Back when I first started writing this blog one of the first chores I tried tackling was constructing a taxonomy of positions on the invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror, generally. I did this in a couple of posts and revisited and updated the taxonomy a few year later (links at the bottom of this post). Over the last week or so there’s been quite of chorus of admissions of error on Iraq from bloggers, journalists, political, and other figures so I thought that, if for no reason other than symmetry, I’d try to construct a taxonomy of these mea culpas.
There’s a small group of those who at one time were being characterized as “liberal hawks” who supported the invasion of Iraq, and now are highly critical of it but for some reason have not been subject to the demands for elaborate demonstrations of contrition or placed into the “once wrong, always wrong” column by the immediate withdrawalniks as have others that supported the invasion of Iraq. The most notable of these is Kevin Drum (see the citation in the linked taxonomy) who now posts at Washington Monthly. The old Calpundit archives don’t seem to be available any more and, like some lost texts from classical antiquity, the only surviving fragments seem to be quotations in the works of others.
Misled by the Bush Administration
The most notable example of those whose defense for their early support of the invasion of Iraq is that they were misled by the Bush Administration is Sen. Hillary Clinton:
Yet another man has betrayed Hillary Clinton. This time it’s George W. Bush, who not only deceived her about weapons of mass destruction but, when granted congressional authorization to go to war in Iraq, actually did so. This, apparently, came as a surprise to her, although in every hamlet and village in America, every resident who could either read or watch Fox News knew that Bush was going to take the country to war. Among other things, troops were already being dispatched.
Somehow, Bush’s intentions were lost on Clinton, who then as now was a member of the United States Senate. This was the case even though she now rightly calls Bush’s desire to topple Saddam Hussein an “obsession.”
“From almost the first day they got into office,” Clinton said last weekend in New Hampshire, the Bush administration was “trying to figure out how to get rid of Saddam Hussein.” If that was the case — and indeed it was — then how come she now says she did not think Bush, armed with a congressional resolution, would hurry to war?
I believe that this form of apologizing without admitting fault is weak, cowardly, and incredible but it seems to have received a pass from her supporters, presumably because of their extreme dislike of George Bush whom they remarkably seem to consider simultaneously an idiot and a criminal mastermind.
The Incompetence Dodge
A week ago the Washington Post published a group of small pieces from various notables which I commented on at the time. Many of them laid the blame for the situation on Iraq on somebody else’s incompetence. Especially egregious among these was Richard Perle:
With misplaced confidence that we knew better than the Iraqis, we sent an American to govern Iraq. L. Paul Bremer underestimated the task, but did his best to make a foolish policy work. I had badly underestimated the administration’s capacity to mess things up.
I agree with Matthew Yglesias in suspecting there’s a kind of intellectual dishonesty about this:
What I wonder is what kind of evidence could disprove this line of reasoning. Suppose we were looking back on some military venture that was doomed to fail. Now suppose some supporter of that venture were arguing to us that, no, it wasn’t doomed at all — the trouble was the incompetence. The supporter can even find all these examples of incompetence — why here are all these decisions that got made! And the decisions worked out poorly! How inept! How dare you say it was doomed to fail?
Besides the issue of unprovability I also detect a bit of the “begging the question” fallacy.
I urge you to read Andrew Sullivan’s lengthy, complex discussion of the things he got wrong on Iraq for a good example of this subgenre. Among his errors he lists historical narcissicism, narrow moralism, and misjudging George Bush’s sense of morality.
On any given day you can read a pretty good example of this school at Dean’s World, a blog at which I am proudly an associate blogger although I disagree with both Dean and some of my fellow associates there on this particular.
Probably the finest example of this school is Christopher Hitchens’s recent piece at Slate:
What did I most get wrong? Hell, I’m not feeling masochistic today. But come on, Hitchens, the right-thinking now insist that you concede at least something.
The thing that I most underestimated is the thing that least undermines the case. And it’s not something that I overlooked, either. But the extent of lumpen Islamization in Iraq, on both the Khomeinist and Wahhabi ends (call them Shiite and Sunni if you want a euphemism that insults the majority), was worse than I had guessed.
And Jim Henley lampoons this variant in his own confessional on Iraq in which he humbly announces that he’s been right all along.
I’m unrepentant, too, but for reasons that more closely resemble Jim Henley’s than Christopher Hitchens’s. I opposed the invasion of Iraq for a whole raft of reasons including I believe that we should have a predisposition against war and the feeble political support I saw here for the lengthy occupation that would obviously be the consequence of the invasion. However, I believe that we should and will maintain a substantial commitment of troops to Iraq until conditions there warrant otherwise.
The biggest problem that I see in those who hold the “once wrong, always wrong” belief is that at this point George Bush who ordered the invasion of Iraq, Hillary Clinton who voted for the AUMF, and Barack Obama who spoke against the invasion all hold substantially the same position now. Although their positions before the war were somewhat different their positions now are quite similar: we’ll reduce our troop commitment in Iraq gradually to some point (I believe around 50,000-80,000) and then maintain that commitment for the foreseeable future. They differ on what the missions of this commitment would be from protecting the Iraqi people, counterterrorism, training the Iraqi security forces, and force protection (George Bush); training the Iraqi security forces, counterterrorism, and force protection (Barack Obama); and counterterrorism activities and force protection (Hillary Clinton) but their positions are materially the same: we’ll have a substantial commitment of troops to Iraq for the foreseeable future.
My taxonomy posts
Towards a taxonomy of positions on the War on Terror in the blogosphere, June 20, 2004
Towards a taxonomy Part II, June 23, 2004
Revisiting the taxonomy of positions on the WoT, July 9, 2005