Great arguments on the Daily Show

Christopher Hitchens, the contrarian, and Jon Stewart get into a reasonable, fun argument on Iraq. Here's the video. (Check it soon, it may be gone or hard to find after two weeks or so.)

I'm not sure who I think "wins" but the discussion is invigorating. I could watch them go at it for hours so wish this clip wasn't limited to 8 minutes. Enjoyable none-the-less.


Andrew said...

Yeah I saw that too. Hitch seemed a little pissed. Unfortunately right now it's a little hard being a pro-iraq war person since there hasn't been anything super substantial since Jan. that we can point to and say "see everythings gonna be fine".

BTW, how come you get all the "This blog is awesome spam"? All I get is the completely non-contextual crap. I think theres an anti-conservative blog spammer bias.

Ben said...

I've gotta agree with you on the "hard to be pro-iraq war" front. I came around to the decision that the invasion was a good thing a few months before their elections but have since had difficulty describing my rationale when there's so much horrible shit going down. But that is perhaps the topic of another post.

Re: The blog spam. I've been trying to keep an eye on it, but it's definitely a pain in the ass. However I just noticed a feature on Blogger that requires a commenter to pass a word verification test. It's now been implimented and hopefully will keep the spammers at bay. If it continues I will have to impliment another solution. Any suggestions in this regard would be appreciated

Joe said...

Yeah, that was pretty good. While checking it out, I also listened to the interview with John Irving where he recounts the time that he gave Kurt Vonnegut the heimlich maneuver (that sentence has a lot of hard things to spell). It's pretty funny.

I think Stewart got to the heart of the matter...yes, it's good to be tough on terrorists, but what is the connection between the Iraq and terrorism? That question can be answered, but not easily (I realize that this isn't a particularly novel or profound observation). It's been the heart of the anti-war message from the beginning..Hussein is not Bin Laden.

There are lots of other reasons that the war could be construed as good (freedom, democracy, all that), but if those were our motivations, the country should have had the chance to weigh the real possible benefits against the real possible costs. But, that didn't happen, and probably won't happen (there's no way that people are going to look back and say, "that wasn't worth it." Public officials can't even bring themselves to say that about Vietnam).

Hitchins brings up the important concept of forfeiting sovereignty. There was an interesting description of that in the last issue of Foreign Policy. The author, Richard Haas, president of the council on foreign relations, makes the point that if the world agrees that sovereignty is "conditional," then "the diplomatic challenge will be to gain widespread support for principles of state conduct and a procedure for determining the remedy when these principles are violated."

Ben said...

Quick thought: You're right Hussein is not bin Laden. In real terms (number of people whose death he is directly responsible for) he was/is much worse. He simply wasn't as successful at killing Americans. If all the anti-war folks have is that comparison, they've already lost.

Andrew said...

For me, the difficulty in explaining why going to war in Iraq was a good thing is that it clearly isn’t the most direct or ideal means to mitigate the threat of terrorism against the US. The best I can do is a variation on the cliché about democracy – it’s the worst possible solution except for all the others. I have yet to hear a critic of the war articulate an alternative strategy that addresses sort term security needs as well as confronting the root causes of terror

Joe said...

Yes, Hussein killed a lot of people. But that's NOT the point that the war was sold on. As a people, we have agreed that the integrity of the process is integrally relevant to the rightness of the outcome...that's why we don't admit evidence in court if it was gathered illegally. It's a uniquely American value. With this war, the process was bad. When you sell someone something based on some reasoning and give them something else, it's called a Bait and Switch, and it's illegal. (The flipside, which I also have some sympathy with, is that people are stupid and selfish and have to be manipulated for the greater good).

It is also somewhat ironic that we very much turned a blind eye to the kurdish genocide when it was occuring (see Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell).

Even if one's evaluation of the war ignores the process issues and simply focuses on cost/benefit analysis, one still faces a huge challenge. How can we ever possibly know if this was "worth" it? Where is the computer that will calculate this for us?

This is all somewhat irrelevant to the question of what to do now. As I've said before, I tentatively support the Bush policy. But it may be relevant as we face decisions about Iran and North Korea.

(I'd like to explore the issue of alternative policies at some point..I at least have some ideas).

Question: Do y'all support the war from an altruistic perspective (that it was good for the Iraqis) or a national security perspective (good for the war on terrorism)?

Andrew said...

Who cares what the war was “sold” on? The Spanish American War was sold on a phony mine attack, WWI was “sold” on the phony Zimmerman Telegram, WWII was “sold” on an attack that the administration allowed to happen, and the Vietnam War was “sold” on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Truth and the political necessities of war not being in alignment is hardly a new phenomena. Historians have ranked some of these wars as more “just” than others, but how we became involved is of little real relevance.

As for your question about what motivation I have for supporting the war in Iraq I think it’s impossible to separate humanitarian issues (I don’t believe altruism exists) from those of national security in the Middle East. As the Crusades demonstrated, the combination of abject poverty, religious fanaticism and totalitarian government breeds a culture hostile to mankind’s universal desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The only true path to security is to remove as many barriers as possible from individuals preventing them from achieving these goals. Obviously everyone would hope to achieve this by diplomatic and economic means, but unfortunately the general greed and fecklessness by our “allies” in the EU and UN rendered these more desirable remedies completely ineffective. The only options this left the US was to write off/appease/isolate the middle east like the Europeans and accept a routine bleeding every few years or pursue a policy of regime change through military intervention. The costs of the latter to date have been very high – much higher than anyone would have hoped for -- but I still believe that if one takes an honest accounting of what has been achieved so far, it’s still vastly more than what we would have achieved if we have chosen isolation/appeasement. Is this progress worth the 1900 soldiers killed and 6800 wounded thus far? I believe yes.

Andrew said...

Here's an article about how in Oct. 30 2000, Bill Clinton signed into law an act admitting that Roosevelt had prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attacks and thus absolving the two admirals who were made scapegoats at the time. Roosevelt is widely regarded as a hero and he allowed almost 2500 navy personal perish in a single day and destroyed the lives of Admirals Short and Kimmel. This is just one of many examples that invalidates the idea that the integrity of the process is integrally relevant to the rightness of the outcome.


Joe said...

I disagree that the selling point is irrelevant, and I don't look to historians as the only arbiters of justice.

You also vastly underestimate the cost of the war. It isn't just in terms of dead and wounded American soldiers. There's the cost to innocent Iraqi lives..the cost in dollars, the cost in increased animosity toward the U.S., the cost in losing the "devil we know" for the devil we don't, the cost in terms of stability (functioning plumbing, roads, jobs, etc) for the Iraqi people, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, the opportunity cost of running the war. The question is not simply whether the benefits exceed the cost; it is also whether we could have used those resources in better ways. You may be right that the benefits will eventually exceed the costs, but I don't think we can say that right now, given the huge costs and the tenuous situatin there, and I don't think we'll ever be able to say it with certainty. For instance, what if the Iraqis democratically elect a theocratic government? Will the women in that country be better off? No way! We will certainly never be able to calculate the real opportunity costs. How many lives would have been saved, how much more global utility would have been generated if that money had gone into reinforcing the levees in New Orleans, or into mosquito nets in Africa, or into job training programs for poor Palestinian men, or into the coffers of moderate groups in Saudi Arabia, or into Arabic language training for CIA operatives? All of those programs can protect people, save lives, and improve lives, in a much more direct and cost-effective way than the war.

Here's another way to frame the question. Any way you approach it, the war was risky. The potential benefits were (and are) uncertain and the potential costs were (and are) high, especially if we fail. The important question then is how much risk should public officials take? In evaluating the soundness of a risky action, you can't base your judgment on the outcome. (If I spend money on the lottery and happen to win, it doesn't mean that spending money on the lottery was a good idea). You have to base it on whether or not someone made a reasonable assessment of the risks involved. I think our government underestimated the riskiness of this operation and overestimated the potential benefits and that these resources could have been spent in more effective ways.

Joe said...

Is process relevant? It isn't hard to come up with situations in which rules designed to ensure the integrity of processes lead to prima facie unjust outcomes. That is precisely why many people, not just dictators, prefer dictatorships. There are no rules to get in the way of justice. But Americans have made a value choice that, over the long run, ensuring the integrity of the process creates a better world for everybody. I would stress that this is a conscious choice that we have made with full knowledge that, in any given individual situation, it might not create the best outcome.

Batman is a good synopsis of this problem (I just read Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns..very good). Batman is so bad ass because he doesn't have to abide by pesky rules like probable cause and Miranda rights. And we love Batman! But when Batman's followers start cutting of the hands of suspected thieves, it doesn't look so cool.
So, are you sure that you want to discount the importance of process altogether, or just for foreign policy issues? If just for foreign policy issues, then can you articulate a principle to justify this exception?
Also, are you really trying to compare WWII to the Iraq? The stakes were much bigger for Roosevelt than for Bush. Hussein wasn't steadily marching across Europe.

Andrew said...

I think you’re overstating my position just a little. My argument was never that the spark that ultimately causes a country to go to war is completely irrelevant, but its significance pales in comparison when the horrors and benefits of war are viewed in total. You are correct that the scale of crisis Roosevelt was confronted with was several order of magnitudes greater than Bush, but so was his deception to compel the US into that conflict. This is precisely why historians largely cut him a lot of slack. If a lasting democracy is achieved in Iraq and progress towards capitalist democracy is made in the rest of the Middle East, I believe the same will be true for Bush. Especially since the Bush administration adhered to every governing “process” to the Nth. Degree. First getting a UN resolution authorizing force (after 15 others) – and full approval from Congress.

I also think it’s a of an overstatement to infer from my neglecting to itemize every liability of the Iraq war for the sake of brevity that I’m attempting to minimize the huge burdens of this war. You are correct that there are many other liabilities beyond the loss and injury of American personnel; however some of the liabilities/opportunity costs you identify don’t square with the facts:

1.) The Iraq war caused increase in the loss of Iraqi life: I would say the suicide bombers are pretty effective, but Saddam/Sanctions still had them soundly beat – and I believe things will only improve. (http://www.reason.com/0203/fe.mw.the.shtml)

2.) Infrastructure of Iraq has been negatively affected: Currently the only element of infrastructure still lagging below pre-war levels is electric generation, and this has less to do the war and more to do with Saddam’s controlled economy only providing 3 enormous power generation facilities for the entire country and then not maintaining them for close to 30 years. Oil production, water, sanitation, garbage collection, etc. are all better than they have been in at least a decade.

3.) Iraqi jobs were lost because of the war: 80 percent of Iraqi’s worked for the regime in some fashion making next to nothing. Since the war the standard of living has increased nearly 100%. Economic growth has exceeded 56% for the last 2 years. The number of new satellite TV dishes and cars in Baghdad makes this abundantly clear.

4.) Dealing with Saddam, the devil we know, is better than the current insurgency: Saddam produced chem/bio weapons and was very close to getting nukes prior to the Gulf War. He had unlimited funding and UN/EU protection. The current insurgency has none of these things.

5.) Women will be worse off under the new Iraq government: Women have a mandatory 25% representation in Iraq’s representative body. Saddam routinely used rape to suppress the smallest forms of dissent. Though I like Cuba suppose women did have the same opportunity to be slaves to the regime as men so I guess that we did lose that…

6.) After all of this Iraq will only establish a democratic theocracy: So is Turkey, France Canada and Ireland. All of these countries have official state religions, routinely allow religion to guide new laws and have state funded religious schools. I agree it’s not ideal, but they’re hardly Iran.

7.) The Iraq money could have gone to reinforcing levees: LA wanted for nothing in terms of Federal flood control spending. The following article details how they received more federal aid for public works than ANY other state by a wide margin but opted to reward cronies and build resort islands instead.


Katrina's wake, Louisiana politicians and other critics have complained about paltry funding for the Army Corps in general and Louisiana projects in particular. But over the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large.


"Responsible for building and maintaining the flood walls and embankments that make up local flood control networks, the state's levee boards historically have provided governors with an easy way to reward financial supporters. In New Orleans, there is the added benefit of overseeing a police department and an expansive inventory of real estate that includes an airport, two marinas, a riverboat casino complex, dozens of parcels of commercial property and hundreds of acres of park land along Lake Pontchartrain."
Then there's an Associated Press story from earlier in the year, which announced that the "Orleans Parish levee board is dusting off a thick but long-dormant report on a grandiose public works project: a proposal to build a 4-mile-long island on Lake Pontchartrain with beaches, camping areas and possibly hotels, restaurants and an amusement park.
"Just imagine a 4-mile stretch of sandy beaches that doesn't directly impact traffic, curtails pollutants in the lake and maybe provides tourist attractions like hotels and museums," Eugene Green, a levee board commissioner, told AP. "That's something that needs to be explored seriously."

I agree with you that additional resources going to human intelligence is necessary for responding to the terror threat but this was this was obvious to everyone after 9/11 including the 9/ll commission. Funding groups opposing regimes we don’t like is also hardly new. Remember how great the Shah of Iran worked out? What about the contras? How about Amad Chalabi more recently?

I will reiterate that I believe the only way to effectively deal with terror is a proactive strategy of political reform. Anything short of a wholesale transformation towards freedom (capitalist democracy) will only continue to put the US on an entirely reactive footing. The problem we’re facing isn’t the terrorists. They are very few in number (less that 25,000 by some estimates) and are just a symptom of a profoundly backwards and dysfunctional culture. If we go back to a law enforcement oriented approach to terror we will be like a farmer attempting to rid his field of weeds simply by plowing them under year after year as they appear. As we now know, the only way to get rid of weeds is to go after what makes them; the ribosomes. Capitalist Democracy is our Glyphosate and the Middle East is our field.

Joe said...

Those are important points about Iraqi infrastructure, public service, and jobs. If you're right, we can move those from the cost category to the benefit category.

I think some of your other responses miss the mark a little..they don't quite answer the right questions.

"The Iraq war caused increase in the loss of Iraqi life: I would say the suicide bombers are pretty effective, but Saddam/Sanctions still had them soundly beat – and I believe things will only improve."

Saddam in the past vs the insurgency now isn't quite the right comparison to make. It should be the likely number of people Hussein and his descendents WOULD have killed in the future if left in power vs how many innocents WE killed + the number the insurgency killed. In other words, is it likely that he and his kids would have committed another genocide, or started another war with Iran, or something similar? The conclusion may still be the same (that taking him out saved more lives than it cost) but it is more uncertain.

Many of your other points rest on the the quality of the current constitution. But we all know that constitutions are only relevant if the people support them. The point is that we don't know what's going to happen with this government in the long run. The Iraqi government, not the insurgency, is the devil we don't know. You're right that the insurgency itself isn't that big of a deal...it's what happens to the government as a whole that matters. Will they truly become a democracy, and if so, will that democracy have an impact on the wider middle-east culture? Both of those questions are still in doubt.

I want to reiterrate one final point before drop out of sight for the week. Even if the costs turn out to exceed the benfits, it may still be possible to say that we shouldn't have done it. We can't evaluate this decision in hindsight. We have to ask, given the relevant facts and probabilities facing the administration (and the congress) at the time, was it a reasonable risk to take? I say no, even though I'm willing to admit that it may turn out to be a beneficial action on the whole. (this is my lottery analogy from before). The opposite is also true...it may turn out to be a disaster, but we could still say it was a good idea at the time.