Reason, Truth and History

by Kieran Healy on July 26, 2003

Dan Drezner weighs in about the reasons for the war in Iraq and, in particular, whether a President might be justified in lying to the country in order to invade. Steven Den Beste believes that the nation wasn’t told the real reason for invading, but that the ends justify the means. Josh Marshall thinks that this is unjustifiable.

Dan argues as follows:

1) They’re both wrong on the ethical question. Marshall and Den Beste assert deception because they both assume a monocausal argument for why the U.S. went to war. The truth is much messier.
Quick, why did the Northern states fight the Civil War—to end slavery or to preserve the Union? Did Germany decide to enter World War I because of its fear of Britain’s existing power, its concern over Russia’s emerging power, or its reliance on a grand strategy that stressed offensive military operations? …
bq. Scratch an honest historian or international relations scholar, and s/he will tell you that all of these answers have some validity. States often go to war for a melange of reasons that go beyond self-defense. …
This is why I can’t accept the “Bush lied” meme. I agree with Marshall and Den Beste that the administration emphasized the WMD issue more than the others. However, Saddam’s treatment of his citizens and the desire to spread democracy to the Middle East were mentioned on a fairly regular basis. There is a clear dividing line between lying and spinning, and the administration’s explanations for why an invasion of Iraq would be a just war fall into the latter category.
On the ethical question then, I guess I side with Den Beste.

Dan begins by saying both Den Beste and Marshall are wrong on the ethical question, but a few paragraphs later he says Den Beste is right. I think he does this because he moves the goalposts along the way. A historical explanation for why any large event—the U.S. Civil War, World War I—happened will most likely be complex and highlight multiple factors. Historians will happily debate them ad nauseam. However, Bush’s critics are not looking in the first place for an explanation of this sort. They want to know what the President’s reasons were for going to war: the reasons he was obliged to give the country as a democratically elected leader. The answer to that question is simpler and more direct than the grand historical issue. This is why Marshall can properly ask:

So, why is this little matter of the uranium statements such a big deal? Because it is a concrete, demonstrable example of the administration’s bad faith in how it led the country to war. To date that bad-faith has been all too apparent on many fronts.

The cold eye of history will judge the war, the reasons for it and its ultimate success or failure. But we don’t live in the light of hindsight. We’re stuck here now, uncertain of the future but lucky enough to live in a political system where leaders are bound at least in principle to give us good reasons for their actions, especially when it comes to something like a war. The likes of Den Beste can put on their cowboy hats, assume they’re part of the in-crowd and confidently assert that the big picture, or the drift of history and geopolitics, or the situation in the long-run, is sufficient to overcome scruples about misleading the public. But one of the chief projects of conservative thought over the past fifty years has been to dismantle the idea that a leader, a social class, or a nation can confidently assume that History is on its side. It’s odd to see the conservatives themselves, of all people, now moving toward the view that the need to adhere to the telos of history trumps the notion of democratic accountability in day-to-day politics.

{ 12 comments }

1

James Joyner 07.26.03 at 12:31 pm

But, Kieran, you heard all the pre-war speeches, including SOTU. You’ve certainly read about the pre-war justifications ad nauseum since.

From my own SOTU summary:

  • Saddam promised to give up WMD when he lost Gulf War I
  • International agencies found the presence/ability to produce:
    • 25,000 liters of anthrax
    • 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin
    • 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent
    • 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents
    • several mobile biological weapons labs. . .designed to produce germ warfare agents
    • an advanced nuclear weapons development program, had a design for a nuclear weapon and was working on five different methods of enriching uranium for a bomb
  • Saddam refused to explain or account for any of this despite numerous UN resolutions and the threat of war
  • Saddam is intimidating and otherwise denying UN inspectors the ability to do their job
  • The threat of action by Saddam is NOT IMMINENT.
  • 9/11 showed the danger of waiting too late.
  • Saddam is has used WMD on his own people and continues to torture them
  • We’re coming to liberate the Iraqi people

Obviously, the argument was multicausal and always has been. The WMD argument was certainly overemphasized, although I think mainly because it was the angle with the firmest international law/UN foundation. But there was all manner of evidence, long predating this administration, that Saddam had WMD.

2

Chris Bertram 07.26.03 at 12:50 pm

The reasons Bush had for going to war may have been multiple. The (not necessarily conclusive) impersonal reasons why war might have been justified could generate an even longer list. But the legal justification advanced by both the US and UK governments was much narrower and people have every right to press them on it.

3

Jon 07.26.03 at 1:37 pm

“But one of the chief projects of conservative thought over the past fifty years has been to dismantle the idea that a leader, a social class, or a nation can confidently assume that History is on its side.”

I guess that’s why they call them “neo-conservatives.”

4

Timothy Quigley 07.26.03 at 2:53 pm

Nice bit of analysis by Kieran and an important distinction between explanation and justification. I push the moral dimension a bit further in my response at asymptote.

5

David Sucher 07.26.03 at 3:00 pm

It is astonishing that anyone could even try to defend government leaders who lie as a means of putting their people into a war.

Beyond the obvious ethical implications, there is the practical matter of uniting & organizing a people for long-term conflict. Lies are not a sound foundation for uniting people in a democracy around a blood-letting effort.

Didn’t we learn anything from Vietnam?

6

zizka 07.26.03 at 3:11 pm

One of the problems with deciding to do something “for many reasons”, while especially stressing a relatively or absolutely weak reason which sells well to the public, is that people who understand what’s going on, but disagree, must be discredited, by fair means or foul. Under these circumstances the public discussion has a never-never land quality.

The present focus on the 16 words is unfortunate. What is significant for me is the whole swarm of official, semi-official, and off-the-record communications that came out of the government in the runup to the war, especially right before the Congressional authorization. Many in the general public ended up wrongly believing that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and al Qaeda and that Iraq was a far bigger threat to the rest of the world than he actually was. My judgement is that the deception was deliberate — with Karl Rove in charge, things don’t happen accidentally. The question of whether or not the administration has plausible deniability is not, to me, an important one.

Those of us who are not sympathetic to Bush’s strategic plan, but have some understanding of what it is, are not going to say “If he had told the truth, I would have supported him anyway”. We’re not the insiders, but the once who have been ejected. We have effectively been put in the position of being unable to oppose the policy without accusing the President of bad faith and lying, since all the cards have not been on the table. And the better their lying presentation is, the more paranoid we seem and the more we must rely on the scorned “connect the dots” method of interpretation.

My belief is that Bush came into office with a proactive war policy and that for him 9/11 was scarcely a motive at all. I doubt that I would support the policy if I were told explicitly what it is, but arguing against it while it is undisclosed has made it easy to put me into the paranoid camp. I am hardly able to prove to anyone that I am right, so anyone who believes that the POTUS deserves to get the benefit of the doubt by virtue of his position will have to reject what I say. But what if I’m right?

This kind of method of engineering immediate consent on a sign-on-the-dotted-line basis is ineffective for getting long-term support for a more protracted struggle — part of the story of the Vietnam War.

7

Chun the Unavoidable 07.26.03 at 4:48 pm

Den Beste’s article was the most exciting thing I’ve read in months. I love the frisson of expectation in his remark about things getting ugly if a terrorist nukes an American city–I too hope that the world would aspire to the condition of a Tom Clancy novel, and I also hope that the citizens of Terrorista, without our figurative and literal reserves of steel, pay close attention to his words. If you think things would be ugly here, Ahmed, wait until you see what we have in store for you.

Having given the neighborhood bully one of my guns and encouraged him to kill the bully in the next neighborhood, what’s wrong with me shooting up most of my neighborhood in an effort to get it back before he (the neighborhood bully) uses it to shoot any more of his innocent nerds? That’s the argument I’d encourage teachers to use to justify the war

8

back40 07.26.03 at 5:30 pm

“Dan begins by saying both Den Beste and Marshall are wrong on the ethical question, but a few paragraphs later he says Den Beste is right.”

It’s a somewhat confusing passage but I understood Drezner to say that Den Beste and Marshall were both wrong about the ethical question “because they both assume a monocausal argument for why the U.S. went to war” when there are multiple causes. The conclusions Den Beste and Marshall reach -justified, unjustified – are wrong because they are based on false assumptions.

Drezner doesn’t say that “Den Beste is right”, he says that he sides with Den Beste. I understand this to mean that Drezner also thinks the President’s actions are justified, not that Den Beste’s analysis is correct. This isn’t “moving the goalposts”, it’s a useful analysis.

james joyner is correct, and Kiernan is stubbornly obtuse. Our leaders did “give us good reasons for their actions, especially when it comes to something like a war.” We may not agree with them, we may even be emotionally incapable of agreeing with anything that these leaders say, but it just silly to claim that they didn’t state their reasons for going to war.

It’s intellectually silly that is, but it may be effective politics. Politics is deceitful, seeks to persuade rather than inform, concerns itself with power rather than governance. Those who wish to believe that there has been some scandal may feel encouraged. Those who are susceptible to deceit and persuasion may be convinced.

9

Kynn Bartlett 07.26.03 at 6:55 pm

Just a note, primarily in response to james —

“Good reasons” don’t necessarily equate to “good reasons for war.”

If there are a number of a true statements, followed by “THEREFORE we should go to war,” that doesn’t necessarily hold.

The bigger issue, in my opinion, is not “were these statements [such as the 16 words] correct?” but “under what circumstances should the U.S. feel it is appropriate to declare war and start hostilities against a country which has not attacked us?”

I would rather see the left side of the blogosphere (and the right, as well!) discussing that question. The “16 famous words” are chimeric — they are picked up by the media precisely because they ultimately matter a whole lot less than discussing the conditions under which we should initiate war and invade countries (and kill their leaders and convert them to christianity, etc).

–Kynn

10

TomP 07.26.03 at 7:50 pm

I’m struck by this part of the post:
“[O]ne of the chief projects of conservative thought over the past fifty years has been to dismantle the idea that a leader, a social class, or a nation can confidently assume that History is on its side. It’s odd to see the conservatives themselves, of all people, now moving toward the view that the need to adhere to the telos of history trumps the notion of democratic accountability in day-to-day politics.”

I presume the first sentence refers to the conservative project of debunking Marxism and its ilk. But can’t one have an empirical perception of historical trends that would provide a basis for claims about the trends of history that are not, fundamentally, teleological? If so, wouldn’t that vitiate the implicit claim in the second sentence that conservatives are now contradicting themselves by indulging in teleological views of history?

11

dsquared 07.27.03 at 11:10 pm

I love the frisson of expectation in his remark about things getting ugly if a terrorist nukes an American city

Presumably there was an implict “except Berkeley” in there.

12

James 07.28.03 at 5:20 pm

Could we arrange for a Congressional Medal to be given to the poor sub-editor who had to get Den Beste’s ravings into a newspaper-sized article?

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