War of Cluelessness

I have a piece at CNN.com today about what the press did and didn't learn from its performance leading up to the war that I wanted to expand on a little. You might remember Donald Rumsfeld's philosophical musings on "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns," which I think offers a good way to look at how so many people got so much wrong, with such tragic results. There were things they knew they didn't know, but they decided that those things didn't matter (or that they just didn't care), and there were things they didn't know they didn't know. That applies to the Bush administration, its supporters, the frightened Democrats who went along, and to the press. Here's a bit of what I wrote:

When there's a war in the offing, the flags are waving and dissenters are being called treasonous, the media's courage tends to slip away. Which is particularly regrettable, since the time when the government is pressing for war should be the time when they are more aggressive than ever, exploring every possibility and asking every question, over and over again if need be. That's the time when government is most likely to dissemble and deceive. That was when we most needed the press, and when its failure was the most costly.

So the next time people in power propose a new war -- and they will -- journalists need to ask some important questions. What are the limits of our understanding of this country we might invade? What are the motivations of the people pushing for the action? What evidence is the government offering to support its claims? Are there knowledgeable people who disagree, and what are they saying? Which of the government's claims have I investigated myself, and which am I taking on face value? What are the potential consequences of military action, good and bad, and have I explored them in enough detail? And in the context of Iraq, which questions do I wish I had asked last time around?

One of the most striking things about the whole Iraq debacle from beginning to end was how so many people who didn't have the slightest idea what they were talking about were accepted as authoritative sources or put in positions of power and influence. We can grant that at least some of them looked at the time like they might be in a position to know, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, who had spent careers inside government and the foreign policy establishment, so their extraordinary cluelessness (apart from the content of what they were saying) might not have been obvious on its face. But there were plenty of other people who were plainly talking out of their asses about a country and a potential war they knew nothing about. The examples are almost too numerous to go into, but my favorite was Bill Kristol, the chief drum-beater for war, dismissing the possibility of sectarian conflict in early 2003: "On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there's been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular."

For everyone in the administration from George W. Bush on down, there were no known unknowns, and no unknown unknowns. They thought they knew everything that mattered, when in fact they knew virtually nothing. And that continued on through the war and its aftermath. When the Coalition Provisional Authority had to hire a bunch of people to manage the distribution of billions of taxpayer dollars and the rebuilding of a shattered country, did they look for people who had experience in the Middle East, or new something about development, or had any skills that might come in handy? Nope. They hired a bunch of people in their 20s whose only qualification was that they had proved their Republican loyalty by doing things like interning at the Heritage Foundation. Seriously, that really happened.

It was all part of the belief among conservatives at the time that things like understanding, knowledge, experience, and doubt were for wimps; what mattered was our collective will. If we had the strength and commitment to impose our will on the world, everything would work out spectacularly. It was the press' job to say, "Hold on a minute—you seem awfully confident about how easy this will be, but why should we trust your judgment?" But they just fell down on the job.

Will it be different next time? I'd like to believe so, but it's hard to be optimistic. Right now a lot of people are trying to explain away their failures ten years ago by talking about what "everyone believed" at the time. But that's baloney. There were in fact people who didn't buy the arguments about WMD or the dire threat that Iraq would attack the United States. A few of them even worked for major media organizations, though their voices were pushed to the margins. It wasn't impossible to find knowledgeable sources who were skeptical, or to exercise your own skepticism, even as you took careful accounting of what you knew and didn't know. It could be done, even if it wasn't done enough.

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