Thursday, May 27, 2004

Of Thresholds, Thought Experiments, and Lawnmowers: A Provisional Reply to Norman Geras

In a delightfully spirited response to some fellow 2002ers, the always thoughtful and wise Norman Geras has clarified his position on the Iraq War. I agree wholeheartedly with his reply to Michael Fisher: the civilian deaths, torture, and the other Goya-like miseries of war do not themselves undermine the case for intervention. Indeed, if they did humanitarian intervention would always be a non-starter. Both Norm and I saw the war, first and foremost, as a project to remove a genocidal ruler. We based our justification for the war partly on the facts of his slaughter and partly on a probabilistic calculus that the regime that emerged after the war would be beneficial to Iraqis, their neighbors, and the world at large. I, unlike him, now fear we might have got the probabilistic calculus wrong.

Consider the following counterfactuals:

(i) It is May 2004. The invasion of Iraq in April 2003 is, as is now clear, a surprising success. True, no WMDs were ever discovered; no one could turn up any reliable information that Saddam had been in cahoots with Al Qaeda; and the whole thing cost the US taxpayer a boat-load more money than initially suggested. But we discovered lots of mass graves—more than we had thought—and the Iraqis were overwhelmingly, if begrudgingly, grateful for our intervention. Putting together a post-intervention government proved more difficult than we imagined, but under the astute leadership skills of Viceroy Clinton a government was cobbled together out of old Baathists, army officers, Kurds, Sunni tribal leaders, and Shiite clerics. By the end of the month, plans had been laid for elections, which were to take place under UN supervision sometime within the next five years. Furthermore, George Bush and Tony Blair were enjoying record approval ratings in the polls. Those people who opposed the war in 2002 and 2003 felt like damn fools.

(ii) It is May 2005. The US and Britain declared "Mission Accomplished (Really)" at the end of 2004 and then packed up. But now there is a civil war raging throughout Iraq, fought, in part, by armed proxies of Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The numbers of Iraqis killed this month exceeded the number killed in any single month under Saddam Hussein. Elsewhere in the world, things are not much better. The Taliban have taken over again in Afghanistan. The world was recently shocked at the beheading--carried live on Al-Jazeera--of the late President Karzai. The US and Britain have now embraced a form of splendid isolationism. They would not even stir in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Sudan, where the people of Southern and Western Sudan are dying in the hundreds of thousands at the hands of the Janjaweed.

I'll come back to these two counterfactuals. But first back to Norm's argument. One of the most helpful features of Norm's pro-war argument was that he recognized that the case for humanitarian intervention (whether in Iraq or elsewhere) had to meet a very high moral threshold. While I agree that his proposed moral threshold is a necessary condition of any justified case for military intervention, this threshold is not itself, at least in the form he has stated it, a sufficient condition. The threshold must be supplemented by a further threshold: a probabilistic threshold of success. For military intervention to be justified, it must be the case that there is a reasonable probability that the intervention will bring about the desired outcome. Did the pro-war camp of 2002 think hard enough about the prospects of ending up in something akin to situation(ii)? Did they fail to take into consideration evidence (already available in 2002) that suggested that situation (i) was never an option?

These are, of course, very tricky questions. They take us into the difficult conceptual terrain of decisions, judgments, and justifications that take place under conditions of "risk" and "uncertainty." But let me just say, for the moment, that it is possible to make political judgments that, no matter how pure one's intentions, can be (to quote Norm) "shameful," "dishonest" and "reckless." He does not believe that 2002ers have anything to answer for. I'm not so sure. But to take this argument any further, I need to say something more about "reckless" decisions. I will return to this in a later post. But what's that I see coming down the road? Four elderly buggers on a lawnmower? Two wearing frock coats, by the looks of it. Crazy. And what's that fucking awful music they're playing?

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