Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why stay in Iraq?

Some war-supporters have suggested that regardless of whether our initial decision to conquer Iraq was justified now that we are there and have created a mess we should stay there. There are usually two justifications given:

1) Iraq is the main "front" of the war on terror, so we should keep our troops fighting there to prevent terrorists from attacking the U.S. Call this the "they'll follow us home" argument.
2) The U.S. military is the only thing preventing Iraq from falling into complete chaos. If we left, full-scale civil war would break out between the warring factions in Iraq, perhaps even leading to genocide.

Okay. I don't view these as being of equal merit. The first argument seems to me fairly silly, and while the second argument raises legitimate worries it seems pretty unlikely that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is actually the proper response to worries about genocide. However, the point I want to make here is that these two arguments are in tension (if not quite explicit contradiction) with each other.

The first argument appeals to traditional American privilege in war--we always fight somewhere else (at least for the last 140 years). This has many effects, but one is that U.S. civilians do not have to bear the brunt of war in the same way other civilians do. Thus, U.S. industry is not bombed, U.S. civilians walking to the store do get killed. Yes, war is still awful, and our soldiers still die every day, but the negative effects are an order of magnitude different from that suffered by the citizens of the country providing the battlefield. The assumption of this privilege is doubtless part of the reason that the WTC Center attacks were so shocking to U.S. citizens.

However, the claim that if we leave Iraq the terrorists will follow us home relies on the notion that these future terrorists are attacking the U.S. not in order to get them to leave Iraq, but as part of some larger "Global War on Terror" (cue Giuliani's tired "they hate us for our freedoms" line.). But that means that the conflict in Iraq is directed against the U.S. and so is not inherently tied to issues around American hegemony in the Middle East. So Iraq in providing a battleground is doing a favor to the U.S. by giving us a country other than our own to tear up in fighting terrorists.

But if that is our motivation for staying in Iraq, it seems disingenuous to also claim that we are staying in Iraq for the Iraqi people's own good. We certainly do not want terrorists to attack the U.S. But if we think that terrorists have to attack something, and so it is better that we provide U.S. targets for them to attack in Iraq, then the second argument would seem to become false. After all, the clear implication of the first argument is that if we left Iraq they would then be able to start attacking the United States directly because they wouldn't be tied down fighting in Iraq. But what then of the claim that if we leave the fighting will get even worse in Iraq? Wouldn't that just mean that the terrorists would be even more tied down in Iraq?

At heart these arguments are based on contradictory motivations. The argument claiming they'll follow us home is claims that it is better that someone else (i.e. the Iraqi's) suffer U.S. citizens. The argument that we should stay in Iraq to protect them from sectarian conflict claims that it is better that the U.S. pay a price (dead soldiers and trillions of dollars) if it will prevent more Iraqi deaths. I am not sure how you can make these compatible.