Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Kevin on Those Who Were Correct:

From Kevin Drum:

I'll have more to say about this over the next few days, but for now I'd just like to mention one thing. I've seen a lot of lefty critics who have hammered Packer because he supported the war and, in their eyes, hasn't been forthcoming enough about admitting he was wrong about that. Michael Hirsh led the charge here in these pages a couple of months ago. I have three words for these critics: get over yourselves. Perhaps someday we'll ship Packer and his fellow liberal hawks off to reeducation camps and force tearful confessions of doctrinal error out of them, but for now partisans on both sides could do worse than admit that the world comes in shades of gray and neither success nor failure in Iraq was quite as preordained as you might think. A little bit of difficulty figuring out where you stand on the war isn't quite the moral failing some seem to think it is.
Kevin, that isn't what happened and you know it. Yes, there are shades of grey, but that doesn't mean that a person who hasn't been blinded can't tell the difference between off-white and near-black. That failure wasn't practically preordained is definitely an open question too: a violent insurgency had been a strong possibility from the beginning, and it could easily have been worse than it has been.

Considering what has happened, though, what on earth is the reason to "get over ourselves"? Critics were derided then and are (incredibly) derided now that they've shown they were right, and were the enterprise successful, the "liberal hawks would not be defending the "anti-war left" now. That they weren't right, yet expect forbearance for mistakes of judgement that could easily happen again, simply doesn't make sense.

The comment, by the by, was contained within a review of Assassin's Gate, a book by George Packer on the war and what happened. I haven't red the book and don't presume to be able to judge it, but there was one other thing related to it that I wanted to mention;

Blog readers know a fair bit of this history already from magazine articles and newspaper reporting, but as I was saying a few days ago, the only way to really know a subject is to read a book. It's true that most of us don't remember everything we read in books, but that's not the point: only when you get the whole story, in all its glorious detail and told all at once, do you really get a narrative sense of what happened. That's what Packer has done in Assassins' Gate.
Don't get me wrong- I love books, and narrative especially. That said, there is always a danger of a book like this forcing events and motivations into fitting said narrative. Real life is often random at best, and history often doesn't fit convenient narratives.

I'm not saying this is a weakness of Packer's book, I'm not able to judge: but this is a potential problem with any attempt to take a complex event and summarize it in 200-300 pages. I think Drum needs to be aware of this.

Edit: The commentators on Drum's site are engaged in an all-out war over this. There is a good point there that needs to be made, though: the "liberal hawks" have never admitted that they were wrong. They have admitted that Bush is incompetent and that they shouldn't have put their faith in him, but their faith in the idea that it was a good idea to go into Iraq, period, has seemed to have never wavered. This issue still very much matters, because any future administration doing this is going to argue that they will "do it right", and the danger exists that the liberal hawks will roll right back in and back these guys.

(Especially if they're Democrats.)

Admitting that Bush screwed it up is very different than admitting that the whole thing was a bad idea. Mixing those up doesn't get anybody anywhere, because it's the latter point that is important.

Further Edit: Greg Sargent argues that the problem was not doctrine, but judgement. He does a good job of highlighting why judgement is important, but there's a fundamental problem.

The problem is that doctrine can cloud judgement, and the question remains as to whether or not doctrine did in the eyes of the "liberal hawks" (not, as he seems to suggest, merely Bush and his friends.) The doctrine in question, I'd say, is that of being "reasonable", "mainstream", and "bipartisan" over all else, and that classic doctrine of American exceptionalism, but these things are open to dispute.

What isn't open to dispute, however, is that the judgement was flawed, and that the question of "why" needs to be addressed more deeply than "whoops, I didn't realize that Bush's crew were incompetent".

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