Anti-this war now, and most (but not all) wars most of the time

by John Quiggin on August 16, 2006

Since Daniel has identified me as abandoning the “Anti-this war now” viewpoint, and since I’m increasingly in agreement with Jim Henley’s Anti-Most Wars Most of the Time position, I thought I’d try to restate my version of ATWN as it applies to Iraq. I haven’t managed to work it all out, so as with Daniel I’d be grateful for suggestions.

My claim to be part of the ATWN camp is that that in the circumstances of 2002, I thought it was reasonable to support Resolution 1441, threatening war if Saddam did not accept renewed open weapons inspections. Even at this point, however, the issues of leadership and competence come up. I assumed that Blair, at least, was genuine in seeking to present Saddam with an ultimatum, and not merely seeking a legal pretext for a war around which “policy had already been fixed”. So, while I had little faith in Bush, I overestimated the honesty of the whole process on the basis that Blair was involved. In this context, dishonesty and incompetence are highly correlated, since it’s impossible to keep your own assessment of the facts insulated from the lies disseminated to the public.

An important part of my thinking, as regards democratic intervention is that it requires a specific, legally defensible objective, rather than multiple rationales. So, as soon as it became clear, in late 2002 and early 2003, that the WMD case didn’t stand up, I opposed the war, and took the view that, if another case was to be made, the whole process had to be restarted.

Suppose that Saddam had refused to accept Resolution 1441, and that the leaders of the US and UK were honest and competent. Would the disaster we have seen been inevitable anyway? I don’t think so. The war would have been authorised by an explicit resolution of the UN Security Council, and it would have been reasonable to hope for a substantial peacekeeping force ideally with a substantial Muslim component, as well as a much larger European contribution. Disasters like the Coalition Provisional Administration, and the US attack on Sadr (recognisable in retrospect as the opening battle of the Iraq Civil War) would never have taken place.

So I think that a war in these circumstances would have had a fair chance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq. And of course in this counterfactual, Saddam would have had weapons he was unwilling to abandon, and might at some point have passed to terrorists, making the self-defence justification for the war much more clear-cut.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, and to some extent so is Daniel’s question about democratic intervention. Regardless of its abstract merits, the idea has been killed, for the foreseeable future, by the disaster in Iraq. More generally, Iraq has taught me at least to be more critical and sceptical about all arguments for war (including violent revolution). I hope though, that we don’t abandon the idea of humanitarian intervention as well, even if we are more careful about it. Perhaps there are no good options in, for example, Darfur, but I still think the world could be doing more and doing it better than at present.

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{ 36 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 08.16.06 at 8:11 am

Regardless of its abstract merits, the idea has been killed, for the foreseeable future, by the disaster in Iraq.

You, I, most people around here, hell, all sane people everywhere, see it that way. But do the loons who will still be running the US (into the ground) for another 2 1/2 years see it that way? That’s what scares me right now. The mutterings about Iran appear to have died down a bit lately but I am very much not confident that the idea has really gone away.

2

Antti Nannimus 08.16.06 at 8:59 am

Hi,

“So, while I had little faith in Bush, I overestimated the honesty of the whole process on the basis that Blair was involved.”

I just hate it when I’m not cynical enough. Don’t you?

Have a nice day,
Antti

3

Elliott Oti 08.16.06 at 9:03 am

Re humanitarian interventions, the most important precondition for success in my opinion is accountability. Without accountability there are absolutely no incentives to conduct a war of humanitarian intervention in such a fashion that the outcome is acceptable. When extraneous incentives, such as domestic politics, motivate the primary intercessors, there is absolutely nothing to force an alignment with the desired humanitarian outcome.

If, as is the case with the US, there is a significant political constituency receptive to xenophobic messages (anti-UN, anti-European, anti-Muslim, anti-whatever), coupled with glorification of uniformed soldiers (“don’t criticize our heroic troops”) and political representation in which turnover is low and incumbency the norm, then there are no forces acting to ensure a desirable outcome from a humanitarian perspective. The remarkable thing about Bush’s handling of the Iraq war is not that it cost him so much, but it cost him so little.

4

Robin 08.16.06 at 9:20 am

Without accountability there are absolutely no incentives to conduct a war of humanitarian intervention in such a fashion that the outcome is acceptable.

Maybe, but the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia was a good thing, as was that of the Tanzanians in Uganda and of the Indians in East Pakistan. Admittedly, their reasoning was at best marginally humanitarian.

5

dearieme 08.16.06 at 9:33 am

“I overestimated the honesty of the whole process on the basis that Blair was involved”. Which spelling do you prefer in English: naif or naive?

6

Scott Martens 08.16.06 at 10:22 am

So I think that a war in these circumstances would have had a fair chance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq. And of course in this counterfactual, Saddam would have had weapons he was unwilling to abandon, and might at some point have passed to terrorists, making the self-defence justification for the war much more clear-cut.

John, I think you’ve made a claim that is empirically false.

I presume you think the war in Afghanistan was justified, since the Taliban were not willing to give up Osama bin Laden. Although there was a UN resolution demanding that before 9/11, and no new resolution authorising force was passed, one presumes that the war was legal under the right to self-defence outlined in the UN charter. Thus, the US and allied war against the Taliban was, I presume, by your lights justified.

However, it has been a failure comparable to Iraq. A civil war is already underway there, and just like Iraq, there is little reason to think it will just pass or that it can or will be successfully opposed by foreign forces. Nor did the relative legitimacy of that war, even among Muslims, lead to any significant presence of Islamic states among the occupiers and peacekeepers.

So, I think you can’t make the counterfactual claim that the war in Iraq would have gone better if it had been better founded in international law under any circumstances. I see no reason to presume there is a causal link between the two, and I offer Afghanistan as a counter example.

7

abb1 08.16.06 at 1:13 pm

#3 If, as is the case with the US, there is a significant political constituency receptive to xenophobic messages … then there are no forces acting to ensure a desirable outcome from a humanitarian perspective.

The problem is not the existence of a xenophobic constituency, rather it’s the non-existence of a ‘democratic intervention’ constituency. People who are willing to die or to send their children to die to selflessly democratize some far-away foreigners can have a meeting in a phone booth; and I’m pretty sure neither John Quiggin nor Daniel Davies would be among them.

#6 I presume you think the war in Afghanistan was justified, since the Taliban were not willing to give up Osama bin Laden.

Actually, they refused to extradite him without a proof of his involvement, if I remember correctly. So, that war wasn’t any more kosher than the Iraq war. Otherwise, I think Scott is quite correct: western-style legitimacy doesn’t really mean anything; you need local-style legitimacy.

8

roger 08.16.06 at 2:51 pm

Actually, I think the problem with the wars of the Bush era is timidity. Both in Iraq, where many of the hottest neo-con centers liked to proclaim that the good news is we are winning, and in Bush’s comment, yesterday, that Hezbollah lost the war, we hear intimations of a brilliant strategy closing the gap between rhetoric and reality through the use of preemptive victory.

So, in the March 2003 speech where Bush declared that we were invading Iraq, he should have declared that we already invaded it, and that we won. He should have added that Saddam Hussein had been captured, tried and executed, that the Iraqi government, using the U.S. Constitution and Milton Friedman’s “Guide to the Perplexed”, had reconstituted itself, and that all other Middle Eastern states were busy following suite. Just as the press has puzzled and puzzled over whether George Allan could possibly have slightly and maybe just a little bit have made a racist remark, so, too, the press would have done some investigative work trying to parse Bush’s words in a fair and impartial way — but any small discrepencies between what Bush said and reality would all come out five years later and nobody would pay attention to it. In the meantime, Bush’s base – the B al qaeda – would chortle with glee, from Instapundit to instapowerline, about how liberals got it all wrong. General hilarity would ensue.

This is an incentive-driven suggestion, since the extra 300 billion dollars for the war could then have been directly given to America’s favorite, funniest defense contractors and we could have cut out the middle man.

Pre-emptive victory — its tomorrow’s doctrine today!

9

Martin Bento 08.16.06 at 2:59 pm

The significance of Blair’s involvement is that this is not just a matter of Bush or the Republican party. Many moderates have been forced to the left by the reality of Bush (Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum have recently lamented this as applied to them), but will not re-evaluate their fundamental position, treating Bush as an outlier. To a degree he is, but that degree is exaggerated, and the complicity of Blair, the epitome of the moderate center-left fully as much as Clinton, is proof.

“Against most war most of the time” is probably my position too, except that I think it too vague to really be called a position. The question is when you think war is justified.

“the US attack on Sadr (recognisable in retrospect as the opening battle of the Iraq Civil War)”

Retrospect hell, I called it as leading to civil war at the time.

10

Martin Bento 08.16.06 at 3:20 pm

abb1 & Scott,

Scott mentioned that there already was a UN resolution demanding the turnover of bin Laden before 9/11, so I suppose proof of 9/11 might not be considered necessary under that law (though did that law implicitly authorize military force, Scott?). I do think it good to remind people that the Taliban did not actually refuse to hand over bin laden; they just said they wanted to see the evidence. They were widely assumed at the time, in the West at least, to be stalling, and I tend to believe that too. Nonetheless, I think advocates of international law or law in general cannot reasonably dismiss demands for evidence of a charge.

Even if they were stalling, I think it equally true that Bush did not actually want bin laden; he wanted Afghanistan and some bases elsewhere in central Asia, as well as justification for Iraq further on. Had Bush called the bluff and the Taliban handed him over, it would have ruined everything from Bush’s perspective.

11

John Quiggin 08.16.06 at 3:48 pm

Scott, I’d regard the failure in Afghanistan as being primarily one of incompetence/duplicity on the part of the Bush Administration. I think with more money and attention, and without the Iraq war, things could have gone much bettr there.

12

abb1 08.16.06 at 4:25 pm

Well, of course they were stalling, but stalling is not a crime. If what you’re after is legitimacy, then you just have to go thru the motions.

13

derrida derider 08.16.06 at 6:55 pm

I think things have gone about as well as can be expected in Afghanistan – which is not very well from the POV of the Afghans, but then the poor sods started off living in a chronic basket case anyway. Apart from abb1′s good point about the obligation to risk some diplomacy before you start dropping bombs, and the sort of blunder typical in war that let OBL escape, Afghanistan was a reasonable casus belli with reasonable execution.

None of which can be said of Iraq.

14

aaron 08.16.06 at 7:04 pm

A number of pro-war bloggers have been publicly reexamining their positions on the Iraq war, and many anti-war commentators have taken this as an opportunity to reaffirm their most popular anti-war arguments. Both parties are acting with 20/20 hindsight, but both forget how little information we actually had before entering the Iraq war. At that time, there was little reason to predict the degree of incompetance we have seen in Iraq since the invasion. The situation in Afghanistan was progressing reasonably well, and Bush still hadn’t shaken off his reputation as a mainline president driven into a leadership role by the events of Sept. 11. I’m sure many people are against this war now that they have seen how it was prosecuted, but I don’t think the case for war was as week as we now like to think it was.

I don’t think the contention that the war in Iraq was doomed from the start has much weight, at least in the way it’s been phrased so far. Is it really so improbably that a US policy focused on respect for the new Iraqi government could have created a far more stable situation than the current one, and one in which Iran had far less power in Iraq than it currently does? The US presence and actions helped fuel the current strife in Iraq, and a different path may have helped marginalize the insurgency.

15

Martin Bento 08.16.06 at 7:38 pm

Aaron, it may have been possible for it to work (assuming for argument that spreading democracy was a true objective of the war), but not by letting the “free market” handle the reconstruction. Bush did have a plan, but it was simply to create a free space for the corporate sector, especially his cronies. It didn’t work, but I saw few objections to it at the time or even in hindsight. An America that does not have a political constituency that will resist the “Washington consensus” approach cannot do nation-building.

16

John Quiggin 08.16.06 at 7:47 pm

Martin, good call linked at #9 ! As can be seen from the comments above, my big mistake in all this was not to be pessimistic enough.

17

Walt 08.16.06 at 9:09 pm

Aaron: I was in favor of the war, and the argument I heard second-most often was “but Bush is so incompetent.” So the evidence was there.

18

Donald Johnson 08.16.06 at 11:23 pm

Could someone remove comment 21?

19

roger 08.17.06 at 12:55 am

Aaron, I think that the Bush administration gave plenty of signals that they were going to operate with maximum ineptness before the invasion. Myself, I think money is a very important marker of seriousness in any project, so when Wolfowitz testified about the administration’s projection of the cost of the war, you knew right away that these people had no idea what they were doing. If someone tells me they are going to build me a mansion, and that the price for it is going to be 10,000 dollars, tops — I know that they know nothing about building mansions. People who offer you deals that are too good to be true are people you shouldn’t do business with.

And, of course, in 2003 we knew the effect of having too few troops in Afghanistan. We knew what Shinseki said, and we knew that there was absolutely no reason to believe the rules of thumb of the military had been overturned because just because they were inconvenient to the manifest destiny encoded in tax cuts. We knew, and the Iraqis knew, the past history of Chalabi, which meant either we were planning on cramming him down their throats despite their protests, in which case we weren’t fighting for ‘democracy’, or that he was going to get tossed away, casting a big shadow over the reason America was in Iraq in the first place — in either case, we were coming in under an unsavory front man. We also knew, frankly, that if Saddam Hussein had been hatching evil schemes to attack the U.S. with WMD, he was a truly wierd guy, since he seemingly had refused to use these weapons, for six years, to attack Northern Iraq. Portraying a man who couldn’t even get it together enough to take back a significant portion of his own country as a menace to the largest power in the world an ocean away from him was so ridiculous that only a lifetime training in believing the absurd – America’s Judeo-Christian heritage! – could make it seem plausible. And we also knew that the U.S. intended to do this occupation unilaterally – and had done everything possible, under the guise of looking for a ‘coalition’, to make sure that they were unimpeded in the exercise of power once they got to Iraq.

In other words, the elements were in place for a catastrophe from the get go. However, those elements needn’t have been set in stone – immediate protest at the way the occupation was going could, perhaps, have changed things, especially by the war’s supporters. But those supporters functioned to enable every stupid mistake, since they were much more concerned with pushing Bush than winning a war or even making a semi-successful go of occupation. The war’s supporters were complicitous in creating the disaster, taking all criticism to be an attack on the precious boy prince. And so the mantra of the good news in Iraq started, making the war into a semi-religious cult. And the reason they did that was, in essence, that they didn’t give a fig about Iraq. In general, Americans don’t. That isn’t shocking, but it does mean that the issue was treated on the same level of seriousness as being partisan for your candidate on American Idol — there was nothing at stake for the pro-war people in Iraq that would cause them to actually think about the course of the occupation. This is why the rhetoric got so unreal. Meanwhile, there was a lot at stake in supporting the President, which is why the rhetoric got so vicious.

I don’t think the occupation would have worked anyway, but one thing you can say for this war — the pro-war people stabbed it in the back.

20

John Quiggin 08.17.06 at 1:13 am

dj – comment, and everything else by robotslave removed.

robotslave – you’re banned. Please don’t come back.

21

Martin Bento 08.17.06 at 1:34 am

John, thanks.

Roger, well argued. Bravo!

22

Brendan 08.17.06 at 4:03 am

Is no one here going to criticise the most dubious aspect of whole invasion (from the point of view of international law, and, if I may say so, ethically): the sidelining of the United Nations? This has been touched on (very briefly and lightly) as regards Afghanistan, but does it not bother anyone that this was a major military operation, carried out by a state who was on the United Nations security council, and yet not authorised by that council? Opinion polls at the time, as I recall, were fairly clear that failure to gain Security Council approval weighed heavily on the mind of the public: this is not just a lawyer’s point.

If I might just quote from the original post:

‘Suppose that Saddam had refused to accept Resolution 1441, and that the leaders of the US and UK were honest and competent. Would the disaster we have seen been inevitable anyway? I don’t think so. The war would have been authorised by an explicit resolution of the UN Security Council , and it would have been reasonable to hope for a substantial peacekeeping force ideally with a substantial Muslim component, as well as a much larger European contribution. Disasters like the Coalition Provisional Administration, and the US attack on Sadr (recognisable in retrospect as the opening battle of the Iraq Civil War) would never have taken place.’ (emphasis added).

It’s clear, surely, that THIS war would have been very different from the one that was actually fought, and that this is the key point, surely? All the other points (money, troops, multiple rationales) are important, but less important than this one, I feel.

23

Martin Bento 08.17.06 at 8:41 am

Brendan, most liberals bought into Kosovo and still do. People who supported Kosovo are committed to the notion that it is legitimate for the US and its allies to engage in wars of choice without UN approval.

24

Brendan 08.17.06 at 8:48 am

‘Brendan, most liberals bought into Kosovo and still do. People who supported Kosovo are committed to the notion that it is legitimate for the US and its allies to engage in wars of choice without UN approval.’

Well exactly. And is anyone having second thoughts about it now we see where it leads to?

[http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmfaff/28/2813.htm#a34]. The Parliamentary committee of course came up with the completely meaningless and empty judgement that Kosova was ‘illegal’ but not ‘moral’ (!!) ['we conclude that NATO's military action, if of dubious legality in the current state of international law, was justified on moral grounds.']

Most of the ‘decents’ get round this by conflating the Kosova war (which was to do with the desire for independence by ethnic albanians) with the Bosnian war (which was to do with Serbian aggression against Bosnian Muslims and others), and then argue backwards that if Bosnia was ‘justified’ then, obviously, the war for the KLA was also ‘justified’, as though the Kosovan war set a precedent, even though the Bosnian war happened first.

25

Martin Bento 08.17.06 at 9:33 am

Indeed, one of the key things that made Bush’s WMD claims credible to many is that Saddam had had covert WMD programs in the past. Precedent was treated as proof. Likewise, Clinton’s claims that the Serbs were about to slaughter the Albanians gained credence from what had happened in Bosnia. One difference is that Bush’s position was falsifiable, and eventually falsified, by intervention, the policy we took. Clinton’s would only have been falsifiable by non-intervention, and thus has not been decisively falsified. It will always be possible to believe that the slaughter would have occurred, just as, had we not invaded Iraq, it would still be possible to believe that Saddam had WMDs.

26

Martin Bento 08.17.06 at 9:49 am

To be fair, I guess I should have said that Clinton’s claims were not decisively falsified or verified, since either outcome was possible.

27

John Quiggin 08.17.06 at 2:43 pm

“And is anyone having second thoughts about it now we see where it leads to?”

I am, though they don’t lead me to change my position all that much. My view at the time was that the failure to get UNSC approval wasn’t that important, since there was a clear consensus in favour of intervention and the only problem was that the Russians didn’t want to be forced to state a public position.

Now I think that was wrong and the effort should have been made to secure a UNSC resolution, making whatever concessions were needed to get Russia not to veto it.

I also think (and thought at the time) that the bombing of Belgrade crossed the line from striking military targets to terrorisation, most obviously with the bombing of the TV station. This precedent was used recently in Lebanon.

But, contrary to Martin at #25, the falsehood of the WMD claims was evident, to those who cared to look, before the invasion of Iraq, while the evidence in support of Clinton’s claims on Kosovo was strong.

28

Brendan 08.17.06 at 3:52 pm

‘Now I think that was wrong and the effort should have been made to secure a UNSC resolution, making whatever concessions were needed to get Russia not to veto it.’

For what it’s worth I think this is exactly right. Had this been done, this would have had the side effect of STRENGTHENING the UN instead of weakening it, and demonstrating the, as it were, ‘unbreakability’ of international law.

Unfortunately, because of the way the war was fought, and (not unimportant) the way the war was ‘spun’ afterwards, people began to infer that UNSC approval ‘wasn’t really that important’ (as long as your heart was in the right place, presumably) and that certain powers (guess who) could, if they wished, ‘suspend’ or ‘get round’ international law whenever it suited them.

29

abb1 08.17.06 at 4:24 pm

I’m not sure a simple UNSC vote would produce any strong legitimacy for an unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign nation. Nah, perhaps a two thirds of the whole national assembly or something.

This is the basis for the collective security we are talking about here. To get 8 SC votes out of 15 by a combination of bribing and bullying is not that difficult; the fact that they couldn’t get even that for the Iraq war really does say something.

30

John Quiggin 08.17.06 at 4:55 pm

Abb1, this was the crucial slippery slide, from pushing ahead with something that had broad support to get around the possibility of a single veto (Kosovo) to suggesting that two or even three vetos (+ more dissenting votes from non-permanent members) could be ignored (roughly Blair’s position in late 2002), to dodging a vote altogether and claiming the right to make up your own interpretations of past resolutions (what they actually did in Iraq).

31

abb1 08.17.06 at 5:22 pm

Yes, I understand – you have to have international consensus for a thing like this, no question about that. All I’m saying is that a SC resolution wouldn’t necessarily mean that such a consensus exists.

If you remember at the time when they were trying to get that SC resolution they were caught trying a number of dirty tricks, from bugging phone lines of diplomats to intimidation:

…increasingly threatening noises from the US towards undecided countries on the Security Council who have been warned of the unpleasant economic consequences of standing up to the US.

So, suppose you insist on a resolution and suppose next time they do manage to get a resolution they want by intimidations, by blackmails, by bribes, by hook and by crook – instead of a genuine compromise and consensus. This is like legalized jury tampering. Then what? All I’m saying: there has to be a better mechanism.

32

Brendan 08.17.06 at 5:40 pm

‘So, suppose you insist on a resolution and suppose next time they do manage to get a resolution they want by intimidations, by blackmails, by bribes, by hook and by crook – instead of a genuine compromise and consensus. This is like legalized jury tampering. Then what? All I’m saying: there has to be a better mechanism.’

I think we are all aware of the mechanisms by which rich countries get their way in the UN. But the problem is the difference between this ‘business as usual’ bribery, and the open contempt for the ‘non-decent’ (i.e.not US/UK) viewpoint that has been increasingly shown since Kosova.

The problem with Kosova was not that UNSC was not obtained. The point is that this was then ‘spun’ retrospectively, as a principle: i.e. ‘well we have now shown we don’t need UNSC approval: what’s wrong, don’t you remember Kosova?’. That was the crucial break betwen diplomacy as it had been carried out since 1945, and the (even less pleasant) version of it we have to deal with nowadays. One that principle had been established, it didn’t make Iraq inevitable, but it did make Iraq (or something like it) far more likely.

33

abb1 08.18.06 at 3:24 am

Well, yes, I agree, it is a slippery slide, as they keep pushing the envelope and every time we say: oh, no, this time they really crossed the line. But “the line” keeps moving farther and farther from where it should’ve been in the first place.

34

rupes 08.18.06 at 8:37 am

It is not just hindsight.

Ken Clarke (formerly senior in UK Conservative government) gave an excellent and very prescient speech when Blair proposed going to war.
(Perhaps the only praise TB deserves is that he did actually have parliamentary debate and a vote on the war. But that is very faint praise)

What is more, not only did he predict the cause, he also warned of the repercussions with increased terrorism.

Any war will be won easily. I am glad that if we go to war, it will not take long.

However, we should consider alternatives because of the consequences of war.

We will win. But what then? How many terrorists will we recruit in the greater, long-standing battle against international terrorism? It will be far harder to win. What will we do to the stability of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Egypt? What sort of leadership will replace that which might be deposed?

The Government never address those questions satisfactorily, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said. However, they will have to live with the answers.

The next time a large bomb explodes in a western city, or an Arab or Muslim regime topples and is replaced by extremists, or the the Government must consider the extent to which the policy contributed to it. That is why hon. Members should pause and why, unless evidence is produced for a breach and a material threat, my judgment today is that we should not go to war.

35

rupes 08.18.06 at 8:41 am

Sorry, I messed up the formatting: all of the last part of that was quote from Ken Clarke (from “Any war…” through to “…not go to war”), not the just the line in italic.

Very astute and (unforunately) all too accurate.

36

Per 08.18.06 at 11:18 am

I assumed that Blair, at least, was genuine in seeking to present Saddam with an ultimatum

I was surprised at this argument at the time.

Successive senior officials in both US administrations of the preceding decade had stated the view that — weapons inspections or not — there could be no lifting of sanctions until Saddam had been toppled. This included Clinton, Albright, Bush, and Powell — but also UK officials like David Hannay, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN in 1991.

This position was quite contrary to UN resolutions 661 (and later 1284) and for years effectively had removed any incentive to comply with UN weapons inspections. It also ensured that any “ultimatum” through further UN resolutions in 2002 would be largely meaningless.

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