Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Guns and Butter

'Whatever his other accomplishments, Bush will go down in history as the most fiscally irresponsible chief executive in American history. ... Today's Republicans believe in pork, but they don't believe in government. So we have the largest government in history but one that is weak and dysfunctional. Public spending is a cynical game of buying votes or campaign contributions, an utterly corrupt process run by lobbyists and special interests with no concern for the national interest.... We denounce sensible leadership and pragmatism because they mean compromise and loss of ideological purity. Better to be right than to get Iraq right.'
-- Fareed Zakaria, "Leaders Who Won't Choose," Newsweek, issue date 26 September 2005

What do George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein have in common? Not nearly as much as some rabid Bush-bashers would claim. On the critical issue of human rights, for instance, there's simply no comparison. Saddam is an unrepentant genocidal monster who knew exactly what he was doing when he ruled his Republic of Fear. Bush had no idea what he was getting into in Iraq, thought Americans would be loved by the liberated, still can't figure out why we're resented, wishes everyone had the same sense of Christian charity he sees in himself, and feels sorry, I'm quite sure, for all those people who've died because of his illusions.

There is one cautionary parallel that might be worth keeping in mind, however: the belief that you can have guns and butter, fighting a war and pampering your people at the same time. As a friend of the NYT's Tom Friedman said, memorably, "We're at war. Let's party!"

Saddam Hussein launched his pre-emptive war against Iran in 1980, thinking it would be over quickly -- imagining, even, that his troops would be welcomed by the Arab population of Khuzestan. Saddam's illusions were soon exposed and the war dragged on for eight bloody years, costing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Iranian lives and the equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars on the battlefield. But Saddam, even as he terrorized his population, also tried to buy it off. In Baghdad at the height of the war in the mid-1980s, when I first started going there, you had no sense at all of the carnage on the eastern front. Creature comforts were plentiful and the families of soldiers who died were amply rewarded with cash or cars. Vast construction projects continued apace, huge monuments were built, as were several luxury hotels.

Even oil-rich Iraq wasn't as rich as all that, so Saddam started borrowing the huge sums needed to keep up his warring and his partying. When, at last, Iran said it was ready for a truce, Saddam declared himself the victor. But he'd mortgaged his country. Within two years, when his Kuwaiti and Saudi creditors started demanding their money back, Saddam decided the only way he could get out of his financial bind was to invade them.

The moral of the story: war without sacrifice is likely to be war without end.

(Also see "Firebombings: From My Father's Wars to Mine," which discusses, among many other things, the role of technology in reducing our sense of sacrifice: "For more than fifty years after World War II, and more than thirty years after my father wrote ['The Firebombing'], technology, especially American technology, continued to dehumanize the inhumanity of war until, by the late 1990s, we were able to convince ourselves, at our great distance from the destruction, that such a thing could be waged as a war that was humane.
"Now that's a pretty dangerous concept if you think about it. Because a humane war, especially one waged from a sanitary distance, is implicitly an EASY war. It doesn't have to be righteous. It doesn't even have to be memorable.") - CD
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