Saturday, November 17, 2007

Iraq: An Analogy Fit for Polite Company

If, as is much reported, the Iraqi civil war is currently winding down, that in no way vindicates the decision to invade in the first place. All civil wars eventually end. If this one ends after 4 to 5 years instead of continuing for 10, 20 or even 30 (as some civil wars have), that is certainly a development to be applauded. But it does not logically follow that our decision to invade, which set off the war in the first place, was sound.

Glenn Greenwald has likened treating the end of the civil war as a vindication of the invasion that started it to chewing up food and spitting it all over one's home for months and then expecting to be applauded for partially cleaning it up. Ever since reading that, I have been looking for a less disgusting analogy, one that can be used in polite society, including the campaign stump. Here is my effort.

Imagine that Crazy George believes that driving cars over cliffs is a cheap and effective means of repair. He sets out to prove the point with a beat-up old clunker that was in terrible shape to begin with. To people who question the wisdom of this course of action he responds, "What's the matter? Don't you think poor people with only beat-up old clunkers to drive are morally worthy of cheap and effective repair techniques?" He drives the car over the cliff and, suprise surprise, it is severely damaged in the fall. When people point this out, he says it is just a bit of "creative destruction" and once he finishes fixing up the damage, the old clunker will emerge in prime condition and everyone will want to drive cars off cliffs. For a seemingly endless time, he toils away at the car and succeeds only in exposing more and more damage. People urge him to give up the attempt as hopeless, but he perserveres.

Finally, he decides the real problem is that he was not devoting enough resources to the repair, buys a bunch of expensive new tools, and begins working on it 18 hours a day. After several months of this, he actually gets the car into a rough working order and is able to drive it for short distances. "See," he says, "I told you I could fix cars by driving them over the cliff."

The analogy is imperfect, of course, because when a car is truly hopeless, you can always junk it and buy a new one. That is not an option with countries, and it is callous to imply that it is. But, of course, that is all the more reason not to try to repair broken countries by driving them off the cliff.

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