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Four Reasons for a Mistake

By Matthew Yglesias on August 19, 2010 at 5:28 pm

"Four Reasons for a Mistake"

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In response to my post on Howard Dean’s wise February 2003 speech about Iraq a few correspondents have asked me to revisit my own war thinking in 2002. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of exercise because I think it shades into excuse-making, but in retrospect you can think of four strands of argumentation:

1. Erroneous views of foreign policy in general: At the time, I adhered to the school of thought (popular at the time) which held that one major problem in the world was that the US government was unduly constrained in the use of force abroad by domestic politics. More forceful intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo had all been called for. This led to a general predisposition in favor of military adventurism.

2. Elite signaling: When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously. I knew that Carl Levin & Nancy Pelosi were on the other side, but the bulk of the leading Democratic voices on national security and foreign policy issues were in favor of the war. So was Tony Blair. These were credible people whose views I took seriously.

3. Misreading the politics: It seemed to me that the political consequences to George W Bush of invading Iraq to disrupt a nuclear weapons program and then discovering that there was no such program would be disastrous. Presidents do have access to secret intelligence, and it seemed nutty to me to suggest that the administration would be engaged in a massive, easily-debunked-after-the fact lie. Similarly, I didn’t take all the democracy-talk very seriously but the “better than Saddam” humanitarian standard is a low bar and I figured Bush wouldn’t be doing this unless he said some reasonable plan for extricating our forces and stabilizing the situation.

4. Kenneth Pollack: The formal case for war that I found compelling was Kenneth Pollack’s “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” I discuss this book in some detail in my own book, but to make a long story short its argumentative structure is badly flawed. Roughly speaking he says “if we invade Iraq and a pony shows up, that will be better than the alternatives, therefore invading Iraq is better than trying to muddle through.” Which is great, except we’re missing the pony! This problem is what Robert Farley’s Jedi Principle is about.

So that’s that. You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people. The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.

Anyways, one thing that’s always puzzled me is why other war supporters were so slow to turn against it. As I intimated in this morning post, notwithstanding any of the above considerations it was clear to me that something was badly amiss as soon as Bush/Blair/Aznar pulled the plug on the inspections process. By a couple of months later, it seemed pretty clear that there was no scary WMD program and also that there was no real plan for what to do. But it seems to have taken all the way until 2005-2006 for “this was a mistake” to become a conventional view even though no really important new information became available during the interim.

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