Right and Wrong on Iraq

Andrew Olmsted concludes his discussion on the recent blogospheric meme about whether people who opposed the Iraq War for the wrong reasons deserve any credit with a formulation that is both correct and amusingly Rumsfeldian:

Some people were right about Iraq for the wrong reasons. Some were wrong for the right reasons. Some were right for the right reasons, and some were wrong for the wrong reasons.

That’s followed by something more profound:

If there is anything to be learned from the arguments over going to war in Iraq, it is the wholly unsurprising realization that many of us make up our minds first and assemble reasons to support our decision, rather than the reverse and that we would all be a lot better off if we were better able to think critically. But the next time there is a major foreign policy issue that divides the country, we’ll see much of the same. People will throw out a past position’s failure as a reason to dismiss an argument rather than taking on that argument itself, appeals to reason will drown in appeals to emotion, and the whole process will begin again.

That’s just human nature, I guess. And even those who are well-educated and espouse empiricism and rationality as central to policy debate are still prone to selective interpretation of information, cognitive dissonance, and stubbornness.

As for myself, my views continue to evolve:

  • I began as an ardent opponent of the neocon argument for the war as advanced by Paul Wolfowitz and others. The “Saddam is a tyrant who used chemical weapons on his own people” argument never struck me as persuasive.
  • I came around to support for regime change, though, after the announcement that North Korea had nuclear weapons and then realizing there was nothing we could do about it. The preemptive war argument suddenly seemed quite compelling.
  • Once it became clear, within a couple weeks or so of toppling Saddam, that there were no substantial WMD stockpiles, let alone a serious nuclear program, my original rationale for supporting the war was over and I acknowledged that pretty quickly. At that point, though, we were left with a fait accompli: What to do now?

I’ve been in some variation of that mode for going on three years now. A lot of it has been spent debating the ancillary issues like the “Bush Lied” and chickenhawk memes or such things as whether passing various casualty thresholds were somehow dispositive. Mostly, though, it has been about whether our goals are achievable–a question on which I’ve become increasingly pessimistic over time–and on the nature of the alternatives.

Was I “wrong” on the war? If the test is whether I’d support invading Iraq knowing what I know now (or even in May 2003), I certainly wouldn’t. On the other hand, I continue to reject the extreme view of some war opponents that preemptive war is always a bad idea.

The old joke that “I thought I was wrong once but I was mistaken” applies to one aspect of this debate. I started and ended the process opposed to the neocon idea of forcing people to be free through the application of military force. For a few weeks or months after the successful election of a permanent government, in the midst of the real risk of death taken by those who stood in line to vote, I begrudgingly admitted that the neocons had been proven right, at least in the one instance. I spoke too soon on that front, sadly.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote the following for TCS:

We owe it to the Iraqi people to do everything we can to help avert a civil war and give their fledgling democracy a chance. Saving them from themselves, however, is both beyond our power and responsibility. If they decide civil war is the only way to settle their longstanding disputes, we must stand aside and let them fight it and then try to salvage a relationship with the eventual victors. While that would be a bitter pill, indeed, after coming so close to achieving the incredibly ambitious vision of the neo-cons, it would nonetheless be preferable to the other alternatives.

My view on that hasn’t changed. The consequences of leaving in defeat would be catastrophic from a humanitarian, moral, and strategic perspective. The only worse option would be losing many more soldiers and then leaving in defeat. Unless and until it’s absolutely clear that we can’t leave behind a stable government, though, we need to do everything in our power to achieve that end.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, OTB History, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. madmatt says:

    That ever popular self reliance that comes into play whenever republicans break or don’t like something. Yet they never believe in letting people alone…and that is why the world hates the US.

  2. Triumph says:

    The consequences of leaving in defeat would be catastrophic from a humanitarian, moral, and strategic perspective. The only worse option would be losing many more soldiers and then leaving in defeat. Unless and until it’s absolutely clear that we can’t leave behind a stable government, though, we need to do everything in our power to achieve that end.

    Ok, James–the tougher questions are: WHAT EXACTLY DOES THIS MEAN? i.e. How is this measured? Secondly: AT WHAT COST are we willing to withstand for Bush’s folly?

    Is it worth bankrupting the US to espose a socialist program in Iraq when our own infrastructure is in shambles?

  3. legion says:

    When bloggers, pundits, or random Joe Citizens go back and forth about whether or not they were “right” about Iraq, it’s an exercise in debate tactics. But the results of such debates have no bearing on the (quite different) question of whether or not the people who made and/or influenced the decision to go into Iraq were correct – If those people were wrong, it calls into question their basic competence, and therefore the possibility those same people can be trusted to get us out of Iraq, under any circumstances. And that’s a very different debate…

  4. LJD says:

    I’m starting to think the debate is not about whether we were right or wrong, chickenhawks, or even how do we get out.

    The real debate is, or should be, about the role of the United States in the world, and getting into bed with the UN. Why would we continue to invest money and blood into ventures proposed through the UN, but unsupported and even violated by veto-power countries?

    This is about isolationism. If we don’t have the will to fight in the Middle EAst, pehaps we should have never been there to begin with.

    This is a debate between doing what is right at a very high cost, and sitting back to watch atrocities unfold, while doing nothing.

  5. James Joyner says:

    …whether or not the people who made and/or influenced the decision to go into Iraq were correct – If those people were wrong, it calls into question their basic competence, and therefore the possibility those same people can be trusted to get us out of Iraq, under any circumstances.

    I’m not sure it follows that being wrong on WMD or even being wrong about the extent of the insurgent response means that they’re incompetent.

    Staffing key positions with amateurs, having some people with the wrong mindsets (Franks, Sanchez, Bremer, Tenet, maybe Rumsfeld) in place, and other decisions are more indicative of that, though. Some of it is hard to fault Bush for, as many of those people had solid reps going in and Peter Principled. The confluence, though, turned out to be catastrophic.

    We’ve made a belated change in leadership and tactics and, to a lesser extent, strategic focus. But the job’s a lot harder now.

  6. Tano says:

    To the original question though, James.

    To what extent do YOU hold the Bush administration and the Repbulicans / conservatives in general, accountable for this series of incredibly bad judgements – and to what extent is your confidence in that entire worldview put into question.

    Are there any consequences, in terms of your granting support, for failure and incompetence on this level? Is there anything that could lead you to conclude that maybe approaching these issues from a different perspective might be in order?

    This issue arose from noting that those who have been so spectacularly wrong, do not seem to be suffering any consequences, in terms of their reputation, for their failure. It is a fascinating phenomenon.

    Personally, I think that anyone who was associated with Bush administration foreign or military policy, or who worked to support it, should be sidelined for a very long time – at least until they make some public explanation of what they have learned through the experience, so that we might have at least a little confidence that such mistakes will not be repeated.

    Or is there some entitlement to repsect on these issues, irrespective of actual performance, simply by virtue of …what exactly/ Being a republican?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I find myself in a rather small minority having opposed our invasion of Iraq from the start but believing that withdrawing our troops before the country is substantially more stable than it is now would be a serious error. I think I was right and continue to be right.

    BTW my thinking back in 2003 was that I didn’t believe that we were willing to spend the time, money, or lives actually to achieve objectives other than bringing down Saddam Hussein’s regime and that much the same results could be achieved with no more tenacity or sacrifice by means other than going to war. Contain Saddam? Get rid of his WMD programs? If we’d slipped the permanent members of the UNSC 10, 20, or 40 billion or whatever each we probably could have bought the support to maintain sanctions or more. And been ahead of the game.

    But here’s another place where I differ from most. I believe that intelligent people of good will can differ on these judgments merely by different relative valuations of risks, costs, and benefits. Different people have different tolerances for risk and cost and a different appetite for benefit.

    Bottom line I don’t give a damn about who shot John. I think the idea that “once wrong is always wrong” is too extreme.

    Day forward.

  8. LJD says:

    To what extent do YOU hold the Bush administration and the Repbulicans / conservatives in general, accountable for this series of incredibly bad judgements…
    Are there any consequences…
    …those who have been so spectacularly wrong, do not seem to be suffering any consequences

    Grab your pitchforks! We’re gonna have a lynching! Or do you prefer them thrown in stocks for a public lashing?

    Unfortunately, a big part of our not being able to move forward with unity on Iraq is that many cannot seem to get byond the past. They are far more concerned with pointing the blame, for political brownie points, than helping to solve the problem.

    Incidentally, the ‘consequences’ reach way beyond party lines, we ARE working from a different perspective, and there have been consequences. Step out of the cave once in a while for some up to date news.

  9. M1EK says:

    At that point, though, we were left with a fait accompli: What to do now?

    There’s an obvious first answer: stop listening to the guys who lied us into the war and then prosecuted it so incompetently. But all I’ve seen since is a lot of nonsense about how Democrats in Congress who believed the lies and voted accordingly are somehow of equivalent blame to the executive branch that lied to them.