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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Being Wrong About Iraq was Right, Being Right About Iraq was Being Unserious

by folkbum

There were many winners and losers after the fight over a taxpayer-funded killing game that children as young as 13 could play was shut down at Milwaukee's Summerfest. Among the biggest losers, I think, are the blowhards who spend half their lives yelling at us liberals to shut up, that we do not have any particular right never to be offended by stuff and the other half of the time complaining about the stuff that offends them. Including, apparently, the victory of such groups as Peace Action Wisconsin and Veterans for Peace over bloodlust and poor judgment.

That fight spun off a number of smaller battles across the Cheddarsphere, with many conservatives vowing never to go to Summerfest again and some even arguing, until corrected, that Summerfest had actually kicked the Army off the Summerfest grounds altogether. Affronts to good taste, rules of grammar, and common sense abounded. But one mini-drama stands out, between Mike Mathias and Rick Esenberg. Esenberg started it, followed by Mathias, and then one more round from each (MM, then RE) so far, with a few others joining in the fun, notably James Wigderson.

The Mathias-Esenberg skirmish is, in fact, a microcosm of a larger debate being played out in the national punditocracy. I think it's worth looking at more deeply, because what Esenberg and the like are doing is offering a grotesque version of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose, with the booby prize being the deaths of more than 4000 American men and women, not to mention countless innocent Iraqi civilians.

To illustrate what's wrong with Esenberg et al., I quote first (via tristero) from George Packer, member of the aforementioned national punditocracy, commenting on fellow pundit Christopher Hitchens's years-late epiphany that waterboarding is torture:
“If waterboarding does not constitute torture,” Hitchens concludes when it’s over, citing Lincoln on slavery, “then there is no such thing as torture.” This is powerful testimony, but another writer would have made it his starting point. The fact that waterboarding is torture forces certain questions on anyone who has supported the war on terror as vehemently as Hitchens and who, in the past, has been far quicker to criticize its critics than its excesses. This is the beginning of an argument with himself—not craven self-denunciation, but a genuine effort to draw out and clarify the hard trade-offs and ideological confusions that the past years have forced on all thinking people.
It seems innocent enough, but that last bit contains the nut of everything that is wrong about otherwise-reasonable people who supported the abortion that is the Iraq War. If you are a "thinking" person who supported the war, you did so only with great reservation, and now that you see what a mess it was, is, and will continue to be (whether you still support it or not), you can can admit faults only with the pain of someone wrestling his greatest inner demons. "Hard trade-offs and ideological confusions" are the hallmarks of all "thinking" people's opinions on the Iraq War.

The flipside, of course, is that if you opposed this war from the start, recognized that it would be bungled and mismanaged, knew that Dick Cheney was lying to you (his mouth was moving, after all), you could not have been a thinking person. Thinking people had to weigh the implications long and hard and make the difficult to decision to support invading Iraq.

In other words, if you were wrong about Iraq, you were right, because clearly you were a serious person and you made difficult sacrifices in deciding to support the war. And if you were right about Iraq all along, you were wrong, because you were too stupid to have been right.

Think I'm doing a disservice to Esenberg? I'm not:
[W]e need to persuade people that, while war is hell, those who serve are doing something that is not only necessary, but that can be done with integrity and in a way that fulfills the human need for accomplishment.

The critics don't believe that. War, to them, is just undifferentiated killing. There is nothing about what we fight for and how we fight that is distinctive. But, in a world where evil exists--where there are Nazi Germanys, Soviet Russias and Al Qaeda--that leads to the charnel house just as certainly as a mindless celebration of conquest.
That's from his shock-and-awe opening salvo. Clearly, Esenberg suggests, anyone who opposes war is unthinking, uncaring, unfeeling. He clarifies in his comments to Mathias's first post: "[P]eace activists did not understand the situation in Iraq," he writes. Esenberg's second post is a longer argument for the idea that people opposing the war just didn't get it (titled, even, "Being serious about Iraq"!), and includes an eerie, likely unknowing paraphrase of Packer:
I don't cite Herman's piece as necessarily establishing that the Iraq war was the right decision. I remember, at the time, being very uncertain about whether it was. But it--along with so many other post war reviews--reminds us that the demonization of Bush reflects, at best, a refusal to face difficult facts and, at worst, a cynical manipulation of a complicated issue.
The issue was "complicated," Esenberg says, and those of us who were thinking people were "very uncertain" about whether invading Iraq was "the right decision." (I would also note that Esenberg dives into non-sequitur: not one word of either of Mathias's posts contains anything like "demonization of Bush"--Mathias's first post doesn't even say the man's name, and his second only notes that Bush ignored both protesters and prominent opponents of going to war.)

Wigderson makes it worse, by asking what peace activists would have done in Iraq if not go to war. Mathias eviscerates him:
James asks: “What would they have done?” And the response is: About what?

Hussein was at the front of no invading army. He was launching no missiles against his neighbors. His support for terrorism seemed limited to sending funds to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The price that has been paid in lives and treasure for such an affront seems wildly disproportionate.
But of course, to the Esenbergs, Packers, and Wigdersons of the world, to do nothing was the unthinking response. To do nothing did not carefully measure out the "complicated" issue or "clarify the hard trade-offs and ideological confusions" of thinking people like them. To do nothing in Iraq, though the right thing, was wrong because there was no thought behind it.

This is simply not true. Saddam Hussein posed no threat to us, but al Qaeda did. That was my reason for opposing the war in Iraq, and I defy anyone to tell me how a) there is no thought behind it or b) it is wrong.

This graph, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, via chart-master Kevin Drum, explains quite neatly why, in fact, I'm right; it's of US casualties in Afghanistan:

Is it any wonder that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spent the whole of the recent NATO summit begging for help in Afghanistan?


Esenberg and Packer at least seem to want to live in the same reality as those of us who opposed the war; even though they will not acknowledge that such opposition was possible from anyone with a brain, their protestations over how "very uncertain" they were about the war allows that such opposition was at least a viable option. But there are some dead-enders who remain on another planet entirely, and they were brought out in the last few days by news that 550 metric tons of yellowcake uranium was moved from Iraq to Canada. Cheddarsphere ex-pat Sean Hackbarth, for example, veers off to write,
We now know Saddam had 550 tons of the stuff [. . .].That, my friends, is a nuclear weapons program. It’s not a stretch to assume that a dictator who had a history of using WMDs and had tons of material that could be processed into a nuclear or dirty bomb would want more. It’s not a stretch to make a big deal out of this [. . .]. If it weren’t for President Bush’s invasion Saddam might well be on his way processing that 550 tons of yellowcake.
We now know? We've known about this yellowcake since 1981, at least, when Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear program to smithereens (a program never restarted). Heck, given that we were allies with Iraq in 1981, I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out we gave him the stuff. We knew about this yellowcake in 1991, when the International Atomic Energy Agency locked it up and threw away the key. We knew about it through 1998 when IAEA inspectors made regular checks on it. We knew about it again in 2002 when the UN inspectors noted that it hadn't been touched. We knew about it in 2003 when US troops found it--still sealed. We've known about it every 18 months or so since then when some mention of it made the news. Now we know? That is a nuclear weapons progam? A different reality.

Perhaps Amy P., commenter on this news at Dad29's alternate-reality paradise, sums up this worldview in support of the war and against anyone suggesting it was a mistake:
No doubt Barack "Uniter" Obama will simply raise the white flag and we'll all find the peace that comes through submission under shari'a law.
There are so many things wrong with that--from the notion that Saddam Hussein, secular dictator, would have subjected us to religious law to the idea that Barack Obama will not defend the country if elected.

It leads me to ask this: Who, pray tell, are the real unthinking, unserious ones? Who are those who refuse to acknowledge reality and instead accept an immature, naïve world view? It is certainly not those of us who opposed the war from day one. It is not those involved in Wisconsin Peace Action or Veterans for Peace who oppose convincing 13-year-olds that going to Iraq will be fun and worthwhile. I think it would behoove the Esenbergs and Packers of the world to note the difference, and save their disdain for those who deserve it.

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