Megan McArdle argues that those of us who opposed the Iraq War from the get-go should pause a moment before we dislocate our elbows patting ourselves on the back:
This has not convinced me of the brilliance of the doves, because precisely none of the ones that I argued with predicted that things would go wrong in the way they did. If you get the right result, with the wrong mechanism, do you get credit for being right, or being lucky? In some way, they got it just as wrong as I did: nothing that they predicted came to pass. It’s just that independently, things they didn’t predict made the invasion not work. If I say we shouldn’t go to dinner downtown because we’re going to be robbed, and we don’t get robbed but we do get food poisoning, was I “right”? Only in some trivial sense. Food poisoning and robbery are completely unrelated, so my belief that we would regret going to dinner was validated only by random chance. Yet, the incident will probably increase my confidence in my prediction abilities, even though my prediction was 100% wrong.
First, I’m not sure exactly who Megan’s talking about when she refers to “doves” collectively. If she means that the papier-mâché puppet crowd are not our most savvy geopolitical observers, and that “no blood for oil” is not a tremendously compelling piece of strategic analysis, well, fair enough. But as I’ve suggested before, the temptation to take the stupidest possible people who disagree with you as emblematic of their position is just a roundabout sort of confirmation bias.
Second, it is true that much of the pre-war debate has proved less than relevant because many of us on the dovish side accepted the premise that Saddam had WMDs—it’s hard to rebut classified intelligence, after all—and spent a lot of ink and pixels arguing that an invasion was unnecessary (even if it might succeed) because Saddam could be contained and deterred; was unlikely for various reasons to hand off bio, chem, or nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda; that indeed invasion was the one circumstance under which such a transfer might be plausible; and so on. In a sense, that whole debate was made moot by the absence of such weapons. But insofar as Saddam surely would have liked to have them, their absence does seem to me to suggest we had things basically right: We were effectively containing and deterring the regime, perhaps more effectively than we’d thought.
Finally, and rather more importantly, what Megan’s saying just seems factually untrue. Many doves opposed the war on the grounds that they feared something like what we’re now seeing would occur. Here’s Bill Galston, who I recall finding to be one of the more compelling critics of the war during the run-up:
The Bush administration’s goal of regime change is the equivalent of our World War II aim of unconditional surrender, and it would have similar postwar consequences. We would assume total responsibility for Iraq’s territorial integrity, for the security and basic needs of its population, and for the reconstruction of its system of governance and political culture. This would require an occupation measured in years or even decades. Whatever our intentions, nations in the region (and elsewhere) would view our continuing presence through the historical prism of colonialism.
And here’s, well, me in September of 2002, responding to then-colleague Brink Lindsey:
In the absence of the rule of law and traditional liberal rights, the invisible hand may not function internationally as well as it does in robust markets, but it is not altogether absent: equilibria are established over time. Sometimes these are so unstable or inherently awful that almost anything would clearly be better. It’s possible that tomorrow, photos will be released of Saddam and Usama sharing a tall milkshake with two straws. If that happened, I’d be duly embarrassed, and revise my assessment of the Iraqi threat. Under most conditions, though, the power vacuum created by the dramatic sort of regime change the administration envisions triggers a process of re-equilibriation at least as dangerous as the status quo. Deposing a dictator establishes a kind of political arbitrage opportunity, which political entrepreneurs are eager to exploit. In these cases, though, the transaction costs typically involve guns, bombs, and other implements of commerce in destruction. As post-invasion uncertainty rises, parties on the ground rush to exploit perceived differentials in local knowledge, and we see the same kind of flurry you would on a stock floor when a hot bit of news leaks—if the NASDAQ allowed traders to carry grenades. This is good in markets, because each act of arbitrage increases efficiency, and involves exchanges to mutual benefit. Exchanges of artillery lack this attractive feature. As we refrain from intervention domestically in the interest of encouraging productive trade, we should be guided by a defeasible presumption of non-intervention on the international stage in the interest of preventing this undesirable variety.
These are, admittedly, fairly general remarks, so arguably I didn’t predict precisely how things would go down. (I imagine accompanying Megan on an ill-fated sightseeing trip to Iraq: “You were so worried about Baathist insurgents, but we’re about to be beheaded by the Badr Brigade. Don’t you feel silly?”) But then, what Tolstoy said about families goes for nation building adventures as well: The happy ones all resemble each other; the failures are infinitely varied. This is not, I think, a point to try to cudgel doves with: Our argument was precisely that destabilizing a country riven by strong sectarian divisions will have chaotic and unpredictable results, and it’s for this very reason that there should be a strong presumption against ambitious regime change projects. This argument is not really undermined if the actual clusterfuck that follows differs in the details from our ex ante hypotheticals about what this might entail.
All that said, there’s a certain irony in Megan’s writing this just on the heels of Michael O’Hanlon’s Washington Post op-ed defending the “surge.” His argument (rebutted ably by Mark Kleiman, incidentally) is that war critics are hypocritical for opposing escalation now, since we argued so strenuously all along that the invasion was carried out without sufficient troops to stabilize the country. So to recap: When it’s convenient for the administration to point it out, we were right on the mark four years ahead of the hawks. But heaven forfend any general inferences about our relative credibility should be drawn from this.
Update: In the comments, Megan makes the fair-enough point that at least people who were just reflexively anti-war, of whom there are surely plenty, shouldn’t be claiming credit for their foresight. I’ll halfway agree, though if the “reflex” was the function of a general principle to the effect that preemptive wars are a bad idea, we’ve at least got a data point suggesting there might be something to their principle. (Compare markets, where the general idea that they’ll tend to solve problems reasonably well in the absence of government interference is “reflexive” in the sense of not being dependent on knowing exactly how the market will do it in any particular instance.)
She also suggests that if I look back at what I wrote in the run-up, I’ll be vaguely embarrassed by all sorts of awful predictions. Well, I’ve got to say, I think what I wrote about Iraq holds up pretty well. But judge for yourself. The full collection: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,
nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and my first reaction to invasion. To the extent that I got things wrong, it was mostly a function of being too ready to take the administration at its word about the state of Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and programs.
Last Addendum: Via another commenter, see also James Fallows from the November 2002 Atlantic.