Sunday, November 05, 2006
The devil has many faces, yours just fits:
You don't have to be an enthusiast for the Iraq war to cheer, unreservedly, the death sentence of Saddam Hussein. The man was truly a monster. For all the criticism that has come his way, no one explained the enormity of Saddam Hussein's crimes more eloquently, passionately and effectively than Kanan Makiya, whose books Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence will remain classics of dissident history and polemic. Still, there are at least two questions to consider.

The more academic question is whether the process that has led to the end of Saddam can be considered a just one. And the answer is, tragically, no: the trial has been a farce from start to finish, characterized by incompetance, negligence, and violence. The U.S. and its Iraqi accomplices rejected the proven model for success here, an international tribunal, for fear that it would become a forum to put the occupation on trial and allow Saddam a venue to froth and inveigh. He did anyway.

Then is the question of whether the end of Saddam Hussein can lead to the birth of a better, more decent Iraq, and here the answer, as well, is no. On the right, the trope continues that whatever the crimes of the occupation, Saddam was worse. In one sense, it's undoubtedly true that the moral difference between deliberate murder and deaths caused by negligence, incompetance, indifference and inadvertence is a huge, yawning chasm. But that doesn't exculpate the U.S. by a long shot. By one estimation, Saddam was responsible for over 800,000 deaths in his 20-plus years in power. Say we shave off 100,000 casualties from the Lancet study, and the three-and-a-half year war has seen over 500,000 deaths, with no end in sight. This, it needs to be recognized, is a moral nightmare that the architects of the war will never be held accountable for.

And for what? An Iraq of pitiless sectarian murder and advantage, veering between raw mob rule and crude Islamist force, where anyone with the ability and the means has left for the cooler environs of Amman or London or anywhere else. Where every American and Iraqi death is an indictment of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, Franks, Myers, Powell, Armitage, Wolfowitz, Cambone, Feith, Luti, Libby, Hannah, Shulsky, Rubin, Schenker, Bremer, Sanchez, Miller, Odierno, Karpinski, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Zarqawi, Chalabi, al-Sadr, al-Dhari, al-Hakim, Allawi, al-Jaafari, al-Maliki, Sistani. May they never live down what they have taken from us. This also must be remembered as we cheer the gallow's-march of Saddam Hussein.

[CLARIFICATION: I include myself in the TNR category here.]
--Spencer Ackerman
"Where every American and Iraqi death is an indictment of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, Franks, Myers, Powell, Armitage, Wolfowitz, Cambone, Feith, Luti, Libby, Hannah, Shulsky, Rubin, Schenker, Bremer, Sanchez, Miller, Odierno, Karpinski, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Zarqawi, Chalabi, al-Sadr, al-Dhari, al-Hakim, Allawi, al-Jaafari, al-Maliki, Sistani"

Spencer, I can't believe you wrote this. This is a silly, shrill and fundamentally unfair statement. Do you really think you can equate between Zarqawi and David Schenker, and indict them both in the same breath?

Do you realize what you've written?

This is total BS.

How can anyone take this statement seriously?

If one extrapolates your statement a little further, wouldn't we also add Christopher Hitchens to the list? As well as some common friends?

You completely missed the real message today: those carrying arms against the new Iraq are still beholden to Saddam. Do you understand what that means?

Nibras
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي | 10:35 AM

Nibras, I see your point, but between the people listed -- which does include friends of mine and yours -- the degrees of complicity and responsibility in this calamity are presented, and I hope rather starkly. Of course Zarqawi and Dave Schenker are not comperable. The point of the statement is to get Americans to start to think about the enormity of what this war is, and how through intellectual laziness -- and in several cases, much worse than that -- we have enabled the monsters of Iraq to be as monstrous and predatory as they've been. Attack me for it if it pleases for you, but I stand by what I wrote.
Blogger spencerackerman | 11:13 AM

For some reason, Blogger isn't let me doing this, but let me clarify that I include myself in the TNR category listed in the post.
Blogger spencerackerman | 11:34 AM

Spencer, please spare me the moral martyrdom act. You are not being attacked. You are being challenged to make sense of what I deem to be an irresponsible and ultimately false statement.

You are the better writer, and I have always respected your journalism. Let's not make this about scoring rhetorical points. Please be direct in your answers.

You wrote something outrageous. If you choose to stand by it, then I choose to call you out on it.

What I did not understand is the following: are you saying that you wrote what you wrote for shock value?
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي | 11:45 AM

Nibras, believe me, I'm not interested in playing the martyr. If you call me out on my statement, I reply. I look forward to going back and forth with you on this.

Did I write what I wrote for shock value? To tell the truth, I don't think I did, but my intention was to get people thinking about degrees of complicity for the Iraq war. Is that shock value? I'm not sure. I'd put it differently, but I did intend to provoke, so I suppose there is some shock value in there.

Nibras, is your problem with what I wrote that you think I was insufficient in *distinguishing* degrees of complicity? That by lumping in (say) Schenker and Zarqawi, I conflated where I should have distinguished? Or is your problem deeper than that? Please clarify.
Blogger spencerackerman | 12:17 PM

"Nibras, is your problem with what I wrote that you think I was insufficient in *distinguishing* degrees of complicity? That by lumping in (say) Schenker and Zarqawi, I conflated where I should have distinguished?"

Spencer, I think you are standing on very shaky ground by implying that there is any form of overlap between Zarqawi and all the others mentioned in your list (among whom you put yourself).

This whole premise is wrong.

It stems from a failure to understand the very nature of the enemy and their intent.

What makes this failure on your part even more astounding is that the nature and intentions of Zarqawi, the Iranians and the Ba'athists have been revealed even to people much less informed that you are.

Do you think the mistakes made in liberating/governing Iraq reflect on the intentions of the those who wanted Saddam out? Is so, then do you actually believe that bringing Iraq to this stage was done on purpose?

Complicity informs common intent. There is nothing in common between what Zarqawi set out to do, and the writings of David Schenker, or yourself for that matter.

It is as simple as that; once and if you get the premise right.
Blogger Nibras Kazimi نبراس الكاظمي | 1:49 PM

Spencer, why do you include Sistani on your list of the indicted?
Blogger M. Duss | 4:05 PM

"Where every American and Iraqi death is an indictment of ... The New Republic ... . May they never live down what they have taken from us."
Whoa. Talk about awkward at the next reunion.
Blogger Jacob | 5:36 PM

Spencer, I can't believe you wrote this. This is a silly, shrill and fundamentally unfair statement. Do you really think you can equate between Zarqawi and David Schenker, and indict them both in the same breath?

I don't know about the same breath, but the Allies indicted and condemned Juliusu Streicher at the same trial as Goring at the same trial. Not to compare the Iraq invasion with the Holocaust in terms of the extent of the crime, but there are degrees of responsibility.

Could al-Sadr and Zarqawi been empowered to the degree that they were if it weren't for Powell's speech to the UN, or the media led drumbeat to war in the US? Obviously, neither Judith Miller nor Colin Powell have tortured someone to death with a power drill (that we know of), but they're not exactly uninvolved with the Rube Goldberg-like chain of causality that has led to every abandoned body scattered across Iraq.
Blogger Vermin Jones | 8:30 PM

Nibras, he didn't put you on the list because you're not important enough. Quit whining.
Blogger John Emerson | 4:07 AM

The fundamental question is what Spencer means by "indictment". Are we speaking of moral responsibility? In that case the statement *may* be defensible -- but only if it is stated explicitly that everyone with "guilt=+x" is implicated in bad results.

For what it's worth, I think that this is a pretty trivial or even tautological claim. It amounts to saying that every influential person or group bears some blame for events that go wrong, on the grounds that they could have used their influence differently. It must be directed primarily against journalists and others who promoted the war without having any direct effect on policy. Which is surely a separate category to those who do make decisions.

One might give this argument some substance by referring to motives: did they intend the best result? But that quickly turns into a rather Jesuitical casuistry that hasn't much to do with politics. Must we look into Chalabi's heart to judge his guilt?

If, on the other hand, Spencer means *criminal* responsibility by "indictment", then the statement is wrong. He would have to tell us precisely which parts of domestic and international law have been broken by each actor. And this would immediately show the difference between murderers like Zarqawi and the publicists at TNR and the Weekly Standard.

So on the whole I have to judge Spencer's argument true just to the extent that it's meaningless. When the terms of debate are so thoroughly infected with insincerity and nonsense as they are today, meaning in speech is to be prized above nearly all else.
Blogger TheWaldganger | 7:56 AM

It's morally obtuse not to recognize the indictment Ackerman is making. Of course there are degrees of moral guilt among the ones named, but that does not make them any less guilty for the degree of their acts or failure to act.

The point is that however well- or ill-intentioned, those named -- and in fact all the rest of us who failed to stop this tragedy -- bear responsibility.

The chaos in Iraq was not a natural disaster. It happened because of actions and inactions of varying degrees of responsibility.

The best we can do now is to own up to the responsibility each of us involved bears (and here I include myself as a citizen who didn't do enough to stop those more directly responsible) so that we can act differently in the future.

If anyone on Ackerman's list wants to haggle over degrees of responsibility, a truth commission would be a good place to start (although I would personally hope for a war crimes trial for Bush and Cheney).
Blogger Bob Gaines | 9:52 AM

This is off-topic, but I'd like to take this opportunity to send directly to you a note I sent to the Prospect that may not have reached you:

I just read your article on bases in Iraq (very informative!). I realize you probably wrote it some time ago, but I noticed you didn't mention the ban on permanent bases included in the defense appropriation bill signed by Bush on September 29 (http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2006/10/10/baseless_in_baghdad.php). Do you think the ban will have any practical effect?

I read Iraq'd regularly and very much appreciated it. Thanks!
Blogger Bob Gaines | 9:57 AM

In regard to Mr. Gaines' point:

"It's morally obtuse not to recognize the indictment Ackerman is making. Of course there are degrees of moral guilt among the ones named, but that does not make them any less guilty for the degree of their acts or failure to act."

But what does this actually mean? The best I can make of it is: "Different people are fully responsible for doing or not doing the different things that they did or did not do, all of which contributed to the disastrous outcomes of the last three or four years." Which is surely true, but not very helpful in determining who is to blame for what.

Arguments like this actually work to the advantage of those who are in fact responsible, i.e. who had the authority actually to make policy decisions. The premise that everyone is guilty supports the conclusion that no one is guilty of anything in particular. And this lets the president and his inner circle -- as well as the murderers in Iraq -- off the hook.
Blogger TheWaldganger | 11:08 AM

It was indeed reckless and incredibly inept of the Bush administration to invade Iraq without a vastly more detailed and competent occupation strategy at hand – and without more troops to handle the immediate pacification issues. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army and most of the country’s top beauracrats under the rubric of de-Bathification was also idiotic – we simply couldn’t afford that level of ideological purity. And the initial efforts to train up a replacement Iraqi force were also nearly non existent for far too long.

Having said all that I’m not sure that having had the right sort of plans would have made all that great a difference. The fundamental reason that Iraq is such a mess is Iraqis, not Americans. Yes we could have made a much more competent effort to handle the huge seething cauldron of ethnic hatred and violence that is the Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a communities and clans. But it still would have been a mess regardless.

The Sunnis and Shi’as simply aren’t ready to share power peacefully while letting only the ballot box decide. They are determined to fight it out. The Sunni elites in particular simply aren’t willing for the Shi’as to rule over them without a fight – and they’re convinced, probably rightly, that they’ll end up with none or precious little of oil moneys unless they fight for it (after all, they recall how they treated the Shi’a for the most part when they were in power under Sadaam). And the Shi’as aren’t willing to take Sunni attacks without their own militia reprisals. The bloodletting won’t stop until there’s a real bloodbath and as well a real iron fisted power takes hold – which the US isn’t prepared to be itself in this age of Western media judgments, and isn’t prepared to let a government that it still influences be that either. So it won’t end until some time (perhaps quite a while) after we leave. And then it won’t end in democracy.

In short Bush was wrong. Everyone is not ready for Democracy of the liberal, peacefully losing elections and respecting the rights of minorities sort that we mean by Democracy in the West. It’s not at all clear that any of the Muslim-Arab middle east is ready for liberal democracy.
Blogger dougjnn | 12:59 PM

The one in Lebanon, about the only positive example, is incredibly unstable and is tettering on the brink.
Blogger dougjnn | 1:04 PM

Do you think the ban [on permanent bases in Iraq] will have any practical effect?

Yes, absolutely.

All bases in Iraq will be (are) officially declared temporary.
Blogger dougjnn | 1:07 PM

Having said all that I’m not sure that having had the right sort of plans would have made all that great a difference. The fundamental reason that Iraq is such a mess is Iraqis, not Americans. Yes we could have made a much more competent effort to handle the huge seething cauldron of ethnic hatred and violence that is the Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a communities and clans. But it still would have been a mess regardless.

Durring the big blackout that set NYC into darkness for a night a while back I recall some commentators being surprised that we didn't go Lord of the Flies. It seemed absurd at the time, but blackouts have caused riots and looting in the past - how is Baghdad's power grid doing?

Think of what any major multi-ethnic US city would look like if all civil authority were destroyed and slowly rebuilt, months went by with little to know real police presence, power was out, unemployment was above 60%, there was no gas and a buncha heavily armed foreigners hanging around.

I live in a more or less civilized part of Brooklyn, and have no illusions - my head would be on a pike if that came to pass.

Read Islam Observed, Clifford Geertz's concise history of the development of Islam in Indonesia and Morocco, and its relationship to colonialism. His conclusion was that colonial occupation fostered what we call fundamentalism.

The US wasn't simply in the neighborhood while Iraq fell into chaos on its own accord.

Please.
Blogger Vermin Jones | 6:09 PM

The key difference here is that Zarqawi schemed with Ba'athists and the jihad community to visit this hell upon Iraqis. Everyone else on Spencer's list have tried their best--without necessary success yet--to thwart the saboteurs. Baghdad lost power regularly not because of Halliburton. No, there was a group--which some in the credulosphere have called a "resistance"--which deliberately destroyed the power stations. They kill women in markets, they kill pensioners lining up for checks, U.N. chiefs of mission and Iraqi jurists and politicians. They threaten to kill people who voted in the first real election of their lifetime, not unlike the Klan. By failing to distinguish between failed cops and cunning killers, Spencer, you are soft on war crimes.
Blogger scionofzion | 7:38 PM

By failing to distinguish between failed cops and cunning killers, Spencer, you are soft on war crimes.

scionofzion gets an A+ from me for that one. Such clarity with a single sentence. No snark, I'm serious; it's like I can throw Hannah Arendt et. al. in the trashbin unread. Wish I knew Gunther Grass' email, I'd send him a link.

Thanks.
Blogger artappraiser | 12:10 AM

The key difference here is that Zarqawi schemed with Ba'athists and the jihad community to visit this hell upon Iraqis. Everyone else on Spencer's list have tried their best--without necessary success yet--to thwart the saboteurs.

So, are you trying to say that the US invasion wasn't the proximate cause of the descent of Iraq into chaos and violence?

Was the fact that the two happened at the same time simply a coincidence?
Blogger Vermin Jones | 5:00 AM

Vermin Jones--

So, are you trying to say that the US invasion wasn't the proximate cause of the descent of Iraq into chaos and violence?

Plenty of places descent into chaos and violence without US invasions. Darfur for example. The Congo. Liberia. Sierra Leone. Rawanda.

The proxomite cause in Iraq was the removal by the US of the previous dictatorship.

Our attempt to prevent large scale sectarian bloodletting has also ended to keep the cauldron boiling.

It seems clear that the Arab parts of Iraq are incapable of living under anything but dictatorship (unlike the Kurdish region, whose two one party states have their problems but are certainly fresh air by comparision).
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