Friday, September 17, 2004

Return of the rice dish

Back from the blogdead to do something I said an age ago I'd do: explain why exactly my thinking about the war was so uptight. I'm inspired to do so by this attempt at J&BHAB...) which does most of the work I'd otherwise have had to do.

A particularly helpful feature of that post is that it does emphasise that there were a lot of different reasons to support the war. There is an antiwar critique that war supporters tended to jump from justification to justification without really pinning their argument on any single one. While it's true that at least one of the justifications ought to be both true and sufficient, it's not obvious to me at all that the, umm, multivariate nature of the pro-war argument was in itself wrong. The sanctions policy really was unsustainable and wrong, but apparently necessary in the absence of war. There really were reasons to think Saddam's regime was not living up to the Kuwait ceasefire agreement. Finally, a set of previous limited wars seemed to me (still seem to me) to have been non-disastrous, to be justifiable as acts, and to have been more good than bad in their consequences (I supported both the first gulf war, somewhat equivocally, and the Kosovo conflict, less equivocally, and in retrospect I think I was wrong to oppose the Falklands war); although even at the time that didn't seem like a good reason to oppose the war, it did give reason to think that "war is not the answer" isn't the whole truth. I still think it isn't, as such. What I think was really wrong was my inclination to trust political leaders to make the decision about the war when the public lacked access to all the relevant information political leaders had.

I think this mistake was actually driven by my being a political scientist. I didn't have to be an especially strong rational choice proponent to believe that elected politicians tend to try to avoid disaster, and that electorates tend to try to punish politicians who end up leading them into trouble. I thought these two things to be probably truths both as regards the US and UK governments.

Thus I tended to resolve doubts with the thought that both GWB (and his advisors), and Blair and his government, would be going before their respective electorates within a couple of years of the Iraq invasion, after a period in which however well or badly that went the Iraq news would have been pretty dominant. Thus, they had every reason to make themselves as well-informed as possible about whether there was a WMD threat; whether the country would be governable; whether the whole enterprise stood a decent chance of success; and so on. That they went ahead with such a risky enterprise in those circumstances seemed to me to indicate the threat really was urgent and that the response was appropriate. Had I been in the business of predicting what would happen in the event that no WMD was found, that there would be an ongoing war in which the coalition would lose control of substantial parts of the country, and so on, I guess I'd have predicted a landslide defeat for Bush (or even the resignation of Cheney and Bush and a Hastert nightwatchman presidency); in the UK, that Blair would have been out of office in a year, possibly with the party having divided, probably with a general election to form a new government in which there could be confidence.

Of course all of this is wrong: Firstly, the notion that politicians have reason to do their best to avoid disaster and therefore do their best to avoid disaster. It turns out that both Bush and his advisors, and Blair and his government, were listening to fairytales. It is true that many observers thought that Iraq had WMD, but very unclear what if anything made Bush et al believe there to be an imminent threat. It also turns out that making Iraq successful on any level wasn't enough of a priority in the post-invasion operation (in the sense that other considerations, such as the need to be seen as tough on insurgents, or the desire to give big contracts to US firms rather than employ local expertise, trumped the need to establish effective governance). It may be said that the British operation in Iraq was run by professionals who knew what they were doing, and were derailed by American incompetence and corruption; that's probably close to a consensus view among journalists and the like over here, and I think is a subtext every time a British soldier gets killed in Iraq. But even if that's true, on my original view, Blair should have assured himself that the Americans would handle the occupation OK before signing up.

But now that the whole operation turns out to be a pointless disaster, what about the second point: are the politicians in charge in the UK or the US being punished? That raises tricky counterfactual questions. Possibly Blair is suffering more than Bush; although Labour retains a lead in most opinion polls, it's hard to think that they wouldn't be much further ahead absent the Iraq war. Probably the Labour lead is down to the inadequacy of the Conservative opposition, rather than to a widespread public ignorance of the disaster in Iraq, of which the BBC reminds us every day. There is something very wrong with a democratic political system in which the opposition is so inadequate that widespread public disenchantment with a major policy of the government is irrelevant.

Bush, on the other hand, actually seems to benefit from the war in Iraq. Mark A. R. Kleiman has a post from a reader arguing that Kerry's difficulties in keeping up with Bush are down to the understandable inability of the median American voter to perceive the disaster of the war in Iraq (or of climate change). There is something very wrong with a voter so myopic, but perhaps this description is accurate.

But let us be clear where this gets us. Both Bush and Blair can go to war for reasons that turn out to be wrong and in pursuit of which they turn out to have at best systematically exaggerated very patchy evidence. That war can turn out to be misguided strategically and mishandled tactically. Its consequence can be the systematic derangement of international institutions. It can turn from a war of liberation into a colonial war repressing nationalist insurgents (whom tradition dictates we call "terrorists"), while being a vivid recruiting tool for those who actually are terrorists. It can waste billions of pounds and tens of thousands of lives and leave the world worse off in pretty much every way. Despite all this the two major proponents of the war can have a fighting chance of re-election. In particular it's now difficult for me to see why any US administration should care about the consequences of its foreign policy.

While I'm deeply ashamed to have been on the wrong side of the debate about the war in advance, turning out to be wrong has rather shattered my faith in the effectiveness of democratic feedback as a useful (realist?) constraint on policy-making.

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