Thursday, January 18, 2007
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My black mark on Iraq
Today I received the following in an e-mail:
Since you seem to have been wrong about everything you wrote in support of the invasion... no WMDs, no Al Queda before the war, no connection to 9/11, took troops and reconstruction money away from where real battle was in Afghanistan... now have more Al Queda and no success in either Afghanistan or Iraq... in other words a completely counter-productive disaster as some did predict... I was wondering if you had issued an apology to everybody who did get it right (and for the right reasons)... including Al Gore?Well, this seems like a good time to address the big blog topic for the week.
There have been a boatload of blog posts, op-eds, and magazine articles that discuss how and whether people who supported the Iraq war in 2002-3 should have their pundit's license removed, and whether those who opposed the war deserve promotions to pundit first class.
This Radar Magazine story by Jebediah Reed kicked things off, followed quickly by Jonathan Chait, Mark Thoma, Megan McArdle, Julian Sanchez, Kevin Drum (follow-up here), Daniel Davies, Scott Lemieux, Obsidian Wings (here and here), and Eric Rauchway.
You can read the above links for their thoughts on the matter now, and their thoughts on their thoughts back in 2002-3. One grand irony is that back in April 2003 it was the pro-war people who basked in their successful prediction, and anti-war activists who pointed out that, as Michael Kinsley put it then: "victory in the war is not victory in the argument about the war":
The serious case [against the war] involved questions that are still unresolved. Factual questions: Is there a connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11? Is that connection really bigger than that of all the countries we're not invading? Does Iraq really have or almost have weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? Predictive questions: What will toppling Saddam ultimately cost in dollars and in lives (American, Iraqi, others)? Will the result be a stable Iraq and a blossoming of democracy in the Middle East or something less attractive? How many young Muslims and others will be turned against the United States, and what will they do about it?Given the current answers to Kinsley's questions, I'm going to indulge in a bit of painful navel-gazing below the fold....
I supported the war going in, and if I could go into the way-back machine and do it all over again, I'd say "HELL, NO!" as loudly and as firmly as possible. I was pretty critical of the occupation phase from day one, and got more critical very quickly. That said, it's a useful exercise to look back and figure out where I screwed up in my pre-war logic.
The main blog posts where I articulated my own arguments in favor of war -- and against those who opposed military action -- can be found, in chronological order, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. There was also this TNR Online piece.
Summing up, I had three major reasons for favoring war in 2002-3:
1) I wanted U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, because that was a major irritant for devout Muslims, a great talking point for Al Qaeda, and seemed to be destabilizing the Saudi regime in a bad, bad way. That was not going to happen until Saddam was deposed or otherwise removed from power.Note that my e-mailer was in error -- my support for the war was not based on Iraq having WMD, or Iraq being connected to Al Qaeda (indeed, click here for my thoughts in March 2003 on this point).
My major screw-up was both simple and profound -- at the time, with regard to foreign policy, I thought the Bush administration could walk and chew gum at the same time (i.e., fight Al Qaeda and Iraq), when it turned out that they couldn't even chew gum unaided.
I also implicitly assumed that if administration officials -- many of whom had displayed a fair amount of competence in the Bush 41 prosecution of Gulf War I -- discovered that their initial plans did not go, er, according to plan, that they would recognize this fact and adopt contingency plans. I did not think that their response would boil down to something like "stay the course" for close to four years, followed by a surge proposal.
In making this mistake, I didn't just make an ass out of you and me: two-and-a-half of my three reasons for the war got vitiated. Pulling out of Saudi Arabia was still a good move, and the Saudi experts I talk to say this has helped reduce Al Qaeda sympathies on the Arabian peninsula. Of course, compared to the cluster f**k in Iraq, this is small beer. For the Iraqis, this has been a humanitarian disaster by any metric as compared to the pre-war sanctions regime. And I simply cannot believe that an eroding UN sanctions regime, bad as it would have been, compares to what exists now.
In fact, the sanctions might not ever have eroded. In retrospect, it's heartbreaking to contemplate what would have happened had the administration halted its plans to invade Iraq after the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed Resolution 1441. Through that resolution, the Bush administration had a dramatic effect on Iraqi compliance just with the threat of military force. Had Bush stopped there, a lot of treasure and no small amount of blood would have been spared.
Re-reading these posts also reminds me that I do, in fact, owe an apology to Al Gore, who by supporting the 1991 Gulf War and opposing the 2003 war is batting a rare 2 for 2 in Middle East conflicts. He wasn't just right on the outcome: he was right in (much of) his reasoning as well:
I vividly remember that during one of the campaign debates in 2002 Jim Lehrer asked then Governor Bush whether or not America, after being involved in military action, should engage in any form of nation building. And the answer was, and I quote, "I don't think so. I think what we need to do is to convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations."Sorry, Al.
So, dear readers, I definitely erred in the arguments I made in 2002 and 2003. I have and will try to do better. Bear in mind, however, that when it comes to foreign policy prognostications, better is a relative term.posted by Dan on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM
Gore was right-
If we go in there and dismantle them--and they deserve to be dismantled--but then we wash our hands of it and walk away and leave it in a situation of chaos and say, "Oh, that's for you all to decide how to put things back together now" . . .
. . . that hurts us.
Laughter. Laughter! This would make a good stick-it-out ad.posted by: ERA on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
"I simply cannot believe that an eroding UN sanctions regime, bad as it would have been, compares to what exists now"
Believe it, Dan. From those notorious Bush administration mouthpieces, the Quakers:
"According to UNICEF's best estimate, the sanctions have already caused the deaths of a million Iraqis, many of them children, and continue to cause death and extreme hardship"
That was in 2000, for a death toll a little north of 100,000/yr. Is the current situation in Iraq more deadly for Iraqis than the sanctions? The left sure didn't think so while the sanctions were in place. Of course, they never care how many people die as a result of their great ideas. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the death toll from our wars for oil vs the death toll from, say, the DDT ban the environmental movement is so proud of.
As for Gore's quote, I'm fairly certain W was no longer a Governor in 2002. That's too easy though - Al obviously means 2000. It's almost as though nothing happened after that that might have changed Bush's mind...
You know, we keep hearing and asking the wrong question about all this. It is not: Are things bad in Iraq? It is: Is the U.S. better off now than it would have been if we hadn't invaded Iraq?
Where would things be today if there had been no invasion? A hard question, but a necessary one to answer if we truly wish to assess the invasion.
Things could well be a lot worse than they are now, with the sanctions lifted and no oversight in Iraq, what would an unfettered Sadaam be up to? I don't know the answers, but there is no point discussing this without them, however speculative it must be.posted by: JohnF on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
That was in 2000, for a death toll a little north of 100,000/yr. Is the current situation in Iraq more deadly for Iraqis than the sanctions?
Yes, that was the baseline the Lancet studies were measured against. The current situation in iraq is considerably worse.
Testposted by: Zathras on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
Daniel, your 2002 reasoning was much the same as mine, and I've been feeling more than a bit humble of late. What we might have done to avoid error was apply the Yugoslavia paradigm to Iraq: what happens when you remove the hard hand of dictatorship from a country cobbled together from ethno-religious sects?
As for what to do now, I think we could profitably look at what Ed Luttwak recommended two years ago in Foreign Affairs. A US determination to conduct a phased withdrawal would, in Dr. Johnson's words, "wonderfully concentrate the mind" of anyone in Iraq with a shred of constructive intent.
"Things could well be a lot worse than they are now, with the sanctions lifted and no oversight in Iraq, what would an unfettered Sadaam be up to? I don't know the answers, but there is no point discussing this without them, however speculative it must be."
As a supporter of the war you must think like this in order to sleep at night!!! But alas it is so wrong... by any metric.posted by: centrist on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
I apologize to everyone...for the extra message just upthread. Dan's spam filters started picking off posts of mine a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to be sure I could get through on this thread. The number of comments in response to Dan's posts seems to have declined recently, which makes me think other people have run into the same problem.
About Iraq I probably ought to say something, if only because readers who use the link to the Mike Kinsley column from April, 2003 will find my response if they scroll down to the end. The response reflects a different view of the war, and of the decision to undertake it, than I hold now.
My excuse is, well, there is no excuse. I supported the decision to invade Iraq, a decision which now looks to have been not only wrong but disastrously wrong (since posts by commenters are searchable on the Slate site, anyone wanting to verify how firmly I stood on the wrong side need only look it up). At the time I dismissed Kinsley's moral and political objections because I assumed that the answer to his key factual question -- about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- was different than it turned out to be.
I put it that way deliberately. My thinking on Iraqi WMD in 2002-3 was based on an assumption, not on analysis. Specifically, I recalled that American intelligence had been badly wrong in 1991 as to the state of Iraqi unconventional weapons programs; Saddam Hussein's regime had been able to hide chemical weapons and even a relatively advanced nuclear weapons program, and though I never credited the idea that nuclear weapons work had resumed in any serious way I considered that in the post-9/11 world an Iraq that persisted in maintaining chemical and biological weapons capacity represented a risk we could not afford to run. This logic, to make any sense, would have required the assumptions about Iraqi WMD programs to be correct.
Now, I like to think that had I been in government, or even in Washington, I would have examined this matter more closely. Certainly the evidence that Saddam's weapons programs had been effectively dismantled in the 1990s and not restarted was available; it wasn't black and white, largely because Saddam himself didn't want it black and white, but it should have been enough to raise doubts as to whether there was a real threat here. Plenty of people who were in Washington didn't question the assumptions about Iraqi WMD any more than I did, so it may be that what I would like to think is mere comfortable self-deception.
Another thing I got wrong was more fundamental. In 2003 I had very much on my mind the events of spring 1991, during which the first Bush administration had conducted itself with rigorous regard for the wording of UN resolutions, international law and the feelings of allies. In so doing it had helped create a humanitarian disaster of the first order, and wound up in addition saddling the United States with the commitment to contain Iraq, a commitment requiring among other things the deployment of American forces in Saudi Arabia that Dan mentions and the long battle over sanctions. In 1991 I had thought the first Bush administration's decision to declare victory unilaterally and not at least humiliate Saddam by demanding that he sign surrender papers himself monumentally foolish -- the reason being that, in the long run, I thought America ought to strive for less involvement with the countries in that part of the world, not more. The only message we really needed to send in 1991 was that a leader who broke the peace would pay for it, preferably with his life; it mattered little to me then and matters little to me now how Arab countries choose to govern themselves otherwise.
But 2003 was not 1991. Things in Iraq and outside had changed in important respects, and simply humbling or even removing the Iraqi leader, by itself, no longer defined success. We had to leave behind after the 2003 invasion an Iraq better than the one before for the invasion to make sense (once again, especially after it turned out that the threat to us from Iraqi WMD programs was nonexistent). Had the coalition forces turned around and headed back to Kuwait after pulling down Saddam's statue, we know what would have happened -- Saddam would have popped out of his spider hole and launched a drive to reclaim power, probably successfully. We would have therefore seen, in some degree, the events of 1991 repeated.
You could have told me that in 2003 and gotten my ready assent. Moreover I observed at the time what I still believe, that trying to build a liberal democracy in an Arab country -- especially Iraq with its recent history -- would be like trying to build a skyscraper in a swamp. The Bush administration said it was committed to that objective, and I was sure it was wrong. What I did not do was ask after the possible consequences of its being wrong. If a return of the Baathists, with all that meant for those who opposed them, was unacceptable and a stable Iraqi democracy was wildly improbable, what other options were there?
In 2003 and perhaps into 2004 there may have been some. Or maybe not. In any event I did not ask this question. One can argue whether in retrospect all of the things that have gone wrong in Iraq could have been predicted in 2003: the sectarian civil war, the disunity among the country's Shiites, the complete collapse of the Iraqi state and all the rest of it. One cannot, I think, argue that these things shouldn't have been seen as possibilities, dangers to be avoided if possible -- and if not possible, nay probable, with an invasion, then avoided by not undertaking the invasion.
Assuming what I did about Iraqi WMD, and being as credulous as I was toward Bush administration claims on that subject, was strike one for me; not following my own logic with respect to what might happen after Saddam's fall was strike two. Strike three involved my attitude toward Bush himself.
Unlike many supporters of the Iraq invasion I had never been an admirer of Bush personally. I had harbored, in fact, a deep disdain for his father as well, and for what I considered the Bush family represented in American politics. For good measure I associated Colin Powell and Dick Cheney with the disaster of 1991, and based on Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as Secretary of Defense in the Ford administration thought him a professional turf battler whose instincts on policy were untrustworthy. Bush himself I regarded as ignorant and lazy, a man whose distinguishing characteristic otherwise was his ferocious sense of personal entitlement. Finally I thought Bush, in his immediate reaction to 9/11, presented by his delay in returning to Washington the appearance of physical cowardice.
In other words, had it been suggested to me at any point from the 1990s on up to the Iraq invasion that Bush and his team would be forced to deal with a crisis involving great stress and complexity, I would have predicted disaster without thinking twice. Yet I persisted in giving the administration the benefit of the doubt on a whole list of decisions, certainly after 9/11. In fairness, the brilliant execution of the Afghan campaign in late 2001 did make me think that at least parts of the military and CIA seemed to know what they were doing, and deserved confidence. But I knew also what letting bin Laden escape was a absolutely critical mistake, to the rectification of which the invasion of Iraq did not contribute at all. I nevertheless joined most other Americans in slogging through the Iraq story in 2003-4 and even later, noting developments and making numerous specific criticisms but being very late to conclude that the events set in motion by the administration had far outrun its ability to manage them, or even to follow them. Finally, while I recognized Bush's weakness as a President early I did not take this fully into account when evaluating whether the Iraq adventure was likely to succeed.
There are explanations for all of this. There are just not any good ones. At the end of the day what matters in public policy is being right, not how cleverly one can rationalize having been wrong. In April 2003 I was not right about Iraq.posted by: Zathras on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
Zathras... Mr. Drezner...
As satisfying as it is to read your sheepish half-denials, the rightness of whether to invade Iraq was never all that complicated. Bush did not approach the question as a statesman, or a pundit; he had a clear personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, and therefore his wishes and wants did not deserve to be treated seriously.
You all need to go back to school and take some philosophy and literature courses.
It was clear - to anyone who was willing to open their eyes - that the Administration felt an emotional need to invade, and was determined to browbeat our country into the invasion. Much of the country was swayed by fearmongering; detractors were marginalized as traitors; and vain pundits such as yourselves were fed an ever-shifting, never consistent, endless stream of latinate tripe. If the Administration felt the need to provide 60+ rationales for the war, then it was OBVIOUS that their desire to invade was emotional, not rational, and therefore they COULD NOT BE TRUSTED!
Their arguments were about as plausible as a creationist's, and sprung from the same methodology. First, decide upon a conclusion that satisfies you emotionally. Then, scavenge for any facts or arguments that support your conclusion, and ignore any that don't.
You people were vain or na´ve not see this.posted by: geoff on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
"Yes, that was the baseline the Lancet studies were measured against. The current situation in iraq is considerably worse"
No, the Lancet pulled numbers out of their ass. Even sites like Iraq Body Count said they were full of it (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/). Right now they're calling the total just under 60,000 for four years - a little less than 15% of the sanctions death rate. In "fairness" to the Lancet, this is religion for them, not politics - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7BzM5mxN5U .
I agree things are bad in Iraq. I just don't think they're worse.
I suppose a certain amount of self-righteousness is to be expected among those who always opposed the war, particularly because that position took an awful lot of abuse. But, I think the majority of pundits likely thought:
1. There WERE WMDs;
2. We had enough troops to do the job;
3. Our administration was minimally competent.
There were signs the other way before March, 2003, of course. There was Congressional testimony it would take 300,000 at least to invade Iraq. There was the inability for Blix to find any WMDs. And our diplomacy at the UN was notably ham fisted. But these indications were explained away. Department of Defense officials (who you wouldn't think would lie) insisted there were enough troops. And Blix had the bad habit of appearing to slant his appearences before the UN to achieve his diplomatic aims. And, as for incompetence -- Bush's effort to move people towards war with Iraq despite many qualms was actually quite competently done.
I had the fortune of not being a commenter in March, 2003, so none of you can prove what I thought. My memory of my position was that I wasn't particularly sure it was such a good idea, but since Colin Powell staked his reputation on the policy before the UN and gave such concrete examples, it probably was the right thing to do, I guess.
But, frankly, what an Appalled Moderate or a college professor or a refugee from Battlestar Galactica thought in 2003 does not matter much right now. The only people whose positions mattered were those who shaped our policy. They likely had more information than any of the rest of us, and they got it terribly wrong. I think it's appropriate to call these folks to account. The rest of the punditocracy -- not so much. They all acted on the information they had, and the experiences they had. With notable exceptions, these guys are likely wiser now.
As for those who got this war right, and are free of naievte. Don't worry. You'll be wrong soon enough. If only for the reason that you will believe that your right answer on this situation is the right answer for most all situations. And policy does not tend to work that way.
Mr. Appalled ModerateŚ
Thank you for your post. You're obviously willing to be a lot more adult about this subject than me, and I appreciate your willingness to take my anger seriously.
But I do have a real point, I swear. Let me try again: back in 2003, many of the facts were still unclear. People could think there were WMDs or whatever. Pundits came up with their "own reasons" for supporting the war, picking one or two out the giant hat of bullcrap that the administration was offering.
However, it was obvious that the administration was willing to do or say anything to bring its war about. Therefore we citizens were required to put the breaks on. We were required to do so because people's lives were at stake! "Iraq" was not a theoretical argument. It was a matter of life and death.
Bush did not play fair with the American people. You should have listened to us when we said so at the time. I watched 9/11 from my the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building, and wept, at it was very alienating to be so contemptuously dismissed by red America, and I still (obviously) am very angry about that.
What I'm trying to say is, look! now it's YOUR turn to get angry. People who have never heard of you have died, and more are die every hour. Stop playing intellectual games with the lives of third worlders. You played fast and cheap with life, and now you need to do penance.
How you can start: look in the mirror and say, "Bush, Cheney, etc. are cynical, selfish criminals, and I abetted them, and I will never be so sloppy and careless again."
One more thing: yes, sometimes we are obligated to reach out and kill people. I am a liberal but I know my history, a little bit.posted by: Geoff on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
Don't underestimate my own anger.
While I don't feel the need to wear the hairshirt, I do think the country needs to do more about our mess than go: "Well, the next two years are just a total loss". What, exactly, is the problem. The Founding Fathers understood mendacity, and protected against it, but not utter raving stupidity.
I feel a little reluctant to go with the obvious: "impeachment". Why? Well, partly because it is not either a high crime or a misdemeanor to be arrogant and stupid. But also because the likely impeachable offenses -- violations of FISA and the Geneva Convention -- are those where the average American probably supports the President. (That's not right, but what do expect when violations of rights and torture scenes are part of what heroes do in TV and movies)
In world of "oughta", the President and Vice President ought to lose their jobs because they negligently mismanaged us into a war on bogus grounds and failed to commit the resources necessary to fight that war, so that we are truly and awfully stuck. But that "oughta" is a lengthy process. Also, we make it easier to impeach the next President on the basis of a policy dispute -- which is not how the system is supposed to work.posted by: Appalled Moderate on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
"1. There WERE WMDs"
"I watched 9/11 from my the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building, and wept, at it was very alienating to be so contemptuously dismissed by red America, and I still (obviously) am very angry about that"
Please expand on this point.
The biggest disaster to come out of this project might be the belief that if the Bush Administration was at all competent the war would have worked. Hyper-competence exists only in academia. Let me offer an alternative hypothesis:
75% of the decisions that the formerly pro-war Bush Administration critics currently think were wrong, were actually right and the critics would have realized that had they actually been responsible for making them.
15% of the decisions that the critics currently think were wrong would have made the same way anyway, had the critics been in charge.
10% of the poor decisions would actually have been improved by the current war critics.
But they would have screwed up an equal number of decisions that the Bush Administration actually got right.
This is the nature of the world.
You would gain more traction with me had you not declared the war a disaster from about year 1 onward (from day 1 onward if you listened to the BBC). To me this was always at least a 5 year project, about which we would not have been able to make any sensible judgment before at least year 3. We are in a position to make prelimminary assessments now, and they look damn bleak. But the process still isn't over. (I say this as someone who didn't think that the war was a good idea to start with, but would rather give it a chance to play out before passing judgment.)
Your pre-war logic largely mirroed my own, but I think your mea culpa is somewhat problematic. What would the status of the pre-war concerns be at this point if Saddam Hussein had not been deposed. What would the effect of a withdrawl of troops from Saudi Arabia have had? What would the result of the crumblinbg sanctions regime have been? If the sanctions had endured, how many more lives would have been lost? Your retreat does not really address these issues.
Your logic is analgous to a patient facing a life-threatening medical condition opting for risky surgery. If the surgeon showed up for the procedure drunk and bothced the operation and killed the patient, would you then determine that the decision for surgery was a poor one? No, the botched execution was not forseeable, nor inevitable, and thus can not be the deciding factor in adjudicating the decison for war.
What is the alternate end-state tagainst which we are comparing the cluster f**k in Iraq? Assuming the status quo ante would hold is not viable. A collapse of the sanctions regime was highly likley since Russian, French and German pressure was already building.
The only viable argument that inaction would have been preferable is that a nuclear armed Iraq would have made a good balance to a nuclear armed Iran. While that might have actaully worked out, I find it hard to accept that official US policy in the Middle East should have been to withdraw troops from Saudi and count on nuclear armed thugs to maintain stability in the Middle East.
Bottom line, the entire pre-war melieu was a difficult, sticky mess, with no clear best option. The war was a high variance strategy, one that could have payed off huge dividends or could result in a stunning set back. The likley costs and results of inaction were also very bad. Sometimes there are no good solutions to diffcult IR problems. That is the tragic nature of international politics. Therefore, it is not clear to me why a mea culpa is called for here.posted by: KE on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
"Your logic is analgous to a patient facing a life-"threatening medical condition opting for risky surgery. If the surgeon showed up for the procedure drunk and bothced the operation and killed the patient, would you then determine that the decision for surgery was a poor one? No, the botched execution was not forseeable, nor inevitable, and thus can not be the deciding factor in adjudicating the decison for war."
The only surgeon who thought the patient was facing a "life threatening illnes" WAS THE SAME DRUNK SURGEON WHO KILLED THE PATIENT! The same drunk surgeon happened to be good at scaring/influencing/ignoring other sober surgeons who did not share the diagnosis!posted by: centrist on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
To extend the reasoning of the humanitarian disaster justification for war, it should also be noted that that humanitarian disaster is just one manifestation of the social pathologies of the Arab/Muslim world which provide a fertile recruiting ground for the jihadists. While eliminating these social pathologies in Iraq would have provided a justification for the war in my mind, George Bush's management of the war--replication of failure/deprecation of success instead of replication of success/deprecation of failure--has exacerbated instead of alleviated those pathologies.
Dan, given what you excerpted of Gore's initial opposition to the war, I would have to agree that he got things right. The question is, why did no one in Congress raise that objection. There were lots of questions about whether or not Saddam really had the WMDs. There were further questions as to whether or not war was a necessary response to those WMDs even if he did have them. However, I am not aware of anyone in Congress asking questions as to whether or not the administration understood what would be necessary in the rebuilding phase or if they did they just accepted Rumsfeld's assurances that Chalabi would have things under control.posted by: Scott Smith on 01.18.07 at 07:13 PM [permalink]
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