War, caution, and retrospective wisdom

No, having been for the war doesn’t prove that you’re a stupid, heartless bastard. But the way it turned out should thoroughly discredit the people who were CHEERFUL about starting it.

Yes, bad things happen in war.

That’s an excellent reason for being extremely reluctant to go to war.

There was some justification for the people who said, back in late 2002/early 2003:

1. The situation in Iraq is bad.

2. Saddam Hussein, who hates the United States and who has tried to build an atomic weapon before, is now being restrained from trying to do so again only by a sanctions regime that has huge humanitarian costs (and is rapidly falling apart in any case) and an inspections program that works only because we have most of the troops we can mobilize in Kuwait ready to invade.

3. Once the sanctions collapse and the army comes home (it can’t stay there forever) SH is likely to once again try to build a nuclear weapon, which he promised not to do in return for our not removing him from power in 1991.

4. If we invade Iraq, the military part will probably go well, though we might get some ugly surprises in the form of chemical-weapons use or scorched-earth operations.

5. The aftermath is likely to be ugly, but maybe if we’re smart and careful we can cobble together a government that works and would be better than the current system, which consists of totalitarian domination of a part of the Sunni minority over the rest of the Sunnis and the Shi’a majority.

6. So let’s go for it, with as much international support as we can muster, in the full awareness that it may end in tears.

There is no justification whatever for those who said, in effect:

1. This is going to be a cakewalk.

2. Aside from whatever permanent military bases we decide to establish, we’ll be out of there in a few months.

3. Once we have bases next door to Saudi Arabia they’ll have to make nice to us.

4. The new, democratic Iraq will establish diplomatic relations with Israel and reshape the politics of the Middle East.

5. The oil revenues will pay for the occupation.

6. Hah! We get to screw the French: no oil, no drilling contracts.

7. Yippeee! Feels good. This is gonna be fun!

Yes, I’m tired of the triumphalism of people who tell me that their early opposition to the war demonstrates their omniscience, and that anyone one who wasn’t opposed to the war before it started should either practice criticism and self-criticism or just STFU. But I’m much tireder of the happy-go-stupid “Sh*t happens” attitude that takes lightly the shedding of lots of other people’s blood. What I can’t forgive the contemporary Right is its ability to combine hysterical fear-mongering with a fundamental lack of seriousness.

Hat tip: Atrios

Footnote Of course it’s not surprising that I think there was some justification for the first viewpoint outlined above, since it’s the one I held. It’s even possible, if you squint just a little bit, to still see that viewpoint as having possibly been correct. It depends on how bad the situation would have been in the absence of an invasion and how much better it could have turned out had the occupation been run with only a reasonable level of ideological stupidity, incompetence, and corruption, rather than with the record-setting levels we’ve actually seen. Everything that happens is inevitable, in retrospect.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com