Enough with the Iraq Pseudo-Mea Culpas

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait made a mistake earlier this week: he explained why he supported the Iraq War. It was very disappointing.

The main argument he makes is exactly the one that Peter Beinart makes in The Icarus Syndrome. He documents all the fear about the Gulf War based on our experiences in Vietnam. This is very true; everyone feared a total clusterfuck. So after the Gulf War was just a raging hard-on of a success for everyone, he was “conditioned” to trust the military hawks.

Let’s step back a moment and think about that. After the Gulf War, I was glad that it was brief and that the US didn’t lose many people. But I certainly didn’t think it was a success. The purpose of the war (to put a monarchy back in power in Kuwait) didn’t seem a particularly great reason to go to war. What’s more, we ended up killing about 30,000 Iraqis, almost all of whom were poor conscripts. There were also several thousand civilian deaths. And the Iraqi Republican Guard was pretty much untouched by it. So Chait’s takeaway from this war is entirely based upon its effects on the Coalition.

But even if we accept Chait’s take on the Gulf War that it was ripping good fun, how could he equate the very clear and careful planning done by the Bush Sr administration with the slapdash preparations of Bush Jr? This is where Chait really gets himself into trouble. He knew that the administration’s rationale for the war was a pack of lies. But this didn’t bother him because he came up with an alternative way to justify the war.

This was an extremely popular way to support the Iraq War. Chait is not alone by a long shot. But this is faulty reasoning. One must assume that the administration is providing the best rationale for war. They have the best information access, after all. If that case is weak, then coming up with your own is nothing but an exercise in apologetics. The administration’s case for war is the case for war. Any other arguments are simply your own justification for supporting the administration.

And this gets to my primary problem with all of these pseudo-mea culpas: they aren’t mea culpas. They are justifications for why support for the war was reasonable or at least understandable. When an administration is recklessly pushing us into war, it is no less reckless to follow them—regardless of the justification. It was clear at the time that the administration was hell bent on going to war. If that doesn’t cause a person to call for restraint, what will?

I don’t mean to beat up on Jonathan Chait. I am using him as an example because he is one of the most reasonable people offering such justifications. And that just shows how flawed this whole exercise is. It isn’t about having a “conversation” or about learning from our mistakes. As I just wrote about in America’s Arrested Development, this just allows people to go on to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.


Chait ends his article with an attack on Matt Yglesias’ general anti-interventionist stance. He seems to be arguing that just as the Gulf War tainted his thinking on war generally, so did the Iraq War taint the younger Yglesias’ thinking. This is false equivalence. Yglesias has yet to be shown to be dead wrong about his anti-war opinions. But more important: what the hell is such an attack doing in Chait’s supposed mea culpa?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Enough with the Iraq Pseudo-Mea Culpas

  1. The thing about Iraq War II was you didn’t have to know anything about anything to be against it. I knew more than I did when I was a teenager against Iraq War I, but I certainly wasn’t any expert. Yet the justifications were so ridiculous expertise wasn’t remotely necessary to refute them.

    "Saddam has nukes." No, he didn’t, and you didn’t need CIA intel to tell you that. The whole point of having nukes is letting everyone know you have them, so you won’t even consider an invasion.

    "It’s not about oil, it’s about getting rid of a tyrant." Why would we believe Bush the son cared about tyranny when his daddy did not? Again, no vast historical knowledge necessary, just a memory capable of reaching back to 1991. And not about oil? Mmpf, gurgle, I swallowed my Cheez-Itz. Who (besides Chris Hitchens) bought THAT line?

    "Fostering democracy." Even Democrats subscribed to this one. And come on, folks! Bush wasn’t in favor of democracy here (Florida, anybody?) so why would we assume he/his handlers cared about it anywhere else?

    For once, I wish an apologist for Iraq II would just come out and say "I was an idiot, and the members of the public against the war for no complicated reasons were right." Because we were.

    (PS: My favorite joke of the era was "we know Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons; we kept the receipts.")

  2. @JMF – I just had a thought about the Gulf War (or Iraq War I, which is a charming way to refer to the wars). What was it for? What did Bush Sr get out of it? To some extent, I think it is like he was a well know director. A producer comes to him and says, "We have this short window of opportunity to do this great project; wanna do it?" So it isn’t so much about reasons (and there were those); it is about an opportunity to have a "ripping good war" like all presidents should have. As I recall, after the war, Bush’s positives were at 93%. Amazing. (I think that was a big part of Iraq War II, but the son was not a good planner.)

    One thing that really bugs me about the WMDs is that at the time I knew that WMDs was a wide category. They used the term so that they could find a big canon or something and claim they had found "WMDs." But what they wanted people to think was "nukes" or at least "chemical weapons." I was surprised when they [i]didn’t[/i] find WMDs, because so much qualifies. (I also figured they would plant some if they didn’t find any. Call me cynical.) But I had no doubt they wouldn’t find anything like what people were expecting.

    I’m right with you on the lead up to war. To me, the clearest thing was that Bush was going to war no matter what. It bugged me that the media pretended that he was still making up his mind. If you want someone to stop doing something, you don’t embarrass them about it in front of all their friends. That deserves a whole article. I thought that a lot at the time.

    I’m not sure about the knowledgeable aspect of it. I suspect you knew a lot more than you now realize. There was a lot of information that made the case against war. The problem was it would show up for a day and then disappear. The "for" data seemed to build; the "against" just vanished into the ether. Thus, it was only by working to avoid the "against" information that you could be for the war. People like Chait really have no excuse. But people like us were just paying attention with no particular ax to grind.

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