In Defense of Being Wrong . . .
Posted by Michael Cohen
There's been a great deal of debate on this site and others over the past week about the responsibility of those in the Foreign Policy Community for the war in Iraq. I'm not about to re-fight those battles, but I think a little perspective is important.
Michael Ignatieff is one of my favorite public intellectuals. The article he did a few years ago in the NYT Magazine about Lesser Evils in fighting terrorism was thought-provoking and brilliant. I only regret that I haven't had time to read his book on the same subject.
A week or so ago he wrote what I can best describe as a soul-wrenching mea culpa regarding his support for the war in Iraq. It's never easy for people to admit a mistake, especially when it's a several thousand word article in the New York Times magazine, and I think Ignatieff deserves enormous credit for coming clean and admitting he was wrong. I wish others (like the President for example) would do the same. His article provides fascinating insight into how such decisions, which look so incorrect in retrospect, could have been made at the time. One graf in particular really jumped out at me:
I went to northern Iraq in 1992. I saw what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. From that moment forward, I believed he had to go. My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror? I should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self-justifying and in matters of ultimate political judgment, nothing, not even your own feelings, should be held immune from the burden of justification through cross-examination and argument.
Ignatieff like many Americans was wrong about Iraq, but while his judgment was wrong, his intentions were pure. He believed that advocacy for the war in Iraq was in the best interests of the Iraqi people and furthered important national interests. Clearly these views clouded him from seeing reality. He was not alone.
Tom Friedman is another public figure who has taken significant abuse for his support of the war. I would argue deservedly so. His judgment that invasion and occupation would spur democracy in the Middle East was misguided and fanciful. His later assertion that he didn't know the Bush Administration would screw up the war so badly, is frankly stunning. Should his future statements be taken with a grain of salt because of his mistakes? That certainly seems fair to me. But does that make him a bad person? Of course not. Does it mean he loves his country any less then someone like me who passionately opposed the war? Most certainly not. Same goes for Hillary Clinton. But forgive me if I have more faith in Barack Obama's foreign policy judgment.
To go further back in history, Lyndon Johnson probably did more than any other American President to ensure the full application of basic civil rights to all Americans. At the same time, he prosecuted a terrible and misguided war in Vietnam that took the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of more Vietnamese. How could a President be so right about the former and yet so wrong about the latter? I don't have an easy answer to that question, but certainly the former makes it very difficult to judge him in the harshest possible terms for the latter. Unlike those who would follow him in the Oval Office, I'm quite sure that Johnson believed what he was doing was best for America. He was wrong.
In the run-up to the war in Iraq many on the left were rightfully exorcised about attacks on their patriotism by the Bush Administration and others. That those attacks continue today is a sad statement on our coarsened political discourse. But, yet it would be a terrible irony indeed if those who opposed the war then, were to attack those who supported it with similar blanket statements.
We must remember that more than half of all Americans ended up supporting the war in Iraq. Certainly, many of them were manipulated by Administration propoganda about WMD and mythical Al Qaeda connections, but millions of other assessed this pertinent information and drew their own conclusions. I, for one, am willing to give the American people a bit more credit than to assert they were merely sheep being led to the slaughter.
The fact is, many well-intentioned Americans supported the war in Iraq - some were friends of mine, some were even related to me. Surely some did so for nefarious reasons, but I would imagine that most did so because they believed it was best for either America or the Iraqi people. Moreover, there are certainly those Americans who supported getting rid of Saddam, but they didn't necessarily suppport this war or the manner in which it has been incompently conducted. Being pro-war or anti-war is not a cut and dry proposition.
There were some anti-war folks who simply don't believe that war is ever appropriate. There were some like me who have supported the use of military force, such as the first Gulf War or our intervention in Afghanistan, but thought this particular conflict was misguided, wrong and not justified.
There were some on the pro-war side who completely believed the President's reasoning, there were others like Friedman and Ignatieff who had their own political agenda for war in Iraq. And there are those who were broadly sympathetic with the notion of toppling Saddam, but felt that the Administration went about it in the wrong manner. Indeed, I'm quite sure that there are many in the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community who are being attacked today for supporting this war even though if they had their way, they would have gone about in an altogether different manner. To paraphrase Rummy sometimes people go to war with the war we have, not the war we want.
In short, pro-war and anti-war are terms that don't necessarily do real justice to the true measure of intellectual ferment around this conflict.
In the end, those who opposed the war in Iraq have been proven correct. Four and a half years later it is difficult to draw any other rational conclusion. Certainly, those who supported it merit some criticism, particularly if they continue to support it today. We should not hesitiate to remind them of the error of their ways.
But let's also remember that to err is indeed human - and that well-meaning people, like Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman and Hillary Clinton can be wrong about something as terrible as war and still not be morally invalidated for their mistakes.