Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Fisking a Favorite Columnist

I've been a huge Stephen Chapman fan since I discovered him 5-7 years ago. I've found myself in agreement with almost every one of his columns.... that was until the question of the Iraq war came up. Chapman is a big 'L' libertarian, and for reasons that I don't quite understand, Libertarians do not support the spread of liberty abroad. Rather they favor an isolationist Buchanan style foreign policy which I see as 'bury your head in the sand and hope nothing bad happens.' I used to lean that way, but I think the reality of 9/11 makes that position untenable. (I guess I am no longer a Libertarian.) That said, Chapman has at least done the service of providing a rational anti-war voice (as distinguished from the "it's all about the oil," American imperialism Michael Moore crowd.) At least, I thought so up until some of his more recent columns. This one from a week or so ago is still really irking me. It's too bad that a writer that has inspired me so much, is now inspiring such snarky comments. I never thought that I would be fisking Stephen Chapman, but here goes (his words blocked in italics)

Questionable Victory in the Middle East

Half a million demonstrators turned out in Beirut on Tuesday, waving flags and chanting slogans in a show of popular sentiment. But no, this was not the latest call by the Lebanese opposition for Syria to leave--this was a call for Syria to stay. And the rally was roughly seven times bigger than the latest anti-Syria protest.

All of a sudden Stephen Chapman puts a lot of stock in a demonstration organized by dictatorial regime, this despite the fact that many 'participants' were coerced and many others were ringers bused in from outside of Lebanon's borders. Yet he simply takes them at face value. I supposed that Chapman also believes that Saddam Hussein legitimately got 99.96% of the vote from the Iraqi population 2 years ago, and that the cheering crowds he was always shown amongst were truly sincere, rather than fearing death and torture. But even if it is simply numbers that count, then the demonstrations that represent so much reality for Chapman have since been trumped by another round of anti-Syrian protests this time 1,000,000 participants came out.

Maybe bringing democracy to the Arab world is going to be more complicated than we thought.

Who thought it would be easy? If it was easy and required little effort, then quite frankly we're a-holes for not doing it sooner.

Supporters of the war in Iraq have been crowing about the budding transformation of the Middle East, with democracy springing up everywhere thanks to President Bush's crusade in Iraq. Bush joined in the chorus this week, claiming that "a critical mass of events is taking that region in a hopeful new direction."

Apparently Chapman doesn't see it as critical that, for the first time, civil disobedience is actually achieving results in the Middle East. In the past protests of this sort would have been met with soldiers, tanks, torture, assassinations and rapes of family members of opposition leaders. (Remember Hama.) But with the world watching and 150,000 American troops on his border, Bashar Assad realizes that if he were to violently put down the protests, he would actually have to face some consequences. And even if the pro-Syrian demonstrations were 100% legitimate the fact that they responded with a counter-demonstration, rather than violence does qualify as progress "in hopeful new direction."

You can hardly blame them for looking at Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for heartening changes, since there haven't been many in the place where the transformation was supposed to start. But there's something delusional about claiming victory across the entire region when we haven't even come close to achieving victory in Iraq. It brings to mind the merchant who was selling a product below cost but planned to make up the losses on volume.

Huh? As they say, Democracy is a process, not an event. No one is claiming victory, only a hopeful new direction for the region. I'm not sure how anyone could argue that there haven't been many changes in the Middle Eastern dynamics over the last couple of years. Elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, protests in Egypt and Lebanon, and the election of a moderate president of Palestine doesn't sound like the status quo to me.

Yes, Iraq held an election on Jan. 30--though one that came about more because of the demands of Iraqi Shiites than because of the Bush administration, which was never in a hurry to allow a national plebiscite. The balloting, however, hasn't had a stabilizing effect.

Again, huh? So the removal of Saddam Hussein by the Bush administration wasn't a prerequisite? The Shi'ites only need to demand an election? The last time a Shi'ite cleric crossed Saddam he ended up watching his sister gang raped and then had nails driven into his head, just before his beard was set on fire and burned to death. But he only needed to demand elections?

Attacks on American and Iraqi security personnel have continued apace. More U.S. soldiers died in February 2005 than in February 2004. The deadliest single attack of the insurgency took place on Feb. 28, when a suicide car bomber killed 125 people in the Shiite city of Hillah. Iraq still is teetering at the brink of civil war between the Shiites, who won the elections, and the Sunnis, who mostly declined to participate.

True, the insurgency didn't just give up, but lets wait a couple of months before we start spotting trends. They are still trying to foment civil war by slaughtering Iraqis, but it's not working. Local Iraqis are increasingly demonstrating and expressing their outrage towards the terrorists and the Shi'ites are talking of including the Sunnis into the political process. Not to mention that Iraq's provisional constitution is pretty well thought out and set up so as not to allow any one of the ethnic groups absolute power even if they win elections in overwhelming numbers. I read Iraq's provisional constitution, paid op-ed columnists probably should too.

Nor is it clear that the protests against Syria in Lebanon had much to do with events in Iraq. Many of the demonstrators, in fact, cited the inspiration of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution."

Wrong. It is clear that events in Iraq did provide some inspiration, as demonstrators themselves have acknowledged with placards thanking Bush as well as quotes like this, "we thank Mr. Bush for his position" and "We love the American people, please don't let Mr. Bush forget us." And perhaps most surprising is this quote from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," explains Jumblatt. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world."

It's hard to argue that Bush deserves credit for the peaceful overthrow of Kiev's dictatorial regime--which was backed by Bush's soul mate, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose dismal human-rights record the administration has done its best to excuse.

This is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest piece of Chapman's column. The widely known fact is that the Bush administration was an opponent of Putin's puppet dictatorial regime in the Ukraine, and was a supporter of legitimate elections there - knowing that they would bring a Putin opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, to power. Oh and never mind that Putin was an incredibly outspoken critic of the Iraq war, oh and never mind that the administration has recently chided Russia over its retreat from Democratic reforms. This is hardly the relationship of "soul mates." If Chapman is unaware of such public disagreements between Putin and Bush then he is grossly underqualified to be writing op-ed pieces for the Chicago Tribune on international affairs. Or maybe he is deliberately misleading his readers because the actual facts don't quite support the picture he is peddling.

Maybe the most important event in the Middle East was the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority, which was unconnected to events in Iraq. It took place because Yasser Arafat died and because Palestinians saw they had a chance to improve their lives by turning away from violence.

Even there, though, it would be rash to bet that because of the advent of democracy, peace will settle over Israel and Palestine like a gentle snowfall. The 1991 gulf war helped to bring about the Oslo peace agreement--and look how that turned out.

The '91 Gulf War also left Saddam, Palestine's largest financial supporter, in power. And while Bush clearly did not do anything to push Arafat into the grave, he did refuse to deal with him - much to the dismay of the Euro-philes and the American left. This sent a clear message that the U.S., under this administration, would not negotiate with terrorists and that the Palestinians needed to find a political path other than the suicide bomb. Robbed of Saddam's financial support, and increasingly aware that the election of another terrorist would only lead to more dead bodies, the Palestinian's elected a moderate that may actually crack down on terror. While it is much too early to be optimistic on Israeli and Palestinian peace, it is a bit more than just dumb luck that events are moving in our favor.

Some of the signs of progress are very small signs at best. Saudi Arabia allowed municipal elections, with only men permitted to vote? It's not exactly the fall of the Berlin Wall. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says he'll actually allow more than one candidate in next year's presidential election? Maybe he'll hold a real election, or maybe he'll pretend to.

What if Egypt were to let the people have their way? The United States has faithfully supported Mubarak because he's maintained peaceful relations with Israel. A government that represents popular opinion might be far more hostile to Israel and us. This may explain why the administration has preferred to focus its attention on the need for human-rights progress in, well, Lebanon.

Feudalism to capitalism used to take centuries, the Arab world is suddenly moving at a much faster clip than that. Trying to fight the war on terror by spreading democracy in the Middle East was certainly a risk, but if fighting a successful war against terrorism requires taking no risks, then we should simply surrender now and hope for the best. Obviously we don't yet know how this will turn out, but that is why it is called risk taking and not sure thing taking. If Chapman knows of a risk free option guaranteed to make the world more humane and safer, then he is the only one, and he ought to share it with the rest of us.

Even if going to war in Iraq turns out to have some positive effects on neighboring countries, it has had a host of negative effects on us. We've had more than 1,500 American service people killed and more than 11,000 wounded. The price tag is now close to $300 billion. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers said last summer that the United States may have to keep 145,000 troops in Iraq for another five years.

Even if we're willing to bear that burden, we may not be able. The U.S. military finds itself running short of the recruits it needs. The general in charge of the Army Reserve has said the demands of Iraq are threatening to reduce it to a "broken force." We face a bigger and harder war in Iraq than the Bush administration ever imagined, and there is no end in sight.

During the Vietnam War, one senator said we should declare victory and leave. This time, Bush has decided to declare victory and stay.

I was wondering when the tired obligatory Vietnam comparison would hit. Of course there will be costs incurred, but what about the benefits? Democracies do not war with other democracies, to the contrary they engage in trade, they increase each other's wealth. Could anyone with an ounce of economic literacy dispute the fact that we and the world are significantly better off because we have former imperialist threatening nations like Japan and Germany as peaceful trading partners? If there is ever going to be open tolerant societies in the Arab world the process needs to start at some point. We could wait another 10 or 50 years and watch another handful of Middle Eastern kleptocrats make millions of dollars as another million or so corpses pile up, or we could make a push for change now. Tolerance and the rule of law probably won't sweep the region immediately, but they do require a starting point.


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