Thursday, March 21, 2013

You Are An Evil Hippie

Conor Friedersdorf has a nice piece at The Atlantic looking back at all the vitriolic and base hatred that was heaped on people who opposed the Iraq War 10 years ago.  It's not a very pleasant stroll down memory lane, but it's a good reminder of the actual environment that existed in the lead up to war and goes a long way to helping to explain how lots of "smart people" could support what predictably could easily end in disaster.

What struck me is how so many of the people behind both promoting the war and demonizing anyone who thought it might not be the greatest idea in the world are still very much considered experts in the world of foreign affairs.  They still write important articles, they still get to go on TV to pontificate on foreign affairs and they are still considered by nature to be more "serious" than everyone else.  After Vietnam most of it's architects like Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy and William Westmoreland (if you don't know who those people are, that's fine, but you probably should read more) notably left the limelight, even though some of them still had strong opinions about the war.  With the Iraq debacle the "experts" who hawked the war notably haven't.  They are still consulted as if they were ever some Oracle of Delphi, even though we know that they are most certainly not particularly insightful about the Middle East.  Richard Pearle, who posses the profound ability to never admit error to such a degree that he would have made a wonderful General in World War I, was even recently interviewed by none other than National Public Radio about whether or not the war was worth it.  He's the wrong person to ask.

The second thing I realized from a lot of these old quotes, is how much they sound like the quotes about why we should go to war in the first place.  That is they are chiefly concerned with the writer talking about their emotions and making emotional pleas or condemnations.  As Andrew Sullivan wrote:  
FABULOUSLY ANTI-WAR: No, I don't mean Madonna. I mean a group called Glamericans. These are drag queens, performance artists, and sundry others who form "a non-partisan group of funky Americans committed to non-violence and its promotion through glamorous, media-savvy, cultural events. We believe in America's potential to be a peaceful and powerful force in the world. We believe that war is bad for our country, bad for our environment and bad for our travel plans." Dammit. Let Saddam test nerve gas on political prisoners strapped down in hospital beds. Let him gas the Kurds. Let him protect terrorist groups.

The important thing is to look good in Tribeca.
Note that he doesn't even pretend to try and talk about foreign policy, that is the policy our government should have towards other countries.  No he just sort of condemns an obscure protest group for not being "serious" enough, and then makes an emotional plea that Saddam does bad things (note Saddam never had nerve gas so Sully basically just made that one up).  But why does Saddam doing bad things mean that we need to go to war?  This was, and to a large degree still is, the state of our public discussions about foreign policy and war.  Uniformed journalists giving style tips and making emotional pleas that we should go to war because, well because I'm outraged.

Matt Yglesias put what's wrong with our foreign policy discourse quite well back in 2009:
And a lot of what goes wrong in American foreign policy commentary, I came to see, was a refusal to adopt the ethic of responsibility. Instead, people would want to orient themselves in a way that expresses a sense of moralized outrage. So if some country is bad, a proposal to do bad things to that regime must be good, because what’s right is to be on “the right side” in some maximal way. Anything less is “realism” and a betrayal of ideals about human rights and democracy. The problem is that what’s needed, from a humanitarian point of view, is a foreign policy that does in fact make conditions around the world better not a foreign policy that expresses high ideals and a grand sense of purpose.
What I see Sullivan saying is basically, "My feelings are the most important thing in the whole world, so if they demand war, then war we shall have."  I don't know that we've made much progress away from this in the last 10 years.


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