This is a post I've considered writing a couple of times in the past. I've always refrained, because it will take me into a territory that either is, or is too close for comfort to, contempt, and because it sounds too much like crowing about the fact that I was right on Iraq. I don't think it is, really: it's about a particular set of reasons for being wrong, and about what it means that people who were wrong for those reasons are respected public intellectuals. Still: the fact that I'm writing it now may reflect the fact that I'm exhausted. But what the heck:
There is, by now, a whole genre of mea culpas written by people who support Iraq. Some are more thoughtful than others. But some are, to me, frankly puzzling. Because what the writer uses to explain his mistake is not some simple factual error, but a whole cast of mind that I would have thought would be even more embarrassing than getting even a large policy question badly wrong.
It's important to note, here, that I'm talking not about ordinary citizens, but about people who are paid for their opinions about political questions. (I'm also talking only about people I believe to be sincere -- the Bill Kristols of the world offer no mea culpas because they have no sense of shame.) Ordinary citizens have a real responsibility to try to get things right, and I do not want to minimize that responsibility. But there are real limits on the expertise that we can expect ordinary citizens to develop about things like the likely effects of an invasion of Iraq, its history and political culture, and so forth. One way in which we try to compensate for these limits is to have people who are paid to think about, and to publish, their opinions on questions of policy and politics. These people's responsibility for understanding the issues they write about is much, much greater than ordinary citizens', just as doctors have a much greater responsibility to keep up with the medical literature than I do. A doctor is the expert I go to see when I need medical advice, and I go to see a doctor precisely because I can expect him or her to know a lot more than I do. People who are paid for their opinions on questions like the advisability of invading Iraq have a similar obligation. And that's what makes the particular subset of mea culpas I'm talking about so perplexing.
As a sort of warm-up exercise, consider Rod Dreher's account of the changes the war in Iraq caused in his political views:
"ROD DREHER: My first real political memory came in 1979. It was listening to Jimmy Carter tell the nation about the failed hostage rescue mission. I hated him for that. I hated him for the whole Iran mess, shaming America before our enemies with weakness and incompetence.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president the next year, I stayed up late to hear his victory speech. America was saved. I was 13 years old, and I was a Reaganite from that moment on.
My generation came of age politically under Reagan. To me, he was strong and confident. Democrats were weak and depressed. Like so many other Gen-X’ers, I disliked people I thought of as hippies, those blame America first liberals so hung up on Vietnam. They surrendered to the communists back then, just like they want to do that. Republicans were winners, Democrats defeatists. What more did you need to know?
On Sept. 11, 2001, I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed. Thank God we have a Republican in the White House, I comforted myself. As President Bush marched the country toward war with Iraq in 2003, even some voices on the right warned that this was a fool’s errand. I dismissed them angrily. I thought them unpatriotic.
But almost four years later I see that I was the fool. In Iraq, this Republican president for whom I voted twice has shamed our country with weakness and incompetence. And the consequences of his failure will be far, far worse than anything Carter did. The fraud, the mendacity, the utter haplessness of our government’s conduct of the Iraq war had been shattering to me.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Not under a Republican president, not after Reagan. I turn 40 next month. Middle-aged at last, a time of discovering limits, finitude. I expected that. What I did not expect was to live to see the limits in finitude of American power revealed so painfully. I did not expect Vietnam.
As I sat in my office last night, watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war. I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I’ve got to teach my kids that they must never ever take presidents and generals at their word. That their government will send them to kill and die for noble sounding rot, that they have to question authority.
On the walk to the parking garage it hit me. Hadn’t the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely? Will my children, too small now to understand Iraq, take me seriously when I tell them one day what powerful men their father once believed in did to this country.
Heavy thoughts for someone who’s still a conservative despite it all. It was a long drive home."
I don't have any particular quarrel with the teenaged Dreher. I don't expect teenagers to be exemplars of maturity, although I am regularly surprised to discover some who are. But I am flabbergasted at the thought that someone could have maintained the same view of Republicans and Democrats well into adulthood, and even more astonished that he maintained it even after accepting the responsibility I described earlier: to be a commentator on politics and policy.
The problem is not, of course, that he liked Republicans. Lots of people I respect like Republicans, though very few extend that liking to this administration. It's why he liked them. It's not hard, once you grow up, to have the thought: gosh, victory speeches are a lot easier than serious policy. Nor was it hard for someone inclined to look beyond speeches to see problems with Reagan's self-presentation back in the 80s. Selling our enemies arms in the hopes that they would release our hostages is not the sort of thing one would expect from the man who gave Reagan's speeches. Neither is allowing suicide bombers to drive us out of Lebanon. For that matter, sending US Marines into Lebanon in the hopes that their mere presence would deter violence, and without any serious plans for what to do if they came under attack, is not the sort of thing the man who gave Reagan's speeches ought to have done either.*
By his own account, Dreher does not seem to have had such thoughts. Apparently, until the war in Iraq, Republicans were still the party of toughness, despite Reagan's willingness to bargain with terrorists and withdraw in the face of attack, and despite the many calls by Republicans for immediate withdrawal from Somalia, Kosovo, and Haiti. (Two examples here; others can be found in any number of sardonic posts around the left blogosphere.) Moreover, Dreher describes himself as having seen the Republicans as the "strong, confident" party, as opposed to those weak, whiny Democrats, on the same sort of emotional, fact-free grounds as his teenage self. It was only the war in Iraq that made him question his scorn for the people who had tried to teach his generation the lessons he was now learning; not, say, the fact that that lesson -- not to take Presidents and generals at their word, to question authority -- is one that any adult should have mastered.
Isn't it astonishing that any adult would confess to this -- to having formed his opinions on the basis of speeches rather than policies, and to have "scorned", "blithely", people he ought to have tried to learn something from, on the basis of -- what, exactly? Apparently, nothing more than the fact that they struck him as whiny defeatists. Isn't it even more astonishing that someone who actually writes about politics (along with culture) for a living would admit to this? To me, it's like hearing a doctor say that it was only his own illness that finally made him pay attention to those germ thingies he had earlier dismissed as too small to worry about, and realize that people who whined about annoying things like hospital hygeine and safe drinking water weren't just fussy anal-retentives.
"My eyes. Stinging. Is it tears, or blood? Can't tell-- all the mirrors are cracked. From my screams."
And, on a quote from Ignatieff:
""Improvisation may not stave off failure. The game usually ends in tears. . . ."
You know what would have pushed this essay into the realm of literary greatness? If Ignatieff had ended this paragraph with: "The game usually ends in tears-- the tears. . . of a clown." I don't know why, but that would have made me really happy."
The possibility alone makes me happy. I guess I'm easy to please.
Anyways, when I strip away the parts of Ignatieff's essay more suited to a series of inspirational posters of the sort sold in those catalogs people read out of desperate boredom on airplanes, I find that he offers the following reasons for his mistake:
"In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.
I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing."
Um: really? Michael Ignatieff only just learned that ideas have consequences? -- This actually does seem to be what he is saying. Read it in context and tell me whether you disagree. Then stop and think for a bit about how hard it would be not to learn this lesson before you wrote extensively about invading Iraq.
I mean: it's not as though the world isn't full of people talking about how academics are shut up in their ivory towers, thinking their pointless little thoughts, far removed from actual life. It's not as though phrases like "that's all very well in theory, but it won't work in practice" aren't so common as to be completely banal cliches. (They involve a stupid view of theory, if you ask me -- no one would say, for instance, that the view that things fall up when you drop them is "all very well in theory", but just doesn't work in practice. If a theory doesn't work in practice, then either it's a theory that's not supposed to work in practice -- a theory of how things work at Hogwarts, for instance -- or it's a bad theory. But I digress.)
For an academic not to know that this is a pitfall of theorizing would be impossible in our culture. For an academic to have been aware of this possibility, but not to have taken it seriously while advocating a major war, would be flatly irresponsible. I do not believe that there is a third option that lets anyone who only belatedly learns this lesson off the hook. I mean: here's a further iteration of this alleged lesson: "Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be. They must see Iraq — or anywhere else — as it is." The very idea that someone is only learning this lesson after advocating a war -- or, for that matter, after the onset of puberty -- is truly dumbfounding.
"The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire — Iraqi exiles, for example — and to be less swayed by my emotions. I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go. My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?"
Here I can speak on the basis of some experience of my own, having seen things that were similar to what Ignatieff apparently saw, only in 1988, during the Anfal campaign, and in Turkey, where refugees were pouring into Iraq. I had believed that Saddam was a monster before that, but that experience gave that belief an urgency it had not had before. But it did not lead me to conclude that "Saddam had to go". Why not? Because while I was quite clear that if, say, God were to remove Saddam Hussein to some alternate universe in which he could torment only himself, that would be a good thing, any other version of "Saddam going" had to be a specific policy that would have specific results, and all the policies I could think of that the US might initiate had very, very serious downsides. Frankly, the only way I can see for someone to move from the belief that Saddam was a monster to the belief that we should remove him is to engage in what I call "benefit analysis".
Cost/benefit analysis involves weighing the costs of some proposed course of action against its benefits, doing the same for your various alternative courses of action, and choosing the one that has the best balance of benefits over costs. Benefit analysis, by contrast, involves thinking that because some proposed course of action has some benefits, it should be adopted. (Similarly, cost analysis involves thinking that because some course of action involves costs, it should not be adopted.) Any attempt to engage in cost/benefit analysis in the case at hand would have required asking what the costs of removing Saddam Hussein were, and whether they outweighed the benefits of removing him. It would not have allowed moving from the thought "he is a monster" to the conclusion "so we should remove him." Only benefit analysis does that.
(Parenthetical note: a general principle of the form: "whenever someone is a brutal dictator, that someone should be removed" would also license that conclusion. But that is a silly principle, and one that neither Michael Ignatieff nor Dick Cheney or anyone else seems to seriously entertain. There are a lot of brutal dictators we have never so much as considered removing, and some, like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with whom we are on very good terms.)
Again: the idea that neither cost analysis nor benefit analysis is a good way to make decisions is not a revelation that you'd expect someone to have only after advocating for a war. It just isn't. And if Michael Ignatieff had it only recently, then you really have to ask why on earth his opinions are taken seriously.
If we take either Dreher and Ignatieff at their word, then I think we really have to ask: why are people who are, by their own account, not just mistaken but completely clueless among the people who are given platforms to express their opinions? Why does anyone take those opinions seriously? Weren't their cognitive defects clear earlier? How could they not be?
However, I think there's another possibility. Ignatieff still seems to me to be trying to show that while he was wrong, many of the people who opposed the war were wrong too. For instance, he says:
"We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.
The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history. What they didn’t do was take wishes for reality. They didn’t suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn’t suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn’t believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes."
It's odd that he doesn't identify either group of people. He does, however, say that the first group included "many" of those who opposed the war, while the second might, for all he says, represent some imaginary ideal that went unrealized in the run-up to the war.
This is just wrong. It's not as though no one managed to oppose the war managed to free him- or herself from the idea that "America is always and in every situation wrong." Most people who opposed the war, after all, supported the invasion of Afghanistan, which would be hard to explain if they thought that America was always wrong. Nor can people like Brent Scowcroft, Jim Webb, Wes Clark, and others who opposed the war before it started be dismissed on these grounds by anyone who is not, frankly, delusional. There were plenty of people who managed to believe simultaneously (a) that America is not always wrong, and (b) that it would be wrong to invade Iraq. Many of these people did so because they managed such not-too-difficult tasks as not taking wishes for reality; not supposing that because we think we are good, others will think so too; not thinking that imposing our will on a distant country would be easy, etc.
These are not hard things to do. That Michael Ignatieff is presenting them as hard-won lessons should be flatly astonishing -- as astonishing as hearing a physicist say that what led him to some crucial mistake was not having appreciated the importance of subjecting his theories to empirical testing, or hearing an auto mechanic say that he wouldn't have gotten things so wrong if only he'd appreciated the importance of learning what all those little doohickeys under the hood do.
I suspect that on some level, it's harder for Ignatieff to admit that the people who were right were not just crazy hippies -- the same ones who seem to have unhinged Dreher -- but people who thought a lot more clearly about Iraq than he did, than to think seriously about why he got things wrong. That would explain the almost surreal banality of much of his piece -- the parts that Rees skewers so effectively. It would also explain why, to this day, he finds it easier to admit what look for all the world like astonishing failures, and to present the realization that they were failures as some sort of major achievement, than to admit that the people he wants to think of as crazy hippies unhinged by hatred of America were right. Especially since the idea that Scowcroft, Webb, Clark, and the like are crazy hippies is too bizarre to credit.
Again, I don't mean this to be some sort of "I was right" triumphalism. What interests me is not so much who was right and who was wrong, but this particular version of being wrong -- a version that involves not just error, but errors like "I didn't realize until it was too late that I had to take reality into account", or: "I didn't fully appreciate the fact that making nice speeches isn't all there is to being President." And I'm also interested in why people seem willing to confess these kinds of profound error without any sense of intellectual shame, and why they continue to be given platforms in public life. Because until we find some way to ensure that we hear the opinions of people who know these sorts of things in advance, rather than having to learn them after hundreds of thousands of people have died, we are in deep, deep trouble.
* Note about Lebanon: I believe that we should not have sent the Marines into Lebanon without giving much more serious thought to the question what we would do if they came under attack. There are a lot of problems to which the best solution is: not to get into them in the first place, and I think this is one of them: if we went in, we should have gone in in a way that allowed us better options if the Marines were attacked. That said, if I had somehow been handed this situation and had to deal with the bombing, I would absolutely have attacked the camps affiliated with the organizations most likely to have carried out the attacks, and I would also have tried to reconfigure our forces so that we could stay without being sitting ducks.
Why? In general, I am not a fan of the idea that our credibility requires doing all kinds of things -- staying in the war in Vietnam, staying in the war in Iraq, etc. That said, I think it's a terrible thing to let people draw the lesson that if you are attacked, you will flee. As I said, I think the best way to avoid giving this lesson is to avoid the situations that give rise to it. I also think that there are limits to what we can do to avoid giving this lesson: staying in Iraq, or Vietnam, until the end of time plainly exceed those limits, and the fact that when Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon after eighteen years of occupation, their opponents said: ha ha! we have shown that they are paper tigers who can be forced to leave! shows that sometimes, staying somewhere until the end of time is the only way to avoid someone drawing that conclusion. And there is no reason to make ourselves and our soldiers hostage to other people's idiocy.
In this case, however, I think it would absolutely have been right to retaliate, especially since more or less everyone knew where the relevant camps were. I mean, I knew (more or less) where they were at the time, and I was working in a youth hostel in Jerusalem. But this is still the second-best option; the best, by far, would have been to do this right from the outset. Sending our troops into a situation in which they cannot defend themselves if attacked, in the hopes that if we place them like sitting ducks in the middle of a hostile situation, things will calm down does not count as "doing it right."