Being wrong & never paying the price: a Washington journalist testifies on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq

On the day before the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, John Judis has an interesting reflection on “What it Was Like to Oppose the Iraq War in 2003.”  He reviews the crazy consensus among “serious” thinkers (even of the so-called “liberal” sort) about the righteousness of the Bush administration’s obvious hard-on to take out Saddam:

In December of 2002, I was invited by the Ethics and Public Policy Center to a ritzy conference at an ocean front resort in Key West. The subject was to be Political Islam, and many of the best-known political journalists from Washington and New York were there. The conversation invariably got around to Iraq, and I found myself one of the few attendees who outright opposed an invasion. Two of the speakers at the event—Christopher Hitchens, who was then writing for Slate, and Jeffrey Goldberg, who was then writing for The New Yorker—generously offered to school me on the errors of my way.

More interesting to me was something Judis writes in the second paragraph in his article:

[W]ithin political Washington, it was difficult to find like-minded foes [of the plan to invade]. When The New Republic’s editor-in-chief and editor proclaimed the need for a “muscular” foreign policy, I was usually the only vocal dissenter, and the only people who agreed with me were the women on staff: Michelle Cottle, Laura Obolensky and Sarah Wildman. Both of the major national dailies—The Washington Post and The New York Times (featuring Judith Miller’s reporting)—were beating the drums for war. Except for Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington’s thinktank honchos were also lined up behind the war.

I wish he had paused to reflect on the obviously gendered language he uses here, as well as the clear gender divide he recounts here in pro- versus anti-invasion journalist and think-tank opinions (Judith Miller excepted).  As I recall, anyone with half a brain, any rudimentary knowledge of history, and any fair assessment of the Bush administration’s competence (like me!) could see that the U.S. invasion of Iraq wa’s a doomed venture from the start.  Of all of my friends and acquaintances in northern Colorado, none of whom have any connections or particular expertise in this area, exactly none of us thought the invasion of Iraq was a bright idea, or that the Bush administration could be trusted with anything more serious than organizing the hijinx at Bohemian Grove.  Judis’s memories remind us once again about how soaked in testosterone the whole thing was.  It’s worth reflecting on the gender divide Judis reports and how it was connected to the total foreign policy clusterfrack that was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I have written here before about the stunning wrongness of the pro-invasion crowd, and the utter lack of accountability for their wrongness:

You probably can remember some of them, too:  wrong blogger Joshua Marshall, wrong New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and wrong writers Christopher Hitchens and George Packer.  Wrong Kenneth Pollack–who alone among this crowd has had the decency to retreat into the background–gave the rest of the rat pack cover for their support for George W. Bush’s second war.  None of them had military experience.  All of them treated the invasion of a sovereign country as though it were a stoned late-night game of Risk in their parents’ basement.  (Only even stoned Risk-players know never to get bogged down in an Asian land war!)

*        *        *        *        *

All of them were egregiously wrong, and yet they either retain their prominent perches as news analysts and opinion-makers or they’ve even been promoted.  Why does anyone take them seriously any more?  Why, when there are so few paying jobs for good writers, do these tools continue to spout their nonsense?All I can conclude is that there’s never a price to be paid by armchair warmongers.  Warmongering is something that the other dudes who read, pay, and promote these guys like.

Being wrong in the right way, the way that pleases your paymasters, is clearly better than being right all along.

22 thoughts on “Being wrong & never paying the price: a Washington journalist testifies on the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq

  1. paymasters

    I spent a lot of time trying to generate public support for the pro-peace position during the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The day after the invasion began I was interviewed by a (female) reporter and camerawoman for a local newscast. The gist of it was what we campaigners might do now that the war had started (keep campaigning, of course). I asked them what it was like in the newsroom and it sounded a lot like what is described here, with the added issue that local news offices might think differently but the message was clear from the network offices about the “real” story.


  2. Andrew Sullivan is doing a very interesting series reprinting things he (and others) wrote in 2003, analyzing why he was wrong, and how he got sucked in.

    In the ways in which history gets bound up with personal life (something we historians forget at our peril) I watched the run-up to the war with dismay, but was consumed by the fact that my partner got a fairly scary cancer diagnosis in late January, and had very major surgery in late February; I was busy creating a medical support network 2500 miles from our home. So I wasn’t out on the streets, or even obsessing about the war, but even I could tell (a) that they hadn’t really found out about the WMD; (b) that they were disastrously unprepared for what they found; and (c) the decision to go to war was a case where the evidence was cooked to get the conclusion, rather than being built on the evidence.


  3. I could see that the Iraq War was a crazy enterprise back then, and I’m not even a historian (though I have a Risk-player’s knowledge of land wars in Asia).

    Cheney’s rationale–that we had to fight in Iraq because “that’s where the targets are”–was said by someone to be like looking for your car keys in the kitchen rather than the garage because the light was better in the kitchen. None of it made any sense–not the millions in shrink-wrapped bales of millions in cash offloaded to bases there (remember those pictures?), not the “we’ll be greeted as liberators” stupidity, and especially not the loss of lives that resulted.

    If we could see it, why couldn’t they?


  4. It was also obvious that GWB wanted to go GHWB one better by taking out Saddam, as GHWB had not done in 1991, a classic father/son conflict that led to this testosterone-fest.

    Sorry. I’ll stop now.


  5. HRC was for it, too. What amazed me the most was that nobody in Congress seemed to know (and insisted later on that they really had not known) that the reports on depleted uranium were false. This had been all over the press.


  6. To me it was the problem of the Washington bubble — the same one that means that the gun control laws won’t happen. People in DC seem to listen only to themselves and no one else. And those who are in, stay in. And they keep spouting their nonsense on every subject with a loyal following who continue to listen.

    I think that writing the Washington editorials/political news gives the writers billions in political capital. You can NEVER spend it all and amnesia rules for any past mistakes. How do you get fired from writing editorials/articles for the Times and Post? Rabid plagiarism seems the only offense a journalist can make. The wronger they are, the longer they stay.

    And even my colleagues and I, teaching at a southern military college, knew there were no WMD. The politicos just wanted to kill people and take out Saddam. Any excuse to look muscle-y.


  7. I grew up inside the miltary. When my father flew combat in Vietnam and I attended a civilian middle school, I was the only student in the entire school with a family member at war. All the other families were going about their business, making money, watching the war on TV. While in my house we taught our neighbors to knock on the door, never to ring the bell. Only chaplains in staff cars rang doorbells.

    The separation between the civilian world and the military world is even worse now. But from what I’ve read, the military is still mostly made up of the same people it was then: poor rednecks and racial minorities.

    We dont have the draft now; instead we’ve basically turned the military into very low-paid mercenaries.

    It sickens me, as it did then, to hear chest-thumping support for killing by people who aren’t in any danger of losing a drop of blood.

    I wonder how a universal draft, no exemptions, would change things. I have to admit, it amuses the military brat in me to imagine chickenhawks like Josh MarshalI or Matthew Yglesias having to make it through basic — and maybe not even going to war. Maybe just having to spend a year in some place like Thule, Greenland or Biloxi, Mississippi standing guard duty in a shack seven nights on, two off. where if you jump up and down to keep warm or open the shirt to cool off, you risk an Article 15 violation. I wonder what being powerless inside a vast hierarchy would do to a sense of entitlement big enough to encompass approving the deaths of others.

    Marshall and Yglesias aside, I feel certain that if we’d had a universal draft in 2003 we would never have invaded Iraq. Suburban voters would never have stood for sending their own children into combat.

    It seems to me that a basic premise of war should be that either the entire country fights, or no one does.


  8. I am still angry about this. I still remember, very clearly, how plain it was to those of us not swept away by this war madness how stupid this war was, how much it was going to cost, how bloody it was going to be; and I remember very clearly how we got called traitors and terrorists for saying so (my own brother called me a terrorist for saying so).

    And now? When it’s obvious this war was wrong, that they were wrong? Over on the right they’re saying we just got lucky. That we were only against it because we hated Bush so much, *not* because we understood the situation better than they did.


  9. I went to a talk by an MIT political science professor who was supposedly an expert on this kind of stuff. (My mind is fuzzy on who it was or what his area of expertise was… I was still a little confused about why we were suddenly going to invade Iraq when people had been talking about Afghanistan when I started studying for quals.) But he said it was a stupid idea and basically said, “here’s what’s going to happen” and laid out the scenario of a long-drawn out war that destabilizes the Middle East and that the US loses public support for long before we can leave responsibly. (He also said that if we were going to go in we needed to go in with a shock and awe to have any hope of keeping structure, which we ended up not doing.) So at least one expert was right… but apparently he wasn’t on the US gov’t speed dial.

    Of course, I also left the middle of a talk that semester from an expert who said to do the exact opposite. (And take out Iran and North Korea while we’re at it.) Many of my professors also walked out.


  10. ” I feel certain that if we’d had a universal draft in 2003 we would never have invaded Iraq. Suburban voters would never have stood for sending their own children into combat.”

    Right on, Dandelion. I’m surprised that it took four or five presidents after the end of the draft to figure this out. Cynically, I’m sure that’s why politicians supported ending the draft–but Reagan and Clinton at least showed real restraint in committing U.S. forces abroad. The Bushes? Well, I was in the “No Blood for Oil” crowd back in 1990-91, as well as in 2002.


  11. As for expertise: “So at least one expert was right… but apparently he wasn’t on the US gov’t speed dial. No, he wasn’t! And the reason is that he had concluded that the war was a huge mistake. This gets to the groupthink in the Washington bubble that joellecid and delagar mentioned.

    Presidential administrations treat expertise the way that corporate CEOs and COOs treat management consultants: they already know the answers they want and the policies they want to pursue. The job of the management consultants is merely to provide cover.


  12. I was one of the people who supported the war 10 years ago. I regret that now, though I would disagree that anyone with half a brain should have been able to see that it was a mistake. I think support for the war came less from outright stupidity than from wishful thinking, which intelligence does not grant immunity from.

    I do wish that more of the commentators, journalists, etc., who supported the war would be willing to admit their mistakes and do some serious soul-searching about how they made their mistakes in judgment. Perhaps some of them did do this privately, but very few seem to be willing to do it publicly.


  13. Back in the sixteenth century, the scholar and satirist Desiderius Erasmus wrote a thoughtful essay on the theme “Dulce bellum inexpertis”–“War is sweet, to those who have never been in one.” Those humanists: foolish, innocent beings. Especially when compared to the hard-eyed realists who frame polices and make decisions.


  14. Paul, I agree that there was a lot of wishful thinking a decade ago. I wish every day were all sunshine and ponies without the sunscreen, skin cancer, and all of that $hit in the barn over there, but I *know* from experience that I’m extremely unlikely to get the nice things without the tiresome prevention and/or cleanup. Yet that was the kind of crazy thinking I remember being taken oh, so very seriously.

    (Does anyone else remember the Underpants Gnomes from South Park? “Step one, collect underpants. Step two. . . mmmmmmuuuuuhhh. Step three: profit!!!!” Our foreign policy was being run by the Underpants Gnomes.)

    Erasmus was right. The human animal really never learns. (Well, some of us do, but we’re not the ones who get into positions of power in order to make a difference!) I’ve been thinking recently about how very short the human lifespan really is, and I think this is a part of our inability to learn enduring lessons as a species. Every generation thinks they’ve got it licked. Every generation thinks they’re an exception. There must be some kind of evolutionary advantage to this kind of optimism, but there sure is a down side to it, too.


  15. The human animal really never learns. (Well, some of us do, but we’re not the ones who get into positions of power in order to make a difference!)

    Agreed. But then how to explain the fact that we’re not still just another species of chimp in the trees?

    Somehow, it must actually be wrong. Maybe it’s a problem of scale. Maybe, as you say, if we lived for a few thousand years, that might be long enough to start detecting a difference.


  16. But then how to explain the fact that we’re not still just another species of chimp in the trees?

    Our ancestors figured out how to cook their food.


  17. I was a sergeant in the Army National Guard in 2001, considering going for a commission based on my civilian education. I had also been in a NG infantry unit during the first gulf war. I vocally opposed that war but was willing to go if called up.

    It was therapeutic to be able to put on a uniform and go guard something on September 11, 2001, but it became clear very quickly we were headed for disaster. I got out before hostilities started (there was plenty of time to do that unless you were on a very long contract) and I never regretted it.

    I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who had a 6th grade education and an internet connection in 2003 to claim that the war made sense on any rational level. It clearly didn’t.

    I agree gender was a big factor. Other factors I haven’t heard mentioned yet that may help account for the plainly irrational consensus:

    1. I think a lot of people were suffering serious cognitive dissonance based on Bush v. Gore. The war allowed them to set that aside and support the Leader.

    2. Some people really wanted to complete the recovery from post-Vietnam syndrome, AKA Jimmy Carter syndrome, and we didn’t kill enough people in the first gulf war to do that.

    3. (Perhaps the most obvious) a lot of people are just plain racist about the middle east and other Muslim regions. Unfortunately there are a lot of things going on in these regions that make this an easy sell.


  18. quixote–when I said “we never learn,” I guess I meant lessons about life in the macro sense. Humans are very good at using technology (fire, cooked food, coal, railroads, telegraphy, petroleum, the internet)to solve problems & make immediate gains in the short term (within the span of a human lifetime). But learning the things that Erasmus teaches? Not so much.

    albrt, I fear that you are right about the first gulf war & its limited aims & duration. Now that we’re over Vietnam syndrome, I guess the next generation will confront Iraq War syndrome.


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