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Were We Right? Was I Right?

January 17th, 2007

Kevin Drum brings up an interesting point: liberal hawks are saying that liberals who were against the Iraq War before it started don’t deserve credit because “the war has gone badly, but not for the reasons the doves warned of.” This strikes home a bit, because that’s exactly what someone close to me told me several months ago–with him being the liberal hawk on Iraq and me being the dove.

In one sense, it’s an unfair charge–to suggest that one could have predicted specific bad policy moves like allowing looting to go unchallenged, or having the Abu Ghraib scandal come up, this would be asking too much of the critic.

However, I think the central idea of the hawks’ criticism is that mismanagement by the Bush administration, more than anything else, caused the failure we see today, so if the doves did not predict that the war would be lost due to mismanagement, then we may have been on the right side but for the wrong reasons. I disagree with this partially because it is over-simplistic; mismanagement is undoubtedly one of the major reasons the war has failed, but certainly it is not the only reason.

Foreseeing mismanagement over all else is not a simple thing to ask. There were, after all, a great many reasons not to go to war. Drum had trouble reviewing the initial criticism because the archives did not seem to be immediately available. In my own case, I have no such trouble. My own writing on the subject is still available.

This was back in August 2002, before I started the blog officially. Back then, I had little idea of what a blog was. I had secured the blogd.com domain, and put up what I called a “blog,” but it was really just a handmade web page with a few essays on it. I didn’t go to Movable Type until the following spring, just as the war was starting. But my original writings still survive.

It is interesting to go back and look at them, to see what I was predicting six months before the war started and comparing it to what actually happened. As can be expected, my prognostications did not all come true–but I am still pretty surprised at how accurate I was. I made one whopping wrong prediction, put emphasis in some of the wrong places, and did not foresee a lot of the specifics–but for an amateur, I think I did pretty damned well.

I even believe that I can make the case that I predicted mismanagement would be a vital element. Right at the beginning of the essay, I wrote this:

The arguments for getting Saddam out of power are easy: he’s a dangerous madman, and we could overwhelm the Iraqi military. But the question is not should Saddam go, or could we win in a limited conflict: the question is, how can we do this without bringing about catastrophe? Imagine that rats have infested your home. There is no question that they must go; but do you exterminate them by taking a flamethrower to the building? Method is crucial.

True, I did not specifically say that Bush would make a series of colossal blunders that would lose the war, but how much can you ask? There is more that I said which touches on the theme near the end of the essay; I’ll get to that below.

After that introduction, I made many points about why the war should not be prosecuted. Let’s take a look at them. I began with the forming of a coalition:

First is international support. There is none. A coalition is vital to carrying out an armed conflict in the Middle East, and not only is there no coalition, but it appears that at this point, a coalition would be impossible to form. This is primarily due to Bush Jr.’s poisoning of the well; from the start, he has disrespected world opinion, breaking treaties left and right, and has pushed forth self-serving agendas without any concern that it was generating outrage around the globe. Add to this the fact that Bush started promising war on Iraq without any consultation with our allies, and you have an atmosphere in which no one would want to support us.

Although a Bush supporter would say that we got a coalition together with broad international support and that only weenies like France or enemies like China opposed us, the fact is, the “Coalition of the Willing” was a joke from the start. The United Kingdom was our only serious ally, followed by a small number of low-to-intermediate powers like Australia and Poland, with the list padded out by non-powers like Costa Rica, which doesn’t even have a military. I would say that I was pretty spot-on in this prediction.

Next was financial cost:

The immediately obvious repercussion of the go-it-alone strategy is cost: This war could easily cost $80 billion, probably much more than that. Bush Jr. has already snatched a huge deficit from the jaws of a surplus, and the country can ill-afford to pay for a costly war all by itself. We’re already in big budget trouble, helping to push us into deeper into recession, but a war paid for by the U.S. alone could aggravate the national debt substantially; Bush Jr., in just the course of a few years, could erase more than a decade of red-ink recovery and send us into deficits that would dwarf those of the 80’s.

If anything, I understated this point. But I did say “probably much more than” $80 billion, and I was dead right on that one. I was also right on the deficits, though to be fair, the war spending is only partly responsible for that.

Next was international reputation:

But the cost would not simply be financial: we would also pay in terms of lost reputation, international respect and influence in world affairs. This is hard and vital currency for the United States, and its value would be decimated if Bush Jr. started a conflict in the Middle East that everyone, even his own people, disagreed with. Future presidents would be saddled by the body blow to our prestige, likely needing decades to repair the damage and to rebuild worldwide confidence and trust. This kind of irresponsible action could remove us from our already precarious seat of world leadership.

Again, I think my statement here has been pretty accurately borne out. The Iraq War has cost us in prestige and influence, and there is no sign that this will change for future presidents.

Then there was the more philosophical point of policy and principles:

It would also shred our own values and long-held respected policies, most importantly the policy not to strike first without provocation. And sorry, but an alleged meeting between a terrorist and an Iraqi agent coupled with completely unsubstantiated reports that Saddam could develop nukes “any time now” does not qualify as “provocation. …

In addition, if we toss aside this policy, it will provide justification for others around the world to follow suit. Consider India and Pakistan, as only one of many examples. Each of these countries has far more justification for invading the other than Bush Jr. has for invading Iraq. Each can point out that the other is not just developing nuclear weapons, but that they actually have them; each could call the other’s actions “terrorist,” and identify them as a clear and present danger. The policy of the pre-emptive strike is one that would be the father of countless wars and the orphan of peace.

This is a harder point to judge, because the danger lies in a shift of perception and how the history of the Iraq War is used in future politics and warfare. So far, there has not been a rash of pre-emptive warfare; however, the precedent now exists, and could be used in the future. On the other hand, since the precedent is tied to the massive failure in Iraq, it might not be too persuasive–but it still could be used as a technical justification. I’d call this prediction not quite debunked, but possibly overblown.

Next, Middle East Peace:

In addition to the wars the policy itself would spawn, there is also the specter of Armageddon rising in the Middle East as a direct result of a U.S. invasion. Already relations are tense, not helped by the confusion and neglect that the Bush administration has used to turn a region grasping for peace into a region torn by escalating conflict and little hope for even a cease-fire. But if the U.S. should invade with opposition from the Arab states, the hope for any peace of any kind will die a swift death.

This was clearly over-emphasized. That is not to say it was wholly wrong. The Iraq War has disrupted the peace processes, but not overly so. But the body of this prediction still lies in the future, and could come true. I hope not, but one look at Iran and you can see what I’m talking about. One thing that can be stated with certainty is that Bush’s war in Iraq has brought much more instability to the region, and has brought untold instability to Iraq itself.

But I continued the previous paragraph with this:

Contrary to the rosy the-Arabs-will-love-us-for-saving-them pipe dream that Cheney has been hawking, the Arab people do not and never have reacted kindly to U.S. intervention, even when their governments allow it; should we go in with everyone opposing us, tempers will flare further still. Cheney argued that “extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad.” Is he truly so utterly naive? An unsupported attack by America on an Arab nation would generate such fear and hostility in so many people that extremists would be swamped with volunteers willing to die for their cause. It would fire the call for a greater jihad, not frighten the extremists into impotency. Conflict is the friend of the terrorist.

I could not have been more spot-on with this one.

But the next one was the whopper I got wrong:

And let us not forget the Israeli part of the equation: an attack by the U.S. would, without question, be answered by Iraq with missile attacks on Israel, just as it was in the Gulf War. The difference will be that this time, Israel will not sit back and take it without acting\they will retaliate, and that retaliation will bring outrage and reprisals from the Arab world. If it was unwise for Israel to answer an Iraqi attack in the Gulf War, when the Arab states supported the action against Iraq, how will an Israeli attack on an Arab nation be received now? It will be an open invitation to a region-wide conflict, with nuclear strikes being a highly likely result.

I was dead wrong here, but for good reasons. Hussein had responded to the Gulf War by attacking Israel, and there was no reason to expect otherwise in the second conflict. But thankfully, there were no such attacks, and things did not spiral out of control. I am extremely glad to have been wrong on this one, of course.

Then there were the nuclear claims:

Cheney recently asserted that “many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon. Just how soon, we cannot really gauge.” In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that Iraq is even working on nuclear weapons. Maybe they are, but if they are, we have no data to substantiate that claim. And let us not forget that we were fooled before: during the Gulf War, the Bush Sr. administration frightened us with the claim of a nuclear Iraq\but a 1992 study by atomic experts looking at International Atomic Energy Agency data revealed that Iraq never came close to building a bomb. With the claims being weaker now than they were then, we would be naive to presume that Cheney or anyone else spouting that rhetoric is not lying through their teeth.

I returned to being spot-on correct with this one.

After that, I went into a bit of detail about whether or not Bush had authority to prosecute the war without congressional approval; as that is less relevant to the war itself, I’ll skip over it, except to say that I was right–and Bush did, eventually, ask for (and unfortunately got) congressional approval.

I then made the last, big spurt of reasons not to enter Iraq, and hit the bull’s eye on many of them:

And then we come to the end game: what is the exit strategy? How long will it take? How many of our troops will die? How many Iraqis (whom the Bush Jr. administration claims to be acting to benefit) will we end up killing? How long will our troops be there? How deeply will we become involved in rooting out everyone there who violently disagrees with our occupation? And how will the nation-building succeed? What guarantees do we have that the moment we extract ourselves, another Saddam Hussein won’t pop up again and bring us back to square one? As far as I can determine, not a single one of these questions has been answered.

In this paragraph, I can again make a claim to having predicted mismanagement. I predicted the lack of an exit strategy, I predicted the insurgency, and I predicted post-withdrawal problems. To my detriment, I completely missed the sectarian problems and did not predict a civil war; I was simply unaware of that factor. Still, for someone not schooled in the details, I did a damned good job of predicting the dangers–even if I did not place enough emphasis on these points, and put too much on regional disruptions.

I also correctly predicted a potential quagmire, as well as large numbers of American and Iraqi deaths–but that was easy. Of course, I should still get credit, as administration officials and other war backers were saying that this would all be a cake walk.

I ended the essay with an analysis of Bush’s motivations, which, admittedly, was over-simplistic. At the time, I felt that his primary reason was to seek another bump in the polls. While that was certainly an element, it was likely a small one. But again, it was only peripherally relevant to the war itself.

Overall, I think I can claim a good deal of credit for critiquing the proposed invasion. What’s your take on it?

Categories: Political Ranting Tags: by
  1. Tim Kane
    January 17th, 2007 at 13:31 | #1

    Liberal Hawks are idiots.

    Sun Tzu:”All wars are lost or won before the fighting begins.”

    Also see Graham Green in 1952 predicting the next 20 years of History in Vietnam.

    Bush’s biggest mistake was not pursuing containment policy after 911, not creating a ‘superNATO’ anti-terrism organization after 911 and not calling for the draft after 911. No one knew how big a problem confronting islamic terrorism would be on 912 – so a draft was then feasible politically.

    The fact that he didn’t indicated he was never serious about dealing with the terrorist problem. In fact, a conscripted army would have limited Bush’s actions to only those that made sense to the broad public, not to idiotic ideas dreamed up at the American Enterprise Institute by a bunch of George Marshall wannabes – who couldn’t pore piss from a boot if the instructions were written on the heal.

    Moreover, Bush’s real agenda is to undo Roosevelt’s impact on America. A conscripted army engenders a wide spread inculcation of communitarian values on a national scale: rich, poor, black, white, if they see combat together, they become a band of brothers. That kind of thing would stop Bush’s real agenda dead in its tracks: Making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and pursuing an ever greater concentrration of wealth and power through the shifting of bargaining power away from the middle class and into the upper upper class.

    Iraq was just window dressing on the one hand and an excuse to concentrate executive power, since in our system the president has more power during a time of war – but without the populism that conscription brings.

    Yeah Iraq could have been won, with an army of 500,000 or more, and perhaps another army of the same size invading Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s what a serious response would look like, but even before that, he should have used the global sympathy after 911 to create a strong alliance backing our movements. In that sense, Iraq never made any sense at all. Afghanistan, of course did.

    The short of the short is that Bush has managed to screw everything up except making the rich richer and everyone else poor, and turned America into a virtual diplomatic ghetto. And that’s nothing to ‘hawk’ about, liberal or otherwise.

    The problem with militant islamicism is one rooted in ideology. Harry Truman showed us the blue print for fighting such a war. Only the duence cap from crawford texas flunked that course. More’s the pity.


  2. the aforementioned liberal hawk
    January 18th, 2007 at 00:41 | #2

    I copped to much of what you said (in italics) at the time, feeling that the moral imperative outweighed a lot of it. But the problem is that most of it has little to do with what I was talking about: horrifically bad management and decisions. If this had been done by a reasonably competent government, the situation would probably be rather different now.

    Yes, of course “there were a great many reasons not to go to war.” But there were also reasons to do so, which you rather cavalierly dismissed at the time with “The arguments for getting Saddam out of power are easy: he’s a dangerous madman, and we could overwhelm the Iraqi military.” At the time, I told you that I’d read a book called “Republic of Fear” (by Kanan Makiya; check Amazon). Saying just “he’s a madman” is one thing; reading 300+ pages of just how horrible he was is another. Books like that should be read, and I think most people who read it would see getting rid of Saddam as a real moral imperative (in addition to the fact that he’d pursued nuclear and chemical weapons, and attacked two neighboring countries). If every adult in the world had read it, there would have been a lot more support for the war. It’s easy for us not to care what other countries’ dictators are doing to their people if it doesn’t affect us. And I know you can say, what about North Korea; it’s a good point. You can’t make the world perfect. But again, read the book, then tell me we shouldn’t have done it.

    One point on which I will consider myself chastened is that I should have foreseen that a government that will lie us into a war based on shortsighted ideology will probably pursue the nation-building with more lies and shortsighted ideology. My attitude was, I don’t approve of how they’re doing it, but at least they’re doing it; now I see that the two are connected. If Katrina had happened in 2002, I suspect even I would have wondered if this was the right bunch to take the country into such a war.

    I would propose an admittedly simplistic analogy: You say tennis player Smith will win the Wimbledon finals; I say it’ll be Jones. During the match, Jones twists his ankle, and Smith wins, but not because he was the better player. Our argument before the war had more to do with whether it was the right thing to do rather than whether it would be done right. I just wish that the guy who wanted to do it could have also done it right.

    Tim: Containment was not working; it was slowly falling apart. France and Russia were among the leaders in wanting to let Saddam out of his box and become a normal country again. And the first four words of your comment tend to put the credibility of the rest in a certain perspective.

  3. Luis
    January 18th, 2007 at 10:03 | #3

    So, even though I correctly predicted that a coalition would be necessary but could not be formed, that support from the international community and other Middle East states would be necessary but would not be sought, that there would be an insurgency and Bush had no plan to counter it, that Iraq and the Middle East would become destabilized, that people in Iraq would not welcome us as liberators, that Saddam was not a nuclear threat, that there was no plan to rebuild Iraq as a stable nation, and that Bush’s general method of conducting the war would be catastrophically wrong (“do you exterminate them by taking a flamethrower to the building? Method is crucial.”)–you’re saying that I was still wrong in my opposing the war because I did not see the specific mismanagement blunders?

    Sorry, but you are asking way too much. Your analogy of the Wimbeldon finals is way off. It is more like I predicted Smith wins because Jones would injure himself, and you say my prediction was wrong because I did not specify his ankle.

    Addndum: Sorry, typed that in a rush before racing off to work. I would add: stating Bush’s ineptness at management beyond what I did also would have been somewhat redundant. Aside from saying that Bush’s method was flawed, and aside from my general attitude that Bush was inept, I would point out that I did not believe that his intent was to accomplish whhat he claimed to accomplish. All of this works toward the point that Bush would not be concerning himself with the details of the war. This point is emphasized by my mention of the fact that Bush had no exit plan and did not concern himself with how to conduct the specifics of the war, like how to deal with an insurgency.

    But most of all, are not most of the points I mentioned examples of mismanagement? Not getting the necessary coalition, not getting cooperation from Middle Eastern nations, underestimating negative reactions by Iraqis and people in the region, not planning for an insurgency, not having an exit plan… These are all points of mismanagement. What you are essentially saying is that while I pointed out many of the things that were mismanaged, I did not point out all of them, especially the ones so specific and unpredictable that no one could have foreseen them.

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