Saturday, March 18, 2006

Long, Boring

... obligatory weekend post, so I can go out and drink.

Well, Blogger was up the spout last night, so I amused myself by playing dodgeball with moderate leftists and immoderate moonbats over at Donklephant, one of the other sites foolish enough to hand me a password.

And actually, a lot of good came of it, thanks mainly to Michael Reynolds of The Mighty Middle and Alan Stewart Carl of Maverick Views, both of whom are honest to goodness independent thinkers yet deeply immersed in politics. They, along with a number of the regular commenters on that site, shaped the discussion and allowed some good ideas to flow amid my jibes and brickbats. Frankly, I think Internet conversations work best with all those things going on. It should be like a philosophy debate carried on during a bar brawl.

The subject was people's decisions, in late 2002 and early 2003, to support or oppose the impending war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Yes, I know: "That again?"

And one of the things that had to get settled was, why on earth are we refighting this one now? Michael was the first one to suggest whatI think is the right answer: "The who-knew-what question is slipping out of current relevance and being transferred to the historians. There will be books. Many books. In ten years we’ll have a major revision. Then in ten years it’ll go the other way. Then no one will give a damn for a couple of decades. Then some future Doris Kearns Goodwin will make a pile of money reviving the question."

We’re at a point now that is far enough removed from 2003 that journalism is becoming history; the rough draft is becoming a first edition. So it’s natural that the old wars flare again, as people compete to position themselves on the high ground of morality or prescience. And since, for the time being at least, the experiment is turning out poorly, the war supporters will tend to want to back away from their predictions about WMD, and the war opponents will try to say they knew all along that all the bad things that have happened were going to turn out exactly as they have.

And each side will be watching the other closely for "history creep," for the tendency to sidle away from its real pre-war position to one that fits the narrative better and reflects more credit.

And since I happen to care about the craft of history, I tend to be all up in your grille if you're an anti-war type who insists he knew all along there were no WMD in Iraq. This isn’t just pique. It’s important to know what people thought when they made a decision. I find it interesting that some people who fully believed there was a good chance Saddam had chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons, still chose to oppose his ouster. I am sure they have reasons to explain that, but I’d rather have the real reasons in the record than the false claims that war opponents all knew there would be no WMD.

We all weighed the same risks, in March 2003. Risks in action, risks in inaction. We all saw the same potentials. Potentials for good or bad results. We all had the same crappy choices. Do we trust Colin Powell or Hans Blix when it comes to deciding how safe we are from nuclear incineration or an anthrax attack? Do we risk killing innocent Iraqis in the process of trying to liberate them, or do we choose to do nothing, in the certainty that Saddam WILL continue killing innocent Iraqis by the thousands each year.

None of us knew at the time what weaponry Saddam had up his sleeve. Probably not even Saddam knew. We all chose — overthrow him or leave him alone — based not on our wisdom or our ignorance but on the gap between them, the fog of uncertainty.

Just so, when we each made the ethical choice to support the war or oppose the war or take some third position on it, none of us had a clue what was going to happen once it began. It would be just as easy for me to say, “I predicted or foresaw 1,000 things that could turn out well and 16 of them actually did” as it is for someone else to say “I foresaw 1,000 things going wrong and 16 of them actually did.”

That’s not foresight. That doesn’t entitle you to claim other people are uneducated or untrustworthy, compared to you, when it comes to these things.

One of my detractors, named "alice," wrote: "[T]his 'no one could have known' is so damn typical of rightists. They never ever take responsibility. One of theirs gets caught taking bribes they say, 'how about Clinton.' They are the perpetual victims of victims, it’s always someone elses fault. Losers."

But I think Alan had the answer to that, elsewhere, when he wrote, "should Iraq actually become a democracy, a lot of war supporters will say 'I knew it all the time' while leaving out the fact that it took 10 years longer than originally predicted. We all have an easier time remember where we went right rather than where we went wrong."

Or, alternatively, turn back the clock and don’t invade Iraq at all; don’t overthrow Saddam. Can you see the political hay the Democratic leadership would have made of that in 2004? I can just hear Kerry droning during a debate, “It’s been three years since 9-11, and George W. Bush has allowed this sworn enemy of America to continue hatching his plots and seeking to even the score,” etc., etc. Sabre-rattling on Iraq then becomes a Democrat’s issue and a sign of administration weakness. All the people who choose their positions for political reasons switch sides.

And that opens up another interesting question. Yes, it would be wrong of me, if Iraq turned out wonderfully, to say, "I knew it would happen." What would be correct is to say, "I hoped it would happen."

And if Iraq turns out a hellish disaster, it would be wrong of the war opponents to say, "I knew it would." But what would it be right to say? What verb would you use in place of my "hoped?" Would it be "feared?" Or would it be "hoped?"

Some of my detractors, of course, were livid at this point:

Your comments implying that I take pleasure in being right about the war going poorly are merely Karl Rove-style jingoism and I’m sure you know it. This war sucks. It’s a tragedy and it pisses me off. The only reason that I point out that people opposed the war is because you seem to be claiming that no one could have seen that the war could go badly, which is entirely wrong.

And which I never said, of course. Just because people go ballistic on you doesn't mean you've struck a nerve. But sometimes it does.

I think I understand why Cal is falsely accusing Justin of claiming to have accurately predicated exactly what would happen in the war. Cal supported the war and it isn’t going so great and he’s pissed.

What a dick.

… Cal is acting like Justin’s pre-war concerns weren’t expressed by anyone beforehand because he feels stupid for not paying sufficient attention to them.

Well, It’s awfully frustrating for someone like me to sit back and watch Iraqis and U.S. volunteers still going through so much hell after all this time. I had hoped for better. So he's right about that.

On the other hand, there’s one prediction I made before the war, and haven’t changed since, and still stand by: “It will be 20 years before we know if this is a good idea.” Because wars are rat-holes: you go in one, with one purpose, and you come out someplace totally unexpected.

And I don’t have the pleasure available to his ilk of saying “I told you so” (whether they really did or not). But I can’t say I’m especially bitter over that. It’s a petty sort of vindication, isn’t it? Or does it make him feel good?

And I can’t do much right now to get things going right again. But I can at least call bullshit on people who say they are wiser or more grounded in reality than I am just because they predicted a failure where I hoped for and longed for -- and worked for -- a success.

So I replied to him:

For all the lack of good I did, I would take the same stand again. Where is there an ounce of dignity in any other? There was more of human dignity in one of those purple-stained fingers than in all your sneers. Even now, I’d still rather be me and wrong than right and you. I can say I lent my meager strength to the ideal of justice and the right of a people not to be bullied by dictators and a chance for liberty to take root in a nation half a world away. That people I’ll never meet might have the same opportunities that have blessed our parents and our children. What did you do in the decade?

Alan seems to me to have summed up the two positions nicely with this:

Anti-war people had some valid concerns and felt shut out of the debate from the outset. Back in 2003, it seemed very few people were willing to admit that things might turn out poorly–or at least willing to debate how we’d handle turns for the worse. Now that we’ve had a much tougher time in Iraq than many pro-war people predicted, the anti-war crowd is taking this moment to say “you should have listened to us back then.” And, frankly, they’re right. There simply wasn’t enough debate before the war about how to handle negative consequences.

BUT, I completely understand the pro-war people’s irritation with the anti-war crowd. Let’s face it, two days into the conflict and many of the anti-war people were screaming “it’s another Vietnam!” Most anti-war people never even tried to support this war. In fact, many made a concerted effort to hype up the negatives and ignore the positives. So now that the anti-war crowd is saying “I told you so” the pro-war crowd is replying “yeah, but y’all have been gloom and doom even when things went right, so you’re credibility is pretty much shot.”

Others' comments began to frame a distinction worth making, that's too often not made:

“Did you believe the Bush administration’s various presentations of its case for proof that Saddam had or was actively developing WMD stockpiles were convincing”

is a different question than

“Did you believe Saddam in fact had or was developing WMD stockpiles in March 2003.”

Like a lot of the people who have been commenting throughout this debate, I answer “no” to the first and “yes” to the second.

And yet we still seem to split on the question of going to war. Some of us said yes to it; some who answer those two questions the same way said no. So I begin to suspect some other qualifying factor comes into play.

Perhaps it is the balance, in individual hearts, between realpolitik and a willingness to undertake a crusade for the sake of setting the world right.

But that still leaves me with the impression that, in the political center, the war’s supporters (taking about the pre-war choices; many have modified their answers since) were essentially more liberal than the war’s opponent’s.

It seems to me it’s possible to break down the topics regarding the decision to go to war into three large subsets:

1. The Humanitarian Justification
2. Broad Strategy in the War on Terrorism
3. Saddam as a Direct Threat to the U.S.

There’s two aspects to each of the three big questions: How important is it to you, individually, in deciding whether to support the war, and how likely is the war to make that situation better or worse?

Of the three, it seems to me the first was the strongest case — that is, the one most likely to be improved by the overthrow of Saddam. And for me, personally, it happened to be the most important consideration. My decision to support was as much ethical as geo-political.

And, as an aside, it still holds up, even amid the chaos. Bad things are happening at Abu Ghraib? Yes, and much worse things happened there under the previous ownership and still would be happening if we had done nothing but no-fly zones and sanctions. To respond “but at least it wasn’t us doing them” is to raise an important point, but it doesn’t really fit into the “humanitarian justification” category. It suggests you care who gets tortured less than you care that your hands are clean.

The third category, however, the “direct threat,” was where the administration in the White House chose to pitch its case loudest and longest. They had their reason, I’m sure. The U.N. resolutions, the perception of popular opinion in America. And that was where the case always was weakest, and has grown weaker since the revelation of the true state of Iraq in March 2003.

But the second category is an interesting one. It’s often overlooked, by people who focus on the military aspect, and dismissed as a canard by the anti-war people. But I think it was sincere, and I hope future historians won’t ignore it.

After all, it was the enlightened world opinion that told America, after 9/11, to not just go out and kill terrorists, but to “address the root causes of Muslim rage,” and to “pay attention to the legitimate grievances brought up by Osama.”

And that is what Iraq was supposed to do, in part, and has done, in part. The fact that it’s George W. Bush, written off as a strutting, smirking, cowboy-chimp moron, who is actually doing this makes it difficult for people to see. But Osama listed U.S. troop bases in SA and the sanctions in Iraq as major grievances. Well, the U.S. troop bases are out of SA, and the Iraqi sanctions are gone.

No longer can the Arab street say America only supports convenient dictators in the Middle East and never gives the people a chance to govern.

And at least one country has had the chance, and maybe still has it, to rise up and give its people good cause to live and strive and work for something and enjoy the fruits of labor. Something to aspire to besides plowing an airliner into a skyscraper and collecting the virgins.

I started this particular fight, because I thought I had noticed one of the regulars there posting a claim to have known all along Saddam didn't have WMD. He later denied he meant that and said I was calling him a liar. I wasn't; it's easy to let your memories slip, and I have to go back and re-read what I wrote back in 2002 to really know how I felt then or what I thought.

I also got called names by people who said I was attacking people for their "opinions," which should not be subject to demands for proof of evidence. But if you say, "Saddam is a jerk," that is your opinion. And if you say "I said in 2002 that Saddam is a jerk," that is a matter of fact, that can be proven or rejected based on evidence.

And it's very well to say, "I knew in 2002 Saddam had no WMD, because everything Bush says is a lie," well, then you were right, but not in a way that earns you any respect from me, or encourages me to credit any other beliefs you may hold.

And in fact some of the commenters essentially said that. E.g.: "I doubted each and every part of Bush's case for war in 2002/2003 because I hated George W. Bush." Yes, someone actually wrote that.

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