Thursday, October 19, 2006


A Mistake?

Jonah Goldberg makes a big concession, but cautions that acting to somehow “reverse” the mistake might be an even bigger misstep.

His big concession? The war in Iraq was a mistake.

Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003. I do think that Congress (including Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller and John Murtha) was right to vote for the war given what was known — or what was believed to have been known — in 2003. And the claims from Democrats who voted for the war that they were lied to strikes me as nothing more than cowardly buck-passing.
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction is a side issue. The WMD fiasco was a global intelligence failure, but calling Saddam Hussein's bluff after 9/11 was the right thing to do. Washington's more important intelligence failure lay in underestimating what would be required to rebuild and restore post-Hussein Iraq. The White House did not anticipate a low-intensity civil war in Iraq, never planned for it and would not have deemed it in the U.S. interest to pay this high a price in prestige, treasure and, of course, lives.

Mark at Decision ’08 objects to Goldberg’s premise:

Goldberg says if we knew then what we know now…but you never know then what you know now. That’s an absurd argument. Hindsight is not a policy.

For the White House to have completely anticipated all of the risks, costs, benefits, and other turns of events, the President and his military and international advisors would need to possess a precision of hindsight from a future vantage point that is, of course, impossible. It’s a kind of magical thinking.

I know as I make that statement that anti-war readers will howl that everyone warned the Bush Administration that the war was a mistake, that you couldn’t impose liberty by force, that the Iraqi people couldn’t develop the foundations for democracy, that the US would be bogged down in a quagmire of horrific casualties without any hope for victory.

True enough. Political opponents also said we’d suffer 100,000 combat deaths in the initial invasion. They also warned that Saddam would use his WMDs on US troops with catastrophic effects. They also warned that Iraqi citizens would rise up against us in great waves, and greet elections with violence and civil war.

Three years in, three successful elections, many Iraqi provinces stable and at peace, less than 3,000 soldiers dead, the Iraqi Army and other Security forces gradually taking over security throughout Iraq, still some hot spots, still violence, but within historic norms for other (admittedly dangerous) regions all over the world.

Overall, I’d say this Administration’s projections, forecasts, estimates and war planning was arguably more correct than the nightmare projections of their political opponents, most of whom voted for the war, for funding, and continue to support administration requested anti-terrorism legislation.

One of Mark’s commenters makes a humorous allusion to science fiction:

I grew up watching the same science fiction that Goldberg did…incidents where the death of a mosquito at the hands of a time traveler leads to the death of the human race. Change one tile in a mosaic, changes the whole mosaic. If there are any other historical changes that Goldberg might produce that would change the outcome of world history for the better, I’d love to hear them.

All that by way of commentary on Goldberg’s premise, that the war was a mistake, viewed in some idealized state of where future outcomes dwell alongside the as-yet unfolded fabric of history. A magical place where planners and decision-makers could see all the intended and unintended consequences of action, and compare those to the dangers of inaction, in the face of risks not fully known.

Right or wrong on going in, what do we do today? Goldberg argues that we debate the rightness or wrongness of past decisions, at the expense of critical assessments of what to do now:

According to the goofy parameters of the current debate, I'm now supposed to call for withdrawing from Iraq. If it was a mistake to go in, we should get out, some argue. But this is unpersuasive. A doctor will warn that if you see a man stabbed in the chest, you shouldn't rush to pull the knife out. We are in Iraq for good reasons and for reasons that were well-intentioned but wrong. But we are there.
Those who say that it's not the central front in the war on terror are in a worse state of denial than they think Bush is in. Of course it's the central front in the war on terror. That it has become so is a valid criticism of Bush, but it's also strong reason for seeing our Iraqi intervention through. If we pull out precipitously, jihadism will open a franchise in Iraq and gain steam around the world, and the U.S. will be weakened.
Bush's critics claim that democracy promotion was an afterthought, a convenient rebranding of a war gone sour. I think that's unfair, but even if true, it wouldn't mean liberty isn't at stake. It wouldn't mean that promoting a liberal society in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world wouldn't be in our interest and consistent with our ideals. In war, you sometimes end up having to defend ground you wouldn't have chosen with perfect knowledge beforehand. That's us in Iraq.

In this, I would agree. Critics offered no good alternative to dealing with Saddam, or the rest of the Axis of Evil, for that matter. Now, already some years down a road of a muscular response to the very real and serious threats we faced, and continue to face, these same critics are just as empty handed.

They point to polls. They gather up International rebukes and insults. They speak about all that’s wrong with what we’ve done, and spend all their energies talking about some prior alternative in the past that’s behind us, and offer no remedy for the current “catastrophe” they lament. All sackcloth and ashes, no armor, nor plan of battle. We’re wrong, we’re doomed, repent and accept our punishment.

They live in a fantasy world. However much they try to beckon us to join them, we better stop and think about all those potential consequences of pulling out of the present fight, and ignoring the present dangers.

Unfortunately, our vision is no more “hindsight in the future” capable than it was when we faced the world on September 12th, 2001. However much our critics care to dream.

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