Was supporting the war a mistake?

Timing is everything.

Matthew Yglesias is beating himself up (and, by implication, beating up on me and the other liberal hawks) for staying on the pro-war bandwagon too long. And he rejects, properly I think, the alibi that the war and occupation could have been waged successfully but Bush screwed it up: supporting a war meant supporting a war to be waged by Team Bush. After all, the Shinseki estimate, and Rumsfeld’s contemptuous rejection of it, were public record by then.

Matt’s willingness to second-guess himself is praiseworthy, and the last two weeks have surely given us a hint that invading Iraq when we did and occupying it as we did might not have been the smartest move ever made. So I’m not as reluctant as I usually am to say in this case that my previous view was wrong.

But then Matt goes on to insist, again I think correctly, that (1) the sanctions regime wasn’t long-term stable and (2) once it collapsed, SH was probably going to buy himself some nukes. So his retrospectively preferred position was “Not This War Now.”

For those who took that position early (Richard Clarke, Wesley Clark) that now looks like a very smart position to have taken. But by February it probably wasn’t either logistically or politically feasible to either (1) keep 100,000 troops on the Iraqi border for another six months in order to invade in the fall or (2) pull most of that army out and then put it back. So if “Not This War Now” meant “Wait until October,” it belonged by February on, to borrow Matt’s own phrase, the list of “Sh*t That Ain’t Gonna Happen.”

Matt is now convinced that never going to war would have had less bad consequences than going to war too early and with too few troops and a badly conceived and badly executed occupation plan. Maybe so. I’m not entirely convinced. But to be for “Not This War Now” effectively, you would have had to be for it much earlier than February 2003.

And that would have meant, among other things, sacrificing the possibility that all those troops massed on the Iraqi border would push the Iraqi regime into some sort of negotiated settlement.

Why is this relevant? Partly because reviewing one’s mistakes is a useful corrective to delusions of omniscience, and partly to remind ourselves that this stuff is hard. Right now, I’m not prepared to concede Atrios’s claim that the anti-war people were “right” and that the rest of us should therefore shut up and listen to them.

Update Dan Drezner thinks that the decision to invade will still turn out to have been the correct one, if we are now willing to do what is necessary to succeed. Matt Yglesias agrees, except that he doubts that, from where we now stand, success is still possible.

My tentative view is that they both might be right: invading might turn out to have been better than not invading if some sort of success is achieved, but our maximal war aim — a stable, democratic, pro-American Iraq — is a shot not on the board. So the Kerry strategy of defining success down — to call it “success” if we manage to leave Iraq in the grip neither of frank tyranny or active civil war — may now produce the least bad outcome available.

That’s easy for me to say, since I never believed in the feasibility of the maximal agenda but supported the war anyway. Replacing a horrible government that’s very hostile to us with a pretty bad government that’s only somewhat hostile to us isn’t an exciting battle cry to rally the troops or the voters, but you couldn’t really call it a defeat.

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

One thought on “Was supporting the war a mistake?”

  1. Buyer's Remorse

    Mark Kleiman writing on the not this war now issue makes a number of good points. In particular, the sensibleness of this line of thinking to change according to when, exactly, you're talking about. Kieran Healy, meanwhile, brings up the…

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