March 08, 2006

Undying Myths, and Sullivan's Lies on the Path of Penance

In several essays, I've explained that the most important decisions having to do with international affairs, and with war and peace, have almost nothing to do with military intelligence, or with "available facts": they are decisions of policy and judgment. As Barbara Tuchman summarizes the point:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."


The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
As I explained in more detail in that essay, this is a deeply uncomfortable truth, one that most people still cannot accept. Nonetheless, it is the truth, as the last several years have proved still one more time.

Events throughout history attest to the accuracy of Tuchman's analysis (see also David Fromkin's description of the policy considerations that gave rise to World War I). As a consequence, all of the debates about "good" and "bad" intelligence are largely a distraction and a camouflage. Of course, it is vital that we have accurate intelligence. But in the end, it is not "secret information" possessed only by the government that informs the decisions of our political leaders: we, as "intelligent citizens," are capable of making the same kinds of judgments, and we possess sufficient information to reach conclusions that are equally legitimate. More recently, Paul Pillar has made the identical point, and he provides incontrovertible evidence to support the argument.

But the myth will not die, and the widely accepted narrative continues to be embraced: we insist that our leaders go to war because information that only they possess leaves them no choice, and they unleash destruction with only the best of motives. It is a comforting illusion, one that provides solace to many people who need it. But like all such illusions, it is profoundly damaging. We will be unable to prevent the next catastrophe if we can't appreciate what led to past disasters.

Two recent articles reveal the tenacity of this particular myth. The first is offered by journalist Kevin McKiernan, and he approaches the subject from a perspective to which I am sympathetic. In an article entitled, "Did US Know Iraq Had No WMDs?," he writes:
What if the Bush administration wasn't entirely convinced before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, but simply invoked those "mushroom cloud" images to rally necessary public support? One source of such speculation lies in the administration's puzzling prewar failure to supply Iraqi Kurds, Hussein's closest and most likely targets, with gas masks and other promised protection.

While the White House has publicly maintained that the decision to go to war was not made until early 2003 -- and only as a last resort after the failure of both inspections and diplomacy -- I knew a full year before that Kurdish leaders were quietly tipped off to war plans just weeks after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Washington, D.C., representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controlled the eastern portion of the Kurdish region, told me early in 2002 that he and other Kurdish leaders had been summoned to the Pentagon in October 2001 to meet Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. One of the topics of conversation was the 1988 gassing of the Kurds by the Iraqi regime.


I then interviewed Dr. Abdullah Saeed, the director of public health for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controlled the western part of the Kurdish region. Dr. Saeed told me that several Americans -- he assumed they were CIA, but had no way of knowing -- had visited him about the same time and had promised that the Kurds would soon be supplied with antitoxins for nerve gas, face masks, and other protective gear.

That was welcome news, Dr. Saeed said, because there were more than 3.5 million Kurds and, unlike Israelis and Kuwaitis, they had no such safety equipment.

If cornered, Hussein was expected to retaliate with chemical or biological weapons. Kurdish targets, some as close as Brooklyn is to Manhattan, could be easily reached with old-fashioned artillery shells.


In late spring 2003, Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" and I came home from Iraq. As I took my unused gas mask off my belt, my thoughts returned to Mrs. Ahmed's assertion that the Kurds had received no WMD protection because the West "just didn't care."

No one could doubt that the Kurds presented an easy target for expected retaliation by the Iraqi regime, but I had to believe that once the support of the Kurds had been enlisted by Rumsfeld, then their survival became a genuine concern to war planners.

The alternative scenario was just too disturbing: that the Pentagon knew all along that the Kurds, an exposed population of almost 4 million, would have no need for masks. Could the White House have conducted the war with actual knowledge that there were no WMD in Iraq? Was that why no one saw fit to protect the Kurds?
I honestly don't see how anyone can still consider this question to be unanswered, not at this point and given all the evidence that has emerged. Of course the White House knew there were no WMD in Iraq, at least not in sufficient quantities to be of any serious concern. And I recall stories about the lack of protection against WMD from the moment the invasion of Iraq began. It was obvious that the administration didn't view the WMD danger as one of great moment -- or that they were criminally incompetent to a degree that is almost ungraspable. Perhaps it was both factors, plus a few others. But they obviously didn't consider the dangers from WMD to our troops or to anyone else to be a grave matter demanding urgent attention.

Those who championed the Iraq invasion most vociferously had wanted this war for more than a decade. It doesn't matter what particular combination of factors influenced any specific player in this tragedy: whether it was a genuine belief in the Wilsonian project of "nation-building" and "spreading democracy" by military force; or whether Bush indulged a pathetic desire to be a "war president," thus hoping to ensure his place in history, or if he wanted to outperform his father and prove his "strength" and "manliness"; or whether they were driven by an unfocused and uncontrolled desire for revenge after 9/11.

Whatever the various elements might have been, it was a decision of judgment made entirely apart from information provided by intelligence, good, bad or otherwise. In this case, it was judgment fatally distorted by hubris, ignorance, and the basest of motives. McKiernan's article is only a recent example of countless similar stories, all of them confirming the same conclusion.

While I am sympathetic to McKiernan, the second example of these ongoing analytic problems elicits nothing but my deepest contempt. Andrew Sullivan receives far more attention than he deserves: rarely has one man been so wrong about so much, and rarely has a writer consistently revealed a self-absorption and a degree of self-regard that so far exceed the bounds of what is tolerable in decent society. Yet, he does capture certain key elements of the various ways in which "conventional wisdom" gets it so badly wrong, so his pigheaded, unrelenting determination to continue in error should be noted.

Sullivan's very, very late regrets and reservations about Bush's foreign policy have taken in far too many people. For reasons I have explained, his belated second thoughts are ultimately meaningless -- and his condemnations of torture are futile and unconvincing in the end, for reasons I discuss in detail here and here. (All the entries in my series, On Torture, are listed here.) Now Sullivan continues on his dead-end Path of Penance with an article called, "What I Got Wrong About the War." The short answer: nothing that matters a damn.

And the first of the "huge errors" that Sullivan identifies shows that he is still completely trapped by the falsehoods of the conventional wisdom that led to calamity in the first place:
In retrospect, neoconservatives (and I fully include myself) made three huge errors. The first was to overestimate the competence of government, especially in very tricky areas like WMD intelligence. The shock of 9/11 provoked an overestimation of the risks we faced. And our fear forced errors into a deeply fallible system. When doubts were raised, they were far too swiftly dismissed. The result was the WMD intelligence debacle, something that did far more damage to the war's legitimacy and fate than many have yet absorbed.
He still thinks the intelligence mattered in a significant way: he and the others made "an honest mistake." If only the intelligence had been right, everything would have been fine.

This remains absolutely, totally wrong. One more time: the decision to go to war was one of policy and judgment. In the end, the intelligence didn't matter in any way that counted.

The last mistake Sullivan identifies made me laugh out loud:
The final error was not taking culture seriously enough. There is a large discrepancy between neoconservatism's skepticism of government's ability to change culture at home and its naiveté when it comes to complex, tribal, sectarian cultures abroad.
Yes, those fundamental contradictions in the policies one advocates can be a real bitch. And with regard to 'taking culture seriously": some of us have been making this argument since well before the invasion began. Reading a history book -- almost any one at all will do -- makes this point in a conclusive, unanswerable manner. I suppose it must be added that one needs to understand the book as well.

But here is the passage that merits attention, where Sullivan indulges in the Big Lie that is crucial to the neoconservatives' foreign policy project:
We have learned a tough lesson, and it has been a lot tougher for those tens of thousands of dead, innocent Iraqis and several thousand killed and injured American soldiers than for a few humiliated pundits. The correct response to that is not more spin but a real sense of shame and sorrow that so many have died because of errors made by their superiors, and by writers like me. All this is true, and it needs to be faced. But it is also true that we are where we are. And true that there was no easy alternative three years ago. You'd like Saddam still in power, with our sanctions starving millions while U.N. funds lined the pockets of crooks and criminals? At some point the wreckage that is and was Iraq would have had to be dealt with. If we hadn't invaded, at some point in the death spiral of Saddam's disintegrating Iraq, others would. It is also true that it is far too soon to know the ultimate outcome of our gamble.
This has only one meaning: we had no choice. When the war began, "there was no easy alternative" -- and Sullivan then repeats the entirely false smear that if one opposed this disastrous war, "you'd like Saddam still in power." It is and was perfectly possible to deeply loathe Saddam and his brutal regime, and still to have opposed this war -- a war which has served only to undercut our national security, dangerously weaken our military, perhaps irreparably damage our reputation throughout the world, and embolden our enemies.

But this Big Lie is the same one announced by Irving Kristol in his "neoconservative manifesto," as I discussed several years ago. Like Kristol, Sullivan must convince himself that we had no choice in the end. As I wrote about Kristol's foreign policy views:
The lie contained at the heart of this paragraph is probably the worst and most shameful in the entire article (and the article contains a number of stupendous lies, so this is no mean achievement). To term our involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War "bad luck" is an intellectual crime for which capital punishment would be too good, and too swift. In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.
This is Sullivan's view of foreign policy as well. I had many reasons for describing the program announced by Kristol as the "New Fascism." This is the overall program that Sullivan still enthusiastically endorses. He isn't sorry about a single damned thing of any consequence.

After this disreputable performance, Sullivan's concludes with a string of whimpering cliches:
We know that the enemies of democracy in Iraq will not stop there if they succeed. And we know that no perfect war has ever been fought, and no victory ever won, without the risk of defeat. Despair, in other words, is too easy now. And it too is a form of irresponsibility.

Regrets? Yes. But the certainty of some today that we have failed is as dubious as the callow triumphalism of yesterday. War is always, in the end, a matter of flexibility and will. And sometimes the darkest days are inevitable--even necessary--before the sky ultimately clears.
If I could somehow manage to forgive Sullivan for all his other sins, I still would find it impossible to overlook this one: he is an utterly unoriginal and thoroughly rotten writer.

I suppose it's only fitting that Sullivan is now hosted by Time. After all, this is the magazine that offered us a "morally and intellectually indefensible" cover story about Ann Coulter just last year. He's found his level, at last. While it is not precisely a celebratory occasion, it does carry a certain degree of justice. For the moment, that will have to suffice.

Perhaps I should leave the final word on this constellation of errors to Barbara Tuchman once again. From The March of Folly, where she summarizes the underlying causes of continuing, self-destructive mistakes:
Refusal to draw inference from negative signs, which under the rubric "wooden-headedness" has played so large a part in these pages, was recognized in the most pessimistic work of modern times, George Orwell's 1984, as what the author called "Crimestop." "Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments...and of being bored and repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity."
"Protective stupidity." I think that phrase covers it very well. Yes, very well indeed.