Two weeks ago a piece by Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias in The American Prospect criticized 'liberal hawks' who supported the Iraq war and who, rather than facing up to their mistake in having done that, are now helping themselves to what the authors call the 'incompetence dodge'. That is to say, these liberal hawks don't regret their support for the war; they regret only how the war has been run...
... [being] willing to admit only that they made a mistake in trusting the president and his team to administer the invasion and occupation competently...This position is a dodge, according to Rosenfeld and Yglesias, because the claim that the Iraq war was 'a good idea, ruined by poor implementation' is a non-starter; the invasion was always bound to fail, as it has failed.
The corollary of these complaints is that the invasion and occupation could have been successful had they been planned and administered by different people.
There are other liberal-hawk positions than the one Rosenfeld and Yglesias make their central target. (Not that they say different.) At Winds of Change Marc Danziger has written that he doesn't have second thoughts about the war, and neither does he accept that the war is lost. I hope that Marc is right, and I think it's premature to conclude that he's wrong. But in any case I, too, do not recognize my views - or the views of other pro-war liberals and leftists familiar to me (though I am speaking here only for myself) - in the 'incompetence dodge' theme.
It's not that I don't think mistakes have been made in the occupation of Iraq. Some plainly have been, and the worst of them wasn't only a mistake. It was a national disgrace and a crime, and the responsibility for it reaches to the highest level. But I haven't for my part dwelt on competence and incompetence as a theme because, as I have argued here, I don't believe that an undertaking like the liberation and democratization of Iraq, undertaken by anybody (whether internal movement or external intervention force), could have been free of mistakes and misjudgements; because, on some of the issues in play in Iraq, I haven't felt especially competent to judge what the best course of action would have been; and because I have not seen in the discourse about US administrative incompetence from the anti-war side much in the way of an effort to discriminate between culpable error or negligence and the sort of unavoidable mistakes that are part and parcel of any enterprise of this magnitude.
For, of course, if the incompetence argument has been mobilized by some who supported the war, it has also had a central role for many in the anti-war camp, the main targets of whose animus and criticism have been the Bush administration, the way in which it has run the war, Tony Blair (on this side of the Atlantic) and even the pro-war segment of the liberal left. So much so, in fact, that if you weren't careful you might have come to forget at times the nature of the enemy which has been opposing the occupation and transformation of Iraq and the attempt to set the country on a democratic path after decades of rule by a brutal dictatorship; you might just have formed an impression that for much of the anti-war liberal left the main political enemy was at home. Note that I am not, in this, referring to the Pilgers and other such spokespeople who have come out openly in support of the Iraqi 'resistance', its daily crimes notwithstanding. I'm referring, rather, to a wider anti-war left, those who would bridle (and reasonably so) at any suggestion that they might actually support the combination of jihadists and Baathists opposing the US and its allies in Iraq, but whose time, whose criticism and, above all, whose passion so far as that country is concerned are all but consumed by their hostility to Bush, Blair and the supporters of the war, and who evidently find it rather more difficult to get excited about the reactionary aims and the murderous methods of those the US-led coalition are fighting against.
That I was not in their camp is a badge I am happy to wear, and I shall continue to wear it without shame, indeed with pride. Differential assessments of the likely outcomes of the war being projected were always acceptable, and unavoidable, in the run-up to that war. Uncertainties and doubts on both sides were likewise part and parcel of political debate then. But to have opposed the war in a way that left one at all ambivalent as between those trying to help the people of Iraq towards a new democratic life and the forces doing everything they could to kill that historical effort, this is ground on which I would never have even contemplated standing, not for one minute. There are people who opposed the war, conscientiously and honourably, and who have not stood on that ground. But too many others did.
I go on to set out how and why I (and, I believe, not a few others on the left) supported the Iraq war - or to put it differently, why I am not a mea-culpa 'liberal hawk' of the kind Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias think to engage with. In doing this I briefly rehearse arguments that I have already set out at greater length on this blog; but that article and the recent vote in favour of the Iraqi constitution provide a suitable juncture for a summary restatement.
My own support for the Iraq war - and, to repeat, I am sure this was not an atypical stance - was based on the logic of a humanitarian intervention, rather than on the hypothesis of any easy or unproblematic aftermath to the military defeat of the Baathist regime. It was based on the judgement that, in view of the monstrous record and continuing reality of that regime, the expectation that the sequel to its overthrow by military intervention would not be worse than the regime itself was a reasonable one. I stand by that judgement. At the same time, there was no alternative regime-change scenario in sight, so that opposing the war meant, willy-nilly, using one's energies to the benefit of a mass-murdering tyranny - a step I think liberals and leftists should not have been willing to take. The (anti-war) argument that the logic of humanitarian intervention in Iraq could not be held to apply because, to put it bluntly, things there weren't bad enough was a brutal and discreditable one, effectively discounting those already dead - the hundreds of thousands of them - and making unwarrantably benign assumptions about what the future held for the Iraqi people (to say nothing of others in the region) should Saddam Hussein be left in place.
Does this mean that there are no circumstances in which I would feel bound to conclude that the war had been a mistake? Of course not. It is possible to envisage outcomes from which even the survival of the Saddam regime would come to look less bad. This, however, would not show that a judgement made in late 2002/early 2003 that better outcomes had a more than reasonable chance were just obviously rash or foolish. Amongst opponents of the war, that is a common enough assertion: that it was always plain as daylight that leaving Saddam in power was preferable to the state of affairs that would follow his removal by military intervention. I have said before what I think of this:
I do not believe them. I mean, I don't believe they either had, or could have had, a secure basis for making that judgement.It is not an effort at serious discussion, but a rhetorical blaming move. So, I do not regret the positions I took and have again summarized here. On the contrary, I will always be glad that I knew from the beginning which side I was on in this particular battle.