Sunday, July 04, 2004

Jed Bartlet supports the War in Iraq

Incidentally, when do we get a new name for the War in Iraq? Or is that going to be it? Has we settled on that now? How long did it take before the Gulf War was the Gulf War? I don't remember, although I do remember calling that "The War in Iraq" in 1991, along with "Desert Storm" and possibly a half a dozen other names. I think in ten years, people are going to have to call this "The Second Iraq War" because it won't be obvious any more whether they're talking about 2003 or 1991, which means the Gulf War might be retroactively re-named "The First Iraq War."

Anyway, you don't believe me that Jed Bartlet supports sending troops? Check out this quote:

"We're for freedom of speech everywhere. We're for freedom to worship everywhere. We're for freedom to learn... for everybody. And because, in our time, you can build a bomb in your country and bring it to my country, what goes on in you country is very much my business. And so we are for freedom from tyranny everywhere, whether in the guise of political oppresion, Toby, or economic slavery, Josh, or religious fanaticism, C.J. That most fundamental idea cannot be met with merely our support. It has to be met with our strength. Diplomatically, economically, materially. And if pharoah still don't free the slaves, then he gets the plagues, or my cavalry, whichever gets there first. The USTR will go crazy and say that we're not considering global trade. Committee members will go crazy and say I haven't consulted enough. And the Arab world will just go indescriminately crazy. No country has ever had a doctrine of intervention when only humanitarian interests were at stake. That streak's going to end Sunday at noon."

He's actually talking about invading a fictional country, for humanitarian reasons. You can check out the context here.

But it sounds just like a Bush speech, doesn't it? I mean, if any of Bush's speech writers could write half as well as Aaron Sorkin. It sounds even more like a Tom Friedman column. Friedman consistently made the humanitarian argument, unlike the Bush team which tried to use WMD and terrorism first. Friedman is also a better writer than anyone on Bush's staff.

Well, these episodes bothered me when they first aired -- which seems to have been February 2003, just a few days before the big Feb. 15th protests, and a few weeks before the beginning of the Second Iraq War -- and they bother me now for the same reason. I saw a re-run of the episode before this last night, and my feelings aren't any less mixed after a year of real-life war than they were before it began. The moral question isn't any less hard, and I'm still not comfortable with Bartlet's answer. (Though of course presidents don't have the luxury of remaining ambivalent forever, and I would have been dissatisfied with either answer...)

I had a long argument with my housemate Jenna, after we watched that episode. I can't even remember now whether I defended the interventionist case or tried to argue that we didn't have the right -- as usual, I just took whichever position she didn't take, so I could see how the arguments go... Having given in that much thought, I was provoked again by an article in Salon a month or so later, which was captioned "Even those opposed to the war should celebrate a shining moment in the history of freedom -- the fall of Saddam Hussein." I wrote them a letter, which they published here but to spare you having to watch the ad to read it, I'll paste it in below. It was slightly longer, when I sent it to them, but I can no longer remember what they edited out. I didn't really settle on an answer, and I still haven't really got one now. Even though at least one of my key assumptions turned out to be false. The war's lasted a lot longer than I thought it would.

I can say honestly that I think this war was wrong, because I don't think it was ever really humanitarian (otherwise we would already be in Sudan) and because even if it had been, I don't think we can achieve those aims this way (as I've said before) and because I think, "When in doubt, avoid going to war" is a good general principle.

But I don't know how I feel about the Jed Bartlet's fictional war, or how I would feel if this war really were what Tom Friedman says it is...

* * *

Gary Kamiya has perfectly summarized the internal conflict this conflict entails. Reason is against the war; compassion is for it. The whole thing's backward.

It comes from the paradox built into the very idea of a war that takes only weeks and costs few lives. I have heard it said that the death rate among American soldiers was lower than the average for the same age group among males in civilian life, though I haven't seen that confirmed. And while Iraqis have deeply suffered, much more than American media have been willing to show, can we say that this suffering is worse than what they would have continued to endure under Saddam Hussein?

The existence of a force as overwhelming as the American military changes the whole moral calculus. If the military cure were much worse than the political disease, if the war lasted for years and could be won only through incremental and costly advances as wars have traditionally been fought, then it would be easy to condemn -- win or lose.

But if you can make people do what you want almost with the wave of the hand, do you have a duty to force others to do what you think is best for them? Or is it an enormous arrogance to assume that you know what is best?

Do good intentions justify any act? Or, more confusingly, does a happy outcome justify any intentions, including those rooted in ignorance or self-interest?

Perhaps the best analogy is this: If you see someone with his leg caught in a trap, maybe unconscious and unable to speak for himself, what is your right or the duty to cut off that leg in order to free him? If someone else amputates the limb, and you suspect it may have been done as much from a desire to maim him as to free him, how do you celebrate that freedom?

What we do next will matter most. That will be the proof of our real intentions, and it remains to be seen.

-- Mary Messall

* * *

I also remember making an analogy, in my argument with Jenna, to the American Revolution. What if other nations had decided this "civil war" was killing too many people on this backward continent, and had stepped in to stop it, for our own good?

It's a strange line of thought, this fourth of July...

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