Monday, March 31, 2008

What We Learned From Iraq: Absolutely Nothing

But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster...
- Andrew Sullivan

To celebrate the five year anniversary of the glorious cakewalk Slate and the NYT asked Iraq War hawks what they got wrong and what they've learned. Their answers? "Understandable mistakes anyone could have made" and "nothing" respectively.

I'm With Stupid

The most common mistake war supporters point to is some variation on "I was wrong to put faith in the Bush Administration" -- a clever transfer of responsibility. It's not that their entire thought process was wrong, that they were easily deceived, that they didn't demand any plans for the post-war occupation, that they let emotion replace reason or that their philosophy of war as a standard policy tool was flawed. Nope, the problem was that Bush and Rumsfeld were incompetent immoral dummies.

The wonderful aspect of that mistake is that whatever lesson can be learned from it expires in 2009. There's no examination of why they trusted an administration full of incompetent ideologues. They'll be happy to place the same faith in whichever not-Bush is elected, even if that not-Bush has the same foreign policy developed by the same foreign-policy advisors.

You Can't Expect Me To Listen to Hippies

Plenty of smart people made good arguments against the Iraq War that went beyond vague platitudes. But for war hawks it's much easier to pretend that only brainless hippies opposed the Iraq War and that the only "serious" voices were hawks. Many of the "What Did I Get Wrong" pieces are prominently devoted to dismissing the people who weren't wrong. Andrew Sullivan is up first:

For most of my adult lifetime, I had heard those on the left decry American military power, constantly warn of quagmires, excuse what I regarded as inexcusable tyrannies, and fail to grasp that the nature of certain regimes makes their removal a moral objective.
When I heard the usual complaints from the left about how we had no right to intervene, how Bush was the real terrorist, how war was always wrong, my trained ears heard the same cries that I had heard in the 1980s. So, I saw the opposition to the war as another example of a faulty Vietnam Syndrome, associated it entirely with the far left—or boomer nostalgia—and was revolted by the anti-war marches I saw in Washington.

To bolster his support for the war Richard Cohen visualized straw men:

I was miserably wrong in my judgment and somewhat emotional, and whenever my resolve weakened, as it did over time, I steadied myself by downing belts of inane criticism from the likes of Michael Moore or "realists" like Brent Scowcroft, who had presided over the slaughter of the Shiites.

There's no indication that Sullivan or Cohen have changed their thinking at all. They still deride those damn Vietnam-obsessed hippies and the "likes of Michael Moore." Neither of them care to deal with the fact that their "inane criticisms" were largely correct. Nor do they acknowledge the existence of Anthony Zinni, Norman Schwarzkopf and vintage Cheney, hardly stereotypical leftists. They saw what they wanted to see and they still do.

I Was Wrong But For All The Right Reasons

Many of the pieces, like the Sullivan one above, are characterized by a refusal to question basic assumptions and the dismissal of those whose do. Few of the authors reject aggressive war as a standard policy tool. Sullivan still believes that "regime change" is a fine goal and that war should be driven by a vague "moral objective." Jacob Weisberg hasn't changed his view on war at all; his main concern is not letting this war sour us on the next one:

This isn't just a matter of fessing up to error. It's incumbent upon those of us who blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade to try to understand our mistake—and to try to learn something from it. By this I don't mean that we should know to reject all proposed American military action in the future. One theme that has emerged in this discussion is the hazard that those who wrongly supported one intervention will flinch too reflexively from another that deserves our support. I share this concern. The tendency to relive the last war is as prevalent among writers as it is among generals.

William Saletan makes it specific. His fear is that the Iraq War will prevent us from engaging in the war on Iran that he's already salivating for, based on the exact same justifications he fell for on Iraq:

The problem with dumb war isn't that it's war. The problem is that it costs you the military, economic, and political resources to fight a smart war. Everything Bush wrongly attributed to Iraq turns out to be true of Iran. But we can't confront Iran with the force it probably requires, because we wasted our resources in Iraq. Americans, having been suckered in Iraq, won't accept evidence of Iran's nuclear program. Countries that might have supported us in a strike on Iran won't do so now, since we led them astray.

In the same sentence that he admits we were suckered on Iraq (on the basis of WMDs) he lobbies for attacking Iran based on the same weak claims that they have a WMD program, claims that come from the exact same sources.

William Saletan has learned nothing. Absolutely zero. He still believes the Michael Gordon stories he reads in the NYT. He still believes Bush and his cronies when they hype up WMD threats. He still believes breathless anonymous sources. Take an argument for war in Iraq from 5 years ago, replace "Iraq" with "Iran", hand it to Saletan and he's all for it, lamenting that we can't immediately enact it. It's truly amazing.

Coming in Part 2

One author bravely suggests we should listen to the people who were right about Iraq. That author is dismissed.

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