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March 26, 2008

Still So Wrong After So So Long

This is the Atlantic's Megan McArdle giving one of the reasons she was wrong about Iraq:

3) I overestimated my ability to interpret Saddam's behavior. I genuinely believed that he had WMD--the main reason I favored invasion--because he was acting exactly like I would if I'd had WMD. I failed to adequately consider that not being a brutal dictator in a chronically unstable region, I probably had limited insight into his thought process.

What McArdle means is that because Iraq sometimes blocked inspections, she thought this meant they must be hiding WMD. But now she's learned that brutal dictators do all kinds of weird things that delicate flowers like ourselves have no hope of comprehending.

But of course this is the wrong lesson.

Saddam's behavior was completely straightforward, and understanding it didn't require any unusual insight into the thought processes of brutal dictators. At the time we knew the US and UK had placed spies within UNSCOM in an effort to overthrow and kill Saddam, and the US said repeatedly that we'd never lift sanctions as long as Saddam was in power. We also knew at the time that Iraq said this was the reason they sometimes blocked inspections.

Believing that this simple explanation was, in fact, what was going on just required McArdle to believe Saddam "was acting exactly like I would" if there were people trying to kill her: she'd avoid them when possible, particularly if there were no upside. Indeed, this was exactly my reasoning when I bet someone $1000 that Iraq had nothing.

The problem is that McArdle had never heard of this basic background information before the war. What's interesting is that she still doesn't know it, years after the CIA published a gigantic report online that explained this. Even more interesting is that this not-knowing has been an active rather than passive process: I've sent her several polite emails, starting in January last year, telling her what happened and why it matters. She's never responded and the emails clearly made no impression on her whatsoever.

Before we invaded Iraq I would never have believed the fantasy world in which America's elite live was so invulnerable to penetration by reality. Even a giant catastrophic war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands makes no difference.

ALSO WRONG: Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, while addressing McArdle's beliefs, writes:

If you are working in the administration in some foreign policy or defense-related position, or a scholar in a relevant field at Brookings or AEI, or a columnist or blogger who takes it upon yourself to have and publish an opinion on Iraq, then it's your job to make these calls correctly, and you either have or ought to have the knowledge you need to do so.

This is also a willful misreading of reality, and almost as dangerous as McArdle's. Hilzoy wants to believe making these calls "correctly" is these people's job, and so she asserts it as fact. But if it were fact, then they would have been fired and their careers damaged. The evidence of the past five years overwhelmingly demonstrates that their job is to do exactly what they've done.

These basic misunderstandings about how America works by people with some measure of power portends much greater suffering ahead.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at March 26, 2008 05:51 PM

...or a blessed victory like the Balkans.

If I thought you were being ironic I'd laugh bitterly. But I have the idea you mean it.
Tell me you don't.


Posted by: Gaylad at March 26, 2008 06:49 PM

What in the name of Curtis LeMay was she thinking when she wrote "he was acting exactly like I would if I had WMD?"
I have no idea how I would "act" if I had WMD. In the first place, I'd try never to get near the suckers. But if someone gave me a sampler of a dozen for Christmas (try 'em, you'll like 'em). I have no idea how I'd act. If I were an assistant prof denied tenure, maybe I'd drop one on the Chairman's house. Other than that, I'd bury them in the town dump.
Why do we have so many writing so much rubbish like that? OK, OK, it's our preshs freem of expressn.

Posted by: donescobar at March 26, 2008 06:51 PM

I read another convincing analysis of the situation somewhere, it's probably one explanation you're already aware of as well. That is, Saddam didn't want his not having WMDs to be internationally exposed because it would weaken his position against Iran. It's a very "realist" explanation, but one that I think shouldn't be discounted. Moreover, for an administration that was already trained to think in such polisci modes, it seems surprising that this idea would never have cropped up. Many of the people in Bush's cabinet, as is often humorously pointed out, were part of the Reagan administration which was allied with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War.

Basically what I am getting at is that it seems highly unlikely that this political dimension never cropped up in high-level executive discussions. Consequently, the whole "WMD" issue seems like a farce that was prompted in order to compel the U.S. to enter war. I'm also not entirely convinced this was done merely to get oil, which is a very popular reductionist argument on the pseudo-left. The more horrifying explanation, at least to me, and indicative of Bush's rhetoric, is that they believed, and many continue to believe, that they were acting out of genuine good-will.

Posted by: Bryan Klausmeyer at March 26, 2008 07:09 PM

>> he was acting exactly like I would if I had WMD

If you had??

Megan, you have WMDs and that's why you act the way you do. You see, most MBAs around the world don't get to argue on their blogs why their country should invade some faraway land on the basis of cocktail party pop psychology. That's because most MBAs around the world do not have the opportunity to treat the planet as one giant videogame. I don't blame you for having WMDs. I blame you for behaving like someone who does. You know, like, this man who lived in your head named Saddam who kept nukes in his pocket.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 26, 2008 07:31 PM

I think Jon is being a little unfair to Hilzoy. I didn't follow the link but there's a not entirely implausible reading of the word 'job' as 'moral duty.' Yes, this would be an inappropriate use of that word in that context, but blogs are the place (I speak from experience) where it is easy to choose the wrong word.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at March 26, 2008 07:39 PM

WORDSMITHS OF MASS DELUSION---They will never be extinct and WE will ALWAYS pay for the mistake of listening to them. (BLOOD AND TREASURE, BLOOD AND TREASURE)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 26, 2008 07:43 PM

The whole apologia genre blows. There are no supermen. Or superwomen. Or people that you can assume know much more because of their positions. In fact it's safe to assume that they're idiots and use that to make your way through life.

angryman - I don't believe this. Those people are NOT idiots - they are doing exactly what Jon castigates Hilzoy for not understanding. They are kissing the ring. Maybe they do this subconsciously, maybe it's more calculated. I wouldn't purport to know how those people think. But what's idiotic is to believe that people who are paying attention - and these people are definitely paying attention - could possibly have fallen for it. It was NOT rocket science, it was obvious. It was a fucking game and dodge. It was clear as daylight that the US wanted war, and nothing would stop that. Now that we have the videotape, they're crying about it, but let's not let them off the hook - the tape is clear: you were sucking the cock of power, assholes.

Posted by: saurabh at March 26, 2008 08:06 PM

1.How exactly do people behave when they have WMDs?

2.Did people who promoted the war really even care about the WMDs?

Maybe they just knew they were supposed to seem to care. Weren't the WMDs just a fig-leaf to cover their racism and bloodthirstiness?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at March 26, 2008 08:45 PM

an afterthought, re McArdle-- Jon, it occurs to me that your missives sent to her may well have an effect, just not the desired one-- it may just give her a more sophisticated understanding of what kinds of counterarguments she needs to have at her ready.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at March 26, 2008 08:52 PM


The revenge of the Balkans is the curse of hubris. Those motherfucking Balkan troglodytes got us thinking that we could carry out each progressive war with such success, clearly blessed by God. If only we had recognized their ruse -- but no, we were distracted, having our balls scratched while being blown. And they knew that, and bid their time. The bastards.

I don't believe this. Those people are NOT idiots...

YMMV. My experience at the big table has been that they're all dumbasses with exaggerated sense of import. Having invited me to that table sealed that judgment. But maybe it was a bad table.

I fuck up routinely, but if I get into these complex justifications (...because he was acting exactly like I would if I'd had WMD. I failed to adequately consider that not being a brutal dictator in a chronically unstable region, I probably had limited insight into his thought process.) somebody should please step up and get me to shut the fuck up and admit to outright asshattery.

And I believe I'm in the company of people able to competently recognize asshattery.

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Posted by: jack at March 26, 2008 09:01 PM

HERE YOU GO jack, call Nancy 1-202-225-0100--DEMAND IMPEACHMENT---spread it around.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 26, 2008 09:17 PM

damn mcardle's whole thing is horrible.

1. "perhaps the Bush administration is really the reason that everything went wrong, but I am not in a position to evaluate that. I simply forgot to be skeptical that we could build a functioning nation in Iraq."

astounding, from a self-described libertarian. it's like hearing a woman educated at a catholic school say she forgot jesus was born of a virgin whose name was mary.

what a dimwit.

2. "I should have realized that the Iraqis would find it humiliating to be conquered by an outside power, even one that was (as we are) one of the best-meaning occupiers in human history."

again, the self-described libertarian, who declares any government uniformly ethical, honest, and benign. dimwit.

hundreds of thousands dead in the past due to american actions and initiatives; demonstrated american intent to control civil functions for many years, including a refusal to hold elections and down-the-line employment of american contractors over local; lack of security for anything other than foreign-oriented infrastructure; and of course the stupid, senseless, murderous invasion in the first place. what part of all that's humiliating...? dimwit!

4. "The experience of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain revolutionized our thinking about markets. We used to think that they were the natural occupant of any space left free by the government."

yeah, i distinctly remember keynes saying that on his deathbed. thank heavens we finally figured out his error, 50 years later.

when nixon said "we are all keynesians now" he was of course referring to having changed the name of the country to keynesia, in honor of john maynard's mom, who was really nice.

5. "I thought that the exiles could go back and take over; I had more excuse than they did, but not that much. Most exiles aren't De Gaulle."

saddam's iraq: a domestic dictatorship by a cultural minority, but well-established, economically successful, and without foreign sponsorship. overthrown by foreign power: imposed leadership rejected.

vichy france: an occupied country. liberated by foreign power; well-established shadow government–in–exile accepted.

ok! you would have to be a dimwit not to notice that the pattern here is rejection of puppet governments. wouldn't you.

6. "it is not actually true that everything the French oppose is therefore a good idea."

if you'd like, you can search in vain for any article mcardle/galt has ever written that mentioned a country called "algeria." i suspect she will make this error again, having (granted, probably professionally) failed to understand that in other countries, opinions on matters of state are not pulled miraculously from the butt.

7. "I fell prey to the notion that we had to do something about Islamic terrorism.… In retrospect, there were many better somethings to do."

for instance, still out there but not yet on the dimwit's table: all terrorism, state and non-state, is bad.

Posted by: hapa at March 26, 2008 09:49 PM

Thanks Jonathan! Really.

Posted by: empty at March 26, 2008 10:29 PM

I second the notion that you are being a bit unfair to Hilzoy. While your reading is correct in that the folks like McArdle knew what they were doing, my interpretation of Hilzoy's comment is that people in such positions have an independent duty to use that position in a responsible fashion. Now, it is perfectly true that in this case that didn't happen, and it is also perfectly true that the institutional norms of the governing systems in the US will warp that duty, but that doesn't mean that we can't ask for some aspirational yardstick. Otherwise we're left with nothing other than the Bush notion of creating our own reality. (Yes a bit of a stretch there but it seemed like a useful analogy.)

Posted by: sparky at March 27, 2008 08:35 AM

i agree with mr schwarz. i think the trouble with even the expectation -- like the "why-oh-why can't we have a better press corps" -- is it doesn't account for how ANY centralized, self-sufficient institution bathes its members in is own internal distorting light. institutions don't succeed by modeling their operations after the general physical world, but by breaking down the job of customer satisfaction into bits achievable by a powerful social hierarchy, which is then given precedence "to get the job done." thus creating virtually endless potential for catastrophic misinterpretations! and value. lots and lots of value.

Posted by: hapa at March 27, 2008 11:35 AM

People project their own morality and perception of how things work on the institutions around them. See also: the media. So many people critique pundits working in the media according to how they believe the media industry functions rather than what the evidence (and on occasion, major players in the institutional media) says.

Posted by: Justin at March 27, 2008 12:08 PM

Did you collect on that bet?

Posted by: BobS. at March 27, 2008 12:43 PM

Did you collect on that bet?

I did. So not only was I was pleased that I'd judged the WMD situation right, I was doubly pleased that I'd correctly judged that this guy (who I knew only online) would pay up.

Then I invested all the money in a perpetual motion time machine. So my record's not perfect.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at March 27, 2008 01:29 PM

Tom said "The next day he sent me another e-mail saying his editor wouldn't let him."

And that's exactly where the real problem is with the media. Even when a reporter is willing to tell a version of events other than that presented by the Bush administration, they can't get the story past the gatekeepers.

Posted by: zak8222 at March 27, 2008 01:32 PM

IIRC, hilzoy once said that she gives people in public life the benefit of the doubt until they show they can't be trusted.

Which I think is wrong. People in public life (politicians and pundits) have incentives to be dishonest and to behave badly on some issues, and one should be pleasantly surprised by the ones who go against the grain, rather than expecting them to be honest. You don't get to be President by being consistently honest about the atrocities committed by the US or its close allies, for instance.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at March 27, 2008 02:01 PM

"...carry out each progressive war..."

Uhh, that is a really f*cked use of that term, 'progressive.'

You mean successive. Yeah, "we" thought, or hoped "we" could use the "success" of the bombing of Serbia/Kosovo as a template for future "humanitarian" conflicts.

Of course, since our motives weren't humanitarian, and the war wasn't a success in any terms at all, that whole theory is a tissue of horseshit, your blowjobs and troglodytes notwithstanding.

Posted by: Gaylad at March 27, 2008 03:23 PM
You mean successive.

Meh. Language is not my strong suit, but I actually did mean progressive because most wars are sold on humanitarian basis. It's bad form to sell wars on the basis of greed.


But I just can't get over this:

because he was acting exactly like I would if I'd had WMD...

because it seems to be at the root of our foreign policy problems. And I blame academia.

McArdle is a graduate of UPenn and University of Chicago, so somewhere out there is a really fucked up political science professor that's telling people that if you get WMDs, as a nation or individually, you should not use them as abstract negotiating leverage on the world stage, but instead immediately use them to bring your enemies to heel (even if they have 30,000 nukes) and failing that, you as a secular and ruthless tyrant should hand over some of said WMDs to out of control islamists.

Now, looking at it thus far -- it would seem that even Kim-Il Sung has a better understanding with what he'd do geopolitically with WMDs, and 1) he didn't attend UPenn/UC, and 2) he's a fucking lunatic. I haven't checked his blog tho.

Posted by: angryman@24:10 at March 27, 2008 05:18 PM

"I read another convincing analysis of the situation somewhere, it's probably one explanation you're already aware of as well. That is, Saddam didn't want his not having WMDs to be internationally exposed because it would weaken his position against Iran. It's a very "realist" explanation, but one that I think shouldn't be discounted."

someone addressed this already, but I wanted to speak to this lie also:

SADDAM SAID REPEATEDLY THAT HE HAD NO WMDS IN 2002 AND 2003, so how the fuck does that translate into pretending to actually have WMDs?

And Tom - please publish those emails! And you too, Jonathan!

Posted by: Susan - NC at March 27, 2008 11:25 PM