A Taxonomy of Mea Culpas

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.

It’s Complicated

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

7 comments… add one
  • This is an interesting post. We’d love to have your point of view represented in this week’s Carnival of Politics, a weekly blog magazine about politics. If you’re interested please consider submitting this post at http://www.carnivalofpolitcs.com/submit.

    I should let you know, this isn’t a spam bot. I’ve actually read your post and think it is interesting.

  • Dave, the link to your June 20 2004 post is incorrect.

    Also, I have yet to see my own personal opinion mentioned, which is (in short) this: I’ve supported the war against and occupation of Iraq, and Bush’s handling of the WoT more broadly, largely because I see it as the best of a bad set of options. I believe that Wretchard has also hit on the essential point behind all of this: This war DOES represent an existential threat … it just isn’t the Western world whose future existence is in doubt.

    Personally I think this strategy is doomed to fail, and always thought it would, ultimately. My belief has little to do with the Bush Administration’s incompetence, but much to do with the idea that the Muslim nations will ever achieve something akin to liberal democracy as their main form of government. (Additionally, I doubt the West’s patience to make a serious effort to force them in this direction.) And lacking that, I doubt we will see an end to Muslim terrorsits. Eventually, however, they will finally go one step too far….

  • Thanks. I’ve fixed the link.

    I, too, think that the War on Terror is against a real existential threat but I think it’s on both sides. The problem is that people don’t think of existence in the right terms. In 1867 although the American South continued to exist and most of the people in it were still alive but the Old South was as dead as if they’d all been exterminated.

    I think that terrorists can succeed in raising the costs of our living the way we’ve lived to the point that we can’t live that way any more. They’ve already succeeded in raising our costs by something like a half trillion per year. We can’t sustain a perpetual cycle of such cost increases. Our way of life will be dead. That’s why we should fight.

    An increasing number of majority Muslim countries already have liberal democracies and they seem to be doing pretty well. The track record on Arab countries with Muslim majorities and liberal democratic forms of government is much more bleak but I’m not completely without hope even for those. However, I think that the Bush approach however you’d like to characterize it was always problematic. We’ve got to try another way.

  • I think that terrorists can succeed in raising the costs of our living the way we’ve lived to the point that we can’t live that way any more. They’ve already succeeded in raising our costs by something like a half trillion per year. We can’t sustain a perpetual cycle of such cost increases. Our way of life will be dead.

    Here’s a dirty little secret: This is going to happen sooner or later anyway. Technology magnifies the power of the individual to absurd proportions in this day and age, and it will only get worse, barring a collapse of civilization. In 2001 it was fewer than 20 Muslim terrorists leveraging knives into an attack that killed thousands over the space of a couple of hours and caused huge economic damage. Around this time last year a crazed gunman took some care with his massacre and killed a number of people at Virginia Tech. How long before someone like that realizes he can do much MORE damage with just a little more planning and creativity?

    The costs of defending against all the deadly possibilities will increase regardless of the current Muslim threat. Fortunately, nukes will probably always be beyond the capabilities of a single individual. But that leaves so many other ways…..

    An increasing number of majority Muslim countries already have liberal democracies and they seem to be doing pretty well.

    We’ll see how they hold up after the inevitable crisis or three.

  • Larry Link

    I’m not much of an intellectual, I’d rather spend a lot of my time fiddling old time fiddle tunes…but, I can remember 9/11..I watched it live on CNN…I was very angry…I wanted our Country to do something…and going to war was something I agreed to…For the most part, I trusted our government and leaders…but I was wrong to do so…and wrong to jump so quickly into war. But here we are, in the middle of one huge mess that has no easy answers…

    We can blame a thousand others for this, but no amount of pointing blame will get us out of this situation. I don’t know what the answer is…so many have died for what seems to be for nothing…in the end, the best strategy may be to leave…set a time table and follow it as best as we can…provide all the assistance we can to the Iragy people…4,000 US troops, who knows how many Iragy lives, and those who have suffered injury is most likely so high that it would be impossible give a count to ..It’s time to leave….let the political chips fall where they may..very few lives are lost over a political debate, but war is no political debate..it’s just plain war…death and distruction.

    We’ve been talking about terrorism for decades…we’ve built bigger and better bombs, but have done so little to fight terrorism, we may not be able to do much about this in the end anyway…who is a terroist? Anyone could be a terrorist…how do you fight that?


  • PD Shaw Link

    I’m unrepentant. I opposed the first Gulf War as a quagmire that the U.S. should avoid; one that benefited the types of undemocratic elites that would stab us in the back and earn us no just reward. In for a penny, in for a pound. I supported the Second and still wonder what would have happened had Kuwait and all of its damnable artificial lines drawn by, oh, I don’t know, whatever self-aggrandizing Arabs and Europeans were in zenith at the moment, been rendered sand. Having lost the first argument, I find the second and third and fourth inevitable.

    Otherwise, I find Icepick to be the exemplar of reason. The choices were never good.

  • I opposed the Gulf War for reasons similar to yours, PD, which I usually expressed as “This is a case of choosing whether to root for vampires or the Mafia”. I’d also add that I didn’t think it was any of our business.

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