Sunday, July 30, 2006

Compare and Contrast: On conservative modes of thought

There was much rightful concern when conservative columnist John Podhoretz posed some truly bizarre hypotheticals:
What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?
The fairly unavoidable conclusion of this paragraph, and the whole piece's obsession with the horrors of niceness, is that we (and Israel) ought to ramp up the brutality. Slaughter all the fighting-age men. At the same time, a commenter here was advocating the use of tactical nuclear weapons in southern Lebanon, an equally genocidal policy.

Instapundit, who I don't read regularly, decided to balance Podhoretz's genocidal meanderings against a piece by Josh Marshall, claiming some manner of equivalence. Marshall was understandably peeved because he never advocated genocide in Iraq. The column in question makes the fairly scholarly point that the successful transition of Germany and Japan from bitter enemies to close friends derived in part from the thoroughness of their national defeat. He concluded:

And thus our problem. If everything goes according to plan, the loss of civilian life in Iraq will be minimal. Certainly, we all hope so. We’d be even happier if most of the Iraqi army simply laid down its arms when our ground troops march on Baghdad. In addition to our humanitarian interest in shedding as little blood as possible, a low death toll is key to convincing Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world that we are liberators, not conquerors or destroyers. In short, it’s key to making our invasion seem like a good thing.

But that’s the catch. Occupying armies will always keep things under control in the short-term. But the sort of transformation we engineered in the former Axis powers required a far greater pliancy, one which allowed us not only to disarm these countries but rewrite their textbooks, reorient their politics, and do much more.

Doing that in a foreign country may require a mauling of the civilian population that we are rightly unwilling to undertake.
Marshall opposed the war in Iraq, and was always critical of the planning of the war. And this column was one line of that argument. I don't see how one can read this as advocating anything close to killing all the Sunni men between 15 and 35. To me, it's clear that he is pointing out how predictions that Iraq would turn into a pro-Western (pro-Israeli) state with a politic as tied to America as Germany and Japan were fantasy. He was suggesting that the success possible was dramatically smaller than the success war advocates were predicting.

And that prediction was validated when the new Iraqi Prime Minister chose to single out Israel but not Hezbollah for criticism. That event marked a failure of those predictions. We may have created democracy in Iraq, but Syria and Iran are democracies, too. We were promised a new kind of democracy, and it didn't materialize.

I said before that I don't see how someone could read Marshall and JPod as saying anything even similar, but that's false. I do see how it can happen. I understand because I think I understand creationists. They apply a flawed sort of logic in which rejecting a conclusion on principle counts as falsifying an argument. For instance, they say that since evolution doesn't involve God, evolution therefore rejects the notion of God, and since they reject anything that rejects God, evolution must be wrong. They refuse to re-analyze any of the intermediate logic.

Instapundit is similarly resistant to any logic that might reject the prudence of our warplanning, so he refuses to interpret the argument in a supported the war, and supported the idea that this would all work out to bring pro-Western, pro-Israeli democracy to Iraq (and the rest of the region). He made and quoted others making comparisons to Germany and Japan. The idea that Marshall was making a contrast escaped him in reading the column in question, and so he misunderstood the logic. The argument is: our occupation can't bring a pro-Western democracy to Iraq unless we engage in atrocious attacks against civilians. Marshall meant that our occupation won't bring the democracy in question. Insty, assuming that such a democracy was the only possible or acceptable result of war, seems to have concluded that the argument was in favor of disproportionate attacks. At the time, he responded to the post by asserting that Marshall "thinks it ['people dying'] has a valuable pedagogical function."

That Marshall was rejecting that logical path and instead rejecting the premise of occupation planning that insisted a smooth transition of the sort observed in Germany and Japan still seems to escape the Instapundit three years later.

And that would be OK if the same mindset hadn't infected the people setting Iraq policy.