Steelmanning the Iraq War
By Bryan Caplan
The Iraq War started 15 years ago today. I always opposed it, for my standard pacifist reasons. But here is a case for the Iraq War that would have intellectually and morally impressed me at the time. To be clear: Though I’m the author, I strongly disagree with this speech. Still, I’d enjoy talking to someone who sincerely believed it.
You can treat what follows as a steelmanning exercise. (It’s not really an Ideological Turing Test because as far as I know, no prominent advocate of the Iraq War would agree with it). Alternately, you can treat it as mirror: Actual war-makers are blameworthy insofar as they fall short of the standards it exemplifies.
My fellow Americans,
In World War II, over 400,000 American soldiers lost their lives over the course of four years. It was a tremendous and tragic loss. But it was absolutely worth it. The sacrifice of the fallen is the foundation of the amazingly peaceful and prosperous world in which we live. Yes, we take their achievement for granted. But the achievement was so great that it would have been worth paying a far steeper price.
Now our nation and the civilized world face another grave challenge. We saw it plainly in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But those attacks are only a symptom of a festering threat to the peace and prosperity of the world. What is that threat? Though I fear to alienate possible allies, the best name for that threat is: Muslim tyranny. Whether Sunni, Shiites, or “secular,” the Muslim world is almost entirely ruled by governments that have little respect for democracy, and even less for human rights. After years of study – and careful analysis of DARPA-sponsored prediction markets – I conclude with heavy heart that Muslim tyranny will not fix itself. Indeed, its theory and practice is spreading and intensifying, threatening Central Asia, Africa, and even Europe.
For now, I freely admit, Muslim tyranny poses little military threat to the civilized world. But the same was once true for Communism and fascism. These threats could and should have been removed in their infancy, sparing mankind countless horrors. While we cannot undo the mistakes of the past, we can avoid repeating them. As your leader, I say we must.
Make no mistake about it: Our mission will be painful and long. If you are not prepared to lose a million American lives to achieve lasting victory, we should not go to war. If you are not prepared for a hundred-year occupation, we should not go to war. If you are not prepared for a thousand domestic retaliatory terrorist attacks, we should not go to war. If you are not prepared for the war to spread far beyond the borders of Iraq, we should not go to war.
I do not seek enthusiastic but short-lived support; indeed, fickle support is more dangerous than thoughtful opposition. Instead, I ask each of you to visualize the immense and lasting suffering our country and the world are going to endure if we follow my lead. Indeed, I ask you to visualize the vast numbers of innocent lives our war will destroy. Think of all the children the United States and its allies burned to cinders in World War II. To win, we will have to do the same. Nothing can justify such atrocities – except a high probability of making Muslim tyranny history.
Why start with Iraq? By the standards of the region, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime is “secular.” But it is a ghastly tyranny, and its Islamic roots insulate it from the life-giving ideas of human rights and democracy. Furthermore, it is extremely diplomatically isolated. Militarily, we can defeat them with ease – and turn Iraq into a model for the rest of the Muslim world.
It would be criminal to invade Iraq without meticulously describing our model in advance. So let me share it. While our goal is to bring human rights and democracy to Iraq, human rights will come first. Democracy will only come when human rights in Iraq are democratically sustainable. This distinction is crucial, because Muslim tyranny has deep cultural roots. Saddam Hussein is not personally popular Iraq, but he’s a lot more popular than the ideals of liberty.
What does all this mean in practice? Let me be blunt. We will give Iraq full democracy once gay couples can walk the streets of Baghdad holding hands. We will give Iraq full democracy once ex-Muslims can sleep soundly in Mosul after publicly preaching atheism on Iraqi television. We will give Iraq full democracy once violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq is as common as violence between Catholic and Protestant in the U.S. And not before.
As in post-war Germany and Japan, we will hold elections. But only candidates who embrace our model will be allowed to run – and any elected official who refuses full cooperation with the American military occupation will be summarily removed. Our enemies will no doubt call this “imperialism.” I say this is bigotry on their part; if American rule is the only credible way to protect human rights in Iraq, people of all nations should support American rule.
Many advised me not to use the phrase “Muslim tyranny.” But I honestly couldn’t think of a better one. All of the major religions have, at one point, provided an ideological foundation for tyranny. But Islam is the only major religion that continues to serve this function. We’re going to end that once and for all. Freedom of religion is a basic human right – but imposing your religion on others is not.
I’m sure many of you are thinking, “He’s asking a lot.” You’re right. To repeat, Iraq is only the beginning. In the best-case scenario, the many surrounding Muslim tyrannies will see that we mean business, and earnestly launch domestic reforms. I welcome such developments with open arms, but we should not count on anything of the sort. Instead, we should expect Muslim tyranny to get worse before its gets better. Fortunately, to repeat, they are militarily no match for us. Our only scarce resource is resolve. As long as we are willing to lose a million American lives over the next century, we will do for the Muslim world what we did for Germany and Japan: bring human rights to their people and security to the world.
I know that our enemies will selectively quote this speech to make me seem like a monster. And I know that my predecessors gave little heed to the innocent foreign lives they took in pursuit of victory. Shame on them! So let me say this: If I could end Muslim tyranny without killing a single person, I would gladly do it. Any leader who wishes to spare his people the horrors of war can do so by immediately unconditionally surrendering to us. If that prospect frightens you, look how we treated the people of Germany and Japan when World War II ended. For us, there is no victory until we turn our most wretched enemies into flourishing friends. I fondly look forward to the day when Disneyland is packed with Iraqi tourists.
In the darkest days of World War II, Winston Churchill told the British people, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” I admire these sentiments, but I know that our enemy is not yet at the gate. There is a far worse course than doing nothing: Invading Iraq in anger, then abandoning it in frustration. But our best option is to excise Muslim tyranny now when it’s weak, instead of waiting for this political cancer to spread. My fellow Americans, are you with me?