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Wishful Thinking Collides With Reality
Well, who woulda thunk it...after all we've done for them in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite aren't exactly joining hands and singing Kumbayah.

Canadian MP and former Harvard poly sci prof Michael Ignatieff writes for The New York Times Magazine on errors in judgment on Iraq stemming from a failure to grasp what it's like out there in the real world:

We might test judgment by asking, on the issue of Iraq, who best anticipated how events turned out. But many of those who correctly anticipated catastrophe did so not by exercising judgment but by indulging in ideology. They opposed the invasion because they believed the president was only after the oil or because they believed America is always and in every situation wrong.

The people who truly showed good judgment on Iraq predicted the consequences that actually ensued but also rightly evaluated the motives that led to the action. They did not necessarily possess more knowledge than the rest of us. They labored, as everyone did, with the same faulty intelligence and lack of knowledge of Iraq’s fissured sectarian history. What they didn’t do was take wishes for reality. They didn’t suppose, as President Bush did, that because they believed in the integrity of their own motives everyone else in the region would believe in it, too. They didn’t suppose that a free state could arise on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn’t suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn’t believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq. They avoided all these mistakes.

I made some of these mistakes and then a few of my own. The lesson I draw for the future is to be less influenced by the passions of people I admire — Iraqi exiles, for example — and to be less swayed by my emotions. I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go. My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror? I should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying and in matters of ultimate political judgment, nothing, not even your own feelings, should be held immune from the burden of justification through cross-examination and argument.

Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then, it is doubtful that warning bells had ever sounded in him before. He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound.

People with good judgment listen to warning bells within. Prudent leaders force themselves to listen equally to advocates and opponents of the course of action they are thinking of pursuing. They do not suppose that their own good intentions will guarantee good results. They do not suppose they know all they need to know. If power corrupts, it corrupts this sixth sense of personal limitation on which prudence relies.

Posted by aalkon at August 5, 2007 9:15 AM

Comments

Ignatieff is a wickedly ambitious political animal... Maybe in the circles he moves in, this is the hour where those who supported invasion must recant.

The rest of us are not burdened with this, and are not untroubled by imagining what horrors would have been visited upon the region if we'd not invaded. Calling this "catastrophe" is a fun to elide the specifics of other outcomes. It's bad over there. Was it ever going to be good?

> They [anti-invaders] didn’t suppose
> that a free state could arise on the
> foundations of 35 years of police
> terror.

That's a pre-emptive defense of his new friends, and it's wickedly cute. No anti-invasion partisan I ever encountered made any such nuanced prediction... They never described how the political gears might grind (beyond warning that our troops would be poisoned with nerve gas). The arguments were more along the lines that war is not healthy for children and other living things, never acknowledging that the "peace" of that moment wasn't doing much good for anyone, either. If anti-invasion types were so learned and knowledgable about these Native Peoples and their Exotic Customs, why didn't they --even one of them-- tell us how this was going to happen before it did? Saying "A war will have bad consequences!" says almost nothing at all.

The editorial board of the New York Times laps it up. They suck it through a straw from a sweaty glass.

> If power corrupts, it corrupts
> this sixth sense of personal
> limitation on which prudence
> relies.

I love that! The NYT people are all about humility through secret powers! They have these special interior mechanisms that aren't available to the hoi polloi and Republicans!

Democrats are unable to leave bad enough alone. Rather than let Bush thundering failures speak for themselves, Democrats feel compelled to salt the wounds, condescending to the Bush voters (and many, many others) in the process.

It could cost them 2008... It would be appalling but not entirely surprising... You read it here first, OK?

Posted by: Crid at August 5, 2007 10:44 AM

I'm still kinda amazed that Kennedy didn't go to war during the missile crises...many generals told him to fry Cuba. What held him back???

Posted by: The Mad Hungarian at August 5, 2007 1:44 PM

Crid, you're completely correct that the simplicity and stupidity of the anti-war people. I saw the demonstrations, and their failure to get that anything has changed in the world since Nixon's days was clear. But not everyone was so simplistic. Bush was warned that the Iraq war policy risked causing a civil war, empowering Iran, and encouraging global terrorism. And yet neither he nor his military leadership took any serious steps to plan for this possibility or to even prepare the American people that it was a possibility. Key quote:

Months before the invasion of Iraq, U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that it would be likely to spark violent sectarian divides and provide al-Qaeda with new opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report released yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Analysts warned that war in Iraq also could provoke Iran to assert its regional influence and "probably would result in a surge of political Islam and increased funding for terrorist groups" in the Muslim world.

Posted by: justin case at August 5, 2007 3:18 PM

Justin Case gets exactly why I posted this piece -- the outrageous naivete and denial of those leading us into war, and the way they squashed like bugs anyone who suggested they might be naive and uninformed, including those who supported their arguments with more than mere opinion.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 5, 2007 3:42 PM

The Mad Hungarian,

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US received two messages from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one quite conciliatory and the other much more hawkish. Kennedy was siding with the Joint Chiefs on taking the hawkish message was the real Khruschev. One voice of opposition within Kennedy's Cabinet that openly disagreed with the POTUS. His name was Llewellyn Thompson. He said in a cabinet meeting with the Joint Cheifs (with Curtis LeMay present): "Mr. President, you are wrong." In the actual recording you could hear a pin drop from the stunned silence.

Thompson, who had lived with Khrushchev and his wife for a time and knew him well, advised Kennedy to react to the first message, saying the second had probably been written with generals looking over Khrushchev's shoulder. Thompson's belief was that Khrushchev would be willing to withdraw the Soviet missiles as long as he could portray the avoidance of a U.S. invasion of Cuba as a strategic success.

But JFK was open and willing to listen to differing views and then make a sound judgment with RFK and McNamara keeping the Joint Cheifs at bay.

Posted by: Joe at August 5, 2007 3:43 PM

But JFK was open and willing to listen to differing views and then make a sound judgment with RFK and McNamara keeping the Joint Cheifs at bay.

That's the mindset I'd like to see in a president.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 5, 2007 4:47 PM

Three simple lessons from the Iraq mess for a future POTUS:

1. The USA is the sole superpower in the world, but that doesn't make us an omniscient.

2. The USA cannot act unilaterally, unless the nation is threatened directly. A threat based on facts, intelligence and data. Not speculation, opinions or beliefs. (i.e. the fear of a smoldering city from a terrorist getting a suitcase nuke scenario or to reform a culturally involuntary region of the world.)

3. It is the job of the POTUS to keep us out of war at all costs, unless it is in act of self defense.

Posted by: Joe at August 5, 2007 5:16 PM

­>> Months before the invasion
>> of Iraq, U.S. intelligence
>> agencies predicted that it
>> would be likely to spark
>> violent sectarian divides

So there it is... As late as (say) Dec 2002, intelligence could only describe the probability of violence as "likely." (At least, that's how an Administration-whipping WaPo piece chooses to characterize the report.) This handsomely complements the broader failure of intelligence preceding 9/11: Partisans of any stripe will find something to argue with (“We were warned!” “No we weren't!”) This is as good a reason as any to de-fund intelligence. It's composers and champions will always, always insist on these ass-coverings for their own sinister purposes.

Best passage:

>> reports, however, predicted
>> that establishing a stable
>> democratic government would
>> be a long challenge because
>> Iraq's political culture did "not
>> foster liberalism or democracy"
>> and there was "no concept of
>> loyal opposition and no history
>> of alternation of power."

Did anyone think this wouldn't be a long challenge? In the big picture, is there any other path, or are we going to have to do this someday no matter what? Has the growing distance from the attack on our own soil given anyone the idea that these are people who can be bargained with?

> they squashed like bugs

Well, they won the argument, if that's what you mean.

> anyone who suggested
> they might be naïve

Two naives in one paragraph? As always, nothing is more important about GWB than saying that he's stupid.

> Thompson, who had lived
> with Khrushchev and his wife
> for a time and knew him well,
> advised Kennedy to react to
> the first message

Schlesinger said in one of the books that he'd suggested answering only the gentler missive by describing some passage of romantic deceit from some novel. I wouldn't doubt it came from Thompson. (The movie a few years ago brought the idea to the table from no one in particular.)

> that doesn't make us
> an omniscient.

We don't need to be!

> USA cannot act unilaterally,
> unless the nation is
> threatened directly.

Says who? Guys, Saddam Hussein and his sons are off the air, and that's just plain good. Besides, which “nation” needs to be threatened? I guess you're saying Kurdistan will never be a nation. OK by me, but these grievances were going to be expressed eventually.

> the fear of a smoldering city
> from a terrorist getting a
> suitcase nuke

This scenario/primetime-drama-plot is getting very tired indeed. Its prevalence and easy digestion means government will always be able to use it for its most obnoxious intrusions anyway... There's no need to aid the Gonzales types by presuming this playscript is probable. Any nuke is a suitcase nuke.

> It is the job of the POTUS
> to keep us out of war at
> all costs

“All costs”? Again, says who? I can imagine all sorts of intolerable costs that don't involve an attack on American blood or treasure.

Posted by: Crid at August 5, 2007 6:30 PM

Crid, you miss a key point here, and it's something that is biting the Bush people in the ass pretty hard which is this:

If they knew there was a decent chance - not even that it was likely - that Iraq would devolve into sectarian strife, and very well might be a long, hard, necessary slog taking some hellish mess of a country and turning it into a functional democracy, why in the hell wouldn't they: 1) prepare for this contingency, 2) tell the American people that this was a possibility, 3) make the case that it had to be done regardless of WMD? Instead, they hung their whole case on weapons, told us it would be easy, prepared for the aftermath of the war as if it would be easy, and now they're almost certainly going to lose the war (but blame the Democrats!). If they thought it was necessary for us to win in Iraq, fine. But they sure haven't acted like it.

Posted by: justin case at August 5, 2007 7:35 PM

Did anyone think this wouldn't be a long challenge? -Crid

YES, the presidnt and his yes men.

Posted by: lujlp at August 5, 2007 9:01 PM

> 1) prepare for this
> contingency

It's hard to prepare for investments of that magnitude. I bought a house but work freelance... In an important and very real sense, my financial life ends with the next paycheck in approximately 9 days. Should I sell the place? The market's down this year.

Mostly this ties in with #2:

> tell the American people
> that this was a possibility

Um, we got into this at Welch's once... Did anyone seriously think that we weren't going to be in Iraq for a very long time? I mean, we've always been in Iraq. For the first two thirds of my life before the invasion, we were their as puppeteers to Saddam, and for the last third we were there (to the border at least) by Desert Storm and the No-Fly zones. We were there in our manipulations of every surrounding nation going back at least to WWII and probably well beyond.

Was there ever a scheme by which the flow, price and destinations of their oil would not be of interest to the superpower? What would that look like? When people say "Lets get out of Iraq!" what do they mean?

> 3) make the case that
> it had to be done
> regardless of WMD?

As far as I'm concerned, they did. I never worried about Saddam's WMDs, never met a Statesider who did, and was ready (at a late hour) to support invasion anyway. The administration's comments about WMDs during the runnup had a discomfiting impact, but it's the present political consequences of them, more than their superfluous mongering at the time, that's most troubling: As mentioned above, continued obsession with WMDs wounds my political party, the Democrats.

Short version, deets & links on request (we've covered this many times here): Following mandate upon mandate from the United Nations, the legal and moral onus was on Saddam Hussein to account for his WMDs, and he declined. At a late hour with our soldiers clawing at his hem, he dropped off a multi-thousand page piece of documentation at Turtle Bay. About half of it was a direct, shameless duplication of an earlier report that had been discounted (spurring the Blix inspections) and the rest was smoke and noise. Even then, the weapons listed in that report have never been accounted for. Almost nothing has been found, probably owing to the slow of unraveling of his military power which so benefited our invaders. Forget the weapons he admittedhaving... Does anyone really think he had nothing? This was the guy who used to bury Migs in the desert sand: http://urltea.com/15dp (Later articles tied this behavior into Iraqi cultural norms and superstitions, but details are forgotten.)

People, fat Americans especially, are notoriously short-sighted. All the voters --at least, all the left and all but a smidge of the center-- are ready to fork this Administration, though they seem tellingly unwilling to trust the legislators who are paid to balance executive authority. I think it would be a mistake to impeach him, because we don't want to run this show like a banana republic.

Duzzen madder. George Bush's work in history is done. We were going to be there anyway, and he chose the explicit route. People who wanted the best from American foreign policy but couldn't find words or courage to paint a picture of how it should look are nonetheless going to be expected to do so now. You want "out?" Here come the keys....

Posted by: Crid at August 5, 2007 11:05 PM

I suspect anything we say about Ignatieff's piece is irrelevant, since most of us posting here (I assume) are not movers and shakers in Toronto, Ottawa, or Vancouver.

Back in 2003 I nearly killed a few friendships by supporting the war. Fortunately no one has ever let me within a hundred feet of a US military base or anything similar, so it never mattered, but I read Ignatieff's piece with some sympathy, having made all the mistakes he made and then some.

What I have since said to my husband, who marched against the war, was that if you had asked me in 2003 what Iraq would look like in 2007, given invasion, I would have predicted something like Indonesia, which has a lot of similarities -- oil, a long-sitting despot (in Suharto), nasty inter-ethnic conflict, a strange geographic setup, a large Muslim population -- and yet seems to be relatively peaceful, democratic, and stable right now. But I underestimated the amount of stability in Saddam's Iraq and massively overestimated the American ability to seal the borders and keep control.

I'm not sure where all this breast-beating leaves those of us who supported the war, though. Learn from one's mistakes... if the mistake is, "Don't go making foreign-policy judgments about areas you don't know," how does the average voter make judgments about 90% of the current foreign-policy crises? (And I'm speaking specifically of voters here, not elected officials, who have better resources to draw from.)

Posted by: Jessica at August 6, 2007 8:20 AM

It's hard to prepare for investments of that magnitude. I bought a house but work freelance...

Hard but not impossible, no? I assume that you: 1) save cash to put away to protect yourself in case it's a while between jobs, and 2) are probably working contacts and etc. to find the next job before you're done with this one. In the same way, our military and leadership had plenty of time to prepare for Iraq and prepare the people for what it would entail. We attacked at a time and place of our choosing...

Duzzen madder. George Bush's work in history is done.

True. And per his usual M.O., he's leaving a gargantuan mess behind him (was being governor of Texas the only thing he didn't screw up?). The next person chosen to be president has a huge challenge to face. You note Congress' lack of oversight success here, which is true. I'm not impressed at that, nor am I impressed with the plans they've put forward. But you do know that the President's party in the Senate has basically been blocking all legislation that would allow Congress to affect Iraq policy? In the President's mind - Congress approved the war and it's their duty to now fund it (his way only. kthxbye). If he's going to act this way, he owns this war. Bad, ugly, or worse.

if the mistake is, "Don't go making foreign-policy judgments about areas you don't know," how does the average voter make judgments about 90% of the current foreign-policy crises? (And I'm speaking specifically of voters here, not elected officials, who have better resources to draw from.)

Great question. Most people aren't able to make these judgments. That's why the judgment of our elected leaders matters so much. The mistake was one we've made before and will make again - we elected someone who had poor judgment. It's always a tough thing to know - some of the most experienced politicians (e.g., Johnson, Nixon) can be terrible in this regard; some of the less experienced can be solid (Truman, Lincoln, Eisenhower, maybe Kennedy).

The only thing I see as (possibly) an informative pattern with Bush is that he had a real pattern of screwing up until he ended up as governor of Texas (which by most accounts, he did OK at). So maybe we look for a history of good decisions? I'm not even sure about this one. What I look for is a person who seems to have character. And Bush never struck me as being a person of character. Two telling things that came out a long time ago: 1) That he let his campaign use racist smears against John McCain 2) That he mocked a woman whose death warrant he signed. No man of character does these things.


Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 9:31 AM

Justin, Richard Posner had a great post on leadership on the Becker-Posner blog a few weeks ago. He was basically discussing how one can rise to a particular position based on one's intelligence and technocratic knowledge, but once one reaches a certain position of leadership (CEO, or president, or president of a university -- he discusses Larry Summers's problems at Harvard) one has to have a certain amount of humility and willingness to listen to dissenting voices. And it's very hard to make the transition from Position A ("I know everything, listen to me") to Position B ("I don't know everything, I should listen to the people around me").

Posted by: Jessica at August 6, 2007 9:41 AM

> The next person chosen to
> be president has a huge
> challenge to face.

They would have that anyway. Aiiieeee!

> Learn from one's mistakes...

Please, please please, sumbuddy tell me... COMPARED TO WHAT?

(Note: Caps to convey emphasis!)

How were things ever going to be going well? Given the attacks of 9/11, how might our safety on the continent since then have been better protected then it has in the years since? (In October '01, were you expect more planes and anthrax? I certainly was....) Were we going to guarantee the safety of the Kurds and southern regions as we had through the No-Fly Zones, or were we going to give that up? Were we going to find some clever, hidden way to kill the sons and re-flood the marshes? How exactly were we going to remind the Saudis who's who and what's what? And were we ever, ever going to be able to count on these other other super-evolved nations who are now so angry with us to do anything?... To finance any enterprise but corruption, or two rick their blood to defy any evil?

This is like a knock-knock joke with no Who's There? It's narcissistic failure porn. Catastrophe compared to what?

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 10:26 AM

Risk. Risk their blood, I meant.

Rebecca you should come here more often, we need more Posner enthusiasts.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 10:57 AM

In October '01, were you expect more planes and anthrax? I certainly was....

No, and no. Maybe because my wife worked for an airline at the time and I knew some of how they changed their policies regarding dealing with hijacking, but it was pretty clear that hijackers flying into buildings was a one-time deal. And the anthrax was almost certainly a lone nut in the U.S.

What you present is a false dichotomy, Crid. Between doing noting in Iraq and doing it the way we did it. What if, instead, we had mustered the forces to really occupy the country, prevent the looting, protect infrastructure and maintain order following the invasion? Sealed the borders to prevent the influx of arms and terrorists from other places? I think it's almost certain that these measures would have helped to solve some of the problems we now face. Instead, we did things in a half-assed fashion, and now face a situation where the options seem to go from bad to worse.

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 11:22 AM

> Between doing noting in
> Iraq and doing it the way
> we did it.

No no no, quite the opposite! I'm the guy who wants people to remember all the different ways this could have gone, instead of saying the world is dark and hurtful because of something Karl Rove did.

> if, instead, we had mustered
> the forces to really occupy
> the country

Did you suggest that in 2003, that we go in bigger? Did you want us to seal the borders and call it the 51st state? Or are you just a Justin-come-lately, one of those surge-y types?

> hijackers flying into buildings
> was a one-time deal.

Absolutely true. Someone said the era of the civilian airliner-as-missile lasted an hour and a half, from the time the first flight was commandeered to the time that the revolt took down Flt 93.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 12:05 PM

Quick backtrack: I never mean to imply that the Bish administration did this right. Only that those who say invasion shouldn't have been done unless it quickly and bloodlessly answered every problem in the Middle East aren't going to lead the way for us, either... Especially when these same people say there was going to be civil war there no matter what.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 12:10 PM

Did you suggest that in 2003, that we go in bigger? Did you want us to seal the borders and call it the 51st state? Or are you just a Justin-come-lately, one of those surge-y types?

I wasn't a supporter of invading in 2003. I thought we had unfinished business with bin Laden, and that Iraq was a contained threat. But since we were clearly going to Iraq anyway in 2003, I always thought that we needed more troops for the occupation and said so to people who were supporters of the invasion (they were dismissive of this, having bought the idea that just toppling Saddam's regime would be enough). No surge-y type here - I think that falls into the too-little/too-late kinda thing.

Only that those who say invasion shouldn't have been done unless it quickly and bloodlessly answered every problem in the Middle East aren't going to lead the way for us, either..

OK. That wasn't clear to me. I agree.

Posted by: justin case at August 6, 2007 12:32 PM

WHoops, I said Rebecca but meant Jessica.

Posted by: Crid at August 6, 2007 12:57 PM

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