Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Assessing Failure--It's Their Fault

Megan McArdle shouldn't have all the fun. Let's see how Matthew Yglesias, one of our elite prognosticating pundits, assesses failure--namely, his failure to realize that invading a foreign country for no reason might not be a good idea.
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!


Anonymous said...

I believe it was Dan Drezner who, at the time the idea of invading Iraq was being floated, asked the following:

"Can anyone show one major Bush policy initiative that wasn't in some serious way, completely screwed up in its execution? What makes anyone think Bush/Cheney will be able to pull of a war any better than any of their own domestic policies?"

digamma said...

I'm not sure how that last link gives you high ground on class solidarity. Unless you're really concerned about rich lawyers' being able to maintain their country club memberships.

Susan of Texas said...

Yglesias never met a free market solution that he didn't like, even thought the free market is a chimera. Globalization for lawyers is not a good thing, unless you want to eliminate all the independent lawyers who depend on things like divorces, wills, and other small matters to keep the doors open. There is no shortage of lawyers, but there is a shortage of lawyers who can afford to keep their doors open, lawyers not bought and paid for by a powerful law firm with lots of political and financial connections that make them millions and dictate their ethics, or lack of same.

An independent lawyer will take cases with small payouts. He might pay your filing fees because he knows you and your family and he knows you'll pay him back when you can. He will work for little or nothing because he knows that you will come to him if you are injured or divorcing or selling a business. He can say no to deals he considers unethical or unfair. He answers to no man and makes his own decisions, he doesn't read them out of a manual written by a corporation.

He calms people under terrible stress and diffuses dangerous situations. He listens to peoples' concerns and gives them back a sense of control and self-confidence. He is not a man or woman on the other side of the world who takes your Visa number, charges you by the quarter hour, and never talks to you again.

Obviously, I'm related to independent lawyers.

Susan of Texas said...

And obviously, such lawyers aren't rich. Some people live their ethics, and a some of them even become lawyers.

Julia said...

You know, in this as in so many things "moderate," I am always a bit confused that people don't leap to the reasonably obvious crass careerism explanation.

Susan of Texas said...

I'm not surprised it would not occur to him, since they are above such things.

digamma said...

Hmmm, that first comment of mine came out a lot more obnoxious than I intended. I apologize for that, and thank you for not slapping me as hard as I deserved.

Andrew Johnston said...

Oh my, the comments. I saw at least three people call Yglesias "brave." Give me a break. He's doing the same thing McArdle did - blaming everyone else (Dubya, Clinton, Pollack) while framing it as a mea culpa.

There are also a few people who are trying to come up with reasons why any intelligent person would have supported war in 2002. Bush-era Sensible Liberals - I had not missed you.

NSFW said...

IOZ has been raking Yggy over the coals for a while now, and finally got a rise out of him last time he did it. Hilarity ensued.

Susan of Texas said...

Thank you so much for that link; it is full of awesome.

Matthew Yglesias said...
I'm not really sure why you find me so outrageous. Like you, I want fewer troops in Iraq, fewer troops in Afghanistan, less defense spending, and a less aggressive overall American foreign policy. Why not complain about the people who want the reverse?

That sounds like him--full of American Exceptionalism, and unwilling to deal with the consequences of his actions.

brad said...

Don't forget Matty's first try at admitting his mistake.
He was wrong, but the dirty hippies weren't right so much as less wrong.
Now he seems to be saying he was wrong because he listened to the right people.
I'd give him more credit for calling himself, retrospectively, an asshole if he wasn't still obviously of the opinion that he's an elite. Hell, in my link he basically tries to credit himself and his pals with having been able to stop the war, if they'd tried. And then a few posts prior he talks about how he's in favor of conscription to end the Iraq War, because the way to fix a mistake is always to make it bigger.

Susan of Texas said...

Well, wasn't that special. Twenty-one, and bashing the dirty anti-war hippies that somebody, I wonder who, told him were too common and stupid to be listened to.

brad said...

Literally, Susan. I'm too lazy to search out him talking about it, but he was apparently infamous in some circles for having stormed into a protest circle in Hahvahd Squa-uh on the eve of a war and making a nice big ugly scene.

brad said...

Or maybe another square in Cambridge. It may also not have been exactly the eve. I don't mean to embellish unnecessarily.

brad said...

At least Matt is too ugly for tv. Unlike Ezra, who MSNBC is using like lazy chefs used to use cilantro.

Anonymous said...

"using Ezra like lazy chefs use cilantro"

may be my favorite insult of all time.


NSFW said...

Yr welcome, Susan. I figured, judging by your blogger profile, that you'd particularly enjoy IOZ's take on Matt's sophist attempts to redefine manufacturing.

Anonymous said...


great rant. One tiny correction: It's "Shah," not "Shaw" in the paragraph after point 1.

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, anon!

Unknown said...

"What's the use of going to Harvard if you learn nothing except American Exceptionalism?"

Isn't Harvard in the business of producing proponents of American Exceptionalism?

Batocchio said...

What Downpuppy said. I remember some of the same crap back during the Democratic primaries, where the backers of certain candidates claimed that anyone who was "right" about opposing the war was just right by accident, as if opposing war until a strong case is made didn't represent basic fucking sanity. It was a replay of the run-up to war in the first place. It's Richard Cohen's eternal cry as well – he still claims he was wrong for the right reasons, and those who opposed the war were right for the wrong reasons – even though he can't accurately describe those. Too much self-awareness might make him explode. (Not that wisdom or basic sanity has been contagious in DC in any case...)

I've found some of Yglesias' stuff to be decent on other issues, and I actually wasn't incensed by his mea culpa there. Maybe it's because I thought there was the glimmering of self-awareness there, and that's something to be encouraged among the Villagers and Villager wannabes – he basically says he was young and stupid. Maybe it's because of the soft bigotry of low expectations. After smug or sneering mea culpas, or continued cheerleading, from Cohen, Jeffrey Goldberg, Jonah Goldberg, Michael O'Hanlon, Kristol, Krauthammer, McCain, Brooks today, far too many MSM journalists to name, and the multiple flailings of McArdle, Yglesias looks better by comparison. But the guy still buys into a lot of imperialist, establishment bullshit, so I enjoyed those IOZ and Davis slams a few weeks back.

He does mention a key point I've written about before, and still galls me: "It was clear to me that something was badly amiss as soon as Bush/Blair/Aznar pulled the plug on the inspections process." On the one hand, duh. On the other, it's something many pundits, politicians and most of the press willfully ignored, and Bush and Romney both tried to rewrite history on it. (I wrote about that in an old post. I also wrote a series of posts on Armistice Day, including a looong one on the basic wisdom/sanity of opposing war. It's disturbing that, along with opposing torture and believing in the value of a beneficial social contract, it's such a radical notion.)

forked tongue said...

"It was clear to me that something was badly amiss as soon as Bush/Blair/Aznar pulled the plug on the inspections process."

I'm not all that bright, but it was clear to me well before that point, when Rumsfeld was claiming the administration knew where the weapons were but they refused to tell the inspectors because, well, shut up, that's why.

I guess I was just right "by accident."

Justin said...

've found some of Yglesias' stuff to be decent on other issues, and I actually wasn't incensed by his mea culpa there. Maybe it's because I thought there was the glimmering of self-awareness there, and that's something to be encouraged among the Villagers and Villager wannabes – he basically says he was young and stupid.

The problem was not that he was young and stupid, although that didn't help, the problem was his authoritarianism (what he calls signalling) and impulse toward careerism in advocating war.

His "observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people" is a head scratcher too in the context of explaining that he was being led by the nose by a mess of elites firmly within the establishment and his confession that part of this was a desire to fit in with that crowd.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this was a really quality post. In theory I' d like to write like this too - taking time and actual effort to make a great article... but what can I say... I procrastinate alot and in no way appear to get something done.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but in the main, this post is absurd.

1. A self-examination that critiques one's prior views from not only a range of specific policy angles and broader intellectual angles but that engages in psychological self-critique, to the point of identifying a smug former desire to be on "the side of the country’s power elite" is somehow accused of not having engaged in serious introspection. WTF?! Every point you make in response to his four initial points is preaching to the choir, because he is listing these points not as justifications but as errors.

2. You claim Yglesias and others can't admit "[t]hat 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." He can't admit it? I guess that's why he has long regarded decision-makers in the elite as war criminals?

3. "On to Iran!" Again, WTF? He was an early opponent of military action against Iran
and has been making painstaking arguments about it for a long time, with great intensity. OTOH, I agree that some in the Foreign Policy Community are still all too willing to entertain the idea. Sick shit. But Yglesias is not among them, which you should acknowledge.

Now I suppose it's possible that in some sense he hasn't changed his foreign policy views as thoroughly as he ought to, but you certainly haven't made a convincing case for that. If you have one to make, fire away. But in the meantime your focus on views he held when he was twenty is deeply strange. Your unwillingness to acknowledge that he has, plainly, radically changed those views is stranger still. Is there something else about him that is really bothering you? If so, maybe you have a valid critique there. So far, though, this is not making sense.

Susan of Texas said...

1.) Yes, he admits those were errors. And he has no idea why he made them. Therefore he will make them again.

2.)Yes, he realized that Bush and Cheney were war criminals in 2008. Too bad he couldn't figure that out in 2003.

3.)I didn't accuse Yglesias of being for bombing Iran.

People usually don't make rational decisions. Yglesias didn't, he just believed what the elite told him was true. He still doesn't understand that his error was not just advocating war, it was being unable to rationally assess the threat. He believed what he was told. He still does. If you want me go into greater detail just say the word and I will be happy to examine some of his posts in detail, like I do with McArdle.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for replying. Yes, I am saying the word, so to speak, because I disagree with you that he doesn't think it's important to treat government pronouncements skeptically. I disagree with your interpretation of what lessons he has drawn from his mistaken early support of the Iraq war, and with your belief that he will support the next stupid, monstrous war. I could probably provide many pieces of evidence for my view, but I will start with one and see what you think.

In September 2006, he wrote, "More information, conversely, simply tends to reconfirm what the powers that be already think they know. Key actors in the Bush administration were convinced that Saddam Hussein had advanced weapons of mass destruction programs. And by squeezing every possible bit of information out of every al-Qaeda captive and every Iraqi defector on hand, they were able to find their 'proof.' If you relax your standards enough and look hard enough, in other words, you'll be able to find information to justify just about any conclusion you like. The trouble is that the conclusions you like aren't going to be the conclusions that are accurate. The upshot was a gigantic mistake for which the country has paid -- and continues to pay -- a steep price. In the world of intelligence, in other words, less is usually more." Again, I grant the possibility that he is still somehow naively trusting but you would need to make the case.

Susan of Texas said...

Okay, I'll be happy to do it. Yglesias' problem is his conventional viewpoint. He thinks entirely within the lines drawn for him, not questioning his basic assumptions and not considering some of the consequences of his advice. He's not nearly as bad as McArdle, of course (she's just plain dishonest), but not many people are.