The Long View 2006-03-19: Iraq after Three Years; Life's Solution; Reading Habits

Three years later, John was honest enough to find a rather embarrassing prediction he had made about the course of the Iraq war. With the benefit of hindsight, I've found a few more,  but the point of that exercise here is to remind us how easily we can fool ourselves, rather than congratulate our good judgement in hindsight.

Iraq after Three Years; Life's Solution; Reading Habits


W.B. Yeats once famously asked whether any man had ever been taken out and shot because of something that Yeats had written. Actually, I suspect that Yeats was more worried about whether he had ever written anything for which he himself should have been shot on stylistic rather than politics grounds. Still, anyone who expresses political opinions in public must wonder from time to time whether anything they have said made the world worse, even in a case such as mine, when the opinions are derivative and whatever effect they have had derives from their having been first expressed by more prominent people.

In that spirit, I have been looking over my blog-postings for 2002 and 2003 to see whether there is anything I would want to unsay about my support for the invasion and my analysis of the situation. Readers are invited to search my Archives for items that now appear ridiculous, but here is the one paragraph that caught my eye. It's from September 26, 2002, in a critique of an article that appeared in The American Conservative. I said there about the course of the invasion still under consideration:

At risk of jinxing the operation, a happy outcome is by far the most likely. The fighting will be short. The country will not break up; it will be cantonized and demilitarized. The Iraqis will sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" and get back to business, which is good: the country's GDP grew 15% last year. The democratic movement in Iran will be bolstered and the Syrians will stop funding terrorist organizations.

Perhaps the allusion to The Wizard of Oz did jinx the operation, but not fatally. Regarding the state of Iraq today, I would say that, if the Iraqis really wanted to have a civil war, they would have had one before now. What we are seeing today is the dying reverberations of the attack on the Golden Mosque, a desperate attempt by the largely discredited Jihadi wing of the insurgency to disable the political process. As for the reasons for launching the invasion, there is nothing to add to Walter Russell Mead's account in Power, Terror, Peace, and War. Here is the summary from my review:

Mead lists three reasons for the Iraq War. The first was that Iraq was cheating on its commitments not to develop weapons of mass destruction. That was a plausible argument, but it was only tenuously verified, and the Administration paid dearly for making this its chief public argument. The second reason, added by the neoconservatives, was the humanitarian argument that the Baathist regime was itself an ongoing human-rights violation, the removal of which would begin the liberation of the Middle East. Mead finds most persuasive the third reason, which is that the “containment” of Iraq was poisoning the region.

Because Iraq never fully complied with the ceasefire terms of 1991, US troops were trapped in the region. Moreover, they had to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. That outraged religious Muslim opinion. Meanwhile, the US and Britain were fighting a low-level air campaign against suspect Iraqi military installations, while UN sanctions were preventing Iraq from recovering from the war. After September 11, the US could not simply retreat from the area, and it could not continue as it had been. There was no other course than regime change.

In retrospect, it is not the pre-2003 assessments that look prescient, but the pre-1991 ones. The cost for Iraq was always going to be around 3000 American dead, spread out over a period of several years rather than several weeks. We deluded ourselves when we thought that all that would be necessary was another end-of-history campaign in which more soldiers were killed in traffic accidents than in combat.

To that grim note, I would add the following points, some of which I have made before:

What is most different now from 2003 is that the Jihad has clearly moved to Western soil. As the witticism has it, the Arab street did rise after the invasion of Iraq, but it rose in Paris. That is one of the reasons the attempt to use the third anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War to mount large protests has failed.

No outcome of the Iraq War will be characterized in the elite media as a victory. Iraq is not going to become a Jeffersonian democracy, but even if it did, that would be called only a mitigation of a general disaster. Similarly, if there is democratic revolution in Iran, the argument will be made that the invasion of Iraq delayed that transformation.

We should be more impressed by the fact that all the pillars of the international system have been discredited to a greater or lesser degree in recent years. Regular readers will be familiar with my thesis that the United States functions as an international utility in the 21st-century world, but a utility whose management has been widely criticized. Similarly, the United Nations has yet to recover from the oil-for-food scandal in connection with Iraq, but also because of its record in Africa. The rejection of the European Union constitutional treaty seemed to be wholly unconnected to events in the Middle East, until the French riots and the Cartoon Jihad showed how irrelevant that institution was to the existential crisis of the eastern half of Western Civilization.

Regarding the whole War on Terror, we are not even at half-time yet, folks.

* * *

Regarding evolution, readers will recall the remarks that Christoph Cardinal Schönborn made in the New York Times last year, and which he later expanded on in First Things. The gist of his position is that Darwinism is theologically and perhaps scientifically insufficient. The discussion has continued in the Letters section of the latter journal, including the April 2006 issue, now on the news stands.

I mention this, not to get involved in the argument (the point of which, I confess, has surpassed my small understanding) but to note that were is an authority whom everyone seems agreed on. Thus, in one of the Letters to the Editor, the industrious and ingenious Edward T. Oakes, SJ., says:

As for Dawkins, I recommend Simon Conway Morris' book Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge) for a full-scale refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds

To that the cardinal counters:

First, I respectfully disagree with [Fr Oakes's] characterization of the work of Simon Conway Morris as a "refutation of Dawkins on solid Darwinian grounds." Morris' work on teleological, lawlike evolution is in fact a powerful challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy, which is based in large part on the absolute contingency of the results of variation and natural selection as they drive the purposeless meanderings of phylogeny across an arbitrarily changing fitness landscape.

Such a question is partly a matter of definition, but I think that Fr. Oakes is closer to the mark in regarding Morris's work as a refinement within Darwinian science. In fact, Morris may be said to offer reasons for the teleology that early Darwinism assumed but then abandoned, in part for political reasons.

In any case, I have a long review of Morris's book here. I marvel, frankly, that only now am I seeing the book widely cited. (It was mentioned last year in First Things by Stephen Barr, too.)

* * *

And now for you lazy people: Readers may have noticed that I recently uploaded an allofictional novella to my website, The Gray Havens. About its literary quality, I can only say that I have more reason to worry than did Yeats. The text is divided among 10 webpages, for ease of reading. You must imagine my shock, indeed my horror, to discover from my Activity Report that a third of the people who read the first section simply skip ahead and read the tenth.

Look, you want to know how it ends? The giant spider eats them all. I hope you are satisfied.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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