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October 29, 2007

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But the larger, more durable lesson from Iraq is that wars can be caused by a lack of confrontation.

I hope we on the liberal side have learned something about the false binary choice between sanctions and war. I mean, our sanctions regime may have worked fairly well as far as WMD are concerned, but I hope we all understand that sanctions effectively destroyed that country.

From reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a truly illuminating book, you can't help but be struck by the degree to which Iraqi institutions were nothing but a hollow shell by 2003 as a result of sanctions. Basically, the West crippled that country, and Saddam held power by using cash to prop up all the failed industries and to keep people employed at make-work jobs so they wouldn't rebel.

Sometimes we look back at people who argued that we shouldn't depose Saddam after the Gulf War because it would be a quagmire, like this guy, and deem them prescient in light of what's now happened. But I actually don't think we know that, because the job of installing a new regime would have been so much simpler back when Iraq was still a functioning country. Of course, our decision after the Gulf War was obviously the correct one because we had promised the Arab leaders we wouldn't invade as a condition for forming the coalition, but still, one shouldn't conclude that it would have ended up just like the present occupation.

Anyway, I'm not sure what the third option should have been, as opposed to sanctions and war, but I think we need an answer to that because sanctions are clearly not an all-purpose remedy.

Your SCLM at work! Consistently supporting Republican framing of the issues since at least 1993!

I mean, our sanctions regime may have worked fairly well as far as WMD are concerned, but I hope we all understand that sanctions effectively destroyed that country.

that's a key but totally-ignored point.

"Clinton has the honesty to insist that the case for war was reasonable at the time"

Even before the war she said that the admin claims didn't justify invasion - afterwards she said it had set a bad precedent.

Wonder if this is a push-editorial.

war supporters simply assumed war was the right thing to do and put the burden on opponents to show otherwise.

I think this is exactly right. I also think this is the first time I’ve seen it spelled out that way.

But I do recall feeling that way – that war was a foregone conclusion and that the only remaining question was when the first bombs would fall.

The presumption in favor of war is greatly helped by the fact that most Americans, and certainly most op-ed writers, don't expect to suffer any real negative consequences from a war. So in doing a cost-benefit analysis, the cost is only money (which is free, because it's defense spending and thus doesn't require raising taxes or even thinking about), troops (whom the calculators don't know), and the lives of furriners (who obviously don't count for anything).

Right, OCS. It was typically expressed as a demand for war opponents to come up with an alternative solution for "dealing with Saddam." Of course, this implicitly takes off the table the notion of continuing our policy of containment and dealing with more urgent priorities, like going after the folks who attacked us on 9/11.

I'm sure everyone recalls that for several years after the invasion, the preferred locution for dismissing war opponents was that they "favored leaving Saddam Hussein in power." Objectively pro-Saddam, and all that.

I suspect that the American presumption in favor of war is a byproduct of the end of the Cold War. It seems that people drew the wrong conclusions from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of recognizing the brilliance of the original war-avoiding containment strategy, they concluded that we had defeated the Soviet Union rather than merely outlasting it. This led to a dangerous "We're Number One!" mentality that was certain to get us into trouble. It also made 9/11 all the more outrageous to American sensibilities: "How dare they attack us! We're Number One! We can't let them get away with that!" The reaction to 9/11 wasn't a sobering realization of our vulnerabilities, it was instead a prideful eagerness for revenge. Instead of asking ourselves "How can we minimize our vulnerabilities?", we instead asked "How can we get even with the bad guys?"

Ultimately, I think it all boils down to pride. And pride goeth before the fall.

Anybody know if "Mallaby" rhymes with "wallaby"?

war supporters simply assumed war was the right thing to do and put the burden on opponents to show otherwise.

it wasn't just the war supporters who assumed it was the right thing to do, either. the cowardly media accepted it nearly completely as well, and marginalized war opponents in their coverage.

You don't like Gene Robinson!!!?!??!?!!?!1111!

WaPo is your favorite paper?

Say it ain't so! For a corrective, see e.g. Bob Somerby on the WaPo's ongoing War Against Gore (news pages included). Or check out Brad Delong's archives. Froomkin on their website is great though.

I'm with Eurassismo, except I don't think the sense of superiority dates back to WII. I think it goes all the way back to the city on a hill. It's part of our culture to love a winner and hate a loser. 911 made us losers so some crappy little country had to be thrown against the wall so we could feel like winners again. Now the Iraq war (and the war we have forgotten) are making the Bush Administration look like losers. The solution? Attack Iran.

I realize that I am overstating, but there is room in political discourse for the clarity of overstatement. During the build up to the Iraq war there was, due to many factors, a lack of clearly stated opposition to the war and, in it's absence, not only were the raationalizations that supported the war widely spread,but false assumptions abouut the nature of the opposition were also widely spread. (If you don't define your own position clearrly, your opponents will define it for you.)

Now, during the build up to an attack on Iran, there is a similar lack. The problem with the Iraq statement that Hilary (and others) voted for, for example, is that it didn't move the Overton window far enough. It conceded too much ground. Imagine for a minute that the statement had said, instead, in proper political terms, of course: "ARe you nuts? Why would we trust the judgement of this administration about a war? Haven't we learned that pre-emptory strikes based on skewed intelligence can lead to disaster?" Instaed the statement is a watered down version of Bush administration thinking, so ambigously worded that we, the news obsessives of the blogoshere, spend a whole thread debating what Hilary meant by voting for it. It would have been better, in my opionin, if the Democratic leaders had all voted no and issued a clear, unambiguous sttaement of wahy.

So back to the discussion here. Mallaby, and many others, assume that one must either be inclined tto support wars or be a weakling loser. The best response to this sort of thing that I know of came from Obama: he said he wasn't opposed to all wars, just stupid ones.

More of that, please.

There's something troubling, and flat out wrong, about the anti-consequentialism in the "it seemed right at the time" argument.

The troubling and flat out thing is that war turned out to be tragically, irredeemably wrong. That matters, but war apologists are still trying to convince us that how things actually turn out does not matter. What seemed right, they maintain, matters more, so we should prefer those who did what seemed right (even though they were actually wrong) and not those who actually were right.

Just to describe this argument reveals its absurdity.

Those who "seemed right" were actually wrong. And those who opposed the war, even though the war "seemed right", were actually right, not just "seems right but awfully wrong."

I'd rather have leaders who actually turn out to be right, instead of leaders who are wrong on matters of war and peace and life and death, but try to convince us its ok because war seemed right at the time. "The conventional wisdom said go to war, so I just voted to go to war instead of reading the intelligence".

We need more real wisdom and less conventional wisdom.

*blinks* You really think the WaPo is better than The Christian Science Monitor?!?

"You really think the WaPo is better than The Christian Science Monitor?!?"

Publius wrote: "To be fair, the Post is my favorite paper."

"Favorite" doesn't mean "best." The two mean entirely different, if sometimes overlapping, things. One can have as many favorite things that one believes to be objectively crappy as one likes.

On the New York Times editorial page forum (since closed down), I remember being repeatedly jeered as advocating "surrender" in the run-up to war in 2002. My response was, "How can I surrender in a war that hasn't even started?" Of course, to the hard core cheerleaders, the war HAD begun on 9/11, and we were simply continuing it by going after a Moslem country even if had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks. Hey, Sunni, Shi'a, who cares? They all looked alike to us. But I think the notion that opposing an unprovoked invasion constitutes a preemptive "surrender" says volumes about the way at least some Americans think.

The two mean entirely different, if sometimes overlapping, things.

Yeah, I keep buying the Daily Mail every day, even though I think that actually The Guardian is the best newspaper in the UK.

Mallaby: "The Iraq invasion happened partly because the world had lost the stomach to confront Saddam Hussein by other means."

This is simply false. The inspections were working, and Iraq was severely weakened by sanctions. The contentions at the time that Iraq was an "imminent threat" and that it was involved in 9/11 were as transparently false at the time as they are now. If someone at the time needed to be confronted it was Bin Laden and al Queda.

The reason that so many supported war at the time was not because it was "reasonable" or necessary, but because they were inflamed by jingoism and had become irrational on the subject. As the founding fathers realized, this is something which a king or president can take advantage of.

Mallaby didn't dare say this, so I will: the knee-jerk response of some on the far-left against intervening in Afghanistan, a small but incredibly pathetic band of losers who are seemingly incapable of seeing much good with democracy and capitalism but often make apologies for bin Laden and Hamas simply because they criticize America and Israel, unfairly discredited all the rational arguments against invading Iraq, especially in combination with Hussein's prevarications and staggering (but hardly predictable) levels of propaganda from Bush &tc.

Those that were right about Iraq were right about Iraq, but that does not mean their correctness was based on a rational reading of the situation with the information available to the public. Their cynical approach to everything is no model for the future, and the presumption that anyone who believed that the New York Times or the public servants in charge of national security were presenting a fair view of the evidence was, in fact, an uncritical stooge and jingoist is bullshit.

Mallaby ought to spend his column inches on the culprits and on encouraging Hillary et. al. to say clearly that the American public was betrayed and misled into a terrible mistake based on shabby evidence as well as emotional rhetoric. Only after he does that for a while will he have the credibility to criticize the critics.

So, gang up on Mallaby, I don't care, but pretending that the world was actually in support of a containment policy is nonsense. More than a few were ready to ditch sanctions and containment out of sympathy for Iraqi civilians no matter what threat Iraq might have posed, before and after 9/11. Hussein tossed out weapons inspectors in 1998 why exactly? That wasn't taken seriously because people on the left actually took the "wag the dog" argument during the GOP's attempted Lewinsky-coup seriously. Why did they? Might it have been some kind of pathological identification with the less powerful? Methinks this motif discredited much of the otherwise valuable detached perspective they could have brought to the Iraq debate.

And now we are to take all war critics seriously, simply because Bush turned out to be an arrogant moron par excellance?

Nope, no, no way.

None of this means that Hillary was right, or that people supporting going to Iraq all were rational (fear does strange things to people), or that results don't matter. Iraq was a mistake, and people in a position to get more and better information like US Senators should have done the due diligence on our behalf. But even if they had, and even if people in the bowels of the intelligence bureaucracy had revealed their doubts sooner, there was still a strategic case for intervention that withered in the glaring incompetence of the CPA.

If Senators voted for conventional wisdom instead of reading the intelligence, shame on them. If the intelligence was itself cooked by conventional wisdom, or shaped under pressure, shame on those parties. But an honest account of the run-up to the war would not pretend that the real evidence was there on the table, but only some people looked at it. The anti-war people didn't see evidence any more than lazy US Senators did, they went with their own version of conventional wisdom. "But they were right!" Sure, but that doesn't mean that their conventional wisdom will continue to be wise any more than the old conventional wisdom turned out to be.

Those that were right about Iraq were right about Iraq, but that does not mean their correctness was based on a rational reading of the situation with the information available to the public.

Could be. Here's what I saw.

The claim for a nuclear program was based on the aluminum tubes and the Niger yellowcake. Both were known to be, at best, questionable before we went in.

There was the mobile chemical weapons lab that was actually not.

There was the fleet of unmanned drones that turned out to look like the rubber band airplanes I played with as a kid.

There were the UN WMD inspectors who were simply unable to turn up anything after many weeks in country.

After a while, you just say "bullshit".

The other strategic goals that were invoked in invading are, perhaps, convincing if "Great Game" geopolitics are your cup of meat. I had my fill of that crap in the Cold War. I'd have thought we all would be well sick of it, but I guess I'm wrong about that.

In any case, I sort of consider my analysis at the time to be based on "a rational reading of the situation with the information available to the public".

I don't derive any particular satisfaction from all of that, because we still went in, and every damned thing that happened since, happened. It mostly just makes me want to puke.

To be honest, I don't have much of a beef with folks who supported the war at the time. We were all freaked out, we pretty much all wanted someone to pay for 9/11, and Saddam was not a good guy. My beef is with folks who still want to have the same damned argument, lo these many years later.

It was a mistake. We shouldn't have gone in. It wasn't, really, that hard to see that it was going to be a mistake. Lots of folks -- and I do mean lots and lots and lots of folks, folks who are so far from being dirty smelly hippies that patchouli oil doesn't even exist in their world -- saw that it was a mistake, and said it was a mistake, publicly, loudly and long. By "publicly", I mean in the Op-Ed pages of the NYT and the Washington Post.

It was probably the single greatest blunder of the last 100 years.

Now, can we please move on?

We do, however, certainly agree on this:

Mallaby ought to spend his column inches on the culprits and on encouraging Hillary et. al. to say clearly that the American public was betrayed and misled into a terrible mistake based on shabby evidence as well as emotional rhetoric.

"There was the mobile chemical weapons lab that was actually not."

A premise of my argument is that the public had no way of evaluating this sort of thing as presented by our political leaders, the supposed experts. It was not unreasonable for people to trust that Colin Powell was basing his speech on something that he saw that could not be made available to the public.

The word "bullshit" was used to call shenanigans on the many netroots types that would have us believe that anyone who believed Powell was, in fact, some warmongering caricature, and anyone who didn't should be bestowed with permanent credibility even though their suspicions were based on their own conventional wisdom and not necessarily much in the way of analysis. That is not to say that all war skeptics were knee-jerk thinkers, but some of them obviously were and are, and we should look for a President that won't put on blinders of any orientation. I don't doubt that many war skeptics were using their powers of reason, but I also have no doubt that more than a few war skeptics wouldn't support the exercise of American power in any circumstances, and are actually pretty stupid people who never got past associating "critical thinking" with intelligence.

"There were the UN WMD inspectors who were simply unable to turn up anything after many weeks in country."

IIRC, said inspectors got a bit of the run-around. In retrospect, especially with the very dubious nuclear "evidence" -- although the yellowcake revelation from Wilson was after the invasion already happened, no? -- it looks obvious that waiting 6 more months would have had basically no risks and might have saved us from the whole charade.

Surely, a lot of intelligent people wrote about the risks of the invasion, correctly predicting Sunni - Shia tensions and so forth. A very reasonable position, and one that should have been heeded (and would have been, if the "evidence" for WMD hadn't been fabricated). Evidence of forgeries came out in the summer of 03, after the invasion.

For all the reasonable war critics, there were a number of knee-jerk war critics. Likewise, for all the militaristic hubris pushing for the Iraq war, there were some thoughtful people that made reasonable arguments based on the information available at the time. The original post about having a default bias in the wrong direction is exactly right. What irritates me is when people take every opportunity to assert that all war skeptics are automatically more credible foreign policy thinkers than all war supporters, regardless of the details. That is revisionist baloney.

all war skeptics are automatically more credible foreign policy thinkers than all war supporters, regardless of the details. That is revisionist baloney.

I agree that the universal quantifiers there are overwrought. However, most war skeptics are automatically more credible foreign policy thinkers than most war supporters because -- wait for it -- they got it right, and largely for the right reasons. A priori, this makes them more credible; that is, in fact, pretty much what credible means.

[You might mean something like "weighty" or "insightful", something intended to convey the depth of one's analysis, but that is -- regrettably -- a different concept entirely when talking about one's position on the runup to Iraq war.]

It was not unreasonable for people to trust that Colin Powell was basing his speech on something that he saw that could not be made available to the public.

Taken in a vacuum, this is true. Taken in the larger context, where the Bush Administration continually refused to offer any proof of its claims, and where AFAIR every single time the Bush Administration ponied up about its "secret intelligence" they turned out to be wrong then no, it wasn't reasonable at all.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not blind to the charms of your argument. It's somewhat shocking to realize that the Administration is lying to you wholesale and IMO quite literally inconceivable to a large segment of the population. Returning to the point of credibility, though, if you didn't take as a premise that the Bush Administration was lying about almost everything (and be doing things incompetently) then I'm sorry to say that, yes, you wouldn't be particularly credible. Charmingly naive perhaps, possibly wistfully sincere, but not credible. It's a minor tragedy as such things go, but a tragedy nonetheless.

A premise of my argument is that the public had no way of evaluating this sort of thing as presented by our political leaders, the supposed experts.

Some they did, some they didn't. IMO, what did should have motivated any reasonable person to be suspicious, and not blindly accept whatever was being shoveled out. Particularly given the context, and history of the players.

How long had these guys been itching to invade Iraq?

In any case, YMMV. I'm really not interested in arguing about who was right and who was wrong.

I'm just sick of people who supported the war now trying to argue all the reasons why, even though they "got it wrong", they were really right, and even though other folks "got it right", they were really wrong.

Specifically, when I read stuff like this:

the knee-jerk response of some on the far-left against intervening in Afghanistan, a small but incredibly pathetic band of losers who are seemingly incapable of seeing much good with democracy and capitalism but often make apologies for bin Laden and Hamas simply because they criticize America and Israel, unfairly discredited all the rational arguments against invading Iraq, especially in combination with Hussein's prevarications and staggering (but hardly predictable) levels of propaganda from Bush &tc.

I don't whether to puke, kick the dog, or go punch a baby.

Really, Scott? Those dirty freaking Osama-loving hippies discredited all those wonderful reasons for invading? How unfair! Well, thank God other folks were there to make up some new ones, don't you think?

Enough is enough, isn't it?

Nobody here is calling you a "jingoistic stooge". If somebody somewhere else is doing so, maybe you just need to suck it up and move on. God knows folks who opposed the war have had to suck up enough crap over the last five years.

Here's where I'm coming from.

We all make mistakes. We all get stuff wrong. If I had been wrong about something of the magnitude and consequence of Iraq, I hope to God that I would have the good grace to either say "I'm sorry, what can we do to make sure that never happens again", or else say nothing at all.

What I hope I would never do is stand around in public whining about how stupid, obnoxious, and generally unpleasant all those horrid folks are whose instincts were, after all, right.

Give it a rest, please.

Thanks -

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