It might seem that I am giving John a hard time about being wrong about the Iraq War with the benefit of hindsight, and after he is dead and cannot defend himself. In reality, I completely agreed with John at the time [and Jerry Pournelle], so I am trying to understand why I was wrong too. We have ended up with an interesting natural experiment here. At the time, in early 2003, John thought that failing to invade Iraq would led to a state of affairs much like North Korea at the time, an obnoxious state that had to be placated because of its possession of nuclear weapons.
Twelve years later, North Korea is still obnoxious, and is attempting to increase their ability to threaten their neighbors with submarine launched missiles. Fortunately, the North Koreans don't actually have submarines capable of carrying missiles, so this threat is pretty useless at present.
Iraq is a huge mess, and now it is clear that Iraq never had the means to develop nuclear weapons, so that is a failure on two counts. There has been a great deal of concern that Iran might try to develop a nuclear weapon, but I can't really see the problem. India and Pakistan have managed not to nuke each other, and they hate each other at least as much as the Israelis and the Iranians do. Iran and Israel don't even share a border, which makes problems far more likely.
A nuclear Iran might be a bigger problem for the Sunni US client states in the Persian Gulf, but then I also see that bit of inter-religious rivalry as none of our business. All in all, maybe an unmolested Iraq [and Libya, and Syria], even if the nuclear thing had been real, would have been better than what we ended up with. Stronger states, even if unjust, at least kept a lid on the chaos we see now. If a decadent state is one that wills the ends but not the means, what is a state that keeps doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working?
Let us assume that the Bush Administration is reined in by the international community. The UN weapons inspectors in Iraq are permitted to pursue their inquiries until the end of the summer, perhaps until next winter. The US is prevailed upon to negotiate with North Korea. Maybe the US even resumes oil shipments to keep the lines of communication open. What happens then?
First, any hope of a non-nuclear Islamist front disappears. The US would be unable to keep an invasion force in the Middle East until the end of 2003, much less to redeploy one if the current forces are withdrawn. This would be partly because of the cost of logistics and partly because of the upcoming presidential election, but chiefly because such regional support as there is for an invasion would have evaporated. The bluff of the US would have been called. The states of the region would be scurrying to accommodate themselves to Iraqi hegemony. Iraq would have a deliverable bomb by the end of 2004. The UN arms inspectors will express surprise.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, just as the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, North Korean nuclear capacity would have developed from two experimental devices to a usable arsenal, including missiles that can certainly hit Japan and probably parts of the United States.
There will then be a brief period of alarms and crises: perhaps an oil embargo, perhaps an artillery bombardment of Seoul. Before very long, though, a nuke will go off in a European or American city. Then several things will happen.
On a theoretical level, the hypothesis on which the great international institutions are based will have been refuted. The UN was founded on the idea that a system of consultative, collective security makes the world a safer place. Within a few years of a retreat from Iraq, however, it will be clear to all that the collective security system actually made the situation far worse. The wars of retaliation and preemption to follow would, nominally, be undertaken by an alliance rather than by the US alone, but the alliance would work outside the UN system. Like the alliances that won the First and Second World Wars, this one would function as an emergency executive, with little regard for existing institutions or international law as it appeared at the beginning of the 21st century.
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What I have outlined here is not an optimal scenario. However, even if the current balancing act between Iraq and North Korea can be brought to a successful conclusion, we have to face the fact that the international system is decadent. I use this term in the sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. One way or another, we will get to the ends for which collective security was supposed to be the means. The problem is that there is a great deal of sentiment for taking the worst way possible.
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Speaking of blocked societies, I just finished Jonathan D. Spence's Treason by the Book, which deals with a hapless conspiracy against the Qing government of China in the early 18th century. The scope of the book is smaller than Spence's God's Chinese Son, but then not many historical events were as big as the Taiping Rebellion.
Treason by the Book recounts an incident in which the emperor decided to deal with rumors about his government by a policy of "transparency." Government printers published an anthology of all the documents relating to the investigation of some rather naive conspirators, and the emperor made a great show of clemency. Meanwhile, he took the opportunity to suppress a whole literary tradition based on the writings of a Ming loyalist. (The loyalist's works, awkwardly enough, were standard texts for students preparing to take the civil service exams.)
We learn quite a bit about Manchu China from all this, down to the distribution list of the Capital Gazette, the imperial version of the Federal Register. However, Spence has managed to turn a bureaucratic case-study into a gripping mystery story. It is not giving away the ending to mention that one of the things we learn is how a legal system works that lacks the concept of double jeopardy.
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We have more Fortean phenomena: this time it's a ghost ship, an abandoned commercial fishing boat off the west coast of Australia. In point of fact, since the vessel in question sailed through pirate-ridden waters and the crew was quite capable of deserting in any case, it would take a certain skill to make the incident into a great mystery. Arthur Canon Doyle himself had a hand in making the legend of the Marie Celeste, but where is his equal today?