Sunday, June 19, 2005

How I felt about invading Iraq

A Comment by hilzoy over on TPMCafe captures what I thought about the Iraq war so well that I will quote the entire thing here. The post hilzoy is responding to said in part, "It is with chagrin that I admit that the 'radical left' was more correct than the CIA and the national security establishment with regards to whether Saddam was a threat. But...they were reflexively anti-war, and in this case, their automatic position turned out to be right."

Well: I'm about to pile on with everyone else, so let me just start by saying that I take you at your word that you want to figure out how to criticize people civilly, and hope that you'll take this as an attempt to explain what I think needs changing, not as an attack. I should also say that I am not the sort of person you seem to be thinking of when you talk about the 'radical left'. But:

Other people have pointed out that it's both odd and probably unproductive to say that only a few 'serious people' opposed the war in Iraq. I agree with them. But there's another odd rhetorical move in your comment: in your original post, you said that the radical left 'opposed Afghanistan', but in this coment, miraculously everyone who opposed the war, with the exception of a few 'serious people', was on the radical left. That is: you seem to have written those of us who opposed the war in Iraq but not the war in Afghanistan completely out of the picture.

If that reflects your asssumptions, then I can see how you'd feel frustrated at the thought that oddly enough, they were right and you were wrong. But that assumption is not true. I, for instance, supported Gulf I, Kosovo, and Afghanistan; and I would have supported trying to stop the genocide in Rwanda by force. I am 'antiwar' in the sense that, other things equal, war is never my preference, but not at all in the sense that I think wars can never be justified.

I think that the burden of proof is always on those who want to go to war, not just because wars kill people, but also because they have all sorts of unforeseen consequences, often bad. I think this burden of proof is especially heavy when there's no consensus that the war is justified, both because in that case one probably won't be able to get either a security council resolution favoring it or the sort of broad consensus in its favor that we had in Kosovo, and also because I think that when a lot of people don't get what you're doing, you should wonder whether they might be right.

In this case, I thought that burden was not met. For one thing, I thought we needed to stay focussed on al Qaeda, and I couldn't see how we could fight a war in Iraq without losing that focus. Second, I saw no evidence that Saddam had cooperated with al Qaeda. Moreover, this struck me as antecedently implausible: Saddam was a control freak, and al Qaeda was an uncontrollable organization. (I mean: I thought that terrorists would be likely to gravitate towards failed or very weak states like Afghanistan, not tightly controlled totalitarian dictatorships.)

Third, I thought that if we were going to do this at all, we needed to do it right. Screwing up a war is bad in general, but in Iraq it would be disastrous. (Civil war. Secession. The Turks trying to block a Kurdish state. On and on, and all of it bad.) But the Bush administration's approach to Afghanistan convinced me that they would not do it right, and might well do it disastrously.

Fourth, I believed Saddam had WMD (chem and/or bio, not nuclear), at least at first, but I did not believe he would sell them. (Control freak with enough oil revenue not to be desperate for the money.) And I certainly never theought he could deliver them to this country.

Fifth, I stopped believing that Iraq had nuclear weapons sometime around January. I thought that the administration had to be giving Hans Blix information, since it would strengthen their case immeasurably if he found evidence of WMD, but also since it was such a perfect way for them to check out their intelligence. When Blix came up empty, I thought: plainly our intelligence is not as good as the administration seems to think. We had to be telling him where to look, and he was finding nothing.

Finally, I also thought that this war would be disastrous for our image in the region, and that it would make people who would not otherwise join al Qaeda or groups like it do so.

So for all these reasons, I thought this war was a spectacularly bad idea. You may agree with my reasons and you may disagree with them, but I don't think they're self-evidently stupid. Nor do I think they show an insufficient concern for our security: I was watching us move towards war with a kind of horror, thinking: but what about al Qaeda? What about the people who actually attacked us?

So: that's me. While I was thinking these thoughts, there were all sorts of people going on about how opponents of the war just didn't get it, weren't sufficiently serious, and so forth. And it was the fact that they never seemed to so much as entertain the idea that there was any reason why someone might disagree with them other than some sort of non-seriousness or idiocy that was, if memory serves, particularly annoying.

And so now, reading a comment in which you seem to assume that the entire part of the spectrum that's filled by people who opposed only this war, but who did not oppose Afghanistan (or Gulf War I, or Kosovo...) -- well, it's the same thing. It's identifying lots of people who have perfectly reasonable views, and who are moreover quite serious about national security, with another group entirely.

And when you add in apparent bafflement that you could have been wrong while these peculiar people whom you assume to have been out on the fringe somewhere were right -- it just brings back so many old memories ;)

I think the way to criticize people you disagree with is: with respect. It would go a long way.

After 9/11, I wanted a president who would go after the terrorists, not persue his pet project of finishing what his father started in Iraq.


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