Botching the Job

by Kieran Healy on April 19, 2004

Bouncing off of a column by David Brooks, Matt Yglesias and Patrick Nielsen Hayden make the point that supporters of the war can’t run away from the problems of its aftermath just because they personally might have done things differently, because frankly anyone who knew anything about both the Bush administration and the complexities of a war in Iraq could have predicted that it was going to be a mess. That means that post-hoc bellyaching that they didn’t do it my way is a bit beside the point:

David Brooks offers the first of what I think will be many retrospective I was wrong but I was right anyway articles. The implication here is that though Bush may botch everything in Iraq, Brooks was nevertheless correct to have supported the war because he, after all, was not in favor of botching things.

Last July, I said essentially the same thing in the context of the then-crumbling pretext for the war:

Dan [Drezner] can be relied on to have made as well-argued and well-supported case for war as possible, but at this point I really don’t care what it was, for the same reasons the hawks had no time for the “Not In My Name” line. The substance of the President’s case for war is what matters … If that case was built on a series of lies — immediate threat, 45-minutes to deployment, uranium from Niger and all the rest of it — then that is something to get exercised about.

Seeing pundits like Brooks try to wriggle away like this reminds me of a joke that David Lewis makes somewhere, viz, “You say you have a counterexample to my argument, but you must be misunderstanding me, because I did not intend for my argument to have any counterexamples.”

{ 28 comments }

1

justin 04.19.04 at 12:50 pm

Can anyone actually demonstrate that the President lied? You can show me where he was wrong… but did he really lie?!!

What we do know: almost every intelligence agency in the world thought he had the weapons including the UN. Iraq and Saddam were certainly acting like they had something to hide. Why wouldn’t the President believe his own intelligence?

A lie implies intent. Are you telling me that you know the intent of the President?

2

asdf 04.19.04 at 1:15 pm

Throw in Tacitus for good measure.

3

Tom T. 04.19.04 at 2:36 pm

Matt’s articulation of the “Anti This War Now” position has always essentially amounted to reserving the right to support wars fought by Democratic administrations, and criticism of tactics from him and others would presumably follow partisan lines. Certainly, it’s messy over in Iraq now, but if we had gone in with a massively higher troop strength (one of the currently fashionable attacks on Bush tactics) and Iraq were quiet, we’d be hearing criticism of Rumsfeld for having wildly overestimated the amount of forces needed.

Besides, Matt is distorting Brooks’ point in his characteristically snide way. Brooks is simply saying that, despite the problems encountered in rebuilding Iraq (and the hawks’ failure to anticipate those problems), Iraq and the world are still better off than if the war had not been fought.

Presumably, Brooks would contend that if the war had not been fought, Saddam and his sons would still be in power, and he would still be killing some number of Iraqi people, even in light of current efforts to suggest that his killings had gone way down lately. Sanctions would still be in place, and they would be killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, according to the UN. Everyone from Powell to Gore to Blix would still be saying that Saddam has WMDs. As even Matt acknowledges, a confrontation with Saddam would still be looming somewhere in the near future. Brooks is simply saying that this scenario remains less attractive to him than even the current mess over there. Apparently you and Matt disagree, but you don’t need to knock down a straw Brooks to say so.

4

No Preference 04.19.04 at 2:47 pm

Everyone from Powell to Gore to Blix would still be saying that Saddam has WMDs.

So the upside of the invasion is that we were able to determine that the Bush administration was lying about Saddam’s WMDs. Blix, by the way, never joined that chorus.

A confrontation with Saddam was only “looming” because powerful people in the US wanted one.

justin, the Bush administration had decided that Saddam was guilty before they started to look for evidence.

5

John Isbell 04.19.04 at 3:00 pm

“I was wr-
I was wr-
Mistakes were made.”

I love this: “and he would still be killing some number of Iraqi people, even in light of current efforts to suggest that his killings had gone way down lately.”
That “some number” is magnificent. Should you wish to refer to the mass graves (as you evidently do), they date from the Reagan and Bush I administrations, about the time Rumsfeld shook Saddam’s hand for a photo-op and Bush I abandoned the Shiites and the Kurds. That detail may have escaped you, tom t., in which case you wouldn’t be lying, just like George Bush. The efforts you allude to would be the ones where Saddam’s men were putting the bodies in the graves. Then they stopped. Those efforts.

6

Russell Arben Fox 04.19.04 at 3:02 pm

“Brooks is simply saying that, despite the problems encountered in rebuilding Iraq (and the hawks’ failure to anticipate those problems), Iraq and the world are still better off than if the war had not been fought.”

Not exactly. Brooks’s column is about justifying support for a war when much of his understanding of the reasons for it, and his anticipation of the consequences of it, have been seriously questioned, if not shattered. And his conclusion is: give it 20 years or so, and the wisdom of the decision to invade Iraq will be clear. Which is the worst kind of projectory consequentialism. Everything and anything can happen in 20 years, and would have happened anyway; are we really going to start excusing ourselves (and here I’m thinking of liberal supporters of the war like myself) from attending to, as Kieran suggests, the actual present realities of Iraqi policy in the name of how it might be in “the end”?

(Though actually, I suppose I ought to thank Brooks; between his column and Matt’s, I finally managed to think through and put together my own overlong mea culpa: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2004_04_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#108223725569178367)

7

tristero 04.19.04 at 3:43 pm

Justin: wrong question. The correct one is:

When has Bush told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Please point to specific examples, in particular about the Bush/Iraq war because I can’t think of a single fact about this stupid war that Bush hasn’t twisted, distorted, or ignored.

8

Matt Weiner 04.19.04 at 4:02 pm

The joke is Nelson Goodman’s proof that p:

Zabludowski has insinuated that my thesis that p is false, on the basis of alleged counterexamples. But these so- called “counterexamples” depend on construing my thesis that p in a way that it was obviously not intended — for I intended my thesis to have no counterexamples. Therefore p.

I’ve seen the list of proofs that p attributed to Hartry Field, though I don’t know how much accreted onto his original list. David Chalmers, of course, has put it on line.

9

Matt Weiner 04.19.04 at 4:08 pm

I should make it absolutely clear that Nelson Goodman didn’t write that–it’s a parody of Goodman.
As for the WMD issue–many people, including myself, believed that it was more likely than not that Saddam had nerve gas and possibly anthrax. I also believed that nerve gas and anthrax did not constitute a threat that justified invasion. The Bush administration worked overtime to create the impression that Saddam was close to developing nuclear weapons, on at least two occasions relying on “evidence” that it should have known did not support that thesis–the yellowcake and the aluminum tubes. So when you say “almost every intelligence agency in the world believed he had the weapons,” you need to be more careful about which weapons you’re discussing.

10

Chris Bertram 04.19.04 at 4:14 pm

Matt, thanks for posting the list of proofs. I had no idea they were on-line.

I’m just speculating now, but my guess is that Richard Perle and David Frum are disciples of Donald Davidson, Glenn Reynolds stands in a as-Wallace-is-to-Davidson relation to Perle and Frum, and Christopher Hitchens is best seen as a follower of Grunbaum.

11

Matt Weiner 04.19.04 at 6:58 pm

Oooh, I hadn’t thought of that one. To be fair and balanced, I personally count myself as a follower of Putnam on this one. den Beste seemed to be Lewis last time I saw. I think Paul Berman is channeling Earman (they even rhyme!)

12

msg 04.19.04 at 8:55 pm

Some of us are waiting for the comforting reassurance that when Bush is denied readmittance to the Oval Office in November the little cloud of string-pullers he arrived with will also be looking for work.
It’s the pro-sports dynamic – one team wins and the other loses. And everybody in the franchise shares in the victory or defeat, from the water boy right on up to the owner.
The illusion being the owners don’t comprise a permanently undefeated team all on their own.

13

Kieran Healy 04.19.04 at 10:05 pm

A lie implies intent. Are you telling me that you know the intent of the President?

I’m not sure I’d want to rely on the problem of other minds as my defence of the President’s foreign policy.

14

Dan Simon 04.19.04 at 11:46 pm

…supporters of the war can’t run away from the problems of its aftermath just because they personally might have done things differently, because frankly anyone who knew anything about both the Bush administration and the complexities of a war in Iraq could have predicted that it was going to be a mess.

Seems to me this argument “proves too much”. After all, I heard numerous opponents of the Iraq war complaining that it would waste too many soldiers’ lives, while provoking massive worldwide hostility to America and neglecting the effort to eradicate Al Qaida. Surely, though, those opponents must have known that this administration would have found ways to get troops killed while alienating world opinion and falling down on the anti-terrorism job, even had it not chosen to target Iraq. Shouldn’t they have been thankful, then, that at least the war in Iraq would topple a horrible dictator in the process?

A more reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of the Iraq campaign, I think, needs to be independent of whether the Bush administration can be assumed a priori to be evil and/or incompetent.

15

Joshua W. Burton 04.20.04 at 2:50 am

_As even Matt acknowledges, a confrontation with Saddam would still be looming somewhere in the near future. Brooks is simply saying that this scenario remains less attractive to him than even the current mess over there._

Perhaps the “we broke it, we own it” thesis is too pessimistic; after all, we currently have Saddam in what could be construed a favorable negotiating position.

Give him a corporal’s guard of picked loyalists, and then have the MPs cover their eyes and count to a hundred. Implicit rules of engagement: one planeload of senior Shiites to Teheran; one planeload of Chalabi hopefuls to Locarno. Hands off the Kurds, and hold the butcher’s bill to four figures, because that’s about how well we did.

In a year, when Saddam announces the birth of his son and heir (see Job, Book of), Kerry sends Hans Blix back in to see if there are any weapons of mass destruction. Depending on how that goes, we gradually lift sanctions.

It’s not what you’d call a pretty outcome, but I think there should be broad bipartisan agreement that it’s better than anything else on offer today.

16

Tom T. 04.20.04 at 4:48 am

Russell, I don’t quite agree with your reading of Brooks, but I take your point. I must say, though, the argument that we can’t make policy based on what might happen 20 years from now might have more force if the comment right above yours was not seeking to constrain current US policy on the basis of US mistakes 20 years ago.

John I., I’m well aware that the mass killings happened several years ago. Certainly, to say “at least he hasn’t committed a genocidal atrocity in 15 years” is hardly a vote of confidence. In any event, I said “some number” because I’m not prepared to say that Saddam and his government had stopped killing civilians altogether.

Even if he had, there were still the widespread deaths and other privations from the sanctions regime. Oh, and (I nearly forgot) the enviromentally disastrous campaign against the Marsh Arabs. I (and probably Brooks) happen to think that Iraq is better off now with those calamities behind them, even despite the current instability. Certainly, reasonable minds can differ, and I recognize that you strongly disagree.

As for the Rumsfeld photo-op, certainly I think it was distasteful, but I don’t see policy implications in it for today’s world. Jacques Chirac was famously photographed being friendly with Saddam, too; does this diminish his moral standing to oppose the war? A big part of the reason that the US left Saddam in power after the first Gulf War was because the UN allies would not countenance a further war effort to remove him; does this constrain the UN and its member states from opposing the current war? Madeleine Albright has been photographed sharing a drink with Kim Jong-Il; in what way does this restrict our future policy options for dealing with North Korea’s challenges? Look, I think there are lots of legitimate reasons for opposing the Iraq war, but the photo-op doesn’t carry great weight with me.

17

dzd 04.20.04 at 5:59 am

“Give him a corporal’s guard of picked loyalists, and then have the MPs cover their eyes and count to a hundred.”
You’re joking, right? Right?

18

Joshua W. Burton 04.20.04 at 2:36 pm

_“Give him a corporal’s guard of picked loyalists, and then have the MPs cover their eyes and count to a hundred.”_
_You’re joking, right? Right?_

Think of it as a new application of the Rumsfeld doctrine. (Sometimes, you have to grit your teeth and do the handshake.) With a bit of finesse, Halliburton might even win the contract to stand the statues back up.

19

No Preference 04.20.04 at 4:45 pm

Even if he had, there were still the widespread deaths and other privations from the sanctions regime.

This tendency to forget that it was the US that was responsible for the killing nature of the sanctions would be funny if it were not so awful. Two UN directors of UN humanitarian aid program for Iraq in succession quit to protest the sanctions.

20

No Preference 04.20.04 at 4:58 pm

Even if he had, there were still the widespread deaths and other privations from the sanctions regime.

This tendency to forget that it was the US, almost alone, that was responsible for the killing nature of the sanctions would be funny if it were not so awful. The US was responsible for 98% of the holds put on Iraqi imports by the committee overseeing the sanctions. (Please see this link for confirmation). Two UN directors of UN humanitarian aid program for Iraq in succession quit in protest.

If we wanted fewer “deaths and privations” in Iraq under the sanctions, we could have (doh!) relaxed the sanctions. The US resisted this every time the possibility arose.

Making this part of the rationale for invading Iraq requires quite a capacity for rewriting history.

21

Ann 04.20.04 at 6:04 pm

“If we wanted fewer “deaths and privations” in Iraq under the sanctions, we could have (doh!) relaxed the sanctions. The US resisted this every time the possibility arose.”

Are you saying that, if Bush really cared about the people of Iraq, he would have tried to fix the sanctions during his first few months in office in order to make it easier for Iraqis to get legitimate food and medical supplies? Well, guess what? Bush made a major effort during spring 2001 to fix the Oil For Food program, a fact that his detractors conveniently ignore. I don’t like the way he did it – the Chinese company Hua Wei, which got technology from US companies and made deals with Saddam and with the Taliban, among others, to improve their ability to target US planes, got “pardoned” in exchange for China’s promise not to block a more efficient set of sanctions. But, in the end, the effort was blocked by France and Russia.

Bush tried to get food and medical supplies to the people of Iraq. France, on the other hand, helped Saddam divert the money to other uses. Remember when Iraq was caught smuggling baby formula out of the country, under the sanctions?

And even if the mass executions had slowed down recently in Iraq, what about feeding people through human shredders, or throwing them off buildings? Had Saddam’s sons cut back on their rapes per month? What did Iraqis have to look forward to under Saddam – getting to choose whether they would be shredded head-first or feet-first? Yes, things are difficult now, but they have a chance to build a future. If I was living there, I’d gladly take the chance.

22

No preference 04.20.04 at 9:12 pm

Well, guess what? Bush made a major effort during spring 2001 to fix the Oil For Food program, a fact that his detractors conveniently ignore . . . Bush tried to get food and medical supplies to the people of Iraq.

Bush tried to ease the sanctions in 2001 in a successful effort to forestall the UN from doing away with them entirely. As Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time:

This wasn’t an effort to ease the sanctions; this was an effort to rescue the sanctions policy that was collapsing.

“Food and medical supplies” were not the issue. What the US consistently blocked were attempts to repair Iraq’s infrastructure, including the electricity grid and public water supply, which were vital to public health. For more information, see the link provided in the previous post.

And even if the mass executions had slowed down recently in Iraq, what about feeding people through human shredders . . . What did Iraqis have to look forward to under Saddam – getting to choose whether they would be shredded head-first or feet-first?

The “human shredder” story is likely propaganda, as this story in the Guardian makes clear.

Yes, things are difficult now, but they have a chance to build a future. If I was living there, I’d gladly take the chance.

Most Iraqis would agree with that, according to polls. Iraq is one of about five countries in the world where the population thinks that the invasion was a good idea. That doesn’t change the foregoing points about the sanctions.

23

Ann 04.20.04 at 10:31 pm

Yes, Bush wanted to improve rather than end the sanctions regime, since Saddam still wasn’t allowing the inspectors full (indeed, any) access. But would equipment to improve the water supply or electricity grid have been blocked under “smart sanctions”? From what I have read, such improvements would have been much easier. Only military and dual-use items would have been restricted, while no approval at all (only notification) would have been required for anything not on the list. Dual-use items on the list would still have been allowed, after verification that they were being used for non-military purposes (such as improving the water or electricity supply).

Regardless of our failure so far to find WMD stockpiles, there was every reason at the time to keep an eye on the Hussein regime in Iraq. Even Hans Blix was arguing at the time that the sanctions should not be suspended. The Wisconsin Project pointed out in 1999 how Iraq ordered 6 lithotripters to break up kidney stones, and 120 spare electronic switches (at least 100 more than the lithotripters could ever possibly need). These switches could also be used for atomic bombs, but as medical equipment, they were unrestricted. Here’s a link to the story:
http://www.iraqwatch.org/wmd/lithotripter.html

Powell and Bush had good reason to oppose lifting the sanctions on Iraq, and the fact remains that they were trying to improve the system. The opposition ultimately came from Saddam, who told Russia that he wouldn’t pay Iraq’s debts to them unless they blocked the changes. Bush made a genuine attempt to fix the system, in spite of the fact that an improved system would have made it harder to justify an invasion of Iraq.

24

Tom T. 04.21.04 at 1:50 am

Certainly, as we’ve seen lately, certain people at the UN were profiting mightily from the sanctions; I suspect the US would not have had an easy time withdrawing them even if it had tried. And withdrawing the sanctions raises the risk of Saddam acquiring WMDs. In any event, wishing the sanctions away takes anti-war people down the same “well, I would have done it better” road that this post originally took to task on the pro-war side.

25

Shaun Evans 04.21.04 at 2:29 am

Taking a step back, there are several reasons to believe that the reconstruction of Iraq was bound to be more difficult than the invasion was. First, destruction has been and will continue to be easier than construction. Secondly, no part of the US government specializes in running and rebuilding countries. The military spends lots of time and sweat trainging to win in combat. It does not spend lots of time and sweat practicing repairing electrical grids. On the whole, this is a good thing, if we wish to maintain civilian control over the military.

Reflect for a moment, if you will, about the dangers of having a highly trained group of young, physically fit, idealistic servicemen and women possessing both the skills to run cities and even nations efficiently, and fully automatic weapons. Consider the following events: Government shuts down because Congress cannot agree on a budget. The President is impeached and charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. Young female congressional aide disappears without a trace; evidence found that the aide and the Congressmen were having an affair. Citizens of Washington, DC murdered at random by rifle fire. Even after several weeks, police are unable to find the killers. How many such events would have to take place before triggering a coup from the Department of Regime Change? (For all the best reasons, from their perspective, of course.)

26

No Preference 04.21.04 at 3:40 am

Bush wanted to improve rather than end the sanctions regime

Every time there was an international consensus to either relax do away with sanctions, the US moved to co-opt that by proposing “reforms” that were more restrictive than the ones being considered.

Only military and dual-use items would have been restricted

Yes, that’s exactly the problem. The US had a much broader view of what constituted “dual use” than any other nation on the committee.

I suggest that you read the link I provided. There were 15 members of the 661 committee that approved imports to Iraq. Any single member could hold up an import request. The US alone was responsible for 81% of the holds. The US together with Britain was responsible for another 16%. The other 13 countries were responsible for less than 3%. The holds amounted to 25% of the requests made for imports for the sanitation/water supply sector. Holds were placed on 14% of medical supply requests. The effect of these holds were amplified by the fact that many items that were imported were useless without associated items that were placed on hold. The effect on public health was very serious. The US was responsible.

The Wisconsin Project pointed out in 1999 how Iraq ordered 6 lithotripters to break up kidney stones, and 120 spare electronic switches (at least 100 more than the lithotripters could ever possibly need). These switches could also be used for atomic bombs

I’m not sure why you bring this up. The IAEA said in March that “Iraq’s nuclear capabilities had been effectively dismantled by 1997”. There was no Iraqi nuclear program in 1999. You just gave an example of why the American paranoia about imports, which was unshared by others on the import committee, was unjustified.

27

Ann 04.21.04 at 4:02 am

I don’t understand about the “spare parts” for the lithotripters. Are you saying that they were ordering 500 years worth of spare parts for the kidney stone machines because they were worried about the water supply? And I don’t accept that Saddam had forever abandoned any thoughts of a nuclear program simply because the IAEA said they didn’t have one. Even if they didn’t have one, given the sanctions, that doesn’t prove that they wouldn’t try to get one if they could.

I agree totally, however, that most of the UN members couldn’t care less about US deaths, as long as they were properly compensated. The fact that most members of a UN committee were corrupt and asleep on the job doesn’t prove that Saddam’s heart was pure and his intentions noble. You can’t prove that all dual-use items (such as the 500 year supply of spare parts that, purely coincidentally, could be used for military purposes, or the fiber optic system that could be used to shoot down US planes) were innocent simply by the fact most of the members were hanging around doing nothing, when they were supposed to be keeping an eye on Saddam.

28

No Preference 04.21.04 at 3:01 pm

I don’t understand about the “spare parts” for the lithotripters.

The point is that now that David Kay and the IAEA have determined that Iraq did not even have a nuclear weapons program, the lithotripters story has as much weight as the aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment story.

Even if they didn’t have one, given the sanctions, that doesn’t prove that they wouldn’t try to get one if they could.

We’re back to the goofy rationale for the war. Iraq can’t prove that it doesn’t have a WMD program; therefore we must attack.

The fact that most members of a UN committee were corrupt and asleep on the job

The UN Security Council, of which the US is by far the most prominent member, was responsible for the overview of the Oil for Food program. The US was on the sanctions committee. Why weren’t we on top of this? In addition, while there does seem to be have been undetected corruption in the Oil for Food program, bear in mind that the accusations are coming from some fire behind the smoke of these

You can’t prove that all dual-use items (such as the 500 year supply of spare parts that, purely coincidentally, could be used for military purposes, or the fiber optic system that could be used to shoot down US planes) were innocent

How do you prove a negative? You can’t. You can make a reasonable supposition that if the other 14 members of the 661 Committee – made of of the same states as the Security Council – disagreed with the US on 81% of all the holds placed on Iraqi imports, that the US judgement on this might have been off. In fact, unlike the rest of the world US policy was completely oriented towards punishing Saddam as opposed to allowing the Iraqi people to live some kind of decent life. Or to live, period. What did Madeleine Albright say on this topic?

Somehow, I’m sure you haven’t read the link.

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