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Monday, April 16, 2007

Iraq: Three (Uh, Make That Four) Years Later: Pt. 4: Pre-empt This!

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

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This past week was a milestone both grim and bittersweet: the 4th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to the Anglo-American coalition. It thus seemed appropriate to finish my Iraq war "mini-series" that I started last year for the third anniversary of the invasion and carelessly left only about half-complete (Yeah, I don't really have an excuse, I really meant to finish this series last year).

Recap

In the first post in the series, posted over a year ago now, I set as my goal to "attempt to answer the questions: How did we get here? What went wrong? Are we winning or losing? Is it even possible for us to attain anything we'd recognize as 'victory' in Iraq? What should we do now? And how has my own thinking about the Iraq war evolved over the past three years?"

In parts 1 and 2, I thoroughly, painstakingly (perhaps exaustively!) covered the first question, by chronicling how the Bush administration lied our nation into war. That's really not a debate I want to get back into now; to do so would be to repeat myself ad infinitum, as those who still doubt that we were lied into this war have drunk so deep of the Magic Neocon Kool-Aid that they are far beyond the reach of logic.

Having debunked the stated rationale for going to war, in part 3 I examined whether the Iraq war could be justified on any grounds. I concluded that three types of war could be defined as, if not justified, at least better than not doing anything at all--wars of self-defense (fighting back after you have been attacked), wars to help weaker nations defend themselves, and wars to stop a genocide--and that Iraq in 2003 fit none of these criteria (I repeat, I'd be willing to consider Saddam's treatment of the Marsh Arabs to be a genocide, but seeing as the administration never commented on their plight before the war, it would be a stretch to claim it factored in the decision to go to war).

I closed my third post by noting that, "There is one type of war I have not yet addressed: preemptive war. Can a preemptive war be a just war? My conclusions on that, plus the Bush team’s sorry record on nonproliferation, the jus ad bellum of this war, will follow in my next post." I never expected it would take this long for me to return to this, but let it never be said I don't keep my promises.... eventually!

Preemptive vs. Preventive

First, it is important to distinguish between preemptive and prevetive wars, as they are often conflated. A preemptive war is one launched to stop an imminent attack. It is thus a form of anticipatory self-defense. Typically, the agressor in a war is the one who attacks first, so a war can only be considered a preemptive war if the attack is truly imminent, as was the case for instance, when Israel attacked the armed forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq which were mobilizing on its borders in the Six Day War of 1967.

A preventive war, on the other hand, is one in which Country A attacks Country B on the grounds that at some non-imminent future date, Country B would have attacked Country A, and you'll just have to take Country A's word on that. Whereas international law is ambiguous on the legality and justness of preemptive wars, it considers preventive wars to be nothing more than wars of aggression (which are banned in the UN Charter; those who initiate preventive wars can be tried as war criminals).

Can a preemptive war be a just war? The historical record and consensus is not encouraging. In the Caroline Incident of 1837, British troops in their colony of Canada crossed the US border to attack private Canadian and American citizens who were preparing an attack on British forces in Canada. Britain claimed to have acted in anticipatory self-defense (preemptive war), while the US rejected this, maintaining that, in order for a preemptive war to be just, the threat it aims to combat must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, no moment for deliberation." This is a reasonable standard to use and it one we shall return to.

Other examples often cited of preemptive wars are even more ambiguous. The 1981 Israeli attack on the nuclear reactor then under construction at Osirak, Iraq, was claimed by the Israeli goverment to be a preemptive stike, as the reactor, once operational, could allegedly have been used to make nuclear weapons to attack Israel. It is obvious this was a preventive strike, rather than a preemptive one, as the threat, if it even existed, was many years away, and thus was hardly imminent and other options were clearly on the table.

Both world wars can be understood to be preventive wars. In his book, Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? noted historian David Fromkin notes that, in 1914, German leaders were convinced that based on demographic and industrial trends, the balance of power between Germany and it neighbors was shifting against it and that if Germany stood a chance of winning a regional war, it would have to fight this war before 1918. Thus, when the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited a minor war between Austria and Serbia, it was seized upon by the German goverment as a good excuse to fight the war it was already spoiling to fight while the Germans could still win it.

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was also a preventive strike. Japan was planning to launch a major attack on British, French and Dutch colonies in southeast Asia and worried that such an attack would be the final straw for the Americans. A swift decapitation of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor would buy Japan enough time to finish its conquests before America could intervene. Of course, we all know how well that worked out for Japan!

Iraq: Preemptive or Preventive?

So, let's now look at the Iraq war. It was sold as preemptive war, against what we were told was an "imminent" threat. It was certainly sold as an "overwhelming" threat, and as one that "left no choice for means, no moment for deliberation." When Saddam complied with the UN resolution requiring him to readmit UN weapons inspectors, the inspectors asked the US to share its intel about all the sites the Iraqis had banned materials or activities at. After all, Dick Cheney had claimed, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Iraq now has weapons of mass destruction." The administration refused, instead choosing to belittle the inspectors. Of course, the world's best-trained experts won't be able to find WMDs; it will take US troops with no WMD training to find them!

When Canada and other nations appealed to Bush to give the inspectors two more weeks to search for WMDs, the proposal was turned down. There wasn't time to wait even that long, perhaps because, as Dick Cheney announced ominously three days before the invasion, Iraq "has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." The administration clearly tried to portray the invasion as a preemptive war, necessitated by Hussain's WMDs and ties to the very terrorists who had attacked us before and could be expected to do so again. But as no WMDs or ties to terrorists have ever been discovered in Iraq, it is obvious these claims were mere fig leaves to pretty up a preventive war or war of aggression, the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. The threat was neither instant nor overwhelming, and there were clearly other options (letting the inspectors and sanctions do their jobs) and plenty of time for deliberation.

But, wait just a minute, some may say, the administration may have sincerely thought that the threat was imminent. That is quite possible, but seeing as the administration has never presented intel to support that claim (and all the information that has come out over the last 4 years argues to the contrary), it seems unlikely. Of course, actions speak louder than words, and the Bush administration's record speaks for itself as to its concern or lack thereof on nonproliferation.

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Speaking personally, I supported this misbegotten, God-forsaken travesty four years ago, for one reason and one reason only: the president's claim that Saddam had WMDs and ties to al-Qaida. So I was expecting that if Saddam had WMDs he would use them on our troops or even on his own people if it would allow him to keep his hands on the lever of power for even just a few minutes longer. The fact that he didn't was a huge tip-off that he had no WMDs. As our troops moved to occupy the country as April faded into May and found no WMDs, my unease increased. If we knew for a fact Saddam had WMDs that he could give to terrorists before we attacked and we couldn't find them after we occupied the country, then what did that mean? That he'd already given them to the terrorists? That we were too late? That the terrorists could be readying a WMD attack against America even now? Such were logical assumptions.

What would be the logical response of a US government that believed this? "Red Alert! Man all battle stations! This is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill!" So I scanned the papers each day searching for some sign of increased government activity indicating that they were at all concerned about our inability to find these weapons so dangerous we had gone to war to seize, some increase in the terror alert level, increased border security, something! But nope, nada, nothing! Instead, the "matter-of-life-and-death" urgency to find the WMDs of the prewar period was replaced by a "what-me-worry?" attitude. If I had a dollar for every time some administration official told us to be patient becasue Iraq is the size of the state of California.... That was when it finally dawned on me that we had all of us been had. There hadn't been any WMDs in Iraq and the administration had never been seriously concerned about the matter at all.

"We Don't Negotiate With Evil...."

Unfortunately, the administration never took the threat of the nuclear proliferation seriously in any other country either. In late 2002, while the administration was making the case that Iraq had WMDs, Bush claimed that "contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're [North Korea] enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon." The North Koreans denied it and angrily kicked out international inspectors. Only in February of this year was there a promising agreement to resolve the crisis, one that would stop the North Koreans from further enrichment but is tellingly silent on the fate of North Korea's nukes. And now the adminstration tells us that they have only "mid-confidence" that North Korea ever even had this uranium program... it's like dejavu all over again!

Of course, we've been down this road before. During the 1980s and early 1990s North Korea processed enough plutonium for 2 nuclear weapons, according to CIA estimates. In 1994, Bill Clinton and North Korea signed an agreement that put strict limits on North Korea's nuclear activities. During all this period, the North Koreans did not enlarge their nuclear arsenal. Now, the CIA estimates North Korea has enough enriched uranium for 8-10 nuclear weapons. After all that, we end up back with a modified version of the Clinton plan, with nothing to show for our war of words but a threefold increase in the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Great, I feel so much safer!

It's always worth remembering how these twin nuclear crises got started: with Bush's inclusion of Iran and North Korea with Iraq in the "Axis of Evil." Watching the US spend the next year readying for war against Iraq, the leaders of Iran and North Korea drew the logical conclusion: Uncle Sam's making a hit list and you're next! The only way to prevent this attack is to acquire some kind of deterrent, nuclear being the most effective.

It's not a coincidence North Korea's main demand for giving up its nuclear weapons all along has been the signing of a non-aggression pact with the US, something the administration has all along rejected. Just as it rejected the Iranian offer in the spring of 2003 to conduct direct talks with the US, with everything (nuclear program, ties to terrorists, recognition of Israel, and of course a promise of US respect for Iran's sovereignty) on the table. The rejection of this proposal, offered by the previous pragmatic president of Iran, contributed to a hardening of the Iranian position and the election in 2005 of the unstable and unpredictable Mahmoud Ahmadinajad. Bush can screech all he wants about how dangerous each of these countries is, but the fact remains, Bush himself is the reason they are more dangerous today.

Let us also not forget the completely bogus accusations then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton made in 2002 claiming that Cuba had biological weapons -- an accusation so ridiculous, the administration has never repeated it. When pressed on whether the administration had any "hard evidence" for this claim, then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer replied, "Nobody in the government said hard evidence. We said we have concerns." Sounds a lot like "mid-confidence," now doesn't it?

Winston Churchill once wrote, "To jaw-jaw [talk] is always better than to war-war." John F. Kennedy once said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Vice President Dick Cheney's wise counsel? "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it." God help us all.

The Greatest Failure

Perhaps the administration's single greatest failure to take nonproliferation seriously is the way it tried to gutt the Nunn-Lugar program, a program set up at the end of the Cold War to dismantle WMDs in the former Soviet Union. Since the collapse of communism, Russia has been even more of an economic basket case, with the soldiers guarding critical installations sometimes not paid for months and with security often shockingly lax. It's long been obvoious that if terrorists ever get their hands on a suitcase nuke or a vial of smallpox, they will have gotten it from Russia's aging stockpile. There is nothing more vital to US national security than ensuring that al-Qaida and its kin do not get their hands on this material, yet the administration decided to cut funding for this vital program by 10%!

There is a horrible disconnect between the administration's tough talk on stopping rogue regimes and terrorist groups from attaining WMDs and the fact that the administration has presided over the most profligate period of WMD proliferation in history, between Bush's rhetoric that, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," and the reality that the US has spent the last six years permitting--no, encouraging--just that.

The always-perceptive Glenn Greenwald saw the central mistake here: "We have plainly created an incentive system where every rational leader -- not crazed, Hitleresque, world-domination-seeking leaders -- but every rational leader, would assess that it is in his country's interest to acquire a nuclear capability. Of the three 'axis of evil' members, the one which was, by far, the weakest militarily was the one we invaded and shattered. But with the strongest of the three, North Korea, we have proceeded very gingerly, issuing plainly empty threats and bellicose rhetoric but doing little else.

"The message we have sent with our foreign policy is clear -- if you are a militarily weak nation, we may invade you or bomb you at will, but if you arm yourselves or, better still, acquire nuclear capability, we will not. That has become the incentive scheme produced by having the world's only superpower announce to the world that it has the right to preemptively invade other countries."

So, to recap: Preemptive wars are of dubious morality; preventive wars, like ours in Iraq, are immoral as sin; the Bush Doctrine of launching preventive wars and refusing to negotiate with countries we disapprove of has only had the effect of emboldening our enemies and making the world a far more dangerous place. There are those who will chalk this up to incompetence. Incompetence might be a valid excuse if the administration had done a good job of dealing with with other nonproliferation issues, only screwing up with Iraq. Yet, on the entire critical front of non-proliferation, the administration has presided over nothing but screw-ups--indeed, on every aspect of governing (from Iraq to Katrina to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fiscal sanity to immigration to stem cell research to the war on terror to health care to global warming, you name it), they have proven complete failures.

At a certain point, after six years of unmitigated failure, one has to ask the question: does this administration even care about our national security? Do they even care about governing? Or like the Vandals and Visigoths of old, do they have the mindset of a conquering army, swooping in to grab what loot and plunder they can to enrich themselves before they move on, with no concern at all for the people under their protection, with no concern at all for the horrible consequences their actions have for rest of their fellow-man? It is a sign of how badly governed we have been these last six years that the question even needs to be asked.


Update--2:40 pm: As soon as I put the last post to bed, I went up to the on-campus fitness center to work out before class. There, the tv tuned to CNN showed that there had been two shootings on the Virginia Tech Campus this morning, with 1 dead in the first shooting and 7-8 dead in the second shooting. After I got out of my class and got back to my room, I found that the death toll was now up to 22 and is the worst campus shooting in US history. Just now, CNN is saying that the new figure is at least 31 confirmed dead and 29 reported injured, making it the worst shooting in US history. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts on this as more information is released about who did this and how and why they did it, as well as whether anything could have been done to prevent it (I'm sure coming four days before the 8th anniversary of Columbine, everyone will turn to increasing campus security as a magic bullet--I don't know about VA Tech but UNCC has a sprawling, completely open campus, so the same thing could happen here and I don't see a way to prevent it), but needless to say, the thoughts and prayers of a nation are with the VA Tech community today.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

In Defense of the Wikipedia

By: Michael Akerman

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Right, so it's been a rough semester, but that's no excuse for the blog still wishing everyone a happy New Year, though the sentiment still stands. It's just that the year is not so new anymore. In fact, it's acquired a dull sheen of pollen, I think.

So, a short post to swing into the back of things.




It's a Wiki'd World

As my years in college progress, I am expected to write more papers, essays, and articles for my classes. This is to prepare me for a dismal life of doing the same as I report my findings to my boss or to the scientific community (in real life, it doesn't look like it's so bad. Presumably, you're writing about something interesting). Inevitably, the papers require sources to prove both that you researched something and you're not blatantly plagiarizing the work of others. Nearly as inevitably, a major restriction is hung like an albatross around the assignment: no Wikipedia.

In the scientific world, sources are expected to be trustworthy (well, let's make that "in the world world"). For scientists, this means at least one or two scientists have taken a gander at the paper and found it logically and experimentally sound. This is a wise course to take, of course, because there is a surprising amount of junk science that tries to float out, and it often does even with these safeguards. To the majority of the scientific community, this restriction means that the scientific literature and traditional encyclopedias are fine. Wikipedia is not. The general reason for this is "anyone can write anything they want to!"

This statement is, of course, only slightly true. You can write anything you want to. You cannot get it to stay, and you cannot continue to write anything you want to unless it's true. You get IP banned quickly for willfully vandalizing the Wikipedia, and vandalism is found quickly. Whenever a page is updated, it goes onto the list of recently updated pages. With thousands of nerds reading that page at any time (they have nothing better to do), suspect information is quickly noted, and the page is marked to note that the information might not be true. If someone actually knows information counter to what is posted, it is changed as soon as it is seen.

I remind you that there is a large number of people checking the "recently updated" page, and that these are largely very smart people (they're reading an encyclopedia for fun). It's not hard for them to catch inaccurate information. Clearly, one cannot rely on their steadfast observance in a very obscure subject where an expert is unlikely to be reading, but Wikipedia is generally a terrible source of information for truly obscure subjects, so you wouldn't use it for that anyway.

I ramble a bit. My point is, the Wikipedia isn't a lawless project where people shoot from the hip and onto the internet. It is, in fact, the most peer reviewed source available for most subjects. In the traditional literature, you must rely on the expertise of a small group of people who are tasked with finding mistakes in reports and articles that are often only tangentially related to their field. On Wikipedia, there are enough reviewers that one of them, at least, will be more closely associated with the field in an article than any of the members of the peer-reviewing committees can boast.

This doesn't mean you should take the information on Wikipedia at face value; far from it. You shouldn't take anything at face value, from a newspaper article to a table in "Perry's Chemical Engineer's Handbook." The only way to be certain you get accurate information is to understand the subject and think critically. If information doesn't make sense, it's probably wrong. This applies to traditional literature and the information sources of the digital age. Exempla gratia, I'm working on a computer model for work that uses equations and data from a peer-reviewed article that has been around for some time. One of the graphs in the article is supposedly based on 150 g/L of starch mixture. After the reaction, the graph shows something along the lines of 200 g/L of a mixture of the starches. 50 grams of starch prestidigitate into the data. Something is clearly incorrect in this peer-reviewed paper from a widely-respected source (I'm fairly certain they actually started with 200 g/L, and wrote the wrong trial's data in the text).

The point is, you can't really just trust anything. You have to look at it with a bit of the cynic in you, at least when the accuracy of the information is really important. Wikipedia is no different than the traditional literature, and, for non-obscure subjects, is more reliable.

I think the scientific community will come to accept sources like Wikipedia, but the old guard is the one standing at the door currently. All they've ever known are the journals from organizations such as the American Chemical Society. They are the standards they've relied on, and they have a hard time trusting new things. I think it's the same thing that causes so many senior citizens to resist embracing emails and IMs. It's a harmless change that they are simply not used to.

By my hand,

~Michael Akerman