The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Could we actually fight terrorists?

I'm getting more than a little tired of the perpetual charges from the right that liberals are "soft on terrorism."

Liberals (as distinct from leftists) were all in favor of actually fighting terrorism--that's why there was no meaningful opposition to the war in Afghanistan. (Remember, a grand total of one Democratic congressperson in either house voted against that war.) What we objected to was shifting focus away from Afghanistan to a much larger, much messier, much less obviously needful war in Iraq. We objected even more to lumping the two wars together--the Afghan war was obviously justified by 9/11, while the Iraq war was only connected by being in roughly the same part of the world.

We'll see tonight if Mr. Bush has any serious plans to deal with the situation that he's created. Remember, given the Army's recruitment problems, "staying the course" isn't a serious option short of some plan to provide the necessary soldiers (whether by increasing compensation, resuming the draft, or by some other means). Given this administration's tendency to simply ignore opposition, though, I'm not overly optimistic.


Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

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5:59 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

There seems to me to be a pervading attitude among 'anti-war' liberals that, somehow, the status quo in Iraq (namely SADDAM + SANCTIONS + INSPECTIONS) provided an acceptable, longterm solution to the problem. Any suggestion that there might be powerful humanitarian arguments for intervention are drowned out by cries of "It's all about oil!", "This is American imperialism!", "You can't export democracy!", "We'll just make more terrorists!", "Didn't you see Fahrenheit 9/11!!" It's as if we'd never found the mass graves or torture chambers.

For me, by far the strongest argument for intervention is the counter-factual: what would happen to Iraq if we left it alone? Well, Saddam would probably still be in power. And all logical and moral conclusions that can be drawn from that, should be drawn. The most important of these is that he wouldn't be there forever. Either his regime would implode (and many thought it was heading that way), or he would be succeeded by one of his delightful sons. In the latter case we are back at square one; in the former, if Iraq today is the quagmire everyone thinks it is, then it's as nothing compared to what that country would look like if we let it implode. Given the difficulty we had maintaining security in the aftermath of the invasion, and given the influx of foreign jihadists bent on blowing up any attempt at democracy in favour of God knows what medieval alternative, I really don't think ordinary Iraqis would have a decent chance of establishing a representative government. Certainly not without considerable bloodshed, possibly escalating to civil war.

The implications for the fight against terrorism are equally unpleasant. Look at what the insurgents are doing in Iraq. The vast majority of their victims have been Iraqis, not coalition troops. Today they blew up 26, most of them children, who (no doubt corrupted by Western decadence) had the gall to accept sweets from American soldiers. Are these the actions of noble freedom fighters combating an imperial occupation? Or are we dealing with religious fanatics who will do anything to prevent a working democracy from taking root in the Middle East? It might do to wonder why they find that prospect so terrifying.

6:05 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

I really need to make two basic points:

If you read my original post and then your response, you'll see that you didn't actually respond to my argument at all. Instead, you led off with a series of arguments that I didn't, in fact, make. If you want to argue with Moore, I'd suggest finding the blog of someone who doesn't think he's a twit. (Moore's in the other wing of the Democratic party from me. Arguing with me as a proxy for Moore is like arguing with a libertarian Republican about Pat Robertson.)

As for your counter-factual, I'd have to reply with exactly the argument that conservatives used to make about a lot of Democratic initiatives: You can't do everything at once, particularly if you're not prepared to pay for it. We were already engaged in Afghanistan when the Iraq war began. Now, instead of pouring resources into Afghanistan, and ending up with one real success story, we run the risk of having two failures.

You're ignoring the opportunity cost of the war in Iraq. We have indeed acomplished some real good in eliminating Hussein et al. In doing so, though, we've added a vast new expense to the budget, and one that's orthogonal to protecting us from terror (that is, even after fighting the war in Iraq, you still need to spend the money to protect us domestically and avoid a new 9/11). The problem is compounded by the Republican insistence on not raising the needed money through taxation--at the moment, we're simply borrowing the entire additional expense.

Everything you say about Iraq is, of course, quite likely true. The problem is that it's also true right now of North Korea, which in addition poses a genuine threat to the United States (a much greater threat than Iraq, in fact). The fact that our troops are now fully committed to Iraq and Afghanistan will make it very difficult to respond to any new threats. That's genuinely dangerous--more so than continued containment of Iraq, in my opinion.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

Apologies if I have unfairly caricatured your position; that was not my intention. Your piece expressed frustration at continual charges from the right that liberals were soft on terror. From a European perspective at least, the arguments covered in my opening paragraph are by far the loudest noises emanating from the liberal anti-war camp, and while I don't believe such people are deliberately (or ideologically) soft on terror, the majority have failed to recognise the root causes of Islamic extremism, and seem all too eager to rack their brains search of some rationale or motive behind those who commit acts of terrorism.

I sympathise with your argument regarding the cost of war; it is expensive, but in absolute terms America can afford it. The question is whether or not it's worth the high price. Afghanistan has made real progress and is now a joint NATO responsibility – the Afghan people now have a voice, and one that is wholeheartedly opposed a return to medievalism. The Taliban are finished; failure in that country is unthinkable, with or without regime change in Iraq.

Regarding Iraq itself, I totally disagree that the price of democracy there will be orthogonal to protecting us from terror. Improving domestic security might seem like the cheaper option, but only in the short term. It's also merely a half-measure because there isn't a whole lot you can do about someone willing to pack homemade explosives into a rucksack before blowing themselves up in a crowded area -- at least not without seriously compromising our personal freedoms. Meanwhile we're assuming that a fight for democracy in Iraq is avoidable, or will somehow become cheaper through postponement. There is a conflict right now within the Muslim world between moderates and extremists. The extremists advocate jihad against all infidels (including moderate Muslims who aren't quite zealous enough to join the club), they are opposed to democracy as a matter of principle, and they will never stop finding new excuses for their moral outrage. These are the people who would unfailingly seize power in Iraq if we just left the country to rot. We have to take a long term approach to countering terrorism, and ensuring the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Iraq is, in my opinion, an essential part of that struggle.

I also disagree that the existence of North Korea makes regime change too dangerous. You’ll probably agree that we cannot 'do an Iraq' on North Korea for the very excellent reason that hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. Even if we could take out their nuclear capabilities with air strikes, the North Koreans have enough conventional firepower trained on Seoul to obliterate it completely. It's also worth noting that North Korea is in part a product of containment under an inspections programme (until they threw the inspectors out); what we're left with is rogue state, permanently mobilised for war, about which we can do very little. To my mind that strengthens the case for preemption in places like Iraq.

On a related note, I'd be interested to hear your take on this snippet from Friday's London Telegraph: "Perhaps the most surprising piece of good news has been on the US budget deficit. After all, it does not seem very long ago that we were all petrified at George Bush's inability to veto a spending bill, and the prospect of him flooding the world with T-bills to finance his wars and his ambitious domestic programme. This week, the White House Office of Management and Budget said the deficit would come in well under forecast at $333 billion, compared with $412 billion last year, thanks to unexpectedly strong tax revenues. At a stroke, this has reduced one of the most serious "imbalances" in the world economy which analysts have been moaning about for years. It is also a huge setback to Mr Bush's critics who ridiculed his claims that his tax cuts would lead to higher revenues."

5:56 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

No worries about the confusion. The Democratic Party of the United States is a sufficiently broad coalition that hardly anyone--including many, many Democrats--can figure out just what we believe.

The Bush administration has done exactly this in each of the previous few years--it issues a dismal budget forcast, beats it, then crows about what a wonderful job of fiscal management it's doing.

333 billion is still the third-largest budget deficit in our history. The increase in receipts is entirely on corporate taxes--corporate profits have been up, and a short-term stimulus tax break put through after 9/11 expired. Personal tax receipts are still lower than expected.

Another worry is that there are two big structural issues that will arise in the next 10-20 years---the AMT needs to be reset to avoid wiping out the middle class, and Social Security will stop subsidizing everything else in about a decade. (SS is currently building up a large surplus to deal with the retirement of the huge post-war generation; that surplus is largely invested in T-bills, subsidizing the current deficit). Both of those changes will necessarily make our fiscal situation worse; this is _not_ the time to be running record deficits!

This is what's wrong with your assertion that we can afford this war--quite literally, we can't! We're fighting it on money we can't afford to borrow.

I'm not as optimistic as you are about Afghanistan--failure there would be a disaster, and it's very much an option. The warlords retain a great deal of power there, the Taliban continues to be a serious threat, and drug-trafficing threatens to destabilize everything. I'd be much happier if we had more resources to commit to Afghanistan.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

Can you afford the War? I'm not saying it isn't going to make your fiscal situation worse. But in absolute terms, you can afford it. Its cost will mean cuts in other areas. Suppose there was incontrovertible evidence that Iraq had directly funded and planned the 9/11 attacks. Would you still be arguing about retirement funding or resetting the AMT? In other words, it's entirely a question of whether you think the war is worth the high price. (You might also consider blaming the large numbers of anti-war liberals and leftists who had enormous jollies spouting conspiracy theories and whatnot, smearing their naughty opinions all over the media, and turning the public against us. They may have even reduced the chances of establishing a larger international coalition, which would have helped spread the rising cost -- which, annoyingly, is what they're probably moody about now.)

It's also important to recognise the cost of NOT fighting the war. That's a continuation of containment, and a postponment of the (to my mind inevitable) confrontation for democracy in Iraq. It's also ignoring the long term effects that letting a country like Iraq rot will have on terrorism.

I think Bush has recognised that something profound has to change in the Middle East to counter the ideology of extremism. I sincerely hope that democracy succeeds in Iraq, and proves to be a catalyst for wider change in the Middle East. At the very least I think it's an important first step. It was a brave and unpopular move, but the only one that takes a long term approach to the problem. Kudos to Bush for that (though I don't think I'll ever shake the worrying suspicion his 'strong leadership' stems from a complete failure to comprehend the consequences of his actions)

6:57 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

No, of _course_ I wouldn't be quibbling over AMT if we had a straightforward and compelling casus belli. What has that to do with anything? That's so far from reality that it's irrelevant to the current discussion. In such a situation, the war wouldn't have caused us nearly the diplomatic damage that the current war did.

Even in that situation, I'd object to Mr. Bush's decision to finance the war entirely by deficit spending. Cutting taxes in wartime is fiscally insane, as we've seen from the last several deficits.

"Turning the public against us?" You don't suppose that the fact that we still haven't stabilized the capitol city (much less the country) two years in might have a bit more to do with that? Or the fact that the cost of the war has now reached levels that were denounced as absurd when predicted in 2002? Or that the main rationale given for the war--the threat of Iraqi WMDs--has turned out to have been entirely wrong? (Yes, I'll concede that it was a reasonable position to take in 2002, but that doesn't affect the problem it causes now.) I could keep going, of course.

What exactly is the problem with postponement? Since when is fighting every possible opponent simultaneously a sensible strategy?

Of course, I share your hope that all will end well--that Iraq will become a stable democracy. I'm discouraged, though, by the fact that the situation in Iraq doesn't appear to be improving as time passes.

I think you're judging the move by the standards of UK politics, though--there was nothing "brave" or "unpopular" about the decision to invade Iraq in the United States. At the time of the invasion, support here was around 60%. It was only later that support began to fade.

8:09 PM  

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