Sunday, May 4, 2008

Morris, McGann, and the "What If's" on Iran, and Iraq

While recent polls show the economy ahead as the major issue, the Iraq war, and the candidates' plans to deal with it, will no doubt play a major roll in deciding the next President of the United States. Dick Morris and Eileen McGann have an interesting (and most intellectually impressive by Townhall standards) article on the potential problems the Democratic candidates will have dealing with the "what-ifs" of their plans to pull out of Iraq. M&M argue that the various possible scenarios have not been thought through by the Democrats, and this may not bode well for them in the election compared to McCain's simple position of "win in Iraq".

I must say it is a decent argument, even if you are like me and consider the status quo in Iraq to be far worse than they do. However, I would argue that M&M and the many Americans who hold a similar view have themselves not thought through the scenarios far enough, and make two mistakes. First, they stop short of showing exactly what negative results will result from the various hypotheticals they raise, similar to the way anti-porn activists argue, as if the possibility of harm was the same as actual harm. Second, they overestimate the certainty with which we can expect various scenarios to play out. This is, after all, politics. If it were possible to say "If A, then necessarily B, C, and D", we wouldn't find ourselves in our many economic and military messes. There are always multiple contingencies to consider, as well as unknowns.

"What do the Democrats propose? Obama and Hillary both want to pull out as soon as technically feasible. OK. But what happens if Iran moves into the vacuum and takes over Iraq?"

OK. What if? First of all, there are several steps M&M skip here. If Iran invades Iraq, they are hardly going to be greeted as liberators. There will still be Sunni fighting Shi'a, and Shi'a fighting Shi'a, as there is now. Iraq is not going to suddenly coalesce into the unified nation of "West Iran" just because we leave. They could get bogged down in a similar quagmire to what we are experiencing, or they could just aid one side in the Iraqi civil war, or have some internal problems we're unaware of that would make invading impossible, or a whole host of other possible outcomes. It is not reasonable to talk of this possibility as if it were anywhere near a certainty.

And what, exactly is the danger of this? How, exactly, would West Iran be more dangerous than Iraq? M&M answer:

And what if Al Qaeda takes advantage of the American absence and sets up a permanent base and sanctuary in Iraq, beyond our reach — a situation akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan where they could develop the capacity to hit us on 9-11 in their privileged, protected home territory?

There are many flaws in this question. First, if "American absence" is all it takes for Al Qaeda to set up a base, they have plenty of options now. What real difference would one more make? Second, if the Iranians were super-keen on the idea of having an Al Qaeda base in their territory, they don't need to invade Iraq to have one. They could just invite Al Qaeda into Iran now, except for the third problem. As John McCain keeps forgetting, (haven't we learned our lesson about having a president who doesn't know who's who over there?) Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization. Iran's official religion is Shi'a. Do recall that the Sunni and the Shi'a are the ones doing most of the fighting in Iraq. So on this "what if" the answer is "it's highly unlikely, and even if it happens, it doesn't change much".

"And what if hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who used to work with us start to be killed as happened when we pulled out of Vietnam?"

This is the best "what if" of the bunch, for it is highly likely to happen, regardless of who wins the Iraqi prize, and it has unpleasant moral undertones. But on a pragmatic level, there doesn't seem to be much substance to it. America, sadly, has a history of this sort of thing. We pulled out of Viet Nam, we pulled out of Cambodia, we pulled out of Lebanon, we pull out of Iraq. And the next country we get into a similar situation with will trust us again. It would be cynical if it weren't true.

As for the deaths, we have to compare them to the deaths Iraq could expect if we don't leave, which is substantial. As grisly as the executions that first week might be, is that really so much worse than the annual deaths over a year due to our presence?

"And what if the Iraqi oil falls into Iranian hands, sending the price even higher?"

Ok, but how long would it stay that way? And why are we so sure it will go up? After all, the mess we've made there disrupting what was a fairly stable culture hasn't exactly done wonders for the affordability of oil, so who says a newly stable Iraq, even under Iranian control, wouldn't produce lower oil prices? After all, it is still, in the end, a market, even in Iran. And no one, no one, wants to ask the question of whether higher oil prices, however painful in the short term, might actually be good for America in the long term. After all, the quickest way to independence from foreign oil is independence from oil itself, and what better motivation than $8/gallon gas. There really is no excuse for having a nation as advanced as ours dependent on oil from nations like Iran, and without solar and wind power being commonplace, if not universal. If $8/gallon gas gives us that, give me all you got. Next objection?

"And what if … The list goes on."

Um, OK, but I need more, a lot more. All I see so far are scare scenarios predicted with far more certainty than is justified by the very same people who told us we'd be greeted as liberators, or that the Iraq War would cost $30M, and well, that list goes on and on too.

And at an even more basic level, I think M&M grossly overestimate the intelligence of the average American voter. Let's recall we just spent a couple of excruciating hours watching the Democrats debate lapel pins, whether they each think the other can win, who loves America more, and who did or did not got shot at by snipers. And this election we will no doubt spend a ridiculous amount of time talking about gay marriage, creationism, and abortion. There really isn't much indication that the American public is interested in seeing an in depth analysis of any of the really important issues.

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