Kevin Drum weighs in on the recent back and forth about whether anti-war liberals were right for the wrong reasons:
If anti-war liberals were right about the war from the start, how come they don't get more respect? Here's the nickel version of the answer from liberal hawks: It's because they don't deserve it. Sure, the war has gone badly, but not for the reasons the doves warned of.
His post is already generating some testy responses and I’m sure this debate will — like a bad strain of herpes — be with us for a long time to come. I’m not terribly interested in continuing this debate, but I do think that people shouldn’t lose the forest for the trees in assessing the “reasons” people opposed the war.
The logic of the pro-war liberals’ argument is: (1) the anti-war people opposed the war for Reason X; (2) Reason X turned out to be wrong or unjustified; (3) therefore, their judgment isn’t any better than ours; and (4) they should shut their hippy traps. But opposition to the war can’t be completely reduced to individual fact-specific arguments — you also have to factor in the larger environment in which the debate played out. Speaking for myself, I opposed the war not so much because I was dead certain I had all the facts right, but because of my increasingly-intense skepticism of the broader context in which the pro-war argument was being made.
In other words, something just smelled funny about the whole thing — and I think this “smell” should have had right-thinking people jumping off the bus by March 2003. More after the jump (my very first by the way).
To begin, I didn’t really like the subtle burden-shifting that went on from August 2002 to March 2003. In a short amount of time, the burden of proof shifted from war supporters to war opponents based not on hard evidence, but on emotion-based fear-mongering.
But even more troubling was how quickly the nation accepted war. In July 2002, Iraq was not even on the public’s radar. By the end of September 2002, the country had embraced war and lapsed into a nationalistic frenzy. We went from zero to sixty in approximately two months. That’s disturbing for a number of reasons, but primarily because it shows how easy it is to start a “top-down” war (i.e., a war that was not demanded by the public, but was imposed upon it). Anyway, it just seemed odd that America was wholly oblivious to such mortal danger just two months earlier. Bottom line — the speed with which we rushed to war should have given more people pause.
There was also the politicized nature of it. The pro-war arguments might have been more persuasive if they hadn’t been incorporated into a GOP election strategy based on accusing me of treason. The reason all this matters is that elections are about advocacy rather than empiricism. Candidates spin facts in ways that help them — they’re not worried about presenting objective truth to the public. Thus, given that the White House so heavily involved with incorporating Iraq into the GOP’s 2002 political strategy was the very same White House spitting out inflammatory facts about the dangers of Saddam, there was good reason to be skeptical.
In addition, there was world public opinion, which overwhelmingly opposed the war. If the entire world disagrees with your policy, that means one of two things. You’re right and the entire world is wrong. Or the opposite. The fact that world public opinion (and many of our most powerful allies) did not support the war should have been a big red flag — particularly given that America had just suffered a unique trauma that (dis)colored its judgment and perceptions. If nothing else, global opinion should have provided an epistemological check on our march to war — i.e., it should have made us question the basis of our “knowledge” of the threat Saddam posed. After all, most of these countries were equally at risk of al Qaeda terrorism too.
And then there were the million other things that, taken as a whole, should have made people skeptical. I’m thinking about the IAEA’s failure to find anything; the lukewarm reception to Powell’s speech; the blatant emotional exploitation of the first 9/11 anniversary; the rush to war despite Saddam’s accepting the inspectors; the conflation of nuclear and chemical weapons as “WMDs”; the problems with an alliance of secular Baathists and decidedly non-secular al Qaeda; the ongoing war in Afghanistan; and so on.
Pro-war liberals can always point to one or two specific factual assertions that may have been wrong, but it’s the broader picture that people should remember. Yes, these types of reasons are more intangible, but they’re not purely subjective and they should have — objectively speaking — given people pause.
On a final note, I think the more troubling question for pro-war liberals is not so much why they supported the war, but why they supported going to war at that time. In other words, why not wait? I’m willing to concede that if Saddam developed nuclear weapons, and if he was BFFs with al Qaeda, war makes sense. But none of that explains why we had to go in with guns a’blazin’ in March 2003. There were, after all, boatloads of reasons to be skeptical of those factual assertions — and those reasons increased with each passing day.
That’s why I have more patience for liberals who (like Yglesias and Drum) started out as pro-war but ultimately bailed. To me, this reversal shows that their positions were empirically-based and that they were actually paying attention to the larger context unfolding before them. That’s the opposite of pro-war libs who were dead set on their war, facts be damned.