Lessons not learned

The pile of "mea culpas" from war advocates demonstrates how little has changed in their thinking.


Glenn Greenwald
March 20, 2008 10:09PM (UTC)

(updated below)

Slate is publishing a series of articles from so-called "liberal hawks" who supported the invasion of Iraq, asking them to reflect on "why they got it wrong." Most of the pseudo-regretful war advocates oh-so-nobly blame others ("I didn't realize how incompetent the Bush administration could be" -- Jeffrey Goldberg; "I trusted Colin Powell and his circumstantial evidence - for a little while" -- Fred Kaplan; "I underestimated the self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship" -- Kanan Makiya).

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Some claim -- like the job interviewee who cites "excess diligence" when asked to name their worst fault -- that they were simply too starry-eyed in their Goodness and purity ("Maybe the fall of this horrifying regime would serve as an example to all the other despotisms in the neighborhood" - Josef Joffe). Only one of them candidly admitted that he was motivated by rage and a base desire for vengeance ("I wanted to go to 'them,' whoever 'they' were, grab them by the neck, and get them before they could get us. One of 'them' was Saddam Hussein" - Richard Cohen).

But virtually every line of rationale is purely utilitarian in its reasoning. The most unadorned admissions of error amount to little more than a concession that they simply assessed the costs and benefits inaccurately. And even with that extremely narrow concession, none of them -- either in Slate or elsewhere -- even reference in passing the fact that the war they cheered on ended the lives of hundreds of thousands (at least) of innocent Iraqi citizens and caused the internal and external displacement of millions more. That just doesn't exist in the calculus.

More strikingly, not a single one of them appears to have learned the real lesson worth learning from the whole disaster: The U.S. should not -- and has no right to -- invade, bomb and occupy other nations that haven't attacked or even threatened to attack us. None of them say: "Wars that aren't directly in response to an actual or imminent attack shouldn't be commenced because doing so leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings for no justifiable reason." Not even the most regretful war advocate seems to have reached that conclusion.

As long as the root premises of our endless war-fighting remain firmly in place, there will be many more Iraqs, "justified" by similar or only marginally different objectives. We need to invade to remove a Bad Government, or stop a civil religious or ethnic war, or prevent mistreatment by other ruling factions of their citizens, etc. etc. -- as though we possess the ability and are blessed with sufficiently magnanimous, selfless political leaders to accomplish any of those lofty goals with military invasions of other countries.

As a result of these claimed "lessons learned" from Iraq, perhaps our media and political elite will weigh the costs and benefits a little more carefully the next time around. Perhaps they will be marginally more skeptical of uncorroborated government assertions. But as long we continue to embrace the unlimited entitlement we've uniquely arrogated unto ourselves to invade other countries at will whenever we feel it's vaguely in our "interests" to do so, then other Iraqs (and Vietnams) are inevitable, more likely sooner rather than later. And all one has to do is survey the recent commentary commemorating the five years of occupation in Iraq to see that those core interventionist premises are as firmly entrenched among the establishment as they were on the day we invaded Iraq.

UPDATE: In comments, Iokannan in the Well notes the primary reason why they won't learn the above lessons:

These war advocates, I would wager to a one, have learned nothing for one simple reason: They have no actual investment in the conflict they cheer for.

They and their families have not or will not serve in the armed forces.

They and their families are not at economic or emotional risk of losing loved ones overseas.

They and their families have insulated themselves through distance and willing ignorance against the devastation they've cheered for.

I'm not sure that applies to all of them, but certainly almost all. There really is no more toxic combination than the ability to urge war and simultaneously be shielded from all costs and consequences. Adam Smith put it perfectly in his 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations:

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In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

Or, put another way, we must not withdraw from Iraq ever, sayeth the Washington establishment.

On another note, Atrios notes some commendable observations from Tim Noah, whose mea culpa article is, by far, the most thoughtful in the Slate pile (a distinction easily achieved).


Glenn Greenwald

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