If you are a blogger who was active in March 2003, link to that month’s archive and write an entry called ‘What I was wrong about in March 2003.’
Gene Healy comes out looking pretty good. Glenn Reynolds maybe not so much. Amongst other things in March 2003, I turned thirty and got married. I was on my honeymoon in San Francisco when the war began. Here are all my posts from March 2003 (in pages of ten). I was wrong about how long it would take Saddam’s regime to collapse. And I was wrong in thinking that the option of bailing out fast was perhaps more likely than that of the U.S. taking on the role of occupying colonial power. But, not to put too fine a point on it, I was pretty much fucking right about everything else. Below the fold, some representative selections. All emphases in the original, as we say in the ivory tower.
March 1st. Liberal Hawk Nightmares. … Friedman asserts that President Bush’s plan for Iraq is “the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan.” … But Tom has a problem. He worries that “[Bush] and his team are the only people who would ever have conceived this project, but they may be the worst people to implement it.” … That is one way of interpreting the evidence. The other way is to say there is no big vision. There is no evidence that the Administration has planned for anything other than a large-scale invasion which they expect to be over in the space of a few months at most. … [Friedman] wants to believe that what’s happening is that his government has a grand and good plan for spreading democracy through the world, because this is what he himself would like to see happen. He is projecting his wishes onto the President.
March 6th. A Few Quick Ones. … One of the rewards of invasion Sean-Paul lists is “Democratic institutions emerge.” I know he’s only rapidly summarizing, but that phrasing reflects a lot of commentary on democracy-building in Iraq. Democratic institutions aren’t like lizards. They don’t hide under rocks waiting to emerge. They don’t exist in Iraq and will have to be built. Anyone who thinks they can be put together in relatively short order after an invasion doesn’t know what they are talking about. … In the meantime, officials, and the President, continue to talk out of the side of their mouths about assassinating Al Qaeda operatives, torturing them if captured, wondering about first-use of nuclear weapons in Iraq and encouraging some kind of backlash against people from nations that don’t support the war. There’s a name for the kind of state that does that sort of thing in the service of its ideological goals, and it ain’t “World Beacon of Democracy.”
March 6th. The Press Conference. Jesus wept. That was appalling. Glenn Reynolds is making the best of it—“He made some very simple points”, “the questioners, as always, looked smug and irritating and superficial, making Bush look better by contrast”. (Yeah, it’s all about the damn liberal media—they gave him such a hard time.)
March 9th. Busy … 1. It’s a good cause, but the guys in charge are going to screw it up. Incidentally, although the U.S. state is the most powerful organization in the world, it’s not some kind of omnipotent godlike force. There is a word to describe the mistake of thinking that because one is most powerful, one is also all powerful. That word is “hubris”. 2. Torturing people to advance democracy is a really bad idea.
March 11th. Strategic Analysis … Wow. It just boggles the mind. Do you think DenBeste is a sui generis fruitcake or does he represent a wide body of opinion?
March 19th. War Begins. I was just reading the first chapter of Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which I picked up this morning, when I heard President Bush’s short announcement. … Time to wait and see what happens. Hopefully it will be over quickly, cleanly and with as few casualties as possible.
March 20th. San Francisco Protests. This morning, Laurie and I took the bus as far downtown [in San Francisco] as we could, then walked to one of the main protest points at 5th and Market. Unfortunately, we missed the vomit-in at the Federal Building, but there was plenty of other stuff going on. … As we were watching things happen in the shopping district just east of Fifth and Market, a woman came by and asked someone standing next to me “Is this about the war?” “No, it’s just that the Spring Line at the Gap really sucks this season,” he said.
March 23rd. CNN Gets a Dose of Itself.
March 25th. Between Facts and Norms. … For something a bit more substantive, take a look at David’s and Josh’s opening statements from their OxDem panel discussion. My initial reaction is this. The commitments of their political theory—a laudable belief that the rights of liberal democracy are the “common aspirations of all people”—are in tension with both the realpolitik of international relations, which they know a lot about, and the problem of institution-building, which they pay much less attention to. Their FAQ on War and Democracy in the Middle East … relies more on statements from the White House than, say, an analysis of historical precedent or an account of how, practically, liberal democracy is supposed to be constructed after the war is over. … Thus, Josh, for instance, maintains as a matter of principle that “democracy must always be the outcome of military action, even if it is not the cause.” That is the “must” of a political theorist rather than a political sociologist. What is its empirical component? The historical evidence does not support the idea that the outcome of military intervention by the United States must be a liberal democracy. The cases tend in the opposite direction. …
What if we are skeptical that the Bush Administration can or will do what it ought to do, on OxDem’s terms? Max Sawicky is currently exploring this line. He argues that the U.S. “can destroy bad regimes; it cannot bestow self-government on people.” I think there’s a lot to be said for this view. … In the abstract, it would be great to have stable liberal democracies all over the Middle East. But the central question is, how likely is this goal in practice, and what will be the costs? … Because it is the most powerful, the U.S. will win this war in the short term. But because it is not all-powerful, the long-term prospects are much messier. Articulating an ideal outcome does not simplify the long-term view, or clarify the likely outcomes on the ground.
March 26th. The Persistence of the Old Regime. … the Baath party is very large, basically Stalinist in organization and has successfully held power for a long time. You don’t get to do that by populating the party apparatus with idiots. Instead, you populate it with thugs. Beyond that, the thugs are organized in a manner designed to maintain a tight grip on power.
Three consequences suggest themselves. First, in the short term, Saddam’s resistance is probably going to be much tougher than the U.S. has been hoping. Second, in the medium term, the backlash after his inevitable defeat could be horrible. Third, in the long term, Iraqi society is probably going to be living with the legacy of the Baath party for generations.
We’ve already seen evidence of the short-term problem. Resistance has been much stiffer than the Administration led the public (and possibly itself) to believe. This resistance is consistent with past evidence. …
The medium term problem is beginning to be noticed. Dan Drezner, for instance, is worrying about what he’s calling Debaathification. That is, what is the U.S. going to do with all the party members after the war? So far, the only solution he can think of is for the Baathists to resist as much as possible, thereby ensuring that as many of them as possible will be killed. The alternative, as Dan frankly says, is a purge. (Now there’s a word that owes a lot to Stalin.) …
It’s at this point—when words like “purge” are being tossed around—that much of the fine talk about “liberating the Iraqi People” sounds rather hollow. After their victory, those hoping to institute liberal democracy in Iraq are likely to find “The Iraqi People” (a noble abstraction) resolving itself into a multitude of Iraqi persons (a messy reality). Many of these people will have politically inconvenient biographies and personal agendas. What then? Does the U.S. really want to go down the road of purging the populace of the Baathists? (Where did I put my old Kulak detector?) More likely, does the U.S. want to take on the role of colonial administrator, struggling to keep a lid on the pot while waiting for a social revolution? Or, perhaps most likely, will the U.S. just declare victory as soon as Saddam is dead and get the hell out, perhaps installing a friendly puppet before leaving?
Finally, there’s the long-term problem, which I can’t even begin to deal with here. Suffice to say that the residue of even a defeated Stalinist party organization has a long half-life, especially if it’s been in power for thirty years. Westerners look on slack-jawed as portraits of old Joe himself are waved at marches in Russia. Surely those people don’t know what they’re doing, right? Don’t bet on it. And don’t bet on Iraqi liberal democracy until you can tell me why people won’t be doing the same thing with photos of Saddam ten or fifteen years from now.
March 28th. A = Argh!. Go read Jim Henley’s response to this inane argument from Onkar Ghate. Ghate, an Objectivist writing for the Ayn Rand Institute, thinks “mass civilian casualties in terrorist countries” [sic!] are the fault of said innocent civilians. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing how a devoted follower of Ayn Rand manages not only to justify the state-sponsored killing of civilians, but to actually blame the civilians for this. Ayn, you’ve come a long way, baby.
March 30th. Clean Hands, Dirty Hands. … David [Adesnik] speculates that critics are made insecure because “OxDem … is more committed to liberal principles than its liberal critics are.” He likes this idea, and develops it in the second half of his post. He claims my criticisms arise out of bad faith: “If one is serious about one’s liberal principles,” he says, then the new Iraqi government “must be a democratic one.” But, he asserts,
Instead of recognzining this obligation, Kieran and others seem to be more interested in washing their hands of responsibility for the fate of Iraq (and Afghanistan). … In contrast, OxDem rejects the ethics of Pontius Pilate.
Here, I am tempted to suggest that OxDem may be closer to Pontius Pilate than me. For all his failings, Pilate was at least attempting to bring a European tradition of republicanism in politics, pluralistic tolerance of religion in civic life, and heavy investment in public infrastructure to a priest-ridden, monotheistic, backward Middle-Eastern region. This strikes me as very OxDemish. History might remember Pilate better had he not had the massive bad luck to run up against a blowback problem the size of the Son of God during his governorship.
But I worry that this line of argument will get me into trouble with all kinds of people. So let me address this “ethics of Pilate” accusation in a different way. Of course a liberal democracy in Iraq is a better outcome than the alternatives. Now that they’ve gone and invaded, the Administration should try to build one. Unlike David, however, I am interested in description as well as persuasion. I want to know the answers to questions like these:
- Is the Bush administration really making a good faith effort to build democracy? Or do they have some other agenda? Or are they just making it up as they go along?
- Even if there’s a good faith effort, what sort of costs are we prepared to pay to achieve this goal? Is this a six-month or a twenty-year commitment? Does that change our assessment?
- What do the targets of our benevolence think about all this intervention? Do we think we can easily tell the goodies from the baddies after Saddam falls?
These are mundane empirical issues. … My view is that, just as Marxism had to face up to “actually existing Socialism,” we have to look at “actually existing democracy.” David accuses me of washing my hands like Pilate. But it’s OxDem that is putting itself above the fray, promoting the high principles of liberal democracy that everyone can agree on “regardless of whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, a Tory or a Labourite.” I think there are empirical outcomes which, though vastly less desirable than OxDem’s vision, seem much more likely on the ground. I want to face up to these possibilities, not wash my hands of them.
I hope that OxDem turns into an effective lobby for democratic principles. I hope they develop the moral authority of Amnesty and similar groups. I hope they get the ear of the Bush Administration. I hope it provides all the resources required to rebuild Iraq as a liberal democracy, and not some kind of colonial protectorate or friendly puppet state. I hope the people of the country go along with the idea and it all happens smoothly and quickly. But I also want to know what’s likely to happen in Iraq once Saddam is dead, the Baath party is on the back-foot, the post-war scramble for power and patronage is underway, the cities are ruined and there are two hundred thousand foreign soldiers trying to keep order in a country whose culture and politics they know nothing about.