jim henley @ unqualified offerings:
the following appeared this week in the new york times, the washington post, slate and the new yorker in a parallel universe ...
how i got it right: looking back at a time of justified opposition to a mad, violent enterprise
so many publications have expressed such overwhelming interest in the perspectives of those of us who opposed the iraq war when it had a chance of doing good that i have had to permit mutliple publication of this article in most of the nation's elite media venues — collecting, i am almost embarrassed to admit, a separate fee from each. everyone recognizes that the opinions of those of us who were right about iraq then are crucial to formulating sane, just policy now. it's a lot of pressure, so please forgive anything glib or short you read herein: between articles, interviews, think-tank panels and presentations before government agencies and policy organs i'm not permitted to mention, i'm a little frazzled.
on the bright side, and i can confirm that my experience has been similar to those of my fellow prophets, being the object of so much attention, being repeatedly quizzed by eager interlocutors on the same basic points, encourages one to distill one's thinking to its essence. as kenneth pollack asked me the other day, "what the fuck was so special about you, anyway?"
"for one thing," i said, "i am not sprawled on a sidewalk next the mcpherson square metro station, hoping to cadge enough quarters to enjoy the rare treat of laundering the vomit out of the only shirt i own, praying all the while that decent people do not recognize me beneath the matted beard and tangled hair."
"but my thigh hurts!" he said.
"shut up," i consoled him, "or i'll kick it again."
still he had a way of arriving at the essential question: "what the fuck was so special about me, anyway?" why did i have the sense to oppose the us conquest of iraq when so many of our great and good supported it? sometimes i think the other question is almost more interesting: what the fuck were those other people thinking? alas, answers to that one are hard to come by, since understandable shame has closed many mouths. so my own side of the story will have to suffice. why was i right and you, if you were a powerful politician or respected pundit in 2002-2003, wrong? some guesses follow.
- i'm really very bright. i don't like to brag, but my iq places me in the 99th percentile of americans. odds are, for instance, that i am smarter than you. and if i'm not, you're probably not that much smarter than i am. and even if you are, it would be unseemly for you to say so. what are you, stuck up or something? you aside, i'm certainly smarter than the president, or doug feith, or joe klein. i am seventeen times as smart as senator joseph lieberman. i am twenty-five hundred percent brighter than gop presidential candidate john mccain.
my superior intelligence is a superficially plausible explanation, and i don't discount it, but two immediate objections suggest themselves. first, and less crucially, it simply raises another question: how did i get so smart in the first place? the shortest answer is, "because my parents were smart, and their parents were smart too." it's very hard to say why that matters: iq appears to be substantially heritable, but it's hard to disentangle the genetic component from the environmental nevertheless — i was reared by my parents, and not, as you know, by yours. if i'd been reared by yours i'd have gotten more toys as a kid. we were poor and you, somewhat spoiled.
distressingly, there's no practical program for improvement there. "be smarter!" we might say to doug feith, "you'll make better policy!" but doug feith can't go back in time and be born to other people. but in light of the second objection to the "intelligence theory," that probably doesn't matter.
second objection: you didn't have to be all that bright to oppose the iraq war in advance. heck, polls suggest that most americans were dubious about the idea until the war became obviously inevitable. real enthusiasm was confined to the elite media, the bipartisan defense-policy establishment and a bunch of republican quasi-intellectuals who had spent ten years casting about for different countries to have a war — any war — with. i mean, for crying out loud, at one point our rulers declared that saddam hussein might attack america with remote-controlled model planes. you didn't have to wait to bounce that one off the folks at your next mensa meeting to judge its likelihood. nor did you have to puzzle overlong, if someone tried to put that one by you, how much stock you should put in anything else that came out of their mouths.
conclusion: my manifest intelligence was definitely not necessary to opposing the iraq war. it may not have been sufficient either.
- i wasn't born yesterday. i had heard of the middle east before september 12, 2001. i knew that many of the loudest advocates for war with iraq were so-called national-greatness conservatives who spent the 1990s arguing that war was good for the soul. i remembered elliott abrams and john poindexter and michael ledeen as the knaves and fools of iran-contra, and drew the appropriate conclusions about the bush administration wanting to employ them: it was an administration of knaves and fools.
people will object that the project for a new american century had heard of the middle east before september 12, 2001 too, so just knowing some things wasn't enough. and hey, true, but if you read"warbloggers"back in 2001-2003, the thing that really jumped out was how new all this foreign-policy stuff was to them. people without much knowledge on the subject went looking for someone to soothe a very real hurt they felt in september 2001, and the first people they ran into were raving, nationalistic morons with a preexisting agenda, clustered around the wall street journal and the weekly standard.
- libertarianism. as a libertarian, i was primed to react skeptically to official pronouncements. "hayek doesn't stop at the water's edge!" i coined that one. not bad, huh? i could tell the difference between the government and the country. people who couldn't make this distinction could not rationally cope with the idea that american foreign policy was the largest driver of anti-american terrorism because it sounded to them too much like "the american people deserve to be victims of terrorism." i could see the self-interest of the officials pushing for war — how war would benefit their political party, their department within the government, enhance their own status at the expense of rivals. libertarianism made it clear how absurd the idealistic case was. supposedly, wise, firm and just american guidance would usher iraq into a new era of liberalism and comity. but none of that was going to work unless real american officials embedded in american political institutions were unusually selfless and astute, with a lofty and omniscient devotion to iraqi welfare. and, you know, they weren't going to be that.
finally-er, being neither republican nor democrat meant that i wasn't unduly impressed when even tom friedman, or even some clinton administration hack, assured everyone that the tinpot ruler of a two-bit despotism eight-thousand miles away would and could destroy us if we didn't get him first.
here there are a number of objections. all too many self-described libertarians supported the iraq war, with that noxious fervor for which we are notorious. these people were led astray by a combination of noble and base tendencies within libertarianism. saddam hussein was a vicious tyrant, after all, and some libertarians let a commendable hatred of tyrants overrule their common sense. some libertarians remembered that war involved guns, and lots of them, and figured it must be good. and many feared that if the united states did not go to war, it might make some hippie, somewhere, happy.
the more telling objection is that you didn't have to be a libertarian to figure out that going to war with iraq made even less sense than driving home to east egg drunk off your ass and angry at your spouse. any number of leftists and garden-variety liberals, and even a handful of conservatives, figured it out, each for different reasons. this objection has the disadvantage of being obviously true.
what all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: war is a big deal. it isn't normal. it's not something to take up casually. any war you can describe as "a war of choice" is a crime. war feeds on and feeds the negative passions. it is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. various hawks occasionally protested that "of course" they didn't enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time. it's a heavy burden, i'll admit. but the riches and fame make it all worthwhile.