Errare

Books ought to be written about how otherwise smart looking people got Iraq wrong. But not by them. Too many people who were wrong about Iraq have only profited from it. Some of them (Bill Kristol, O’Hanlon and Pollack, the Kagans, Bush, Cheney, Rice, Republicans) continue in their error; others have had a change of heart, but have not had their credibility questioned (Friedman, Beinart, Yglesias, Josh Marshall, Ivo Daadler). Many of them were not just factually wrong, but morally wrong to have been so absolutely callous and shallow with the awful and uncontrollable violence of war.

Another person who got the war wrong (but who has since come to repent) is Michael Ignatieff (formerly of Harvard University). In a New York Times Sunday magazine article he explains why he got it wrong. One reason has to do with academia:

>The unfolding catastrophe in Iraq has condemned the political judgment of a president. But it has also condemned the judgment of many others, myself included, who as commentators supported the invasion. Many of us believed, as an Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. How distant a dream that now seems.

>Having left an academic post at Harvard in 2005 and returned home to Canada to enter political life, I keep revisiting the Iraq debacle, trying to understand exactly how the judgments I now have to make in the political arena need to improve on the ones I used to offer from the sidelines. Iíve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

>The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they canít afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectualís responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politicianís responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.

Funny thing about that “condemnation”: it hasn’t convinced Ignatieff or any of the commentators who got it wrong to exclude themselves from continuing to comment. Ignatieff doesn’t even think it excludes him from running for office (in Canada). It’s a big deal to get something like that wrong (I think at least). For many (even or especially on the left), getting it wrong has been a kind ticket for pundit advancement.

That’s probably because of what Berlin said. But Berlin would probably be better understood to be talking about the endless yapfest of American punditry. For apparently it doesn’t matter whether what anyone says is true. So long as its interesting.

Party at any cost

Here is another one of those meta-political paeans to “bipartisanship”:

>The distinguishing characteristic of this Congress was on vivid display the other day when the House debated a bill to expand the federal program that provides health insurance for children of the working poor.

>Even when it is performing a useful service, this Congress manages to look ugly and mean-spirited. So much blood has been spilled, so much bile stockpiled on Capitol Hill, that no good deed goes untarnished.

>The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) is a 10-year-old proven success. Originally a product of bipartisan consensus, passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, it was one of the last domestic achievements before Monica and impeachment fever seized control.

Sounds like you’ll have to blame Bush and the Republicans are to blame for this one. They will not allow a successful program on ideological grounds. And, even though they are the minority in the House (and very unpopular in the Presidency), they refuse to compromise.

Not so. The Democrats took advantage:

>But rather than meet the president’s unwise challenge with a strong bipartisan alternative, the House Democratic leadership decided to raise the partisan stakes even higher by bringing out a $50 billion bill that not only would expand SCHIP but would also curtail the private Medicare benefit delivery system that Bush favors.

>To add insult to injury, House Democratic leaders then took a leaf from the old Republican playbook and brought the swollen bill to the floor with minimal time for debate and denied Republicans any opportunity to offer amendments.

I wonder what the Republican objections to that bill were. I won’t find out, because Broder doesn’t care. If it didn’t involve the Democrats compromising, it’s ugly partisanship. It’s ugly partisanship even if the Democrats want to pursue the politicization of the Justice Department:

>The less-than-vital issue of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has occupied more time and attention than the threat of a terrorist enclave in Pakistan — or the unchecked growth of long-term debts that could sink Medicare and Social Security.

That the unpopular and unrepentant ideologue in office insists on gutting successful government programs (and that his equally unpopular party follows his lead) seems like the more obvious conclusion from these matters.

Count them in

This would be true, perhaps, if you, as so many do, leave Iraqis out of your calculation:

>More young men are killed each day on the streets of America than on the worst days of carnage and loss in Iraq. There is a war at home raging every day, filling our trauma centers with so many wounded children that it sometimes makes Baghdad seem like a quiet city in Iowa.

Remember, the Iraqis are people too.

Update**

Every day in Philadelphia:

>BAGHDAD, Aug 5 (Reuters) – Iraqi police said on Sunday they had found 60 decomposed bodies dumped in thick grass in Baquba, north of Baghdad.

>There was no indication of how the 60 people had been killed, police said. Baquba is the capital of volatile Diyala province, where thousands of extra U.S. and Iraqi soldiers have been sent to stem growing violence.

Partisans

One almost never sees any op-ed of any kind anywhere respond to criticism. For some reason unknown to me, the Post’s Outlook section features another article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

In the first article, she argued that partisanship is separating our nation into separate parties. Here are the two parties: on the one hand, you have the virulent Rovians of the Bush administration–dedicated to party at almost any cost–on the other you have some bloggers, some guy who wrote an op-ed, and maybe some think-tankers. These people–these bloggers (and some anonymous commenters nutpicked from bloggers’ sites) on the left are the proper partisan complement to Bolton, Rove and Cheney. Notice a problem anyone? Well. Many did. And so they criticized her for such a silly comparison. It should be government figure versus government figure (or if not available, then national party leader). But it’s Dick Cheney versus op-ed guy.

Aside from that, Slaughter advances the idea that people are devoted to “the characteristic of being devoted to a view” rather than to a view. It might be more proper to say that people hold views in a more entrenched fashion–they’re less willing to compromise and so forth, because their views have grown so incompatible. That way the problem remains where it should be, with the content of peoples’ views (not with the way they hold them). Bipartisanship, for its own sake, is a silly goal. And even Slaughter knows this:

>I was not condemning passionate criticism of the Bush administration on issues like supporting torture, the conduct of the war in Iraq, or illegal wiretapping. On the contrary, I share it. In my new book, “The Idea That Is America,” I call for a critical patriotism that is honest about our failings and insists on holding our government and ourselves to the values we proclaim as a nation. If we are going to pledge allegiance to “liberty and justice for all,” it is incumbent on all of us to stand up and denounce what is currently being done in our name at Guantanamo and at various secret CIA prisons.

She’s “partisan” about these things. But that’s what people are partisan about–CIA prisons, preemptive war, and so forth:

>This reaction should not be partisan. It should be, and is beginning to be, the reaction of decent people across the political spectrum who are standing up not for their party but for their country.

After all, one party thinks those things–preemptive war, and so on–are good things. That’s their party’s position. Objecting to it–as Slaughter does–is bound to be “partisan.”

Comparisons

While Charles Krauthammer argues (with some pretty silly comparisons) that we shouldn’t be upset about drunken astronauts:

>Have you ever been to the shuttle launch pad? Have you ever seen that beautiful and preposterous thing the astronauts ride? Imagine it’s you sitting on top of a 12-story winged tube bolted to a gigantic canister filled with 2 million liters of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Then picture your own buddies — the “closeout crew” — who met you at the pad, fastened your emergency chute, strapped you into your launch seat, sealed the hatch and waved smiling to you through the window. Having left you lashed to what is the largest bomb on planet Earth, they then proceed 200 feet down the elevator and drive not one, not two, but three miles away to watch as the button is pressed that lights the candle that ignites the fuel that blows you into space.

>Three miles! That’s how far they calculate they must go to be beyond the radius of incineration should anything go awry on the launch pad on which, I remind you, these insanely brave people are sitting. Would you not want to be a bit soused? Would you be all aflutter if you discovered that a couple of astronauts — out of dozens — were mildly so? I dare say that if the standards of today’s fussy flight surgeons had been applied to pilots showing up for morning duty in the Battle of Britain, the signs in Piccadilly would today be in German.

And Michael Gerson, warrior of words, argues that the party whose leader promises to veto a bill that would provide insurance to poor children is somehow Christian:

>Romney, however, should not make Kennedy’s mistake and assert that all religious beliefs are unrelated to politics. What Mormonism shares with other religious traditions is a strong commitment to the value and dignity of human beings, including the unborn, the disabled and the poor. This conviction is unavoidably political, because it leads men and women to act in the cause of justice, not in order to impose their religion, but to protect the weak.

E.J. Dionne–liberal columnist I think–explains why the Dailykos.com is just like Rush Limbaugh:

>Perhaps you missed it, but Wednesday was the 19th anniversary of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh was celebrating his ripe old age, in media years, in the same week that liberal blog fans were trekking to Chicago for the YearlyKos convention. Therein lies one of the most important stories in American politics.

What Krauthammer says is outrageous: we’re not in the Battle of Britain and a drunken astronaut endangers the lives of the rest of the crew, people on the ground (and the billions of dollars invested in the shuttle program). Gerson’s claim about justice rings hollow in light of Romney’s belligerent rhetoric.

Those are the kinds of arguments–dumb ones I mean–that Limbaugh would be making. That is, after all, what Limbaugh does. He makes crappy arguments and spreads untruths. But, according to Dionne’s knuckle-headed article, Limbaugh does so in the service of a partisan goal. So any media figure who (ideologically and pragmatically) advances a partisan agenda (and arouses the ire of the opposition) is just like Limbaugh.

Dionne, of course, thinks Limbaugh is full of it. And, while he is sympathetic to dailykos), you’d never know that by his silly comparison. But then again, Dionne isn’t really interested in the substance of arguments.

Skepticism

**Revised 10:03 AM

People often confuse a kind of knee-jerk skepticism for “critical thinking.” But it’s one thing to be cautious about facts incongruent with other well known facts, it’s another just to disbelieve all facts of a certain type (those that come out of the mouths, of, I don’t know, the liberal media). It’s yet another thing to reject those “questionable” facts a priori–that is, on purely logical grounds.

So when the New Republic ran a series of blog posts by a certain “Scott Thomas” from Iraq, many–mostly right wing bloggers and such–disbelieved them, a priori. These blog posts told of American soldiers defacing corpses, killing animals, (and treating Iraqis in a generally shameful manner). Scott Thomas (whose real name is, get this, Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp), writes (courtesy of Hullabaloo):

>I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn’t really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn’t her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her. Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us.

>We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
“Man, I can’t eat like this,” he said.
“Like what?” I said. “Chow hall food getting to you?”
“No–with that fucking freak behind us!” he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
“Are you kidding? I think she’s fucking hot!” I blurted out.
“What?” said my friend, half-smiling.
“Yeah man,” I continued. “I love chicks that have been intimate–with IEDs. It really turns me on–melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses … .”
“You’re crazy, man!” my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.

And so on. It gets far worse. Kathleen Parker, conservative pundit, thinks these stories are dubious:

>The conservative Weekly Standard began questioning the reports last week. Bloggers have joined in challenging the anecdotes, as have military personnel who have served in Iraq and, in some cases, have eaten in the same chow hall mentioned.

>Thomas’ version of events in Iraq is looking less and less credible and smacks of the “occult hand.” The occult hand was an inside joke several years ago among a group of journalists who conspired to see how often they could slip the phrase — “It was as if an occult hand had …” — into their copy. This went on for years to the great merriment of a few in the know.

>Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how a phrase as purple as an occult hand could have enjoyed such long play within the tribe of professional skeptics known as journalists. Similarly, one wonders how Thomas’ reports have appeared in the magazine without his editors saying, “Hey, wait just a minute.”

>The New Republic editors say they’re investigating the reports, but refuse to reveal the author’s identity. There’s always a chance, of course, that these stories have some truth to them.

There’s a chance they’re completely true, she ought to say. Parker’s skepticism is based on the authority of conservative bloggers and the Weekly Standard–two sources about which one would have justifiable skepticism. The more basic problem regards the nature of Scott Thomas’s claims.

They are pretty straightforward factual claims. That is to say, they are claims that events x took place at time y. They’re true if they happened, false if they didn’t. So questions regarding their veracity ought to regard whether the author is (a) a real person; (b) really in Iraq in the Army; and (c) really witnessed those events. The New Republic can vouch for all three. And it did. Why not take their word for it–they supported the invasion of Iraq.

Wondering about the types of claims being made, in isolation from the basic conditions of their truth (without waiting for confirmation from the New Republic), is a pretty silly kind of skepticism. It’s silly not only because it turned out to be wrong, but because it was wrong for the most obvious of reasons–the stories turned out to be true. Of course even Parker ought to know this. She continues:

>Stranger, and far worse, things have happened in war. But people who have served in Iraq have raised enough questions about these particular anecdotes that one is justified in questioning whether they are true.

>As just one example, it is unlikely that a Bradley would be driven through concrete barriers just for fun, according an e-mail from a member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, made up of officers who are lawyers providing legal services to soldiers. He explained that people aren’t alone out there. Other vehicles, non-commissioned officers and officers would be around and Iraqis would have made a claim for repairs, resulting in an investigation.

>In other words, either plenty of people would know about it — or it didn’t happen.

Again, Parker’s skepticism is of the very general variety–she considers emails from people who weren’t there as sufficient countervailing evidence. Effective general skepticism might include such claims as the Bradley vehicle cannot do the actions described or there were no soldiers at the place described. In the absence of such evidence (and in light of the fact that soldiers–US soldiers even–have been known to do some pretty awful things in war (and get away with it), there is every reason to suspect that such tales could be true (unless they’re impossible). Remember Abu Ghraib anyone? This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be skeptical. One should. But one ought to be skeptical regarding pseudonymous claims because they’re pseudonymous, not because they don’t “seem plausible” (even though, of course, they are).

The context of all of this, of course, is Parker’s insistence that people who believe things other than she does are insufficiently skeptical:

>It may be that The New Republic editors and others who believed Thomas’ journal entries without skepticism are infected with “Nifong Syndrome” — the mind virus that causes otherwise intelligent people to embrace likely falsehoods because they validate a preconceived belief.

>Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor in the alleged Duke University lacrosse team rape case, was able to convince a credulous community of residents, academics and especially journalists that the three falsely accused white men had raped a black stripper despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

>Why? Because the lies supported their own truths. In the case of Duke, that “truth” was that privileged white athletes are racist pigs who of course would rape a black woman given half a chance and a bottle o’ beer.

>In the case of Scott Thomas, the “truth” that American soldiers are woman-hating, dog-killing, grave-robbing monsters confirms what many among the anti-war left believe about the military, despite their protestations that they “support the troops.”

>We tend to believe what we want to believe, in other words.

I think she means “you” (she obviously doesn’t believe such pleasing tales). But then again, maybe she does.