Monday, August 06, 2007

Getting Iraq right was simple

I have to say, I am getting very impatient with the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how very, very hard it was, in the fall and winter of 2002-03, to make the right decision on Iraq and to realize that the US invasion of Iraq was a bad decision.
It was, I think, an easy decision -- for three reasons:
First, though Iraq's leader was a murderous meglomaniac, his regional ambitions were completely contained by economic sanctions and the no-fly zones. Hussein even agreed to let the UN weapons inspectors back. They couldn't find anything much.
Second, Iraq had not attacked the United States or Britain or Israel. No nation has any right to launch a preemptive war, not without compelling evidence of immediate threat. And that's what the United Nations was set up to evaluate -- thus we reach the third point. In spite of the worldwide sympathy and support given to the United States after 9/11 and in spite of all the diplomatic pressure exerted around the world by the US and Britain, not even a significant minority of the UN Security Council were willing to support war on Iraq. If you can't get the UN to support you, that's a pretty big clue that something is wrong.
Therefore, ipso facto and quid pro quo, the war was a bad idea.
Michael Ignatieff wrote an article in the New York Times exploring why he was wrong about Iraq, and both Brad DeLong and Matthew Yglesias have critiqued it.
Ignatieff first looks at why he made the mistake of wanting to invade Iraq. Turns out, it was all Harvard's fault:
In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual’s responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician’s responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.
But Yglesias notes that many actual academics opposed the war. It was the neocon "scholars" of the AEI and the Weekly Standard who pushed it:
The war's foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise -- notably people who weren't really on the left politically -- were massively opposed to the war. To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really "independent" of political machinations.
Delong takes issue with Ignatieff's definition of "academic" thinking:
I think what Michael Ignatieff is talking about is not an academic mode of thought but a student mode of thought--a not-too-bright-student mode of thought. A not-too-bright student achieves success by (a) figuring out which book on the syllabus is favored by the instructor, (b) taking that book to be the gospel, and (c) regurgitating large chunks of that book on the exams and in the papers.
Getting back to Ignatieff's article, he also asks why Bush made the mistake of wanting to invade Iraq. Turns out it was all the fault of his own ego:
I should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying and in matters of ultimate political judgment, nothing, not even your own feelings, should be held immune from the burden of justification through cross-examination and argument.
Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound.
People with good judgment listen to warning bells within.

But the "warning bell" rang for me, and for the world, when the United Nations wouldn't support it. The United States and Britain should have listened. Chretien got it right:
The White House said Friday it wants Saddam Hussein ousted even if Baghdad disarms, a stand that immediately provoked a sharp response from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who said the United States can't just wander the world changing regimes it doesn't like.
Mr. Chrétien, on an official visit to Mexico, reacted with dismay when told of the White House's unflinching insistence on regime change. The demand was stressed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who said the administration's goal is "disarmament and regime change."
"Myself, I think that the consequences can be very grave when we go for a change in regime," the Prime Minister said in French. "... When are we going to go elsewhere? Who's going to be next? ... This is a very dangerous concept."
Yes, and it still is.

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