Tuesday, January 09, 2007
I'll bet you think this song is about you:
This line in Jason's post about withdrawal from Iraq struck a chord with me:
And I'd hate for such certainty--on the part of opponents of the war (some of whom were actually certain in their support of the war not that long ago)--to get us into another (mess).
Is it too vain to think I may have been one of the people Jason had in mind here? True story: Jason and I once had a too-long and too-heated conversation in the TNR office in which he made this point to me. And it's a fair one. Many has been the time I've asked myself if I'm merely exchanging one dogma for the other. I try not to. But I don't really know the answer.

But here's the thing. Jason's basic point is that he's put off by "the cavalier nature of the way some liberal opponents of the surge talk about withdrawal." He singles out Brad DeLong, Atrios and Matt, who has the unmitigated gall to suggest that David Petraeus might want to not sully his reputation in Iraq. (Why Jason thinks this is relevant I can't say.)

But, look: everyone here can speak for himself, but one point that Matt, at least, makes over and over again -- and I don't think it's unfair to say that he and I have rather similar positions which have influenced each other quite a bit -- is that there will be awful consequences to withdrawal. No fair assessment of his work can conclude that he's cavalier about this. (Just one example among many here: "Anyone who advocates withdrawal is going to wind up looking bad, because eventually it will be implemented and bad stuff will happen down the road.") What "some liberal opponents of the surge" do is argue that it's worse to stay, not that lovely things will happen if we go. (Jason, if I'm not misremembering, I made this point during that aforementioned conversation.)

Furthermore, Jason's opposition to certainty is misplaced. It wasn't certainty that "got us into this mess." It was foolish strategy, wishful thinking, and, to sell it all to the public, a bunch of lies. It's certainly the case that many of those who argued for the war -- and I'll include myself in this category -- expressed a blithe certainty about its fortunes. But the fault wasn't in the certainty qua certainty. If Jason means to say that perhaps a little doubt and self-criticism would have led to the jettisoning of the foolish strategy, wishful thinking and lies, perhaps; but my guess is that's less true the closer you get to the actual architects of the war. And in any event, we have to deal with the war as it is right now.

The point about certainty and the surge is a similar one. The problem with escalation isn't that Kagan & Keane are too certain that it will work. It's that their arguments don't make sense, and America will be much, much weaker when they succeed. This isn't some arcane issue where the results are academic; it's a war that has killed 3,000 Americans in total and at least 23,000 Iraqis in 2006. After a certain period -- and we're coming up on four years here -- wringing your hands and bemoaning the evils of certainty is itself a dodge. There is in fact a way to adjudicate competing claims: put them up to the tests of logic and evidence. Ah, but when it comes to the war, that way leads to estrangement from TNR. Easier, I suppose, to wish a pox on everyone's certainty, and especially that of the liberals.
--Spencer Ackerman
I think many felt the case for war made in 2003 was as badly planned as anything Kagan wrote and as transparently flawed.

I agree that "we have to deal with the war as it is right now." But how should the public handle the analysis of those who supported the war in March of 2003? If we remove the consideration of certainty, what are we left with? Friedman basically spelled out the disastrous potential consequences of an "Arab Yugoslavia" as one of the possibilities we might encounter in opening the black box of Iraq. Yet he supported the war until quite recently.

If certainty that Bush could plan would work isn't the issue, then I think it certainly should be. Kagan's plan might have mathematical merit (I don't think it does), but the bigger problem is his certainty that the Army and reserves are up to the task of longer tours, as you point out in the Prospect article.
Blogger djw | 10:08 PM

There's an epistemic difference between certainty and faith that I think is the crucial distinction here. Kagan/Keane do not possess the requisite evidence to support their conclusion that escalation will work. (In my critique, I tried to show that they leave the critical terms -- "security," for instance -- undefined.) As a result, there's no reason for anyone not already similarly inclined to escalate the war to accept the argument. Therefore, it's an article of faith.

By contrast, if someone has evaluated the available evidence and pondered the logic of a claim about the war and come to a position of certainty about its merits, that's far less problematic. Everyone else can approach the claim on its own terms and evaluate its rightness; and the basis for the certainty is subject to an appropriate pliability based on changing conditions. That ain't the surge.

I have no doubt that many felt the case for war in 2003 was transparently flawed. They have the virtue of being right. But the certainty issue is a bit orthogonal to the reasons *why* they were right.
Blogger spencerackerman | 5:23 AM

I think in the minds of the war architects, there's an a priori that the United States can win that informs all of their otherwise more rational decisionmaking. But then, I don't have access to anyone's innermost thoughts. Kagan's defense of the surge in the Weekly Standard laid out a semi-rational case. He's certainly blithe about the costs and length of committment involved, but he makes it as well as any other warmonger.

The distinction between 'certainty' and 'faith' could be epistemic, but I don't think it's that big of a deal in the larger view. I'm certain that faith in a military approach is misplaced based on evidence, for example, but your mileage may vary. It seems like it's more a question of disparate a priori; drawing a distinction between faith and certainty isn't really that useful when approaching a claim "on its own terms."

Kagan and that bunch certainly try to make the case that their analysis is based on facts instead of faith. I think they've got their numbers wrong anyway, but they do make an effort to pen a rational defense in the face of overwhelming opposition, transparently flawed though it may be.

I don't think I've read your thoughts about why you think those who thought the plan for war were right. (I also haven't read TNR much in the past few years, so I probably missed it.)
Blogger djw | 9:45 AM

On Jason Zengerle's point on the cavalier attitude of the anti-war camp:

Thinking of Vietnam, (I hadn't been born at the time ... but) it's my understanding that there were liberals and, yes, radicals on the democratic left that understood Ho Chi Minh to be a Stalinist thug.

They also understood, however, that the reality of Ho Chi Minh's Stalinism did not give the U.S. the right to pursue a murderous war against the population of Vietnam and prop up an illegimitate client government in the South.
Blogger The Special | 10:21 AM

Isn't the problem here something you've identified before -- what I believe you've memorably called TNR's "flight to meta-analysis"?
Blogger BG | 1:42 PM

Both Zengerle and Joe Klein appear to be making the same general argument that war opponents should be marginalized because they are too strident and certain in their opposition to Bush' Iraq strategy. Facing an extremely strident and certain administration, maybe some strong-willed opposition is in order.

In the run up to the war, the administration used 9/11 to exploit any uncertainty surrounding the threat posed by Saddam as requiring invasion. Now, Zengerle appears to be arguing that the uncertainty surrounding what happens post-withdrawal means we have to stay indefinitely (or until a critical mass of war opponents have sufficiently hashed out the consequences of withdrawal to Zengerle's satisfaction).

Stepping back, given our history in the Middle-East, isn't the United States pretty much the last country on Earth anyone could expect to successfully help diffuse a civil war betwen Muslim factions? Given our history of support for the Shah in the 70s and Saddam in the 80s and our betrayal of the Kurds in the 90s, how could there possibly be more than 3 Iraqis who view the U.S. as an honest broker?

As Iraq continues to deteriorate following years of a U.S. presense, how much longer do we have to stay before reasonable minds can conclude that we are part of the problem? Not to mention that paralysis by uncertainty guarantees more dead and wounded and hunders of billions of dollars squandered.

Given the importance of the question of the Iraq war, would it be too much to ask for Zengerle to do his research and determine whether or not his attacks on war opponents are helping support a just war or are furthering continued death and destruction?
Blogger bsmith5025 | 2:19 PM

I am with Spencer on this.

That said supporters of withdrawal/redeployment might want to start suggesting ways to make it less painful for those left behind. For example; giving visas to would be slaughtered groups like the Christians and others. Helpfor refugees. Probably a whole list of other suggestions to ease the pain.
Blogger Miri11 | 9:42 PM