Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Right's Iraq Delusion

No matter what disaster your plan precipitates, it's always possible to claim that the alternatives were worse. Of course most of us aren't shamelessly dishonest enough to make such claims when we've been conclusively proven wrong...but many on the right aren't burdened by the ravages of intellectual honesty.

Today's example, Peter J. Wallison at Tech Central Station, quoted to approvingly by--you guessed it--Instapundit. I suppose there's no need to enumerate the components of the Iraq disaster, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to just mention the low points: by focusing on Iraq, we strengthened al Qaeda (by, e.g., allowing bin Laden to slip away at Tora Bora, by helping their recruiting campaign, etc.); we alienated our allies and made new enemies; we've expended blood and treasure in quantities we have not even been able to accurately quantify; we have ground down our military; we have put ourselves in a position to lose the war in Afghanistan, too; we have destroyed the extraordinarily useful illusion of American military invincibility. And those, again, are merely a few of the low points.

Iraq has been a disaster that has been called, even by prominent conservatives, the greatest strategic blunder in American History. The alternative--leaving the brutal sonofabitch Saddam Hussein in power--was an unattractive option to say the least...but the probability that this alternative would have been worse is near zero. Although the world is a volatile and difficult-to-predict place, there is almost no chance that we would be worse off if we had refrained from invading. Anyone who, knowing what we now know, honestly would not choose a different course if given the opportunity is--and let's make this completely clear--an idiot.

Now, Wallison may be an idiot, but he is probably just dishonest--like most of the remaining dead-enders on this point. I find it difficult to believe that Walliston would actually push the invasion button if transported back in time and given the opportunity. Writing an op-ed of this kind is a political act, helping to generate the smokescreen that obscures the extraordinary dishonesty and incompetence of the Republican administration that got us into this mess. It's expedient to say that the alternatives were worse, but no sensible person actually believes that.

Wallison writes:
In short, it would be difficult to construct a scenario in which the ultimate outcome of events in Iraq today would be as negative for the United States as a world in which Saddam remains in control of Iraq. So, while we are justifiably dismayed about what is happening today in Iraq, we should not allow this to obscure the central point—that the world is a better and safer place because Saddam is out of power. Looked at this way, we have already achieved a lot; what remains now—as the President and Senator McCain have said—is to steady ourselves and see it through.

Although the last point might be right--that our best course of action now is to steady ourselves and see it through--the former points are obviously false. It is in no way "difficult to construct a scenario in which the ultimate outcome of events in Iraq today would be as negative for the United States as a world in which Saddam remains in control of Iraq." As a matter of actual fact, it is almost impossible to describe an alternative possible situation in which (a) we refrained from invading Iraq and (b) we are likely to be worse off either now or in the long run.

If Wallison really does believe what he writes, it merely shows that he is bad at thinking about alternative possibilities, or bad at judging probabilities, or something of that kind. He's probably confusing distant possibilities with likely alternatives.

But, of course, he probably doesn't really believe what he writes, and, if magically transported back in time, he would probably advise against invasion. Here he's just doing his bit to blow smoke for the Republican smokescreen. Even the most implausible obfuscation allows the true believers to avoid the embarrassment associated with publicly admitting error. "There's a distant possibility that we would have been worse off it we hadn't invaded" can, with a sufficiently inattentive or willing audience, be spun into "we'd probably have been worse off if we hadn't invaded," just as "there's a distant possibility that Al Gore would have turned out to be a worse president than George Bush" can be spun into "Al Gore would probably have been a worse president than George Bush." Little tricks like this help people avoid publicly admitting error even when they recognize it privately. And if they don't have to admit it publicly...well, in the fullness of time, they can eventually convince even themselves, once again, that they were really right all along.


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