Politics & Policy

Same Old

Tiresome arguments of war.

I can’t remember where I read it or even who said it, but an old story keeps popping into my head. A former leftist-turned-conservative (from the old Partisan Review crowd, I think) encounters an unreconstructed lefty at a party. The lefty starts spouting all kinds of silliness about capitalist robber barons or American imperialism or some such. The conservative responds, “Your arguments are so old, I’ve forgotten the answer to them.”


The simple response to all arguments along these lines is: “So what?” Even if were wrong to support Saddam (or the Taliban, etc.), does that mean we should stick to the wrong policy for consistency’s sake? According to this view we should have turned a blind eye to the Holocaust because we’d turned a blind eye to the events that led up to the Holocaust. This is a byproduct of a culture which considers hypocrisy a greater crime than, well, real crimes. We’ve supported lots of bad characters in the past, for reasons which, in fairness, need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Al Qaeda, for example, may be some blowback from our support of the mujahedeen in the 1980s — but that doesn’t mean we were wrong to support the mujahedeen. There was a Cold War going on, after all. And even if we were wrong, how does that excuse al Qaeda for 9/11? Blaming America first may feel good, but it hardly absolves the bad guys for their actions, any more than slavery justifies a black guy murdering a 7-Eleven clerk.

Even if you stipulate that we did wrong before, does that mean we shouldn’t do right now? Antiwar types throw around these non sequitors as if the implied hypocrisy settles the current argument, when all it does is imply hypocrisy.


Maybe Victor Davis Hanson knows the answer, but for the life of me I can’t remember the last time the United States was so willing to let an unarmed mob of illiterate malcontents half a world away dictate American foreign policy. Well, when I say “when was the last time” that’s a bit misleading, because we’ve been whining about the vaunted power of the “Arab street” for decades and to date the Arab street has done exactly nothing. There was a popular uprising in 1979 in Iran, but I don’t hear much about the Persian street these days, except insofar as they’re chanting “U.S.A.!”

After September 11, smart people in the Arab world — not counting all of the people in the Arab streets who ululated with glee at the deaths of so many Americans — worried very much about the American street. You know why? Because, unlike the denizens of the Arab street, American people can vote. American leaders actually care what their citizens think. And the American people, via their leaders, have access to the frickin’ Arsenal of Democracy. Meanwhile, Arab leaders don’t care what their citizens think and even if they did, there’s not much they could do about it.


Actually, it won’t. But first, let’s note that this is an argument about what is in Israel’s interest, not necessarily ours. Indeed, if you believe that pro-Israel warmongers are forcing bloodshed in order to further Israel’s interests, you can’t then turn around and say we shouldn’t go to war because it won’t be in Israel’s interests.

Regardless, if you are feeling nostalgic for the “Spirit of Oslo” you should at least remember that this spirit was conjured by America’s victory in the Gulf War. The U.S. forced the two sides to the negotiating table. If Arafat hadn’t decided to rule the Palestinian Authority as a garrison state (with the encouragement of Iran, Iraq, and Syria) for his war against Israel, it is entirely possible that the first Gulf War could have brought a lasting peace between the two sides. Again, go ask Victor Hanson, but you will discover that wars are often the shortest route to peace. Which brings us to…


It has been the nigh-upon-universal consensus in “enlightened” European, Arab, and most American quarters that the top priority in the Middle East must be a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everyone from Kofi Annan to Bill Clinton to the entire Arab League has said that an invasion of Iraq should not even be considered until a solution to the Palestinian problem is achieved first. Some people, no doubt, sincerely believe this. But others, Saddam Hussein for example, subscribe to this view only because if a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a necessary precondition for any invasion of Iraq, Saddam can make sure that Iraq is never invaded.

Say I told you that you could keep your lucrative job so long as the Hatfields and McCoys continued their feud, but that the moment that feud was over you could lose your job, go to jail, or be executed. Don’t you think you might leave a few burning bags of dog poop on the McCoys doorstep with a forged note from the Hatfields? Don’t you think you might keep whispering in the Hatfields’ ears that the McCoys put laxative in your apple brown betty? In other words, wouldn’t you have a keen interest in keeping the Hatfield-McCoy feud going as long as possible?

Saddam bumped up the murder bonus for suicide bombers precisely for these reasons. Other Middle East states fund Hezbollah and Hamas for similar reasons, as countless experts have noted. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a means for Arab leaders to focus attention away from their own governments. Iraq foments trouble in Israel to keep the U.S. from toppling its government. But Iran and even Egypt foment trouble with Israel in order to keep their own “streets” from toppling their own governments.


One is tempted to explain the very concept of “sovereign” in “sovereign state,” but since those who use this argument are already deeply antagonistic to the idea that America has any right to do anything on its own, let’s just skip right past that. Instead, let’s go to the moral heart of the matter. People who think we must go through the U.N. seem to believe that the U.N. is an objectively neutral or moral institution. In their eyes, getting approval from the U.N. is like getting approval from a judge or a priest. Or, they think the U.N. is where the nations of the world put aside their petty self-interest and do whatever is in the best interests of humanity.

There’s only one problem with this. None of the nations in the U.N. — especially the permanent members of the Security Council — are acting on such pure motives. France isn’t opposed to invading Iraq out of an abiding love of peace. It’s opposed to an American invasion largely because France has been trading with Iraq for years, despite the sanctions. France has billions of dollars in oil contracts it doesn’t want to lose. Which is why, according to numerous accounts, the French have made it known that if they can keep their existing contracts, they will probably approve a U.S. invasion.

Or, consider Russia. Russia’s foot-dragging is also largely about oil — and securing the $8 billion Iraq already owes them. But Russia also wants the U.S. to turn a blind eye to its military abuses in Chechnya and Georgia. And, by the way, a precondition for China’s vote is tacit American approval of a Chinese crackdown on separatist Muslim Uighurs. Now, how is it that an American invasion of Iraq is somehow morally superior with U.N. approval if that approval can only be bought by American support for bloodshed elsewhere? Altruism and charity aren’t the coin of the realm on the Security Council; blood and oil are. As the editors of National Review put it in the latest issue: “We will leave it to the shrinks to determine why American liberals consider it a mark of morality in foreign policy when that policy coincides with Russian and French strategies that are themselves arrived at for the crassest of reasons. In general, making ‘international opinion’ the benchmark for right and wrong is a mistake, since so much of it is driven by fear, self-interest, and greed.” And speaking of greed…


This was all the rage when I was in college during the first Gulf War and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. The basic argument goes like this: Bush and Cheney are oil guys. They want to get their grubby hands on Iraq’s oil. Ergo, this is a war for oil. I guess it could be stated with more sophistication, but why go to all the trouble of putting a dress on a pig?

As Peter Beinart of The New Republic notes in his latest — and excellent — column (registration required), war is not the best means to get at Iraq’s oil. If all we wanted was a bigger slice of the Iraqi petro-pie, all we’d have to do, literally, is say so. Dick Cheney could negotiate that with Saddam over Turkish coffee and a few tortured lackeys tomorrow. Saddam has made it known that he’d be perfectly willing to sell a lot more oil to the United States, and that he’d certainly write up some fresh contracts if the U.S. would drop its sanctions and forget about this “regime change” nonsense.

Going to war just to boost Iraq’s oil production from three or so million barrels a day to 6 or so million barrels a day involves massive risks, both political and financial. A war on Iraq could ruin Iraq’s oil fields. It could foment instability in the region or a civil war inside Iraq. It could easily cost the Republicans the White House if it went badly. In short, if this were all about oil, any good businessman would simply say, “Let’s just lift the sanctions.” And, as Beinart notes, if all Bush wants is oil, why is the U.S. making assurances to the French and Russians that they can keep their existing contracts if they approve an invasion?

In fact, if Bush and Cheney are doing the bidding of the oil industry, someone needs to explain why the American Petroleum Institute lobbied for the lifting of sanctions prior to the 9/11 attacks. Also, you might ask why oil prices go up when war becomes more likely, and go down when the prospects for peace improve.

But, in my mind, the most compelling response to the blood-for-oil argument is a simple one. The people who make it are morons. Oh, I don’t mean the folks who say that, as a geopolitical necessity, the U.S. must assure stability in oil markets, or those who (rightly) argue that we need to lessen the power and influence of the Saudis. I mean the people who argue — Cynthia McKinney-style — that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld want to get rich off the war. This is the Carlyle Group argument you hear on Pacifica Radio and in the sweatier fever swamps of the web. The simple problem with this thesis is that it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of rich people.

Rich people who want to get richer do not run for president or vice president. They don’t take jobs as secretary of defense or treasury secretary. And, for that matter, they don’t run for senator — like John Edwards and Jon Corzine. Such people may have selfish motives, but greed for filthy lucre isn’t one of them. They may like the power, they may want to do good, they may want their names in the history books, they may even want to prove something to the third-grade teachers who said they’d never amount to anything. But they don’t do it to make a killing in the stock market. Every day, I hear from people who honestly think Bush & co. want to invade Iraq to make a few more bucks. These people are either stoopid or they are trapped in a Twilight Zone where Thomas Nast cartoons seem real.

Indeed, this is the problem with most goofy theories about a war: They reveal a profound naiveté about how government works. If Bush were doing this for oil or for money or for “revenge” against the man who tried to kill his dad, he wouldn’t be able to say so in a single meeting. He couldn’t say such a thing to his inner circle, let alone his senior staff or the hundreds of people below them who make the policy. Word would get out. Opponents would leak it. Ambitious men would blow the whistle and become heroes. Decent men would blow the whistle too.

In other words, Bush would have to keep all of his motives secret from the people he’d have to convince to go along. Now, since most of these anti-Bush, antiwar types also think the commander-in-chief is an idiot, it’s hard to imagine how they think he’d be smart enough to pull off a con like that.


The Latest