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War with Iraq Is Dangerous Folly

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Suppose we do get proof that Saddam Hussein is producing banned weapons and hiding them from UN inspectors. Starting a war with Iraq on that account would be utter folly. It would very likely do far, far more harm than good.

Those yearning to let slip the dogs of war, in a paroxysm of self-righteous power, justify doing so in terms of their intended goals: They seek “a regime change,” “to disarm Iraq,” “to make sure the day never comes” when terrorists release chemical weapons on American soil. Do these good intentions justify war against Iraq? No way.

The essential question is not whether our intentions justify war, but whether the likely outcomes of war justify it. The likely outcomes go far beyond the rosy postwar scenario the administration presumes, in which the celebrations of lightning-quick triumph are made poignant and solemn by the flag-draped caskets of a few tens, or hundreds, or thousands, of American soldiers. (As in the Gulf War of a decade ago, we can be confident that no video, no discussion, not even any acknowledgement of the Iraqi dead will be permitted to mar the bright portrait of American success.)

What are the likely outcomes of war? What are the chances that we would accomplish the administration’s goals?

  • We can certainly bring about a regime change — at least cosmetically; sheer might can kill or imprison those from the current regime we can identify and track down. Many of Saddam’s anonymous underlings, of course, (and his equally power-hungry enemies) will surely manage to hide their stripes today and maneuver into the next regime tomorrow, but it will be a changed regime.
  • We can disarm Iraq; well, at least partly, for a while. How thoroughly and for how long depends on our willingness to search the country for arms (as inspectors are doing today) and to occupy it for months — or years — monitoring shipments, chasing smugglers, and arguing with our “allies” in the new regime, who will insist on arms with which to counter the menace of the residual Saddamists.
  • Can we “make sure the day never comes” when terrorists release chemical weapons on American soil? No. Not by invading Iraq. Terrorists against the United States can arise anywhere people are angry and resentful at (what they perceive as) American oppression, invasion, sanctions, support for their enemies or corrupt oppressors, and other officious meddling in their business. And there will always be chemists, biologists, and physicists around the world who can make chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. No. We might take out Saddam’s stockpiles, but it is not possible “to make sure the day never comes.”

What are the likely outcomes of war? What are the chances that all will go well, that no dreadful unintended consequences will arise to plunge the world into deeper distress and conflict a decade, a generation, a half a century later? They are slim.

What should be the decisive consideration in this debate about whether to make war on Iraq is the overwhelming probability that American interference will make things worse in unpredictable ways. For evidence of this, look at the record of American intervention in the Middle East, beginning no earlier than the 1950s.

Rather than heed the wisdom of the Founders and “avoid entangling alliances,” President Eisenhower’s administration brought the shah of Iran to power, and subsequent administrations supported the shah “to stabilize the Middle East.” Our intentions were good. Now, the shah was a brutal dictator, one whom Americans should have been ashamed to support — but, as President Franklin Roosevelt once put it, he was “our son of a bitch.” Of course, that relationship caused problems for Americans when the mullahs overthrew the shah, because their justified hatred for him fed a corresponding hatred for us. Iran became our enemy; our good intentions of stabilizing the Middle East had unintentionally destabilized the Middle East. The best laid plans …

That was a bad situation, but rather than try a new approach and mind its own business, our government, well- intentioned as ever, tried to fix the situation by intervening again. To oppose Iran our politicians supported, politically and militarily, Iran’s enemy, Saddam Hussein. They knew long ago that he was murdering his own people and the Kurds with chemical weapons, but, again, he was our son of a bitch; American government support, intended to counterbalance Iran, entrenched Saddam’s power.

Serenely unmoved by our politicians’ intentions, of course, Saddam invaded Kuwait. At this point rational statesmen, humbled by experience, might have said, “The heck with it; the Middle East is out of control; Jefferson was right; no more entangling alliances and foreign interventions for us.” Our politicians, of course, high on their military power and persuaded as ever that they could achieve their good intentions and make things right this time, intervened again. (One interesting rationale for getting involved was to “restore the legitimate government of Kuwait,” which, among other proofs of its “legitimacy,” denies women’s rights and freedom of speech.) They intervened with a massive military action, a coalition of other nations’ politicians in support.

A major unintended consequence of that intervention resulted from basing American forces in Saudi Arabia. That appeared to be wise, even necessary, at the time, given our politicians’ determination to meddle. Unfortunately, having American forces attacking Arab targets from bases in holy Saudi Arabia struck many Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, as sacrilegious. He was still fighting back as of September 11, 2001.

A dozen years after the bloodshed and blown $60 billion of the Gulf War, conditions in Iraq are worse than ever. Let’s concede that all along our politicians have had good intentions. What good have they accomplished?

Many say, “Ah! But if only we had finished the job in 1991, Iraq would be no threat.” There it is again: the childish presumption that politicians can achieve the outcomes they wish, by force, in foreign lands. It is not in our politicians’ power “to finish the job” as they would like. They are on other people’s turf, in an unfamiliar culture, and they do not have — can never have — control of the outcome. They can influence it, but they can’t control it. With each intervention our government fails to learn that human affairs are too complex and unpredictable even for very smart, very wise, very educated, well-intentioned — but nevertheless human and limited — politicians and bureaucrats in Washington to control.

Better to have stayed out from the beginning. Better to get out now. Cut the string; break the pattern; end the cycle of well-intentioned, foolish intervention that makes things worse in new and unexpected ways, at staggering expense.

It’s not just in the Middle East that American intervention in foreign regions has been a travesty. Let me beat this horse a bit more to illustrate how foolish — if we judge by history — is the notion that our government protects American interests by intervening in foreign lands:

The communists were gaining power in Vietnam in the 1960s. That was a potential threat. Communism was surely the greatest evil of the 20th century. Admittedly, Vietnam (like Iraq) was half a world away, and (like Iraq) a weak and impoverished nation. But our politicians declared, with solemn gravity, that we could not allow the communist threat to grow. Well-meaning American politicians, proclaiming liberty, righteousness, and vital American interests, intervened in Vietnam. Shall we say to those silent names, carved into dark stone on the Mall, that this time we’re sure things will go our way?

The Soviets were a threat, surely worse than Saddam is today — they had 6,000 nukes. When they invaded Afghanistan our politicians intervened, to help the Afghanis. Part of the outcome was good — the Soviets got their noses bloodied. But, alas, one way we intervened was to provide arms, money, and CIA support to Islamic fundamentalists, among them Osama bin Laden. How might things have played out if we had stayed out of that one?

The thousand-year conflict in the Balkans is another bad situation, one that any well-meaning person would want to fix — if he were so foolish as to believe he could. Presumably, our politicians were well-meaning; they tried to fix it. They intervened and have fixed nothing. How long will American soldiers live hunkered down there, and in what form will the old hatreds break out when we leave?

Somalia was a dreadful situation; our intentions were good; we intervened; we got “Black Hawk Down.”

What of the tough cases, World War I and World War II? Surely it was right to intervene then, wasn’t it? No. Those two wars, the latter of which depended on the outcome of the former, illustrate well the problem of unintended bad consequences that propagate down through history and should make us draw back in horror from attacking Iraq.

Again, the intentions, the aims of the American government’s intervention in World War I were good. But what were the results? Did it “make the world safe for democracy”? The question is too painful to consider. One chain of events is clear: American military participation allowed the Allies to crush Germany so badly that they could impose on Germany the Versailles peace treaty, and punitive, embarrassing terms of that treaty led to the social conditions that let Hitler take power.

Even in World War II, however, into which we were forced at Pearl Harbor, the details of our intervention carried ugly unintended consequences. Our politicians did not just fight Hitler; they did it by allying with Joseph Stalin, who murdered far more of his own people and conquered more territory than Hitler did. Congress sent him arms and money; our president gave him our prestige; he called him our ally. The devilish details of that American intervention allowed the Soviet regime to hold half of Europe in tyranny and economic backwardness for half a century. If we could have stayed out militarily (while of course welcoming Jewish refugees instead of sending them back) it might have been better on the whole.

Not only do our foreign wars fail to benefit the country when all is said and done. Our domestic “wars” fail also, for the same basic reason. Suppose we could be sure that war on Iraq would bring the same success and good effect as the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs.” Contemplate the years of frustration, futility, and expense that would mean. But is there any reason to expect more success in war on Iraq?

Why is attacking Iraq a dangerous folly? Because American politicians don’t have the control they imagine. They can start a war, but they can’t control how it plays out or ends. The current American administration might be a well-intentioned group that wants to fix a bad situation, and it has the military strength to try. But their good intentions will not determine outcomes. American political and military adventuring overseas rarely achieve good results for the nation. Any given interference in another nation’s affairs is likely to backfire, including this proposed war with Iraq. Why? Because human affairs are too complex to direct. It is not in any politician’s — or even any statesman’s — power to build nations, to install good regimes (that can last), to clear out the bad guys, and to leave nice guys in their place. Picture our occupying Iraq for a decade or so while our politicians try to establish a viable regime they choose, amid the swirl of local politics. The similarities to Vietnam should worry us sick.

A bitter irony of the Bush administration’s stance on Iraq is that it contradicts the principles that supposedly guide its economics. They know, or should know, that governments must not intervene in the market process, because the market process is too complex for central planning. Why don’t they see that the same is true in the social processes of foreign affairs?

Interventionist American foreign policy is the core problem. It is foolish; it is counterproductive; it is dangerous. War with Iraq would be one more misguided step on a path we should abandon. Our foreign policy should be what Thomas Jefferson advised in 1801: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” Our policy toward evildoers such as Saddam should be what John Quincy Adams urged in 1821. He said of America: “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

What the U.S. government needs to do is mind its own business. We should be armed to the teeth on our own territory and retaliate fully against al-Qaeda and others who attack us, and by all means preemptively destroy specific, imminent threats (not speculative, possible future ones) to our own territory.

Beyond that we need to stop inflaming the hatred of people around the world through our politicians’ well-intentioned, ill-considered meddling. We need to stop giving Arabs excuses, valid or not, to hate us. We need to give Iraqi children no cause to avenge their parents’ deaths on us a generation hence.

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    Howard Baetjer teaches economics at Towson University.