraging.

And I often get a mental feeling akin to the experience of trying to pull one teeny-weeny hanging thread and ending up unraveling the whole garment. To what end? I mean, what are you left with?

Anyway, thanks again for your dispassionate analysis in service of the passionate pursuit of truth.

Revenant said...

Do those who unwittingly and unintentionally brought about a situation where thousands are dying bear any blame?

They're not "dying", they're being killed.

If we bombed their water supply and they proceeded to die of thirst, that would be our fault. But it makes no moral sense to place blame for a killing on the people who are not only not doing the killing themselves, but actively hunting down and eradicating the killers.

Too many "anti-war" types treat the insurgents and terrorists like they were mindless automata who kill not because they choose to, but because we make them kill. They apparently only become humans once we capture them and fail to give them a jury trial and a sufficiently fluffy pillow.

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