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What Liberal Hawks Got Wrong And Right

Frequent TNR contributor Alan Wolfe has an interesting and worthwhile essay in World Affairs about liberal hawks. Wolfe dissects the way that liberal hawks (I'd put myself in that category) focused too much on the justice of going to war and failed to think carefully enough about occupation:

Alas for liberal hawkishness, safeguarding the individual against the evil designs of tyrants all too often comes into conflict with the desire of nations to manage their own future. One may argue that tyrants cannot possibly represent the will of their people because they do not allow their people to express their will. But this is not how most people in most societies around the world see the issue. For them, occupation is occupation, however benign it may appear to the occupiers. One lesson we ought to learn from Iraq, therefore, is that our anti-totalitarianism is their neo-colonialism. Removing a tyrant comes closer to being an expression of humanitarian ideals than extracting a resource, but the techniques used to achieve the former bear a striking resemblance to those that once made the latter ubiquitous throughout the underdeveloped world: troops speaking a different language who from time to time commit collateral damage against innocent by-standers; a blind eye to bribery and corruption; the imposition of one way of life upon another without regard to the niceties of Tocquevillean custom that the occupier otherwise values.

Wolfe does, though, make one point that seems pretty far off-base. He suggests that Saddam Hussein was not as irrational (and, therefore, dangerous) as the liberal hawks presumed:

Far from being “politically out of touch with reality,” as Post suggested, Saddam was rational enough not to restart his biological and chemical weapons programs; he responded to incentives the way most political leaders did

I think Wolfe has succumbed to an excess of post-war revisionism here. Saddam later admitted that he intended to resstart the program when he could. Saddam was also not rational enough to offer full compliance with UN weapons inspectors in 2003. As Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor of the New York Times reported in 2006:

Mr. Hussein's compliance was not complete, though. Iraq's declarations to the United Nations covering what stocks of illicit weapons it had possessed and how it had disposed of them were old and had gaps. And Mr. Hussein would not allow his weapons scientists to leave the country, where United Nations officials could interview them outside the government's control.

Seeking to deter Iran and even enemies at home, the Iraqi dictator's goal was to cooperate with the inspectors while preserving some ambiguity about its unconventional weapons — a strategy General Hamdani, the Republican Guard commander, later dubbed in a television interview "deterrence by doubt."

Why was Saddam willing to risk an American invasion which would surely doom him in order to preserve ambiguity about his weapons? Because he didn't think that the United States would actually invade:

"As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn't he stop it then? And say, 'Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction.' I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?" Pelley asks.

"He didn't. But he told me he initially miscalculated President Bush. And President Bush's intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox. Which was a four-day aerial attack. So you expected that initially," Piro says.

Piro says Saddam expected some kind of an air campaign and that he could he survive that. "He survived that once. And then he was willing to accept that type of attack. That type of damage," he says.

"Saddam didn't believe that the United States would invade," Pelley remarks.

"Not initially, no," Piro says.

When liberal hawks invoked Saddam's propensity to take wild, aggresive risks, this is the kind of thing we were talking about.

--Jonathan Chait