Jonathan 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?