RM Issue #031228
The risk of a catastrophe justified war
Saturday, December 27, 2003
The longer the controversy over the Iraq war continues -- the war itself ended months ago, but the war over the war rages on unabated -- the more mysterious it becomes. I can understand the misgivings many people had before the event, given the enormous risks involved. The whole thing might well have blown up in the Americans' faces, as many predicted, with catastrophic numbers of Iraqi and American dead, millions of refugees, the Middle East in flames.
But now? What on earth can be the critics' remaining objection? Is it the toll in American lives? But these have been trivial by any historical standard -- and in any case, outside the United States, it is hardly the Americans most critics are worried about.
It cannot, surely, be that Iraq is worse off for Saddam Hussein's downfall? Pro-war commentators like to portray their opponents as closet Saddamites, but in most cases this is slander: Sure, the Canadian government and a few others declared themselves against regime change before the fact, but even they have now come round to cheering his capture.
No, most of the critics would say, obviously it is a good thing Saddam is gone -- but the end does not justify the means. However desirable his demise, war was too terrible a price to pay for it.
From the vantage point of the present, as I say, this looks like nonsense: the costs, as it turned out, were quite acceptable, both to the United States and Iraq, compared to the benefits to be obtained by removing Saddam -- a judgment upheld by sizeable majorities in both countries, according to public opinion polls. None of the awful consequences foretold came to pass.
But, a critic might say, the relevant point of reference is not now, months after the event, but then, before the war, when the decision was being made. If the more extreme scenarios could have been discounted, war is still an inherently risky proposition -- enormously so. The Bush Administration, for its part, was acutely aware of the potential for disaster: Don Rumsfeld famously kept a list in his upper desk drawer of all the things that could go Horribly Wrong.
What might have justified taking such a risk? Only if there had been an even greater risk attached to the alternative, i.e. leaving Saddam in power. Short of an apprehended genocide, merely liberating the Iraqi people would not, from the standpoint of the United States and the other powers, have been sufficient cause for war. Nor would the Wolfowitzian dream of remaking the Middle East on democratic lines, with Iraq as its pilot project, as attractive and far-seeing a proposal as that is for tackling terrorism at its "roots." It might have been worth going to war if it worked, as indeed it may, but the chances of it working must have been considered a year ago as speculative in the extreme.
Only the risk of a catastrophe -- an attack on American or other citizens using weapons of mass destruction, or the credible threat of such an attack -- could tip the balance in favour of war. And we now know there were no WMDs.
Or so the critics say. (In fact, the U.S. inspection team, led by David Kay, has found incontrovertible evidence of WMD programs, which alone would have put Saddam in material breach of successive UN resolutions.) There are any number of possible explanations for the failure to find them to date, without simply concluding that they were never there. The critics' insistence on this point is a little rich, in any case, given that more than a few of them argued against going to war even if Saddam did have WMDs. (See: deterrence theory.)
Still, concede the larger point: that WMDs were the only justification for war. But if we are also agreed that it is unfair to tax the war's critics with the failure of thing to turn out as Horribly Wrong as predicted, the same applies with regard to the missing WMDs. In either case, the relevant point of reference is not after the fact but ex ante; the relevant criterion is not what we know now, but what we knew, or thought we knew, then. And the notion that Saddam had WMDs -- or at least, probably had them -- was not some invention of the Bush White House. It was the settled conviction of the Clinton administration before them, of the whole of the American security establishment, and of every western intelligence service besides.
Is "probably" enough? Worse, was it a lie to represent a probability as a certainty? Certainty is not given to us in this world. You have to act on probabilities. But once you have decided that a thing is of such high probability as to be worth taking action, it is hardly unusual to speak as if you were sure. All kinds of things are spoken of as certainties, when we really mean probabilities. "The budget will be balanced this year." If, when the books come finally to be closed, it is not, did the Finance minister lie? Or was it merely an anomaly, outside the 95% confidence interval, like a rogue poll.
If the only thing that could justify going to war was absolute certainty that Saddam had WMDs, then it would matter if President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were certain or not. But if certainty is impossible, it cannot have been the relevant criterion to them, and should not be to us. The worst we can say, with the benefit of hindsight, is that they were mistaken. The only way they could be accused of lying is if they knew -- knew for a fact, or knew to a high degree of probability -- that there were no WMDs. There is not a shred of evidence that they did.
Interestingly, the public, at least in the States, seems to have come to the same conclusion. Indeed, the failure to turn up WMDs does not seem to have had any impact on public opinion whatever. Rather than parse the differences between a threat and an imminent threat, Americans seem to have concluded that if Saddam did not have WMDs now, he clearly would sooner or later. And who am I to tell them they are wrong?