Learning from Iraq: the Logic of Condemnation and Regret

You don't need to be an inveterate Bush-basher to recognize that the Iraq War is far from a complete success. To be sure, it may yet come to a successful conclusion - successful from the American point of view - some years down the road. But more likely the outcome will be successful instead for some group at odds with our interests, for example Shi'ites and their Iranian allies, or Al Qaida. From its misconceived beginning to the present, the war has been riddled with mistakes and erroneous assumptions.
One would expect, therefore, that critics of the War would have swept the Bushies from the field. This hasn't yet happened. The critics so far have been like a pack of small dogs nipping at Bush's heels.

This, it seems to me, is because the critics have yet to find a fruitful point of attack. The main criticisms have been along two lines: 1) The decision to go to war was unjustified; 2) The Bush administration is currently doing a bad job, in particular doing a bad job of extricating us from the war. Critics have either looked back to the beginning of the war, or they look forward to the present and future.

Either way, they are at a basic disadvantage. They find no firm ground.
On the one hand if they attack Bush for starting the war, they are accused of playing a "blame game" that is devoted to useless recrimination about events of the past that cannot be changed, even if we can come to a clear conclusion from sorting through the jumble of issues and charges having to do with misleading intelligence etc. This line of attack, it is charged, is totally unproductive.

But on the other hand, if critics attack the current management of the war, they have no firm ground to stand on either, because the mess in Iraq is so bad that no one has a viable proposal. Stay in indefinitely? Leave on a graduated schedule? Leave immediately? All these alternatives have grave drawbacks. Whatever Bush does, no one can offer a better alternative.

So critics of the war find themselves in a dilemma - if they look to the past they are irrelevant; if they look to the future they are baffled. And thereby Bush worms out of full responsibility for his failures.

How, then, can we hold Bush accountable for his mal- and misfeasance and do so in a profitable way? I suggest a commonsensical third line of attack that combines past and future - looking to the past in order to improve decision making in the future.

Let's look to the past and ask how we got where we are: What were the governing policies, principles and assumptions? Let's go deeper than the tangle of specific questions about intelligence and the like. What was it about the Bush outlook that - we can now see - got us into the mess?

Having determined where the country went wrong, we must say "Never again!" and make the necessary basic changes. (Supposedly we learned this lesson after Vietnam. Apparently we need to be re-educated every 30 years or so, until we finally settle on the right approach.)

What are some of the lessons to be learned? Just as a start, I suggest these three:

1) Multilateralism: We need it. Let's remember that most of the world - I'm thinking of Europe in particular - hasn't always been hostile to the U.S. After 9/11, most of the world was enthusiastically on our side. French newspapers, for example, headlined "We are all Americans." The world turned against us only after the invasion of Iraq, after we scorned common morality and common sense and defied the United Nations (as well as ignoring UN inspectors then in Iraq). Now we are paying in blood and treasure for Bush's arrogant unilateral approach, and that approach must be tossed out. Instead of trying to be king of the jungle, we must aim to make the world less of a jungle. We must try to strengthen international law and international cooperation, not only in matters of war and peace but in other areas as well.

2) Understand other peoples' ways of thinking. The conduct of the war was based on two related assumptions: The people of Iraq would welcome us with open arms; and the people of Iraq, like all people, aspire to democracy. The error of the first is apparent. Many Iraqis find a foreign occupation humiliating or threatening, just as many (or all) Americans would.
The second assumption may be true in an abstract sense, but we should have realized that abstract or formal democracy - i.e. simply voting for a representative or law - means different things to different people. Sunnis and Sh'ites, for example, may have opposing motives when they go into the voting booth, and if they don't get what they want through voting they may resort to stronger measures. Bush should have realized this, but obviously didn't, before he blithely ordered an invasion and assumed that everyone would live happily ever after.

3) Look to the foundations of your beliefs. This is a logical point with dramatic real-life significance. Each of our beliefs has some other belief that serves as a reason for it, and that belief has a reason, and so on. It's like a chain in which each link is a belief, one leading to the other, so that each belief - each link in the chain - is founded on the beliefs that came before. In the case of Iraq, the chain seemed to have roughly this form:
a) Informants (Chalabi, "Curveball" et al.) reported that Saddam had WMDs and that the Iraqis would all welcome the U.S.
b) Therefore Saddam did have WMDs and the Iraqis would indeed welcome U.S. forces.
c) Therefore we should knock over Saddam's army and government, and once we do that we can transform Iraq into a model nation and gain the applause of the world.
The trouble is that the first step (a) was a weak foundation for the second. Therefore statement (b) was uncertain, with a low degree of probability. Therefore the final conclusion could not be know with certainty. But those who oversaw this process of inference apparently did not wish to deal in uncertainty or probability; they needed to stamp each statement with a simple "yes' or "no." So what started out as a "maybe" (the reports from informants) came through as a definite "yes," and what should have been a hesitant, tentative conclusion was presented as a "slam-dunk" certainty. If Bush had known the weak foundation his convictions rested on, he might not have been so confident that his belligerence would pay off. Or perhaps he didn't want to know. Perhaps he wanted the slam-dunk certainty and didn't care whether it was legitimate or not.
In any case, those who want the truth will always do well to ask "How do you know?" And we need a government that seeks the truth rather than holding tight to ideologically-driven conclusions.

These are the kinds of general views we need to work out to make sure - in 2006 and finally in 2008 - that Bushism doesn't continue to taint our politics.
Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 2, Issue 2, Posted 09.16 AM / 24th January 2006.