They know they were right

by Henry on March 25, 2008

Alex Tabarrok puts forward an explanation for why people who were against the Iraq war (and who predicted a housing crisis) haven’t gotten more of a public hearing.

The answer is media incentives. It wasn’t just the experts who were wrong, the majority of the American people got Iraq and housing wrong. The war was popular in the beginning and people continued to buy houses even as prices rose ever higher. So what does the American public want to hear now? The public wants to hear why they weren’t idiots. And who better to explain to the public why they weren’t idiots than experts who also got it wrong?

It’s an interesting argument, but one that I’m highly skeptical about. One of the golden rules of survey research is that questions that ask about the political views that respondents held in the past are likely to get highly inaccurate replies. The reason is that people’s memories are quite malleable, so that they often reshape their recollections of what views they held in the past so that they accord better with the views that they hold today. I’d be prepared to bet a significant amount of money that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is far lower than the number of people who actually did support the war back in 2003. Indeed, I suspect that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is a minority of the US public. Since the Cassandra-backlash effect that Tabarrok is talking about is contemporaneous, and presumably depends on people’s current beliefs about what they thought in the past, this makes me think that something else is going here (and that this something else has to do with the desire of elite actors in the commentariat to hold onto their privileged position in the public discourse).

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{ 79 comments }

1

David in NY 03.25.08 at 8:15 pm

What is the answer then? I’d say right-wing bias in the media, but that sounds too much like a mirror-image wingnut, and is pretty reductive to boot. Let’s reframe the question, “Why is it that only those who supported the war are considered serious experts by the media?” Why aren’t some of the 23 Senators who opposed the war, for example, or the numerous House members who gave stirring speeches against the war ever on TV talking about what to do now? [Or are they, and I just miss them?] Does Tabarrok mean that all the experts were wrong? — I don’t think so, but they’re the only ones you hear from.

2

HH 03.25.08 at 8:20 pm

The answer is conservation of journalistic brand equity. Power and influence in Journalism are based on hierarchical position and brand building. It takes decades to become a “trusted voice.” Thus, even when showing signs of obvious senility (e.g., David Broder) or stupidity (e.g., Joe Klein), the brand is respected.

Americans have been trained to consume news from brands, and it takes years of disappointment to shake the power of a brand. Conditioning beats reasoning in our consumer culture, because propaganda massively overwhelms education.

3

sidereal 03.25.08 at 8:28 pm

“Why is it that only those who supported the war are considered serious experts by the media?”

I come bearing no data, but I have an off-the-cuff suspicion that there’s some serious psychosocial mommy/daddy stuff going on, where it’s better to be tough-sounding and wrong (even fatally wrong) than accommodating and right. I also suspect that the degree to which one buys into this framework is inversely proportional to one’s reserve of a certain sort of self-confidence, and that national opinion makers — being as they are people who have a profound effect on national discourse while being almost universally unqualified to have an opinion on anything other than diction and cocktails — have a gnawing lack of this sort of self-confidence. They therefore are irrationally attracted to demonstrations of strength and are disproportionately susceptible to tough rhetoric.

If I’m right, the logic argues very strongly for a new punditry composed of people accomplished in their own fields (like Krugman) rather than a modern Versailles of pundits who have no accomplishments other than punditry and who therefore irrationally crave validation and opportunities to demonstrate ‘toughness’.

4

robertdfeinman 03.25.08 at 8:45 pm

Never listen to pundits who believe in the tooth fairy. Alex Tabarrok is one such and is part of the increasingly large group of George Mason libertarians who are given platforms. The NY Times already has three.

I guess Charles Koch’s millions in contributions are yielding the kind of results he’s paying for. $20+ million to George Mason, a few more to Cato, and so on, and pretty soon a fringe view of the world starts to sound respectable.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about:
Koch Family Foundations

5

Matt 03.25.08 at 8:48 pm

This doesn’t exactly address the question directly, but one thing that’s been interesting for me to see in this debate is the claim, made most recently by Mark Kleiman on his blog, that those who were right were “just lucky” and that smart people like him who got it wrong were applying serious reasoning and trusting good sources (he mentions Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, and Tony Blair) and so it’s not their fault things just turned out wrong. I suspect this feeling is common, including (perhaps especially) among media types and so might explain some of the issue. (I must say that I don’t see why having trusted Clinton, Havel, or Blair over, say, Juan Cole or Scott Ritter should get you any points, though. Quite the opposite seems right. But then, trusting the former is serious while trusting the latter isn’t.)

6

Angry African on the Loose 03.25.08 at 8:49 pm

Well, people will believe anything if they are told “I have been there”. It irritates the living hell out of me when politicians (or anyone for that matter) uses the “I have been there” line. You know, that line when a country comes up in a conversation and they say “I have been there”. I was listening Bill Maher (yeah, yeah) on my iPod when some or other politician was using this argument that things are soooo much better in Iraq. You know – he’s “been there”. Like he knows something we don’t know. Sorry buddy. You haven’t been there. Going on an escorted trip to some holiday camp isn’t “been there”. It’s just a package deal holiday trip. It’s buying that Disney trip off the travel agent. [link deleted]

7

notsneaky 03.25.08 at 8:55 pm

The internal psychology of the public’s mind is twisted enough so that both you and Alex could be right. They remember they opposed the war, but just in case they didn’t, it’s not because they’re idiots.

8

Flying Rodent 03.25.08 at 9:13 pm

I would’ve thought it’s because military whizz-bang is all great, adventurous fun.

Looking into the camera or putting pen to paper and saying I screwed the pooch on this one, OTOH, is not fun at all. You can’t put on snazzy military fatigues and shout to be heard over gunfire, nor can you stand in front of a massive, whooshing American flag which slips away to reveal a strategic map of battalions of infantry advancing through the desert. We all fucked up is not entertaining, exciting or bankable, and you can’t use it to sell sports drinks, deodorants or garden tools.

Further, if this is America we’re talking about, then losers get consigned to the dustbin. Saying I may have made a mistake is a fatal crack in journalistic armour and will not lead to lucrative book deals for Zoiks! How Tom Friedman Stuck His Head Up His Ass, and 101 other minor gaffes. There won’t be any prime-time pundit slots for the penitent.

Finally, We got lots of people killed and lost a major war is a bummer, and every media outlet in the land knows that America loses equals ratings death. It took the conservative movement thirty years to convince the public that they actually won the Vietnam War, morally if not literally. The Iraq war screw-up carries with it the implicit message that America isn’t a land of winners, rugged WWII veterans and patriotic honour… In fact, it hints gently that maybe it’s a nation of gullible fools and gung-ho idiots.

And that, I’m afraid, isn’t mere ratings death.

That’s ratings genocide.

9

Bloix 03.25.08 at 9:18 pm

Housing is simple. The major papers depend for their very existence on real estate advertising. No way they were they going to tell buyers that the market was going to tank. So know what do they do now? Say that they were lying all along? No, they have to say that no one could have predicted, etc. And on business news, TV (which has financial expertise of less than zero)follows the papers.

On the war, there wasn’t the direct financial incentive to be wrong, but the Washington Post editorial page, controlled by neocons and plugged tightly into the CW, was a cheerleader and remains a cheerleader. They will never, never admit that any reasonable person could have been against the war. Other papers are more of a mystery to me.

10

JRoth 03.25.08 at 9:19 pm

I think that Henry’s right that people fool themselves about their past positions to make themselves feel smarter. But, especially with Iraq, there are 2 extra features:

1. Most Americans did oppose the war before March 2003. They favored it in March through May because everybody loves a winner, but part of the reason that the media coverage in the runup to the war was so unforgivable was that it wasn’t even pandering to popular opinion – I don’t think the war ever had a plurality of support until Shock and Awe had begun. So anyway, it’s easy for people to recall opposing (or at least being skeptical of) the war, and forget about their year or so of support.

2. Along the lines of hh in 2, people don’t want to be jarred by seeing new experts. The middle-of-the-roaders that I describe above thought that the nice, MOR pundits that they believe in know wtf they’re talking about. They believed it before the war, during the good times, and once the pundits started expressing skepticism in the past couple years. Most people think Tom Friedman is not an egregious fool*; if he were still saying the war is a big success, he might be in trouble. But he’s been just negative enough that people haven’t been forced to reconsider their opinion of him (note that this works for all Major Pundits, whatever their position – some millions of people have mirrored the journey of each Pundit, and so each has his audience, even the delusional Pony Crew).

* Yes yes, I know they’re wrong. So be it.

11

Barry 03.25.08 at 9:20 pm

IIRC, the majority of Americans opposed the war, until it actually started (and the patriotic fever upped a few more notches).

In the end, it was the desire to be ‘respectable’ on the part of many, and the desire to maintain or advance one’s career on the part of the elite.

It was only very courageous editors and reporters who bucked the trend.

“Mark Kleiman on his blog, that those who were right were “just lucky” and that smart people like him who got it wrong were applying serious reasoning and trusting good sources (he mentions Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, and Tony Blair) and so it’s not their fault things just turned out wrong.”

IIRC, Mark has also expressed some admiration for Megan McArdle, who had the same explanation a few months back.

12

Martin Wisse 03.25.08 at 9:41 pm

The entire US/UK media were hot for the war, with some very rare exceptions, so why the hell would they want to put the people who were right then and they ridiculed in the spotlight now? By running Serious Editorials by Serious People who were Seriously Wrong, a newspaper like the New York Times can perpetrate the fiction that, you know, everybody believed Saddam had WMD, that liberating Iraq was a brilliant idea but Bush botched it and that they were not blame for the one million dead.

Alex whathisname’s theory is just more of the same; was he for the war before he was against it as well?

Remember: over fifteen fucking million people marched against the war, a month before it started, with several million in the US alone. NO way was the majority of people in favour of this war.

(You’re a smart guy Henry, but you can be slightly too naive or trusting at times…)

13

Barry 03.25.08 at 10:06 pm

Time for another of Daniel Davies’ One-Minute MBA:

“The raspberry road that led to Abu Ghraib was paved with bland assumptions that people who had repeatedly proved their untrustworthiness, could be trusted. There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world. “

That should be posted on walls, and tatooed on pundits’ foreheads.

14

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 12:21 am

Let’s just default to the most sensible answer. The American establishment is hawkish and the media, above all the decision-makers, are part of the establishment. Few of them see any need to pay attention to outsiders and non-experts.

Iraq is to be regarded as a temporary setback, at worst. A significant change in policy or strategy is still unthinkable. Bush’s adventurism, incompetence, and bad luck will be rejected, but nothing else. (Expect to see McCain distancing himself from Bush while Bush smiles.)

The fix is probably still on. McCain is more hawkish than Bush, and Hillary is evasive but has never (to my knowledge) gone beyond the competence dodge. Obama is the only hope, but nobody should hope for too much.

See? Easy. No real thought was required, and I’m almost certainly right.

15

ed 03.26.08 at 12:21 am

The entire US/UK media were hot for the war, with some very rare exceptions

War is good for business.

16

David in NY 03.26.08 at 1:56 am

Well, that’s all pretty depressing. I am heartened, however, to see others bashing the “It Was a Popular War” theme. I share the memory that the war was not popular until troops were in the field and it all looked rosy. Not too long afterward, however, the bloom was off that rose, and the war became increasingly unpopular.

17

Marc Brazeau 03.26.08 at 2:20 am

There seems to be an issue of temperament. People who take an interest in the intersection of international affairs and military affairs (you could through in the Mid East) tend to be hawkish. Thus, the people who can rattle on knowledgeably about the strength of Saddam’s army, the impact of sanctions, such and such weapons system, how the Carthaginians were defeated, blah, blah, blah.

There just aren’t as many doves as hawks with that kind of expertise.

I think that kind of expertise also got in the way of reading the situation properly. Too many trees, not enough forest. Someone, say Bill Clinton had a hell of a lot more expertise than I did (none) and could site a million factual reasons why Saddam was a threat. At the time I just said I didn’t think it added up. At the height of his power he invaded Kuwait, got his ass whupped and spent the next decade under sanctions, intense intelligence monitoring and with huge sections of his country patrolled as a no fly zone. So how could he be more of a threat than when he shot his load invading Kuwait?

But our side doesn’t have the people who can do chapter and verse. Juan Cole doesn’t have the military chops and he’s a boring interview to boot. Who should they be interviewing that was against the war up front that has military planning and strategy chops?

There are people who are against the war now that are making sense but…

I’m as frustrated as anyone else but I think it’s partly Gramscian hegemony and partly that we don’t quite have anyone on our bench that’s the right kind of expert. I wish we had more peacenik military experts.

18

Matt 03.26.08 at 2:40 am

_Who should they be interviewing that was against the war up front that has military planning and strategy chops?_

Scott Ritter would be a good choice, but he was hit so hard when he told the truth about the end of the first inspection program (i.e., that it was, among other things, infested with CIA and that many of the Iraqi criticisms of it were legitimate) that he was not allowed on the air much at all. It’s too bad since he had first-hand experience with the situation, in particular with reasons why Bill Clinton couldn’t be trusted on the subject.

19

floopmeister 03.26.08 at 2:44 am

“I did that” says my Memory.
“I can’t have done that” says my Pride.

In the end, Pride always wins.

Nietszche

20

Whomever1 03.26.08 at 3:04 am

A TV special that could almost be within the bounds of acceptable would be an expose on why Tony Blair and the British were so corrupt and gullible that they fell for Bush’s BS. Of course you can’t say directly to American’s faces that they themselves were fooled, or that they’re really powerless to change things, but indirection might work. Otherwise, you’d have to have an expose on how corrupt and incompetant Bush and Cheney are, and I don’t expect to see that story on TV till I’m senile.

21

Sortition 03.26.08 at 3:05 am

I am heartened, however, to see others bashing the “It Was a Popular War” theme. I share the memory that the war was not popular until troops were in the field and it all looked rosy.

No need to rely on memory – the data is all there (p. 3). Despite the constant drumbeat, only about 50% of Americans supported the invasion before it happened. Support jumped to about 70% in the early days of the invasion, and it has been eroding since then.

As for not wanting to tell the public that it was wrong – this is pure nonsense. The media is only too happy to tell the public that it was wrong or is wrong (whether this is true or not) when doing so is pleasant to the elites.

The media narrative of “the success of the surge” is one example. The idea of sending more troops to Iraq was unpopular to begin with and the public was very skeptical about the prospects of “success”. Yet, the media have no reservations about telling us again and again and again that we were wrong.

Other cases, such as that of telling Americans that they are primitive xenophobes for opposing “free trade” agreements, are even more extreme.

22

john in california 03.26.08 at 3:34 am

There is an short article in Scientific American this month (March) that reviews brain research that finds that skepticism is actually physically more difficult that going along with whatever the conventional wisdom is at the time. Apparently ‘right’ answers are easier to accept and faster to process than ‘wrong’, ambiguous or unknown answers. The evolutionary root for this as a shortcut to quick action, especially group action, probably goes back a long, long way. Once an answer becomes implanted and, therefore, easy, substituting a new answer takes even more effort than the original. I’m sure someone has done rats-in-maze experiments to prove this out.

23

aaron 03.26.08 at 6:57 am

How about this question: why do we still listen to the people who predicted that ozone-layer damage would have a major negative effect on human life in the present day; that the world’s oil reserves would be depleted by now; or that humanity would stay locked in the cold war until 2000 at the very least. (or, more on topic, that the initial ‘victory’ in the Iraq war would take much longer than the first Gulf War?).

There are a lot of experts who make mistakes, and generally the media doesn’t pick experts by looking at their past successes (in the same way that one shouldn’t invest in hedge funds because of a year or two of strong returns). Even us liberals don’t pick our experts in this way, and would be rightly considered fools if we did.

Also, I have to wonder if there is some observational bias at work here. After all, we are more likely to notice some irritating right-winger who has been getting it wrong since the beginning. And we are likely to shift our own positions and the facts to justify ourselves. Think about all the people who went overboard in comparing Iraq to Vietnam. Both are quagmires, for sure, but beyond that the similarities are minimal. Do people who made inaccurate comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam have a weak understanding of both conflicts?

24

A. Y. Mous 03.26.08 at 7:27 am

So many keystrokes and none closer to the truth. The truth is entropy. America, sometime in the late nineties onwards, made the switch from “going bad” to getting “downright rotten”. A collective failure of a whole people to buck up and set right.

Reap.

25

nigel holmes 03.26.08 at 7:45 am

“Think about all the people who went overboard in comparing Iraq to Vietnam. Both are quagmires, for sure, but beyond that the similarities are minimal.”

Indeed. In Vietnam, over many years, a series of mistakes led to the US wandering by degrees into a swamp. Stupid, but unremarkable. In the case of Iraq, American leaders ran headlong off a cliff, while everyone with sense screamed at them to stop. As a blunder, far more spectacular.

You are aware that action was taken over depletion of the ozone layer?

26

reason 03.26.08 at 8:33 am

Alex Tabarokk,
was on record as denying there was a housing boom, and is still trying to suggest that a significant proportion of the house price increases were rational. I wonder why he has any credibility left at all. Now he seems to be suggesting people have no taste at all for dealing with reality. God help us, if he has a following.

27

Alex R 03.26.08 at 8:37 am

Matt @ 8:48 pm: please note that if you are referring to this post at Kleiman’s site, you might have missed the line: Yes, dammit, this is meant ironically. under the fold…

28

Guano 03.26.08 at 9:44 am

If someone doesn’t open a cupboard door it’s usually because they know that a skeleton will fall out. If someone doesn’t open their credit card bill it’s usually because they know that they cannot pay it. If someone always turns the conversation away from a particular line of thinking it’s usually because they fear where that line will lead.

In the UK the political elite fear an examination of the “special relationship” with the USA. They fear any questioning of the “special relationship” because it is a central part of their world-view and know that many other tough questions would follow on. In the USA the political elite fear an examination of the doctrine of “preventive war” because the belief that the USA can wage war whenever and wherever it wants is a central part of their world-view. Tough questions (about oil prices, access to raw materials, the US economy) would follow on from questioning the doctrine of preventive war. So the questioning is repeatedly turned away from this line of thinking. People who opposed the war from the beginning (because it is wrong to go to war against an enemy that is not attacking you and without a UN mandate) get little air-time because it would put into doubt the legitimacy of this kind of act of aggression that have become central to the world-view of the US political elite.

In the UK, in March 2003, half the population thought that Iraq should only be invaded if there was a UN mandate, a quarter thought that Iraq should not be invaded at all and a quarter thought that the UK should be involved without a UN resolution. This suggests that most people in the UK are aware of international law, one of the issues that is avoided like the plague by MSM discussions on Iraq.

29

A. Y. Mous 03.26.08 at 9:54 am

Guano, how is that long post different from “Die America! Die!”?(1)

Who are you folks assuaging? And more importantly, why?

(1) – As opposed to “Die Americans! Die!”

30

Matt McIrvin 03.26.08 at 10:46 am

How about this question: why do we still listen to the people who predicted that ozone-layer damage would have a major negative effect on human life in the present day;

In part, because they urged us to take policy action to prevent trouble, and we did.

Were there actually any prominent experts who exaggerated this threat?

31

Matt 03.26.08 at 11:13 am

Alex R-

I had this post in mind:
http://www.samefacts.com/archives/policy_analysis_/2008/03/analysis_and_error.php#comments

(please forgive my inability to put in a link properly.)

32

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 11:38 am

“Entropy” is a stupid explanation by people who think they’re smart. “Never explain by conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity”. It’s so Nineties.

Obama did once suggest that we should look at the policy which led us to the second Iraq War, rather than just the details. But he hasn’t campaigned on that.

But #15 is still right. The Iraq War hasn’t been bad enough to shake or replace the power structure and its conventional wisdom. They will make some minimal tweaks and carry on.

Bush didn’t even win the popular vote in 2000, and his 70%+ ratings only lasted a few months after 9/11, and his poll ratings were below 40% for over a year before the media quit calling him “a popular President”. When they had to quit saying that, they started predicting non-existent rebounds and recoveries.

The simple, robust, uncool explanation remains the best.

33

Barry 03.26.08 at 12:04 pm

And that’s why the right-wingers fight it so much. The simple explanation is that the elites in power used 9/11 to (among other things) start a war from which they expected more political power and money. The elite MSM went along because they are part of the elite. Those who are servants to power – well, they served power.

34

nick s 03.26.08 at 12:58 pm

Something like 55% of those surveyed in January 2001 said they voted for Bush in 2000; my guess is that it’ll be down to 35% in January 2009, should they ask.

The Frontline two-parter on the war was notable for its montage of the war-cheerleading being broadcast in the near-runup to the invasion. I remember flying into the US on the night that the ‘Free Jessica Lynch’ operation was revealed, and seeing Wolf Blitzer’s giant head pronouncing upon it on Detroit airport’s jumbo screens. I left just after the whole stages Saddam statue thing.

The American mainstream media went crackers during the early part of 2003. And even now, as far as the war is concerned, the spectrum of ‘respectable’ opinion runs from The New Republic (Peter Beinart, the mea culpa hawk) to FreeRepublic.com.

35

Martin Wisse 03.26.08 at 1:09 pm

The way Scott Ritter was treated in the runup to the war is a good testcase for how deep the US (and European, to a lesser extent) media was in hock tot he warmongers. Here you have an ex-marine, ex-Iraq weapons inspector, who was previously best known for being so hawkish on Saddam that he helped to bring about the crisis that led to Operation Desert Fox, by no means a friend of the left or a damn dirty hippy, who could not get on television for love nor money to make the case against the war.

I met him in Amsterdam, on an anti-war discussion platform and he was brilliant at laying out arguments why the war was unnecessary and why he believed Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction no longer existed. Had the media done its duty properly, he would’ve been in the papers, on the radio and tv roughly as much as a socalled intelligent hawk like Kenny Pollack; instead he was largely ridiculed, accused of being in the pay of Saddam and a traitor.

36

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 1:20 pm

Ritter was blackmailed in 2003 on the basis of a sex-crimes charge from 2001. Charges were dropped in the 2001 case and the case was sealed. The judge in the 2001 case, Thomas Spargo, was one of the participants in the riot which ended the Bush-Gore vote count, and was later disbarred for corruption. The 2001 charges were never reopened.

Details at my link.

37

ajay 03.26.08 at 1:24 pm

aaron: How about this question: why do we still listen to the people who predicted that ozone-layer damage would have a major negative effect on human life in the present day; that the world’s oil reserves would be depleted by now; or that humanity would stay locked in the cold war until 2000 at the very least.

Cite?

38

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 1:53 pm

Ozone depletion mostly affected the Southern Hemisphere, and significant effects were noted in Australia. A decades-long attempt to reduce the problem has had significant results.

It’s characteristic of people who call themselves conservatives to use successful responses to warnings as evidence that there was never anything to worry about in the first place. For another, larger example, the alarmism about the population explosion several decades ago motivated the governments of largest countries in the world, China and India, to change from pro-natalist to rather aggressively anti-natalist policies. (Yes, government action). As a result, the problem is much less alarming than it was, though it hasn’t disappeared.

Many conservatives brand themselves as dishonest idiots right from the start, but that doesn’t mean that they can be ignored, because they can be effective propagandists even so.

39

Barry 03.26.08 at 3:10 pm

“It’s characteristic of people who call themselves conservatives to use successful responses to warnings as evidence that there was never anything to worry about in the first place.”

And it’s even more characteristic of them to lie and BS. I never heard any right-wingers talking about the fall of the Soviet Union ahead of time, except in war novels where it was the hopeful outcome of a WWWIII.

40

Brownie 03.26.08 at 3:44 pm

Are Martin and Matt talking about *the* Scott Ritter? And if they are, which version? The one who resigned from UNSCOM in 1998 writing in his resignation letter:

The sad truth is that Iraq today is not disarmed anywhere near the level required by Security Council resolutions. As you know, UNSCOM has good reason to believe that there are significant numbers of proscribed weapons and related components and the means to manufacture such weapons unaccounted for in Iraq today…

Iraq has lied to the Special Commission and the world since day one concerning the true scope and nature of its proscribed programs and weapons systems.

The Special Commission of today, hobbled as it is by unfettered Iraqi obstruction and non-existent Security Council enforcement of its own resolutions, is not the organization I joined almost seven years ago.

?

Or the Ritter version 5 years later who, after being out of the intelligence loop and with no access to primary source material, had performed a volte face of truly epic proportions?

If there were many who doubted Ritter’s intellectual rigour and suspected a media whore where you saw a champion of truth, then I don’t think they can be blamed. Far from wondering why Ritter wasn’t all over our screens in 2003, I’m more inclined to question why Ritter was given the time of day by *any* news media organization intent on a serious discussion of the issues. And the fact is, whatever you say about his supposed marginalisation, he *was* a regular commentator.

If I’d been an opponent of the war, I don’t think I’d want the anti-war case made by a former weapons inspector who, at the time he left his work, was convinced Iraq was awash with WMD. It’s the same logic that leads me to conclude the pro-war case could do without the (albeit belated) support of Henry Kissinger, for example.

Thanks, but no thanks.

41

Maria 03.26.08 at 3:45 pm

why do we still listen to the people who predicted that ozone-layer damage would have a major negative effect on human life in the present day

Ozone depletion mostly affected the Southern Hemisphere, and significant effects were noted in Australia. A decades-long attempt to reduce the problem has had significant results.

Thanks John Emerson, and I want to add a bit more to that. Skin cancer has a very negative effect on human life. Right now, you can not venture into a beach that’s relatively Southern (Australia, Argentina, Chile) without heavy use of sunscreen. This was not the case 20 or 30 years ago, and the change has been brought about by massive campaigns. So at least in that respect, that is a very bad example.

42

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 4:01 pm

And the fact is, whatever you say about his supposed marginalisation, he was a regular commentator.

He was not. He was interviewed a few times.

The fact that he changed his mind four years later is hardly damning. At least he didn’t change his mind after successfully using fraudulent arguments to instigate a bloody, unnecessary war.

43

Jim S. 03.26.08 at 4:11 pm

Thanks so very much for these posts. The wars were never popular, not with the Americans, or the British, or the Australians. They have shown their true feelings not just in polls, but what is even more effective, by their feet. By not volunteering, and by refusing to allow a draft, they have made it all but impossible for Bush & Co. and the neocons and the Likudniks to conquer the Middle East.

The war’s “popularity” is basically a media hoax.

44

Martin Wisse 03.26.08 at 4:27 pm

Yo, Brownie, even a grade a nimrod like you should’ve figured out that, you know, ridiculing Scott Ritter for speaking out against the war on the basis that there were no WMDs is a teensy weensy bit stupid five years after events have proven him right.

The light is on but mr brain has gone out, hasn’t he?

45

Brownie 03.26.08 at 4:58 pm

Yo Martin,

Except the question is not whether events demonstrated that Iraq was indeed free of WMD, but whether “not nearly disarmed” Ritter was a credible witness.

For example, if my 3 year old says in 2003: “Daddy, I don’t think Iraq has any WMD”, but follows this by eating paint, I think there is a persuasive case for not giving her a slot on the 6 o’Clock news.

By the way, here:

http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11993

is a link correcting your misapprehension that Ritter was “speaking out against the war on the basis that there were no WMDs”. He states categorically in this interview that he never said any such thing.

Why does it take someone like me – who would look out the window to check if Ritter told me it was raining – to put you right on what Ritter did and didn’t say? You being a fan, an’all?

46

engels 03.26.08 at 5:00 pm

If I’d been an opponent of the war, I don’t think I’d want the anti-war case made by… [yada yada yada]

Am I supposed to care or something?

47

engels 03.26.08 at 5:02 pm

If I’d been an opponent of the war, I don’t think I’d want the anti-war case made by… [yada yada yada]

Am I supposed to care or something?

48

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 5:31 pm

People should read brownie’s Zmag cite. It doesn’t say what he claims it says.

Brownie has said nothing, so far, except that he doesn’t liek Ritter for some reason.

And why am I being moderated? My earlier post still isn’t up.

49

Stigand 03.26.08 at 5:42 pm

Any explanation of why the media has been systematically overoptimistic over Iraq and house prices needs also to explain the strange prominence of hyper-bearish financial journalists.

A number of famous finance writers have been relentlessly bearish about stock market prices for years and even decades, despite the massive rises of equity prices over that period. The grandaddy of them all is Alan Abelson, the Sage of Barron’s, who has been predicting stock market disaster most years since the late 1960s, with the occasional accuracy of a stopped clock. Despite this, he remains respected and prominent.

50

Roy Belmont 03.26.08 at 5:44 pm

“Why is it that only those who supported the war are considered serious experts by the media?”
The shortest answer is that the people who own and run “the media” supported, and support, the “war”, so naturally their possessions reflect that.
It’s not like “the media” is some guy in the next apartment, or the delicatessen worker who makes your sandwich. It’s a product, not a producer.
“The media” is a costume with a mask on, a theatrical figure, a dramatized synthetic being. It talks and gestures, it has opinions, it displays emotions, but it isn’t really there; it has a creator, or a team of creators. As such it will tend to represent the considerations of those creators unless they’re of an extraordinarily noble character. Which in our present case they are most definitely not.
There’s a bizarre and likely artificial naivety at work in the question, because it assumes something like lack of bias, neutrality of information, the infamous “fair and balanced” reporting, in journals which consistently display nothing of the kind.
But admitting that consciously will force you to take the next step, through the who? how? why? door.
And God only knows what you’ll be faced with then.

51

Brownie 03.26.08 at 5:51 pm

John, I have said that Ritter did not make a case against war on the basis of his belief that there “were no WMDs”, which is how Martin represented him. The article backs me up. The clue is where Ritter says:

“I’m not on record saying Saddam did not have any WMD. I’m on the record saying that no one has demonstrated that he has any WMD.”

Tell me again how the article contradicts me. I’m genuinely interested in your self-deception.

As for not liking Ritter, I’ve said no such thing. I’ve said he is lacking authority if his position changes from “not nearly disarmed” to “just about disarmed” for no logically explicable reason.

Seriously, suggesting that you’d do well to stay clear of anything Ritter has to say is not deemed controversial with most anti-war types. What’s next? The Pat Buchanan case against regime change?

52

Jack 03.26.08 at 6:08 pm

But Brownie, what about the bit where he says:

I can’t be accountable for what somebody believes. I can tell you what the Intelligence communities of the world were saying. And there was 100% agreement that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed by 1998.

Where you quote him he is just being ultra precise, presumably in an effort to prevent wilful misunderstanding of irrelevant inconsistencies. Oh well. He goes on to say at least 95 to 98 percent of WMDs had been disabled and the rest were controlled by the most intrusive inspection regime in the world. You use that quote but I do not think it means what you think it means.

53

Matt 03.26.08 at 6:24 pm

The section quoted by brownie also doesn’t fit with a lot of other things Ritter said dating to well before the 2nd Iraq war. He’s clearly taking it out of context. But, what was interesting to me about Ritter is that if you listend to what he’d been saying (and that seemed to be backed up by various sources) well before the 2nd war, it would give you reason to think that Bill Clinton wasn’t a great source when deciding whether a war was necessary or not. He also gave good reason to explain the question of why Saddam Hussein was acting like he was in regard to the inspectors- reasons that western agencies surely knew and understood but didn’t want to make widely known.

54

Grand Moff Texan 03.26.08 at 6:36 pm

The fact that he changed his mind four years later is hardly damning.

In the juvenile pap that passes for American political discourse, it isn’t just damning, it’s suicide.

My God! He changed his mind! Now we can’t trust what he says about anything!

Feh.
.

55

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 6:39 pm

Tell me again how the article contradicts me. I’m genuinely interested in your self-deception.

Don’t try your silly troll games with me, motherfucker. I’ve been dealing with your kind for years, and I’m stronger than dirt. (And don’t go whining to mommy because I used a bad word. Boo fucking hoo.)

If someone changes their mind between 1998 and 2002 that does not discredit them, above all if the 2002 opinion is right.

Anyone who read your link would realize that you had vastly misrepresented it. That’s why I asked people to read the link that you posted. I didn’t really feel I needed to argue the point with anyone who had read it.

You still have not given us any reason to exclude Ritter. It’s 100% assertion, with O’Reilly dragged in rhetorically to strengthen your case.

And Ritter turned out to be right, and the people we’re talking about all turned out to be disastrously wrong, as you presumably were too. But to you, that means nothing.

Smarter trolls, please.

56

Grand Moff Texan 03.26.08 at 6:42 pm

Don’t try your silly troll games with me, motherfucker.

My work here is done.

[vanishes in a cloud of hops]
.

57

Sortition 03.26.08 at 6:45 pm

If anyone is interested, Ritter attempts to explain (not quite convincingly in my opinion) his changing rhetoric in a NYT piece.

Ritter’s personal history on this matter may be of interest since it shows how working within the establishment shapes your view of reality. The likely course of events is that after leaving the inspection team in 1998 Ritter gradually lost his pre-conceived, establishment manufactured, viewpoint and came to terms with the facts known to him. By 2002 the transformation was far enough along for him to be ready to publicly make statements that contradicted his 1998 view.

58

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 6:56 pm

Ritter was silenced by the scandal less than two months after that 2002 piece came out in the Times.After January, 2003 he was no longer part of the debate.

This is a bit ludicrous. We’ve trying to talk about a bunch of conceited morons who misled this country, but suddenly we’re defending Scott Ritter.

59

abb1 03.26.08 at 7:47 pm

So what does the American public want to hear now? The public wants to hear why they weren’t idiots.

I’m reminded of this Slate.com piece about $10K/session whores:

“The last time I met him, I gave him a bath,” she told me. “I told him he was the most sensitive man I’d ever met. I never tell him he’s a piece of shit; I make him feel like superman.”

60

Martin Wisse 03.26.08 at 8:03 pm

Like I said, the light is on, but nobody’s home.

61

freshlysqueezedcynic 03.26.08 at 8:30 pm

In the juvenile pap that passes for American political discourse, it isn’t just damning, it’s suicide.

Such is the state of the Decents; once a going concern, now just a home for prolapsed intellects.

62

Brownie 03.26.08 at 9:03 pm

Don’t try your silly troll games with me, motherfucker. I’ve been dealing with your kind for years, and I’m stronger than dirt. (And don’t go whining to mommy because I used a bad word. Boo fucking hoo.)

Let me guess. You’re 11.

Where you quote him he is just being ultra precise, presumably in an effort to prevent wilful misunderstanding of irrelevant inconsistencies. Oh well. He goes on to say at least 95 to 98 percent of WMDs had been disabled and the rest were controlled by the most intrusive inspection regime in the world. You use that quote but I do not think it means what you think it means.

Well at least Jack is coherent (and presumably not drunk, unlike tough John). As it happens, I agree that there was pretty much a consensus that the vast bulk of Iraq’s WMDs were done for by the late 90s. I don’t think it was ever a Bush/Blair contention that this was not the case. The fact remains that Ritter felt so strongly that there was unfinished inspections business in 1998 that he resigned on principle. Not only was he adamant that there were more weapons to be found, he was scathing about the UN and its inability/unwillingness to enforce its own resolutions.

Between 1998 and very late 2002 there was a 4 year inspections hiatus. Ritter, who had been a civilian since 1998, couldn’t possibly be better informed on the eve of war than he was as part of UNSCOM. Everything he was capable of knowing in 2002 must have been available to him in 1998 but, more importantly, he was privy to intelligence in 1998 that he wouldn’t get anywhere near in 2002. I have absolutely no issue with those who, over the same period, came to different conclusions about the extent of the threat posed by Saddam. But Ritter’s contrasting views were not a difference of emphasis; they differed in substance. He was either talking out of his arse in 1998 or doing so in 2002/2003. The fact that his views in 2002/3 turned out to be nearer to the truth than those he offered from a position of knowledge in 1998 does nothing to rebut the plain fact that by the time the US fleet turned up in the Gulf he was damaged goods.

There is a rather more interesting discussion to be had about the distnction between the political ramifications of no WMD being found and the extent to which this damages the pro-war case generally, but you’ll be gutted to know that I don’t have time for this tonight. Suffice it to say, my position at the time was always that it didn’t matter one jot whether we discovered tons of enriched uranium beneath Saddam’s palaces or tons of camel shit. The fact is that we were entitled to know for certain whether Saddam’s continued obfuscation and obstruction was designed to conceal something or was simply the grandstanding of megalomaniac who couldn’t reconcile himself to his own impotence. He wasn’t entitled to the benefit of the doubt and when Blix (notwithstanding obvious improvements) was still unable to report the full cooperation that 1441 demanded, the choice was to either go home and hope for the best or find out for ourselves once and for all.

The failure to find WMD has political consequences for those who guaranteed their discovery, but it does nothing to erode the logical justification for war. An intellectually honest opponent of war ought to be able to understand this and, believe it or not, many do.

Of course, there’s yet another discussion to be had about the de/merits of war using other measures of success and failure, but the ‘no wmd = illegitimate war’ line is bereft of logic.

For a great many, the debate to commit troops turned on a judgment about whether there was any possibility of learning the truth of Saddam’s WMD capability via other means. I concluded that we could not, and Saddam’s denial of unfettered access to inscpetors even with quarter of a million coalition troops massed in the region was the clincher. It was always possible to believe Ritter’s assessment of the threat posed by Iraq was nearer to the truth than that offered by Washington and London and still support regime change specifically because anything short meant we’d never know for certain. David Kelly, until he died, was living proof of this as his article in the Observer on the eve of war demonstrated.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/aug/31/huttonreport.iraq

I don’t think I’ll ever stop being dumbfounded by the inability of large numbers of those who opposed the war to understand how utterly insignifcant the non-discovery of WMD was.

63

Matt 03.26.08 at 9:36 pm

_For a great many, the debate to commit troops turned on a judgment about whether there was any possibility of learning the truth of Saddam’s WMD capability via other means. I concluded that we could not, and Saddam’s denial of unfettered access to inscpetors even with quarter of a million coalition troops massed in the region was the clincher._

But you see, one of the things Ritter had said before was that the old inspections had been fronting for CIA spying, and that much of the “obstruction” was because of this. When you take that into account, Saddam Hussein’s actions were not nearly so unreasonable. Of course, the US and the UK were lying about this in a pretty transparent way, if you’d been paying attention. This, and D-squared’s maxim on not trusting the predictions of known fibbers, made me pretty sure that the official statements were full of crap.

64

Righteous Bubba 03.26.08 at 9:46 pm

Didn’t some kinda speech stress concrete evidence of WMD programs as a justification for war?

65

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 9:47 pm

Brownie certainly talks like a civilized person, doesn’t he? No bad words, an air of class, and a rational tone. Let me enumerate his powerful arguments:

1. In 1998 everyone but Ritter knew that there were no WMD, which proves that he was an idiot when he said in 2002 that there were no WMD.

2. Whether Saddam had WMD was entirely irrelevant. We devastated Iraq on a point of honor: he refused to let us find out for sure that he didn’t have WMD. That’s why Brownie went to war, and he was right, and everything that happened was as it should have been.

3. For some unspecified reason, by 2002 Scott Ritter was damaged goods.

4. Brownie is short of time, so he doesn’t have to respond to questions he doesn’t like.

5. His opponents are intellectually dishonest and amusingly self-deluded. Brownie is astonished by this. Nay, dumbfounded.

6. The only real issue war opponents ever talked about was WMD, but that wasn’t a real issue, so there weren’t any.

7. Brownie is still waiting for us to confess that we’re wrong and he’s right. He’s amused by our defiant failure to do so. He’s willing to wait. An enigmatic yet decent smile plays across his lips.

66

Brownie 03.26.08 at 10:16 pm

John,

I think the mother ship just left.

But you see, one of the things Ritter had said before was that the old inspections had been fronting for CIA spying, and that much of the “obstruction” was because of this. When you take that into account, Saddam Hussein’s actions were not nearly so unreasonable.

Leaving aside the fact that, whatever the differences of opinion about the validity of war, there was no-one in the UN who thought Saddam’s actions anything other than “unreasonable” (which is why 1441, giving Saddam a “final opportunity to comply”, was passed unanimously), the question that begs itself is why Ritter thought the wholesale infiltration of UNSCOM by the CIA wasn’t worthy of a mention in 1998? Are you suggesting he knew something as a civilian in 2002 that he didn’t as an inspector in 1998? Fanciful.

Again, you’re confusing what is and isn’t important as regards Ritter’s credibility. Let’s for sake of argument agree that everything Ritter was saying about inspections in 2002/3 was 100% accurate. The fact remains that when he was the man on the ground 4 years earlier, he was singing an entirely different tune. This is what compromises him and why many anti-war types didn’t and still won’t touch him with a ten foot barge pole.

67

floopmeister 03.26.08 at 10:16 pm

8. Brownie is frantically looking up in the dictionary to find out what a ‘grade a nimrod’ is (Martin 45). He know’s it bad – he just wants to check it’s not something, you know, icky and sexual.

68

John Emerson 03.26.08 at 10:37 pm

Brownie, what makes you think that your little verbal affectations are going to work here? In what world do you live that has made you confident that your methods of argumentation are convincing? After your fourth iteration, you still haven’t told us why we are we supposed to think that Ritter was discredited.

Are you suggesting he knew something as a civilian in 2002 that he didn’t as an inspector in 1998?

Yes! I think that you’ve figured it out!

First, the situation in 2002 might have been different than the situation in 1998. Second, despite no longer being an inspector, Ritter may have received new information between 1998 and 2002. Either way, he could have changed his mind.

That’s why we don’t think that the fact that he had different opinions on the two different dates is ironclad proof that he was wrong and worthless, especially because in 2002 he was right. (We do not rule out the possibility that he had been wrong in 1998.)

And remember, we were originally talking about a number of prestigious people who were completely wrong, in contrast to Ritter. You might call these people the “topic” of the thread. And seemingly, you are one of them.

Incidentally, have you ever changed your mind about anything? Do you regard that as a sign of weakness? Because you think the same way you did in 2002, when everyone else has taken changed circumstances into account, and you seem to think that Ritter discredited himself forever by changing his mind once.

69

Brownie 03.26.08 at 11:52 pm

After your fourth iteration, you still haven’t told us why we are we supposed to think that Ritter was discredited.

If you honestly think that, then you haven’t been paying attention. And if you’re not even going to do me the courtesy of actually reading the comments to which you’re supposedly responding, then why should I bother trying to explain?

First, the situation in 2002 might have been different than the situation in 1998. Second, despite no longer being an inspector, Ritter may have received new information between 1998 and 2002. Either way, he could have changed his mind.

You seem to think I have a problem grasping that Ritter changed his mind. I do not. I’ll lay aside suspicions that he’s simply a media whore who spotted a gap in the market and decided to plug it and, again for sake of argument, accept he was/is sincere. So what? If he cannot rationally, logically and coherently explain how he got from weapons inspector resigning in protest at the UN’s unwillingness to disarm an Iraq that he described as “not nearly disarmed”, to media pundit/author who, after 4 years in the intelligence wilderness now concludes that Iraq is just about disarmed, then this is a serious problem for his credibility. Saying things like “circumstances change” and “he changed his mind” don’t cut it as a convincing reconciliation of two self-contradicting opinions held by the same person about the same issue.

Brownie is frantically looking up in the dictionary to find out what a ‘grade a nimrod’ is (Martin 45). He know’s it bad – he just wants to check it’s not something, you know, icky and sexual.

You need to work on your insults, brother.

70

John Emerson 03.27.08 at 12:08 am

Brownie, you seem to have some kind of private information about Ritter that you’re not sharing. Private information that is very important to you, so that you are not willing to share it.

71

John Emerson 03.27.08 at 12:11 am

And you forgot “He got new information”. The fact that he wasn’t working in Iraq didn’t mean that he couldn’t get new information. A lot of the promoters of the war had far less information than he did, and several were brazen liars.

72

A. Y. Mous 03.27.08 at 5:04 am

Boy! Don’t you just wish that girls went by with names such as “John Emerson” and “Brownie”? Can there ever be a better time to get to say it on Crooked Timber?

CATFIGHT!

73

Guano 03.27.08 at 9:18 am

“How utterly insignificant the non-discovery of WMD was” (Comment 63, Brownie, March 26th, 9.03 pm).

The assertion by the UK government that the invasion of Iraq was legal depended on the opinion of the Attorney General that it would be legal if the UK Government could say that it knew for certain that Iraq had WMD. So Tony Blair said that he knew for certain that Iraq had WMD. Tony Blair was unable to provide any evidence for the certain knowledge; he simply asserted that WMD would be found.

The UK Government said, before the invasion, that Iraq was not cooperating with the weapons’ inspectors. When asked for evidence of non-cooperation, the UK Government said that Iraq wasn’t cooperating because it wasn’t handing over the WMD that the UK Government knew were in Iraq.

It would therefore seem to me that the non-discovery of WMD is highly significant. Tony Blair’s answer to every objection was “WMD will be found”. All the arguments for going to war despite failing to get the backing of the UN hinged on the certainty that WMD existed. If the non-discovery of WMD in Iraq was insignificant, I wonder why I have a cupboard full of letters from politicians, from the period 2002-3, avoiding my original questions but telling me about the certainty that Iraq has WMD!

Andi anyone can explain to me the meaning of comment 30 I will try to answer it.

74

A. Y. Mous 03.27.08 at 9:52 am

Oh! I can. Comment 30 was on why waste so much energy on avoiding to do the right thing? The whole “Way of the West”, at least the Anglo-Saxon version of it, is falling and failing. Your comments on worldviews point out that you feel they are flawed.

My take on all this is; die. Just get the fuck out of the global system. A picture may help you understand why I feel it is hopeless to “correct from within.”

http://bp1.blogger.com/_DZH2cmCoois/R9qICozPCII/AAAAAAAAE2E/KM2hSTdkm6A/s1600-h/tmp.jpg

75

John Emerson 03.27.08 at 11:21 am

Mous was obviously hurt by my 33. His explanations are less transparent than what he explains, which is what happens when you’re fractal.

76

Guano 03.27.08 at 11:43 am

A.Y. Mous: You’re still not making much sense. What is “the right thing” that you refer to? Are you referring to “invading Iraq”?

As someone who has lived in countries at war, and worked in refugee camps, and seen the damage that conflict does to civil institutions, I cannot accept that starting a war is “the right thing to do” unless the rationale is very clear and the risks adequately weighed up. The constantly-changing justifications for invading Iraq do not convince me. I suspect that the hidden assumptions are a belief in the USA that it is safer if it attacks other countries first, and a belief in the UK that it is safer to unquestioningly follow the USA. I think that these countries would be safer if they got these assumptions out in the open and thought them through.

77

A. Y. Mous 03.27.08 at 3:37 pm

Guano, John Emerson,

I don’t think you may be interested in continuing this thread. Nor am I that hurt. It just is that I am not too much of an academic to couch perceptions in non-committal language.

So here goes nothing.

The U. S. of A. and by extension the U. K. has over the past decade and a half or more crapped all over the world with nothing but hatred, fear and failure. Be it economic, political, social or cultural. No amount of “[it] would be safer if they got these assumptions out in the open and thought them through.” is going to help those two societies, nor the rest of the world who have invested heavily in them over the past 100 years or more.

The U. S. of A. and its ilk are a bad debt. Write them off. Fall. Die. Collapse. Fade away. Whatever be the academic term to convey that sentiment. That’s my take. That is the “right thing” I am referring to. That was the reason for that fractal image. The U. S. of A. is rotten to the core.

We the people of the whole wide world who kept sending our first born male child into that altar of capitalism for a century, have learnt our lesson. Sacrifices are a waste. You get nothing. You lose. So long and thanks for all the fish.

78

A. Y. Mous 03.27.08 at 3:48 pm

By the way, John, are you just an Emerson or an “Emerson” Emerson?

79

John Emerson 03.27.08 at 8:32 pm

I don’t disagree a lot, mous. Your enigmatic style made it hard to tell what you were getting at. Plus, I’m death on the entropy meme.

I’m a Haverhill Emerson. Ralph Waldo was an Ipswich Emerson. The two families were related at the brother or cousin level. My first American Emerson ancestor, Michael, was a sketchy character two of whose daughters became more famous than he ever was (though his abusive treatment probably helped make them the killers they became).

But it’s to him that I owe my elite status.

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