In response to my post on Howard Dean’s wise February 2003 speech about Iraq a few correspondents have asked me to revisit my own war thinking in 2002. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of exercise because I think it shades into excuse-making, but in retrospect you can think of four strands of argumentation:
It will only be excuse-making if Yglesias makes excuses. But on to the explaining.
1. Erroneous views of foreign policy in general: At the time, I adhered to the school of thought (popular at the time) which held that one major problem in the world was that the US government was unduly constrained in the use of force abroad by domestic politics. More forceful intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo had all been called for. This led to a general predisposition in favor of military adventurism.
I'm sorry, what? We don't have enough military adventures abroad? We don't meddle in other countries enough? Wasn't the blow-back from, for one, setting up the Shah in Iran a hint that unforeseen consequences seem to accompany such decisions? Yglesias went to The Dalton School and Harvard. Didn't he read enough history to understand that we bomb people for our own selfish political reasons, not because we are Mike The Friendly Irish Cop to the world? What's the use of going to Harvard if you learn nothing except American Exceptionalism?
2. Elite signaling: When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously. I knew that Carl Levin & Nancy Pelosi were on the other side, but the bulk of the leading Democratic voices on national security and foreign policy issues were in favor of the war. So was Tony Blair. These were credible people whose views I took seriously.
If they had told you to quit and help the poor, would you have taken that seriously too? Some elites did say that Saddam's nuclear ambitions were contained. Why did you not believe them, or Pelosi or Levin? Of course, this is an indication of authoritarianism either way. Brought up to think of himself as a decider, not a follower, he still believes what he is told by his elite, while telling himself he's making an educated decision. It's their fault, because under authoritarianism, the followers are not responsible for their own decisions--that responsibility is abdicated to the elite, absolving the follower of any responsibility. (Remember, it's possible to be both an elite and an elite follower.)
3. Misreading the politics: It seemed to me that the political consequences to George W Bush of invading Iraq to disrupt a nuclear weapons program and then discovering that there was no such program would be disastrous. Presidents do have access to secret intelligence, and it seemed nutty to me to suggest that the administration would be engaged in a massive, easily-debunked-after-the fact lie. Similarly, I didn’t take all the democracy-talk very seriously but the “better than Saddam” humanitarian standard is a low bar and I figured Bush wouldn’t be doing this unless he said some reasonable plan for extricating our forces and stabilizing the situation.
Why? It's not like Bush was competent. Anyone who followed his career or read a book about him knew better. In Texas we watched him play solitaire in the Governor's mansion for five years. We knew, although like Yglesias, so many people were thrilled at the idea of the Republicans coming back to power, people of dignity and responsibility and ethics that they didn't care. Why, they can't possibly be stupid or venal! They're just like me!
Funny how that worked out. Unless you're Iraqi, of course, in which case it's less funny and more deadly and tragic.
4. Kenneth Pollack: The formal case for war that I found compelling was Kenneth Pollack’s “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” I discuss this book in some detail in my own book, but to make a long story short its argumentative structure is badly flawed. Roughly speaking he says “if we invade Iraq and a pony shows up, that will be better than the alternatives, therefore invading Iraq is better than trying to muddle through.” Which is great, except we’re missing the pony! This problem is what Robert Farley’s Jedi Principle is about.
You went to fucking Harvard. How can you not recognize a badly flawed argument? Just like McArdle, he assumes that people like him are the ones who deserve to make the decisions, are always right, and will make the right--that is, smart and moral--decision. Pollack was CIA. He went into the decision already convinced or ready to convince others that it was invasion or nuclear fallout. He waved away facts that contradicted his argument. One-sided arguments are the favorite method of the propagandist. Or don't they teach that at Harvard?
So that’s that. You can, however, always get more psychological.
Try to stop me.
I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite.
The Savvy Tribe. The one that's so much more elite that it's better than conservatives or liberals because it's so educated and piercingly analytical.
My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people.
Why, Yglesias? Have you ever asked that question? Everyone wants to feel superior to others. The more inferior we feel, the more we insist that we are superior. And when you are told your whole life that you are superior, any doubts must be quelled at all costs or You Don't Belong to the rich, famous, powerful, glorious, wonderful elite.
The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.
And what was that error? This entire exercise is useless unless he understands why he chose to support the elite--a certain elite, the ones who exercised their power over others, who invaded countries, who murdered people. Not the elites who wanted peace. If he doesn't understand why he identifies so much with the powerful, he will continue to make knee-jerk decisions which support the elite over those they harm. Which he has, far too often.
Anyways, one thing that’s always puzzled me is why other war supporters were so slow to turn against it.
You don't understand it because you don't do the painful work of self-evaluation and rejection of outside sources of self-esteem. You can't see that they all desperately wanted to be right, to be part of the tribe, to be on the winning side. Even now they can't admit that they were had by liars and murderers. That their elite are anything but. That everything they've built their lives and careers on it is a lie, a self-serving, self-flattering, self-enriching lie.
As I intimated in this morning post, notwithstanding any of the above considerations it was clear to me that something was badly amiss as soon as Bush/Blair/Aznar pulled the plug on the inspections process. By a couple of months later, it seemed pretty clear that there was no scary WMD program and also that there was no real plan for what to do. But it seems to have taken all the way until 2005-2006 for “this was a mistake” to become a conventional view even though no really important new information became available during the interim.
All those people we killed or sent running for their lives. And we got away with it. We have very little problem living with what we've done. It's not our fault--it's theirs--whoever they is.
On to Iran!