Friday, December 30, 2005

Anecdotal Defeatism? 

TigerHawk tells a compelling story below. A young and beautiful girl is savagely attacked by Uday Hussein and the doctor who treated her is haunted by the incident. But though he pities her plight, he fears Iraq is changing for the worse. Tigerhawk comments:

One of Packer's most important themes is that the United States grossly underestimated the massive psychological damage that many, if not most, Iraqis had suffered during the Ba'athist era, which damage rendered ordinary Iraqis incapable of reacting in many situations the way less traumatized people might. This psychological damage has, along with other factors, neutralized all of the Bush administration's optimistic assumptions about the speed with which Iraq would be able to function without the American crutch. This begs a question: Does the story of Dr. Shaker and Raghda strengthen, or diminish, the justice in America's intervention there?

The story begs more than one question, to my mind.

If the Iraqis were traumatized by years of Baathist rule and we "grossly misunderestimated" the time it would take for them to begin reacting normally (question for the ages: how does one react "normally" to being invaded?), then isn't it just a bit premature to grab our toys and go home? How can we, in good conscience, leave them adrift after having taken their loving Father Saddam from them?

And by what Hari Seldonesque formula was the White House to calculate the precise amount of time it would take Iraq to achieve emotional and spriritual healing? Is this time period measured in months? Years? Decades? What are the metrics? By what objective yardstick do we assess our progress towards this goal?

There's a phrase in my office for people who think like this. From time to time, someone will start squirrel-caging about some problem or another and at some point one of us will say, "You are stuck in the weeds again". It's easy enough to do: break any large, complex problem into its component parts and you'll find a million sticking points. A million excuses for doing nothing - for accepting the status quo. For turning a blind eye and leaving that man with the pistol in his lap free to rape little girls and throw them out onto the street drugged and bleeding to be beaten up by the police. This is significant, because it gives Nick Kristoff the opportunity to fulminate in the NY Times about how yet another brown-skinned Third World girl has been raped and reflect that yet another uncaring Republican administration is to blame for turning a blind eye to the madness.

Of course, we all know what happens if the administration does take action. A thousand outraged editorials will be launched, like tiny wooden ships, calling him a lying imperialist, warmonger, dictator, arrogant unilateralist Chimperor-in-Chief.

And life will go on in Baghdad and Kabul. Purple fingers will wave in the air from time to time and Joe Biden will do his best to ignore them because they contradict his gloomy predictions of electoral disaster and impending civil war. Hope will break out like a rash, but the New York Times will mysteriously fail to carry the story. And yet, things will still not be perfect for lovely young girls named Raghda, because this is not a perfect world. Mistakes will be made. People will die.

But there is a difference, and it is crucial. Iraq is moving from government at gunpoint to government at the ballot box. There will still be mistakes, because government is a human institution, but the mistakes made this time around will be self-inflicted. And they can be self-correcting. That is the beauty of representative government: choice. It is what Iraq has never had before: the power to choose, even to make mistakes. The power to correct what is wrong when they see injustice, as Dr. Shaker did the day Raghda came into his office.

The power to change for the better.

These are large ideas. Sweeping changes. Journalists and authors are always going to find a Dr. Shakir and point to him and say, "See? This or that person is worse off than before. This person is not content. Therefore the entire experiment was a failure." It seems easy on the surface to defeat large, complex ideas in detail, but it is a hollow victory.

The real story lies in the aggregate, when millions of people go to the polls each year and vote for a better tomorrow. When thousands of Raghdas sign up for classes down at the local college, or even, simply, do not have to submit to being raped by the likes of Uday Hussein. When the worst misfortunes they suffer are self-inflicted: the consequences of a people learning to deal with freedom, rather than those of a brutal dicatator holding a gun to their heads. It is the difference between living with stagnation in a prison of fear and moving towards a better tomorrow, even with all the uncertainty that entails.

And what human being on this earth does not want to leave a better tomorrow for their children and grandchildren? Certainly not us. Why do we wish something less for them?


By Blogger Vermontaigne, at Fri Dec 30, 07:37:00 AM:

Paxil for Peace.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 30, 08:40:00 AM:

To be clear, I was not writing about what we ought to do now or in the future, but asking a question about the decision we made in the past. FWIW, I think that the extent of the psychological brutalization of the Iraqi people under Saddam certainly strengthens the humanitarian case for the war, post hoc. However, it is also apparently true that the pre-war expectations of the pro-war faction in the administration -- particularly in the civilian leadership of the Pentagon -- failed to appreciate and plan for the extent of this psychological damage. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but "we" did not really have a clue how to deal with it in the early months of the occupation. That cluelessness probably increased the suffering of Iraq in the 30 months since the invasion over the Platonic "best case." The anti-war movement argues that the suffering of Iraq today is both a reason not to have invaded in the first place and an argument for withdrawal now. The point I was at least trying to provoke (however rhetorically) is that while the extent of the psychological brutalization of the Saddam era has made the occupation more difficult, it also increases the post hoc humanitarian argument for the war (and, by the way, that the history will look favorably on the war).  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 09:13:00 AM:

Actually, I wasn't really picking a bone with you so much as with the rhetorical question.

And I'm not entirely sure that the "suffering" could have been avoided.

That's my entire point, which I didn't want to go into, because entire books could be written (and very likely will) on this subject.

Had we left the Army intact, they very likely would have inflicted their own brand of suffering. Everyone claims to know what "would have happenened" had we done x, y, or z".

Rubbish. There is no real way to know. We do know for sure that the old Army structure was full of collaborators. We talk about the difficulties of training troops from the ground up, but often (and I know this first hand) it is far easier to do *that* than to try to re-train an existing force with an entrenched culture that is antithetical to the direction you are trying to go in.

What a great argument for leaving it intact - there is no real surety that this would not have been a full-blown disaster and that this is not what Saddam *hoped* we would do! It is certainly what Stalin (his idol) would have anticipated and what I would have planned for, had I been him. We forget that the eastern mind doesn't work the same way as the western mind - they often plan for far-out contingencies, while we tend to operate more on an ad-hoc basis. That is both our greatest strength and, at times, our greatest weakness. It means we are adaptable, but it also means we sometimes get caught short.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 30, 09:13:00 AM:

Loved the "Hari Seldonesque" reference, by the way. How many of our readers are cool enough to get that?  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 09:17:00 AM:

...or dorky enough... :)  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri Dec 30, 10:21:00 AM:

I confess, I had to Google Hari Seldon to enter that particular loop.

Back on topic, I think Cassandra is right. We can beat ourselves up over unknowables, choose not to act and pretend that's the right thing, or act and accept that no matter what we do it will be imperfect and open to criticism. There is no such thing as perfection. (Repeat as often as necessary.)

For all the mistakes that can possibly be attributed to our intervention this time around, I share the opinion that our biggest failing--moral or otherwise--was in not seeing to the removal of Saddam's regime during the Gulf War the first go-around. Even at the time, that decision seemed inexcusable; even more so knowing what we know now.

Remember the Kurds (and the southern Shi'ites) whom we encouraged with tacit assurances of support to rise up and overthrow the tyrant. Remember General Schwarzkopf's rueful confession that he had been "snookered" into allowing the Iraqi regime the use of helicopters for what he assumed would be humanitarian purposes and which were instead used to quell the uprising. Remember we were still in theatre and simply stood idly by and watched it all happen.

Excuse my French (as my mother would say) but that is actually putting it mildly in relation to the anger I feel.

And if anyone wants to consider the psychological impact of such abandonment and how that just might play upon whatever level of diffidence and insecurity the Iraqis still feel today, then go to it. For myself, I choose to marvel that any one of them feels confident enough to stand for election, to come out and vote, to actually believe things will be different this time.

But then, hope is a powerful thing.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 10:42:00 AM:

It's the most powerful force on earth. Otherwise women would never keep having children.

I'll tell you a deep, dark secret about Hari Seldon. When I was a little girl (a *very* little girl) I already thought too much, and I was fascinated with the idea that you could predict the future scientifically. I always thought that would be the perfect career for me, given the odd assortment of aptitudes I seem to have.

I'm still very interested in trends analysis and the intersection between psychology, history, and mathematics. But so much of it is, as you observed, not to put to fine a point on it, utter bullshit. A great book, if you ever want a light and entertaining read with deeper implications that will leave you laughing hysterically, is Connie Wills' The Bellwether. One of my eternal favs. Chaos theory, a nice love story, and social satire all wrapped up in a neat package: it's priceless.

I work with statistics in my job, but the more I've looked at stats the more I'm convinced the secret to deriving any meaning from it all is *don't get caught in the weeds*. There are so many uncontrollable permutations in any system that you can easily get caught up in fine-tuning noise when you need to concentrate on the big picture. Otherwise you will throw up your hands and start obsessing about that .00003457665567 that you can't dial down. Meanwhile I'm sitting there saying "Get a life...your car is running off the road and you're worried that the speedometer isn't calibrated perfectly."

One of the great lessons of history is that we never seem to learn from history :) Hence the inevitable Iraq=Vietnam comparisons that we're all so sick of hearing.

But I think there's a reason for that. Human history, itself, is a complex system and I'm not sure the lessons are always entirely repeatable or applicable. If we avoid the mistakes of the past, we only make different mistakes, with different consequences. In general, the trajectory of history seems to be on an upward course: nations are moving towards democracy and greater freedom. We haven't blown ourselves to bits yet, though we've had nukes for more than 50 years now. That alone is remarkable.

We are learning, albeit slowly.

It must be because the NY Times has been so incredibly helpful in that regard.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Fri Dec 30, 12:44:00 PM:

It must be because the NY Times has been so incredibly helpful in that regard.

Still laughing. (It must be Beat Up on the Old Grey Mare... erm, Lady Day, eh?)  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 30, 01:05:00 PM:

Some of us (not Cassandra that I know of) have on one occasion or another referred to the Paper of Record as the Grey Bitch. I admit it -- I'm something of a potty mouth.  

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