Tuesday, January 16, 2007

We Were Right About Iraq (updated)

There is this idiotic meme going around on the right-wing and liberal hawk blogs that liberals and others who opposed the initial invasion of Iraq should get no credit for having done so, on the theory that since their opposition was not premised on the exact consequences of the war as we have seen them unfold before us, they were therefore "right for the wrong reasons." This is a patently absurd argument that I barely have the patience to refute here. Here's an example of this foolishness, from the blog linked to above:

This has not convinced me of the brilliance of the doves, because precisely none of the ones that I argued with predicted that things would go wrong in the way they did. If you get the right result, with the wrong mechanism, do you get credit for being right, or being lucky? In some way, they got it just as wrong as I did: nothing that they predicted came to pass. It's just that independantly, things they didn't predict made the invasion not work. If I say we shouldn't go to dinner downtown because we're going to be robbed, and we don't get robbed but we do get food poisoning, was I "right"? Only in some trivial sense. Food poisoning and robbery are completely unrelated, so my belief that we would regret going to dinner was validated only by random chance. Yet, the incident will probably increase my confidence in my prediction abilities, even though my prediction was 100% wrong.

Such logic is often described as "tortured." It is an accurate adjective, because in fact one must inflict pain and damage upon the dictates of reason to arrive at such a result. This debate so twists logic that even the likes of Kevin Drum can be confused by it:

On the other hand, I think there's a problem with Atrios's response to Max Sawicky, who had criticized the early war supporters for latching onto the wrong reasons for opposing the war. Here's Atrios:

I'm sure all of these criticisms were made by many on blogs including mine, but they were just extra criticisms thrown in there in various ways in an attempt to engage the dominant discourse of the times.

....But nonetheless most people rejected the concept of "pre-emptive war" and rejected the notion that even if WMD claims were all correct Saddam was an actual threat in any way to this country. That was the point that I remember most of us desperately trying to communicate, even if other arguments were used to try to further the general cause of stopping the goddamn war.
Question: If this really was the primary critique among the anti-war left, has the Iraq war vindicated them? I'm not sure I see it. The fact that Iraq is a clusterfuck doesn't demonstrate that preemptive war is wrong any more than WWII demonstrated that wars using Sherman tanks are right. It's the wrong unit of analysis. After all, Iraq didn't fail because it was preemptive (though that didn't help); it failed either because George Bush is incompetent or because militarized nation building in the 21st century is doomed to failure no matter who does it. Preemption per se had very little to do with it, and the argument against preemptive war, which is as much moral as pragmatic, is pretty much the same today as it was in 2002.
Kevin means "preventive war", not "pre-emptive war" as he explains in an update to his post, but the point remains the same. And Iraq quite clearly demonstrates that preventive war is wrong. Even if Saddam had had all of the WMD the Bush administration had attributed to him, he was still in no position to seriously threaten us with them. Thus our preventive war which anticipated him as some future unknown threat, was actually a war of aggression, and thus illegal. The point maybe the same now as it was in 2002, but those who opposed the war on that grounds, are just as right now about it as they were then. And Kevin assumes such a basis is the "primary critique" of the anti-war left. That may or may not be true; I wasn't reading blogs as much then as I do now. But I was certainly reading the works of many who were opposed to the war not only for that reason, but for many others (including Scott Ritter, whose opposition Glenn Greenwald discusses here.) In fact, in my lengthy comment on Kevin's blog, I reiterated some of the other reasons we opposed the war. For convenience I'll simply repost my comment here in full:

First of all, let's clear up some terminology. Pre-emptive war is when you attack someone who is about to attack you. Preventive war is when you attack someone who could attack you at some point in the near or not-so-near future. We waged a preventive war, which international law does not accept to be anything different than an illegal war of aggression. I understand that the terms pre-emptive and preventive are merely two different points on a scale, but in the philosophy of war and politics they mean two different things, and we ought to be clear about that.

If I had believed that Saddam was about to launch an attack on us, thus making our war pre-emptive, I would have supported it. He was not, and therefore I did not. Even if one accepted that he had WMD, he was in no position to threaten us with them, which is the necessary requirement for a legal pre-emptive war to be waged. I was opposed to our war because by the standards of international law it was a war of aggression and thus illegal and immoral, and I opposed it whether or not Saddam had WMDs or not, because I was not convinced that he was about to use them on us. Even if we had found the WMDs, the war would STILL have been illegal unless we found some evidence that Saddam was about to order an imminent attack on us or our interests overseas.

Secondly, I didn't trust the administration not to use this war for their own purposes. I think the events of 2002 gave us plenty of evidence that we could not trust this administration to act solely in the best interests of the nation, or to even know what that meant. And lastly, I did not predict that Iraq would dissolve into an atrocious civil war. I did however predict that the Iraqis would not be as happy to be invaded as those idiots on the right thought they would be, and I also warned people that I spoke to about my opposition that wars are not something you can keep control over. If you kick over a brutally repressive government, you do not know what will emerge in it's place.

I do not think there is some sort of requirement that the anti-invasion crowd have to have predicted the exact consequences of this war to have been right about it. It was right to be opposed to it even if the consequences turned out favorably to us and the Iraqis, because it was an illegal war of aggression in the first place. And it was right to be opposed to in general on the suspicion that the occupation would not go as well as hoped, and that the Bush administration would manage the occupation as badly as feared.

Yes, by those standards the only people who don't get credit are the ones who oppose all wars, all the time. But even in that case it's still difficult to argue with someone who's right, even if they got to their conclusion the wrong way. Fact is, if we had listened only to the anti-war all the time crowd, wouldn't we nonetheless be better off? The answer is, unquestionably, yes.

In other words, stop quibbling over details. The "anti-war left" was opposed to the war for a variety of reasons, from "war is wrong" to "this war is wrong" to "God only knows what this will do to Iraq." Some were right for the "wrong" reasons, but plenty were right for the "right" reasons. That they did not anticipate the absolute horror that has become the Iraq civil war in every horrific detail, makes them no less right for having opposed it in the first place.

UPDATE: KC also addresses this meme with the sarcasm and derision that it deserves.

UPDATE II: Kevin is still unsure that the Iraq war in particular provides a good argument against preventive war, in that the horrible consequences of the war are not the result of the war being preventive. I don't quite believe that this is the case, as I try to explain in a comment:

Why is the distinction [between pre-emptive and preventive war] important? I can't say it any better than [commentor] Rat does above:

Iraq is a very good example of how preventive wars, relative to preemptive wars, are much more likely to be based on false threats.

This is exactly the point. Preventive wars are waged for far less clear reasons than pre-emptive wars are, because the bar is set so low. There's so much room for error, because almost anyone can dream up any kind of quasi-convincing rationale for launching a war on someone who MIGHT attack you at a later point in time. As rat says, the low bar that permits a preventative war to be waged in the first place, permits bogus arguments about over-hyped and intangible threats. And while one is busy hyping reason for a war of dubious legality and morality, one is also probably underestimating the likely consequences of that war. So while yes one can argue that preventive wars are always wrong, there is also a relationship between preventive wars and the failure to anticipate the consequences of that war. The quagmire we're in now does not retroactively and automatically justify opposition to the war in Iraq as a preventive war, but had we waited until the threat was imminent, and our war thus pre-emptive, wouldn't that have altered our reasons for invading? Wouldn't we be invading not as part of some grand democratic experiment, but merely to defuse the threat to ourselves? And if we had waited until the threat to ourselves was the overwhelming rationale, would we be talking about a grand experiment in democracy? I hardly think so.

I guess what I'm saying is the atmosphere that permits the "doctrine" of preventive war to be bandied about (without the recognition that preventive war is illegal war) is an atmosphere that permits one to be blissfully unaware of the consequences of the war. This has nowhere been proven to be more true than in Iraq.

To reiterate, whereas the primary argument against the war in Iraq may have been the argument against the legality and morality of a preventive war, it was not the sole argument. But even if such an argument were the sole argument, the unforseen consequences in Iraq do in fact support just such an argument. Had we been responsible enough to wait to wage war until a time at which the threat to ourselves was quite clear, we also most likely would have been responsible enough to try to anticipate and prevent unforseen negative consequences of the invasion.

The liberal and progressive opponents of the war are still right.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

Oh, you know these people. They'll rationalize war on anyone for any reason, but they'll never accept that liberals are right.

For the record, I opposed the war because I didn't believe Saddam had WMDs and I didn't believe that he was a threat, or would be a threat even if he did have them. And I didn't believe in the WMDs not because I'm anti-war, but because no one ever made a compelling case for them. So...I was right all the way around. But I also don't believe in a first-strike philosophy. Being the world's "defender of freedom" doesn't mean that we go around enforcing our will on anyone. Furthermore, our strategy of stand-off with the Soviet Union worked. Why was Iraq more of a threat than the USSR? Well, it wasn't. It wasn't even a 100th of the threat that the USSR was, but this war was politically expedient. That point has been proven over and over again, but these right-wing nuts are saying that just because they were wrong about how the war would turn out, they weren't wrong about why we should go to war. And that's why we need to be here repeating the message over and over again: going to war was wrong and why it was wrong still matters.