Thursday, August 1, 2013

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Madison Bumgarner, 24.

Want some good stuff?

1. More on the Iraq War, from Erik Voeten. My position, again: the instability and costs of the status quo were real...but good presidenting would have revealed that the costs, including downside risks, of invasion and occupation were far, far, higher.

2. Good crankiness about the current scandals (and stupid things being said about them) from Irin Carmon.

3. And speaking of cranky: Greg opens up on lazy punditry.


  1. This still doesn't explain to me why you think Gore would have ended up going to war in Iraq which you suggested in your prior post on this.
    Could you clarify?

    1. Me? No, I think that Gore would *not* have ended up going to war in Iraq - although I'm not a huge Gore fan, and am hardly certain of it.

      The main thing is that I think Gore would have been far better at presidenting, which would have meant in this instance that he would have been much better at listening to clues about the costs and downside risks of attacking.

      The secondary thing is that party matters. Yes, there were Democratic hawks. But the GOP was basically divided between people realists, who themselves were split between pro- and anti-war, and over-the-top crazed interventionists, of various stripes. The safe place within the party was to be pro-war, and the information flows were going to favor pro-war information unless the president tried hard to avoid it.

      A Democrat would have had a much more balanced set of in-party incentives and information flows.

    2. My mistake, I misread to which part of the Minerva link you were agreeing to.

      I was a teenager at the time, and by now I'm a Senate staffer. My group of youngish Generation O friends had a FURIOUS argument about the original article.

      I like to draw the bright line here because of people like Sullivan who console their venality with "Gore would have done it too!"

      It's also nice to know that in all universes, Ken Pollack is wrong.

  2. What's interesting about the Iraq War debate, it seems to me, is how easily, even in these hyper-media days, we passively receive memes and judge their quality without first questioning their truth (or truthiness).

    For example, I pointed to Bush 41's Toward a New World Order speech to Congress in Sept. 1990, which laid out his rationale for the occupation and eventual war. His reasoning was unmistakable:

    "(Saddam) moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. It was then that I decided to act to check that aggression." (my emphasis)

    Bush's reasoning is clear, except I forgot to add the postscript: everyone, by which I mean Congress, laughed at the explanation of Saddam's empire aspirations. So, as we all know, the rationale changed.

    If we had lived in a heavily bloggy era in 1990, intellectuals on the left would have debunked the immorality of "blood for oil", while the corresponding intellectuals on the right would have talked of the merits of "freedom for Kuwaitis" (remember that?) It all would have been very interesting, and, surely filled a lot of computer space, but also - per the Bush justification - completely irrelevant.

    If Bush was right in his speech, the need to prevent the "Saddaman" empire is obvious. Even the most anti-semitic person should recognize that the coexistence of heavily nuclear-armed, but otherwise tiny, Israel, and a large, Sunni Arab state was going to end disastrously. This isn't even debatable, it seems to me. The only question is whether Bush 41 knew what he was talking about, which a phalanx of Democratic congresspeople called into question.

    In the early 70s, those Congresspeople were mainly high schoolers looking to pick up chicks and whatnot, while Bush was the head of the CIA, dealing with Saddam's rise to power as a young lawyer in Iraq who (virtually singlehandedly) transformed OPEC from a sleepy, clubby organization into the devastating cartel that we know and love.

    Who we gonna believe? The congresspeople! Of course.

    There's an argument, advanced often, that containment would have worked indefinitely with Saddam's aspirations. Maybe.

    But WMDs and rogue state status like North Korea? Please, people, its okay to question the conventional memes that come flooding down at you from on high, up at you from down low, from everywhere else.

    1. The difference between 1990 and 2003 was that in 1990 Saddam was invading countries and threatening other countries (which I really don't recall anyone laughing at) and in 2003 he was not. He had no weapons of mass destruction, he had no programs to build weapons of mass destruction, and he had no connection to al-Qa'ida. (As proof of the al-Qa'ida connection, the administration pointed to the presence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, but Zarqawi--actually a rival to al-Qa'ida--was there to try to overthrow Saddam.) In 2003 we were the aggressors. That's why I immediately get suspicious of 1990 analogies and get really cranky when people say: "So-and-so backed us in 1990 and refused to do so in 2003, what's their problem?"

    2. Scott, I certainly agree that it isn't clear that Saddam's regional aspirations were as much of a problem in 2003 as in 1990. They surely may not have been, he may have been effectively contained.

      But who knows? In neither war were Saddam's empire aspirations part of the national conversation! In 1990 it was about Kuwaiti freedom or blood for oil, in 2003 it was about rogue states and WMD.

      So while it is certainly unknown whether Saddam was still "a threat" to Middle East stability in 2003, there's no doubt that he was in 1990 (unless President Bush was delusional in addressing Congress).

      If we collectively largely overlooked that crucial aspect of the story in 1990, what gives us confidence that we didn't miss it again in 2003?

    3. One other thing occurs to me: we don't really know if Saddam's regional aspirations represented a continuing threat in 2003, or whether he was effectively contained.

      If we were to rank all the humans alive (in 2003) who might be able to provide an educated opinion on this question, certainly George HW Bush would make the top dozen, no?

      When the son (himself an inexperienced buffoon) of one of the most knowledgeable judges of such a thing launches a war to finish that job, it could be that he talked to dad, dad said, nah Iraq is no problem with Saddam at the helm, the costs are too great, don't do it. Dad might well have advised that way, and there's a widely-held view that Dubya is the type who would disregard that advice from dad.

      Its a romantic idea - on a little bit of reflection, its not especially realistic. So the pundits who say Saddam was contained in 2003 (many of whom, let's face it, buy the WMD/rogue state interpretation), are in all likelihood disagreeing with GHW Bush.

      Not unlike those ignorant congresspeople a dozen or so years earlier, come to think of it.

    4. Yo! Bad logic alert!

      To answer your question about, "But who knows?" That's the CIA's job. Specifically, it was Val Plame's job. She was gathering info on nuclear development in Iraq? Remember what happened to her?

      As to Saddam's threatening capabilities in 2003, well, there had been a decade of sanctions to impoverish the country. Contrast that to the 1980's, when Don Rumsfeld had been selling lots of weapons to Saddam to use against the Iranis.

      So we know he was a threat in 1990, because we had sold him the weapons. In 2003, he had crap to invade with. And the CIA knew all about his weapons programs at the time.

      You reason: "we collectively largely overlooked the story in 1990" therefore "how do we know we didn't miss it again?"

      when in fact; "the US gov knew everything about Saddam's weapons in 1990 because the US gov provided them."

    5. Certainly Plame covers the WMD concern. But would a country like Iraq need WMDs to roll up the Sunni Middle East? With the notable exception of Syria, those countries are all militarily feeble petro states. It wouldn't take much to take them out.

      Its easy to conclude that there was no continued risk of hegemony on the part of Saddam in the 21st century. All the evidence certainly points in that direction!

      But how in the world did he survive that long in the first place? In the 60 or so years since the end of the British protectorate, there had been, what, 60 violent revolutions in Iraq by the time Saddam came to power? I exaggerate, of course. But not by much!

      Against the backdrop of more than a half-century of near-constant revolutionary friction between Sunnis and Shias, Sunni Saddam came to power and immediately launched a ruinous decade-long war against the Shi'a Iranians (survived that) and then invited an even more ruinous decade-plus sanctions regime (survived that too). He persisted in power in Iraq against long odds, in a leadership position no one else was able to hold onto, even when it was easy.

      So we conclude in the early 21st century, well there was no way that Saddam was going to rise again, he is effectively neutralized, its fine...

      ...idk, I think Saddam's track record tells you he's generally not the kind of guy about whom you should use "there's no way" as a descriptor.

    6. Saddam was effectively rendered "Castro" by 2003. And anyone without an agenda could see that.

    7. Hussein played the tribal politics very, very well. He was also as brutal as Assad or his father. He had used chemical weapons on his own people to pacify them. In the twilight of the first Iraq war, he put down an insurrection by slaughtering his enemies.

      But as bad as he was, he kept Iraq as a single country. Probably keeping the people together was easier when he had them united against a common foe. That allowed him to keep his grasp on power.

      That is a different question from whether he could accumulate the material needs necessary for invading any of his wealthier neighbors.

      If you don't think so, you really need to read some history for a change.

    8. CSH, you ask what country Iraq would need WMD for. A fair question. The quick and dirty answer: Israel and Iran. The emphasis would probably be on Iran, against which he had just fought an eight-year war and barely survived (although he--and some others--would tell you that he had won). Actually, the reason he wasn't more forthcoming about the fact that he didn't have any WMD or programs to produce them was that he was still trying to keep Iran thinking that maybe he did. That much we now know from captured Iraqi documents. We, of course, are so obsessed with ourselves that it never occurred to anyone that he might be concentrating at least some of his attention on someone else.

      Also, since everyone assumes the CIA knows everything (which the CIA would like you to believe), he may well have assumed that we knew the truth about the WMD all along, so he didn't really believe he had to prove it to us. The problem was that after he threw out the UN weapons inspectors in 1998 no one could be sure what he had or what he was doing, and wild imaginings (also known as worse-case scenarios) took over. The Bush administration succeeded in getting the UN inspectors back into Iraq in late 2002, but that was not really what they were trying to do. By that time (if not earlier), the Bush people (I wish I knew how much of it was him and how much was the people around him) were uninterested in anything the inspectors had to say unless it supported their plans. The inspectors said they were looking in all the suspected hiding places that we had listed and they weren't finding anything. (Apparently, the only part that the Bush people heard was that the Iraqis were not particularly cooperative about it.) Bush told the inspectors to get out of the way before the troops moved in.

    9. Scott, your last comment raises another great point, and one that (for me, privately) buttresses the suspicion that Saddam circa-2003 may have been nowhere near as cornered as popular memes make it seem.

      How many 'learned' pundits have said something like the following: "It really seemed like Saddam had WMD, who would have ever guessed that he didn't really?" To which the depressing reply is something along the lines of: "Duh".

      Cause as you note, it was in Saddam's interest to have his powerful local enemies (e.g. Israel and Iran) believing he had something cooking in the chemical ovens. It was also in his interest not to let the G-8 nations find any forensic evidence of the same, as the next UN invasion wouldn't stop at the highway from Basra, on the obviously mistaken assumption that with so many revolts in Iraq's recent past, this next one should be a piece of cake.

      As a result of the incredibly obvious motivation to have his enemies (Israel and Iran, especially) believe he had WMD, plus the need for the G-8 not to find anything, Saddam's WMD behavior (feints, suggestions, obstruction, but nothing material) was entirely predictable. And yet the American punditocracy was shocked, *shocked, I tell you!* that all the feints amounted to nothing, because - how could anyone fake something to us that wasn't real?

      I can't say for certain, but I suspect that many of the same folks who were taken in by Saddam's transparent WMD ruse were the same ones declaring him safely declawed in 2003.

      Color me skeptical.

    10. Sorry - that last paragraph reads a bit funny - I meant declawed not in the sense of no longer being any sort of threat, but rather no longer being a threat of regional hegemony.

      Clearly a country that poses no imperial risk to its neighbors could do a lot of damage to them (see Korea, North). I suspect that's where most folks were with Iraq in the early 21st century.

      Just not sure that's correct.

  3. CSH,

    Those are interesting examples, but I don't know quite what that they are supposed to represent. That GHW Bush was truthful and therefore should have been given a pass because of the particular historical situation, whereas current leaders are not and therefore should be questioned? That there is something particularly decadent about the GW Bush era and later, or particularly competent about the GHW Bush era and before? What was so special about GHW Bush? His particular life experience? What has been so wrong with everyone since him? That they have not headed the CIA? People are supposed to resist memes, unless of course they are true memes, in which case they should resist the resisters? How are they to judge between the two?

    1. Anastasios, thanks for the questions and sorry not to clarify: basically, in the aftermath of that speech, you had -

      1) A fellow (GHWBush) who had nearly two decades of professional experience closely watching Saddam Hussein's career, positing that preventing Hussein's empire aspirations justified the war, and

      2) A (Democratic) Congress, most of whom had never heard of Saddam Hussein until about 10 minutes earlier, more or less laughing at Bush's justification, and the rationale correspondingly changing to suit the perspective of Congress, not Bush.

      If we had a raging blogosphere at the time, the (Congress-friendly) explanations - blood for oil or freedom for Kuwaitis - would have filled the tubes as they filled the zeitgeist.

      My point is simply that it doesn't make much sense to throw your chips in with the view of Congress, since Bush was - in this case at least - a vastly more credible witness than those who doubted him.

      Didn't make sense, but we collectively did so anyway. I find that curious.

    2. Sorry, forgot to finish the thought: curious in a way that naturally calls into question the WMD/rogue state explanation the second time around.

    3. CSH,
      To push back, though:

      Foxes have a lot of experience in henhouses. Doesn't mean I trust their opinion on them, though.

      More seriously, if our members of Congress are only expected to be the sum of their experiences, then we're really missing out on a lot of knowledge and expertise. While those MCs might have been wet behind the ears, the committee staff, on the other hand, were majority committee staff....and had been since 1954 (in the House, at least). So, the sources that many of them may have been relying on (and trusting, seeing as they share party ID and committee staff are generally very competent) were very unlikely to be novices at this.

      Or, take the 2003 case. When Tenet said WMD were a "slam dunk," he wasn't presenting just some rah-rah, completely uninformed position. CIA analysts came to that conclusion. Now, what Tenet DIDN'T really share was that the State and Defense intel analysts, by and large, did NOT share that opinion. Perhaps Tenet trusted his own shop more than the others (there really is a problem having the CIA director ALSO be the DNI!). Perhaps he wanted to believe. Perhaps the case made by the CIA analysts was just more persuasive than the other folks'.

      In both cases, though, basing our opinions of the argument on the status of the arguer (itself a dubious logical practice), is kinda faulty. Everyone in politics stands on the shoulder of others. (In fact, it's one of the reasons I don't really care very much which D I vote for to be Prez: their staff, below the cabinet secretary level, are likely to be VERY similar) This brings NEW baggage though: when those Ds laugh at GHWB, who's to say its not because of a legacy of peacenikism amongst Ds? Or the W library tells us that the only right decision on Iraq is the Decider's, who's to say it's not because his advisers committed to invading that country back in the early 90s?

      The point I was trying to make (but I think I got lost on) is that this is actually only a small part for me of the shoals on which realism aground. Your argument brings up another couple: domestic politics exist, and leaders are not necessarily geniuses, in that uninformed Ds in Congress could be replaced by idiots in the White House (insert partisan joke about W here).

    4. Matt, that's an excellent and insightful comment. I fully take your point. A question it raises for me (I honestly don't know):

      - If a (say) insurance salesman is elected to Congress, let's say on a wave of populism - suppose he's a Dem, and its anti-imperialist populism - and the shadowy imperialist President Bush 41 stands in front of Congress and says "Actually, conquering neighboring lands is Saddam's MO, and Saudi is next", how would we expect our former insurance salesman's staffers to react?

      Assuming the novice Congressman goes back to the offices, and he's laughing, and he's like "You can't believe the crazy thing Bush said today!" And his staffers nervously look one to the other, and they are thinking about Saddam's starring role in "OPEC of the 70s", and the implausibility of a Sunni surviving at all as head of Iraq, much less a decade-long vicious war with the Shi'a next door, and it all makes them a bit nervous, too.... they speak up?

      I guess what I'm trying to reconcile is the oddity of Bush framing the invasion in "not Saudi, which would be next", and the subsequent near-universality of the (only tangentially related) "Kuwaiti freedom" meme.

      Perhaps, as you rightly suggest, the Saddam imperialism angle was an example of foxes and henhouses, perhaps (as you didn't necessarily suggest) Bush 41 needed a war.

      But he and the Republicans in Congress have staffers too, no?

    5. Also occurs to me, following your comment, that the staffers of those new Congresspeople may have known full well what was at stake, knew all about Saddam, and OPEC, and the improbable end of the revolving door at the head of the country of Iraq....but beyond even the ignorance of the novice Congressperson, his constituents really really had no idea.

      And its the summer of 1990, and the Berlin Wall wasn't down yet a year, and we had won the Cold War, and we wanted our peace dividend, and the Prez is gonna put several hundred thousand boots on foreign soil for whaaaaa....?

      This implies a level of Machiavellian machination on the Democratic congress' part that is usually reserved for Republicans, but well, there it is.

  4. Vis a vis Iraq - wouldn't the costs have been lower had the thing not have been so monumentally bungled? It's clear the Administration and L. Paul Bremer made some very bad choices once the Ba'ath regime was toppled. If they hadn't been made, would we have seen things deteriorate to the point they were at circa 05-07, or would we have been able to get on a glide-path to Anbar Awakening detente sooner? I think that's a question that isn't often asked. It seems to be a binary "good or bad" choice.

    Of course that doesn't take into account the deteriorating situation over there right now, but one could make various (separate) arguments WRT that.


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