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The Danger of Ineffective Intervention

In February of 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, I wrote an essay entitled Revenge! in which I made some comments on the justification of violence. I think what I said then reflects well the situation in Iraq now. I’m not claiming special prophetic gifts here, but folks, I told you so!

Sometimes that will mean war. Saddam has certainly provided justification through his own actions for someone to deal violently with him. I have no sympathy with a suggestion that somehow the Iraqi government doesn’t deserve to be removed. But I believe there is a second part to the justification of violence. How can things be better when it’s done? In this case that includes the question of who will rule Iraq following an invasion. Will there be a power vacuum left in its place?

You see, no matter how bad a government is, there is a possibility for something worse. The possibility has been raised of Iran developing nuclear weapons. Does that make us feel more secure? Would we prefer that Iran became a power dominating the region? That is only one scenario, but it is something that must be considered.

I’d like to expand a bit on those two justifications for violence. In my view, first there must be a reason for a person to take action, for example that they are threatened or attacked, and that the attacker is not receptive to peaceful means. The second, however, is more difficult to meet. I think you need to ask two questions: 1) Will the violent intervention be successful? and 2) Will the resulting situation be an improvement over the previous situation.

I would add a corollary to these. If you are going to use violence, you have to use enough violence to accomplish your goal. Applying less than that to the situation only results in worse conditions, thus the resulting situation will not be better. It will generally be much worse.

Let me illustrate. I don’t keep a gun in my house. Some of my friends think having a gun is a simple and ordinary part of being able to protect their families, and would wonder why I would not take this precaution of being prepared to defend myself. Others would congratulate me on my commitment to non-violence. Neither view correctly identify my reason for not having a gun. I’m convinced that my skill with the weapon is not sufficient to make it more likely that I will successfully defend my home than that the weapon will be used by a criminal. I am not committed to non-violence. As a veteran of the U. S. Air Force, I’m willing to see violence used in the pursuit of national goals. In my household I would feel fully justified in putting a bullet between the eyes of an intruder. I just rate the odds of my actually doing so rather low.

In many of our recent wars (I’m a veteran of Grenada, Panama, and the first Gulf War) I have seen violence applied, but I have not seen the expected results accomplished, bar the result of Kuwait no longer being under Iraqi occupation. That’s the result of applying violence, but applying it either improperly or in insufficient amounts to accomplish one’s goal. Panama after Noriega was removed was not such a nice place for a very long time. Please note here that I’m not saying that each of these situations would have been better with more violence applied. Especially in the case of Panama, all justifications for the violence failed. Panama (and Noriega) had not provided an appropriate justification for foreign intervention, and no amount of violence applied was going to make the situation better. It was one of the clearest cases I know in which violence was a totally incorrect solution.

All these thoughts came to mind this morning when I read the story Exporting Chaos from Newsweek. Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut writes about the fear that he and other middle easterners have whenever us westerners get together to try to decide or influence their fate. There are some things in his article with which I disagree. For example, I don’t feel that we have some duty to provide aid to a Hamas led Palestinian government. Nonetheless, I think his remarks are almost all very well directed, and we in the west would do well to listen.

Despite my belief that we have no duty to provide aid to Hamas, we were the ones who urged the elections. We wanted to deal with a “democratic” Palestinian government, but we wanted them to elect the “right” people. Well, folks, that is not how democracy works. You can want democracy, and you can want the “right” people in power, but if you want both, and think you can have both, you are toying with insanity. I think our foreign policy is doing precisely that.

We want democracy in Iraq, we want human rights. We want a unified state. We want that state to be friendly to us. We don’t want it to be an Islamic state. Hold it a second! Have we considered that the people who are going to vote in that democracy might not want the same things we do? Their concerns may well have little to do with protecting the United States from terrorism. They are more concerned with how their neighborhoods are run. One aspect of the way many of them want their neighborhoods run is Islamic standards and Islamic law. We are not going to be successful in accomplishing all those goals that I listed.

Saddam Hussein maintained a government that was more friendly to western values than anything we are likely to see by means of an election. If we wanted western values established in Iraq, we should have followed a different strategy. I suspect we would have to occupy the country with substantially larger numbers of troops and rule with a ruthlessness that would make Saddam Hussein’s rule look positively heavenly. We aren’t that ruthless (at least I hope we aren’t). It’s not a practical policy. But what we have done is exercised violence in pursuit of that sort of a goal, but done so in a way that will not be successful. That means that those who die in this war will, in the end, have died in the process of making things worse. It’s not their fault; I’m not criticizing the American troops on the ground. I’m criticizing the planning and goal setting (or lack of it) that put them in that place.

I’m also not very happy with the democratic response to the planning. It has always seemed to be more or less that we should do something that is very much like what the current administration has done only a bit less of it. Democrats are just as infected with the bug of solving everybody else’s problems with American solutions as are Republicans. Democrats seem to be even more muddled on how we should do it.

Violence is sometimes necessary. War is sometimes necessary. But it is a tragedy when we resort to violence, and fail to make the resulting situation better.

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