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May 12, 2004

Comments

Lindsay Beyerstein

"Whenever I gamble with the Bureau's money, I like to bring back a 10-15% return."--Special Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks

The joke is that SADC isn't expected to win money for the Bureau, he's supposed to pose as a high roller on a sting operation. The administration gambled with our money, and they lost.

Sometimes, it's okay to gamble with other people's resources, including their lives. That is, if you have a mandate and a reasonable probability of success. If you lack either, you are guilty even if you win. Someone who takes the company credit card to Monte Carlo should be fired, even if he wins, refunds his stakes, and gives the profit to widows and orphans. He had no right to play this game, and he had no reason to believe he would win.

Russell L. Carter

"I see that Jacob Levy and even Matthew Yglesias are willing to undertake conditional defenses of 1. I'll bow to their wisdom."

In light of the original comment I put up on Matt's post, which does not apply to you, the obvious question is: why?

Russell L. Carter

"In light of the original comment I put up on Matt's post"

Different post, duh:

http://www.matthewyglesias.com/cgi-bin/mt/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=3303

I don't see you or Matt or Jacob Levy answering in any substantive way the counterarguments unleashed in that thread. What we're left with is generic CYA argument as support for 1. And again, the question is why?

Neil Sinhababu

1 is a bit of an ambiguous question. It'll depend somewhat on when you supported it -- before or after we were rejected for UN approval? It could also depend on how much you knew -- did you know that the Iraq uranium documents were forged? As time passes, you become responsible for knowing more, so the second of these issues depends somewhat on the first.

I took the anti-war position at the time when shooting started. In retrospect, I probably should have formed that position as soon as we didn't get the UN approval. It took me a while to realize that Bush and not the UN being in charge of reconstruction would be a disaster.

Russell Arben Fox

I like how you put this John. Like Jacob and Matt, I'm not convinced that realizing that the answer to no. 2 is "no" means that the answer to no. 1 can't also be "yes." But in any case, that's a much more complicated question. In the short term, you nail it here: "Any tendency to pass off a vague sense that the whole thing was excusable as a vague argument that success is still possible, i.e. benefits may still exceed costs, ought to be exposed for the slip that it is." This--the willingness to justify one's views on the basis of supposedly specifiable but actually unknowable ends--is the sort of thinking which drove me to finally look into my own abyss here.

baa

As the owner of the Red Sox says:

"Market participants typically overestimate their ability to predict the future."

It's a knife the cuts both ways, of course. And I doubt that a website comment by some anonymous doofus will change the minds of intelligent folks who have made it up for themselves. But it seems to me that the answer to John's question number two could obviously still be "yes." None of us have sufficient information about what is happening in Iraq.

And yes, Abu Ghraib is a huge, depressing atrocity, but are we sure it will make Iraq ungovernable? I'm not, and I can't imagine what evidence anyone else has that would support such certainty. I see now, on the "decent left," a witches brew composed of jutifiable anger at incompetance and deception and anguish over Abu Ghraib mixed with less creditable moral perfectionism and partisan loathing of the administration. The result is frank defeatism, and that's unjustified. Many of the "decent right"-- if I can be so bold as to count myself a member -- are disturbed by the administration's arrogance, slipperiness, inflexibility, and resistance to criticism. This sounds like LBJ! But that doesn't mean the benefits of retreat outweigh the benefits of remaining.

jholbo

A few very quick responses. My reason for tabling 1, Russell, is that it is more rhetorically effective and keeps the post short. Let 1 be true (even if you think it is false.) The fact that 2 is false is the point and it gets underlined more emphatically if you just let 1 slide. As to the quite separate and worthy, albeit now academic question of whether 1 might be true - I guess I still remember reading "Threatening Storm" and thinking it looked pretty threatening. Very like a whale. Very like a weasel. I honestly don't know. It's been a year. I do appreciate your points. 'It's too far along to stop' was not an argument, and no one really even advanced it as one. But it was a feeling that preempted argument at least around the edges. Fair enough. And sorry enough.

Neil is right that 1 is ambiguous, because there is a sliding scale dateline. Fair enough. I can only plead that the subject of the post was 2.

As to baa's post. The one thing I can say is that 'cutting losses' does not equal 'cut and run'. I'm definitely not saying that, from where we stand, the benefits of retreat outweigh the benefits of standing. But these 'benefits' all leave us still in the hole deep. I think that cutting and running would mean losing really, really badly, whereas we still have the option of just plain losing. So we should go for just plain losing.

And I have no proof that a miracle isn't about to occur; things settling stunningly down. A beachhead of democracy in the Middle-East. That is obviously what we have to aim for, given that we are this far in. We have to try to make as much good out of it as we can. I'm in fact very far from sure that Iraq will be made ungovernable by this. For that matter it isn't Abu Ghraib that has pushed me decisively against the war. It just prompted me to write about politics and war again, after having kept me sullen peace for a spell.

It just seems to me that the most we have to hope for, reasonably, is marginal but solid improvements in the lives of 25 million people. Not much diplomatic or strategic or military payoff beyond that. (I guess a little around the edges.) Now improving the lives of 25 million people is no joke. It is a big thing. But you can do it more cheaply, and safely, and securely, than we have done. We could throw the money at water-treatment plants in India and AIDS medicine in Africa, and schools in America. We could buy off the land claims of all the Palestinian refugees with $200 billion and counting. (I mean we could offer them some serious change.) I'm not saying that would be wise, or manifestly the just thing to do. I'm not saying that throwing around $200 billion could produce $200 billion worth of good for us, or for anyone. Throwing money around is usually inefficient. But doing that would produce better results than we can reasonably hope to achieve in Iraq from here on in. The costs have simply been astronomical. We have depleted everything we've got. And the benefits look to be real but frankly quite limited. Not to mention strictly uncertain at this point. It's not enough just to ask whether you are producing solidly good results. You have to ask whether you couldn't have produced better results some other way. So the actually short version would be: miracles can happen, baa. But nothing short of that looks to me like enough to make 2 true. I hope I'm wrong. I would be delighted to be wrong.

Jacob T. Levy

I take all of John's points, really I do. And god knows I'd like to have seen some share of $200 billion invested in beating malaria, or engaging in state-building and society-building in Africa, etc.

But opportunity costs cut both ways. Has we not invaded Iraq, we'd have the benefit of whatever else we invested the money and effort and diplomatic capital in... weighed against the degenerating status quo in Iraq.

The sanctions regime was a disaster, humanitarian and otherwise; and it was collapsing. Pre-9/11, the only question was whether it was going to collapse completely or whether Powell could manage face-saving "smart sanctions." Oil-for-food was a disaster, enriching the regime and cronies because raising the traditional resource-bottleneck curse to a whole new level. The no-fly-zone wasn't permanently stable; it was under constant pressure from France and Russia, and if the sanctions had been repealed the no-fly zone would also have been declared illegitimate; in any event eventually American and British planes were going to start getting shot down, and the US and UK would have pulled out. And if the NFZ went away, so would the Kurdish zone; I have little doubt that massacres would have followed, in addition to the expected repression. (And the loss of extant Kurdish freedom would go into the cost column.)

Finally-- even freely acknowledging that there were no WMD, that we fell for Potemkin WMD programs, and that the "evidence" in hand was fraudulent-- our ability to prevent future WMD acquisition would collapse along with the sanctions regime. As best as I can figure now, SH was biding his time until the sanctions were gone, and had every hope and expectation of restarting programs at that point.

I dunno how this all balances out. But the invisible benefits-forgone-by-not-doing-something-else have to be weighed against the invisible costs-avoided-by-doing-what-was-done.

baa

I'm not looking for miracles. Like Jacob Levy, I'm looking for the removal of an erratic, agressive, anti-American, WMD hungry state atop 30% of the world's oil. And, like John Holbo, I'm looking for a big improvement in Iraqi's lives vs. expectations under a 40 year Hussein dynasty.

That's a big payoff right there. Is it *enough* of a payoff to justify invasion? Have the screw ups tipped the balance? No idea. But I think it is *way* premature to judge this cause as lost (or winnable only via miracle). Whatever we take 'lost' to mean.

Last, it's not like we had the choice: Invade Iraq or battle AIDS. No one was offering that choice. It wasn't on the map. Any more than it was "bomb serbia or battle AIDS" or "intervene in Rwanda or battle AIDS." You and I may wish that the structure of global politics were such that options came in this fashion. But they don't.

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