Should We Listen to Those Who Were Wrong on Iraq in 2002?

Last week, I wrote a post over at the Washington Post expressing amazement that so many of the people who were so spectacularly wrong on Iraq in 2002 are now returning to tell us what we should do about Iraq in 2014. While it went out under the headline "On Iraq, let's ignore those who got it all wrong," I didn't actually argue specifically that they should be ignored, just that we shouldn't forget their track records when we hear them now (although I did allow that seeking out John McCain's opinion on Iraq is like getting lost and deciding that Mr. Magoo is the person you need to ask for directions). Then yesterday, after Dick Cheney popped up with a predictably tendentious criticism of Barack Obama, I wrote another post on the topic of our former vice president, and here I did get a little more explicit about how his opinions should be greeted, after running through some of his more appalling howlers:

There is not a single person in America — not Bill Kristol, not Paul Wolfowitz, not Don Rumsfeld, no pundit, not even President Bush himself — who has been more wrong and more shamelessly dishonest on the topic of Iraq than Dick Cheney.

And now, as the cascade of misery and death and chaos he did so much to unleash rages anew, Cheney has the unadulterated gall to come before the country and tell us that it's all someone else’s fault, and if we would only listen to him then we could keep America safe forever. How dumb would we have to be to listen?

Is there a bit of over-enthusiasm with which people like me are attacking the return of the Iraq War caucus? Maybe. Part of it comes from the fact that a decade ago, those of us who were right about the whole thing were practically called traitors because we doubted that Iraq would turn out to be a splendid little war. And part of it comes from the fact that the band of morons who sold and executed the worst foreign policy disaster in American history not only didn't receive the opprobrium they deserved, they all did quite well for themselves. Paul Wolfowitz became president of the World Bank. Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks, and George Tenet—a trio of incompetents to rival the Three Stooges—each got the Medal of Freedom in honor of their stellar performance. Bill Kristol was rewarded with the single most prestigious perch in the American media, a column in the New York Times. (The drivel he turned out was so appallingly weak that they axed him after a year.) The rest of the war cheerleaders in the media retained their honored positions in the nation's newspapers and on our TV screens. The worst thing that happened to any of them was getting a cushy sinecure at a conservative think tank.  

But Jonathan Chait sounds a note of dissent on the idea that all these people should simply be ignored, and I think he probably has a point:

When you're trying to set the terms for a debate, you have to do it in a fair way. Demanding accountability for failed predictions is fair. Insisting that only your ideological opponents be held accountable is not fair. Nor is it easy to see what purpose is served by insisting certain people ought to be ignored. The way arguments are supposed to work is that the argument itself, not the identity of the arguer, makes the case. We shouldn't disregard Dick Cheney's arguments about Iraq because he's Dick Cheney. We should disregard them because they're stupid.

In my Cheney post I did make some attempt to address his argument about Iraq, but it was rather hard to find, because like most conservatives, he (and daughter Liz, with whom he co-wrote that op-ed) are silent on what they would actually do that Barack Obama is not doing. But when it comes to the war brigade, we can do both: We should keep recalling their past blunders, and look thoroughly at what they're saying now. They can and should be accountable for both their past and their present. The latter is showing no greater promise than the former did.

Comments

I think it's important not to create a false dichotomy -- that the alternative to having the pro-war caucus all over the airwaves is to exclude them from the debate. What I think critics of the media's present approach are calling for is not that, but instead some additional balance in the presentation of viewpoints, and also for fair discussion of or disclosure of the speaker's past errors.

When William Kristol was recently on Bill Maher's show, for example, Bill Maher extracted from him a series of concessions about his past mistakes. It is very possible to allow somebody on a show to bleat about the Obama Administration or to call for more war, while holding them to account.

"practically called a traitor"?

I WAS called a traitor. I was assaulted, called a terrorist sympathizer. George Bush himself told me I was either with him or against him, in all his Manichean Paranoiac splendor.

The genetic fallacy is to attack the source and not the argument. But you can attack the argument w/ collateral damage to the source.

I'll tell you what fuckstain: I never heard of you until ten minutes ago and only because you have a forum to spew your ignorance. What the hell have you ever actually DONE????? Besides criticize somebody else, that is? NOTHING!!!!!!! How long did you serve in the military????!!!! Actually get callouses on your effiminate hands? You are another left-wing pussy letting the rest of us do the heavy lifting and then criticizing us for how we do it. When the hoards come over the wall, asshole, you hug them and let's see how far that gets you. Fuck head.

Paul Waldman has served every bit as much time in the military as Dick Cheney. But only one of these two lied us into a war that got thousands of American soldiers killed fighting the wrong enemy.

Right on, Paul Waldman. Chait is a very frustrating case. He is very insightful and writes well, but was part of a cabal at the New Republic that almost single-handedly made the worst foreign policy mistake in American history a bipartisan foreign policy mistake. "Even the liberal New Republic..." is a phrase that died a very welcome death after causing the very real death of tens of thousands of people..

There are two arguments on Chait's behalf. One is rather ironic: "de Bathafication was a bad idea". This is the notion that you can't toss every competent person out of their post because of a shady past. This argument can only be advanced by morons who think the press is part of democratic government and that, therefore, some particular journalists are irreplaceable.

The second argument is, like the first, something that makes no sense outside of the press corp: ideas should be allowed to fight it out in the great marketplace of ideas without regard to their provenance. Someone like myself who predicted precisely how our misadventure would go wrong and who explained the obvious justification for these predictions to every human being I encountered from September 2002 until March 2003, and who, despite the agreement of 39% of the population in the face of propaganda on the other side from every single authority figure in Washington, watched in horror as it played out exactly how I predicted it would, I have to say that the marketplace of ideas works about as well as the marketplace for cable television: not at all because it's rigged.

PS. I had a chance last year to push Donald Rumsfeld into traffic as he walked along L St at 17th all by his lonesome with a smug grin on his face. I don't know what stopped me.

PPS Try to reconcile "the marketplace of ideas" with the existence of Scott.Melligan who, apparently has never heard of General Anthony Zinni, who, after he explained to Congress why we were about to make a big mistake got more or less deported to Israel as a "special envoy".

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