There is a torrent of Iraq War soul-searches in the media right now, and they continue to stick in my craw for their evasiveness, especially after the brutally self-critical tone of Andrew Sullivan’s professed regrets for his support.
I was looking forward to something similar from former Bush speechwriter — Mr. Axis of Evil himself — David Frum, and I did not get it:
My youngest daughter was born in December 2001: a war baby. When my wife nursed little Beatrice in the middle of the night, she’d hear F-16s patrolling the Washington skies.
In October, I attended a crowded briefing in the fourth-floor auditorium of the Executive Office Building, at which the Secret Service explained its plans to protect the White House against a biological attack. They weren’t very reassuring. Basically, we’d all be dead. Even more disturbing were the small-session briefings by staffers for the new Homeland Security adviser. They warned of simultaneous car bombings at strategic intersections, targeted assassinations of officials as they retrieved their morning papers from their stoops, and poisonous gases released in Metro stations.
Like many Washingtonians, my wife and I had prepared an emergency kit in the basement: canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, batteries. We had an evacuation plan, a rendezvous point two hours outside the city, and a stipulated wait time after which she was to presume I was a casualty.
These anxieties may sound luridly overdramatic today, but they suffused the mental atmosphere of the government of the United States as President Bush made the fateful decision to launch the Iraq War.
Frum goes on to talk about his own growing misgivings, how they were pointless given that he was ‘just a speechwriter,’ and how he recognized the incompetence of the occupation.
I am not impressed.
Everyone was scared after 9/11. Fine. Threats were suddenly appearing in subtle and unpredictable places, sparked by Islamist rage. Understood. What on Earth did that have to do with a hobbled, mainly-secular dictatorship? Could not even David Frum, surrounded by tales of impending doom though he was, not distinguish between the threat of radical Islamist terrorism from the imaginary threat of an unrelated despot in an unrelated country? Was no skepticism of any kind brought to bear?
Even Ezra Klein, of whom I am a fan, in copping to being wrong in his initial support of the war, is saying “sorry” for the wrong thing:
. . . at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration. . .
. . . It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it “right.”
I leave it to Jordon Bloom at The American Conservative to answer this:
To say “It wasn’t worth doing precisely because the odds were high that we couldn’t do it ‘right’” assumes it’s actually a matter of odds, not morality or Constitutional prerogatives. Can Klein answer what odds would have been good enough to justify the death of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a war in which the United States only had the faintest national interest? . . . in light of being deceived, is a little skepticism of either the information the government releases to the public or the projection of American power abroad too much to ask in light of his mistake?
There it is: a lack of skepticism. A stunning, troubling lack. That credulity, that “unforced error,” is the moral crime that Sullivan recognizes. Klein gets there, however, somewhat:
the people who are most persuasive aren’t necessarily the people who are actually right. Argument is a skill. Authority is a position. Trusting too much in either can lead you astray.
What’s difficult for me here, even as I witness those whom I greatly admire rending their garments about their support of the war, is that even to someone as distant from it all as me, it was glaringly obvious that the case for war presented by the Bush administration was a giant crock of shit. Speeches and responses to questions full of spooky hypotheticals and what-ifs; a sudden fixation on a rogue state that also happened to be one rich with oil and a former target of the same folks who had been in power a decade before; the convenience of a military conflict that would not be so covert as one waged against shadowy terrorists, but rather ready for television; a president, clearly too dumb to grasp nuance or tolerate details, smirking and strutting his way into a decade of atrocity, barely able to keep a straight face while he dishes out his rhetorical flak.
Why did anyone buy it? At times, in 2002 and 2003, I thought I might be going crazy, as so many smart, connected, informed people were so sure this was not only a good idea, but critical. To me, it was snake oil. And I wasn’t even thinking about how well or poorly the occupation might go, or whether Iraq would become a liberal democracy. I was still at square zero: We should not have this war because its justifications are fake.
This is why we need a skeptics’ movement, folks. Because skepticism ain’t just for deities, aliens, and alt-med. It’s for the shit we’re told by people twirling their mustaches right in our faces.