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Do You Feel Prescient, Punk?

Good ol’ Dale Franks pulls a post or two at random from Jim and Radley’s blogs and proclaims that prefixless libertarians weren’t “prescient” about the Iraq War. However much I deplore his halfassed research efforts, I have to say, he’s right. Not about Jim’s and Radley’s case against the war, but about “prescience.” Like Jim and Radley, I said before the war that Saddam Hussein was no serious threat to us, that occupying Iraq would be extraordinarily difficult, and that it would likely give a shot in the arm to Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts.

But I make no claim of prescience. The real question isn’t “wow, what kind of crazy mind-voodoo were the anti-war libertarians using that allowed them to predict the future?” Rather it’s, what came over so many otherwise sensible people to make them temporarily so credulous? Those for whom the condition was temporary, that is.

I got a number of things wrong in the run-up to the war. I assumed without question that Hussein had chem/bio and that the chances of him using it against us would be heightened if we invaded. I spun a few overblown nightmare scenarios about the Arab street (while making it clear that I didn’t think they were the most likely scenarios). But the occupation and its possible effects on terrorist recruitment were always essential to my case against the war. Here are a few examples:

January 1, 2003:

We should keep in mind that there were quite a few self-styled experts who waxed apocalyptic in 1991 about “the fourth largest army in the world” and “the elite Republican Guard.” If professional pundits were capable of humility, they’d have been humbled after the war turned out to be the biggest turkey-shoot in American military history.

This time around, the war may go just as easily as it did in 1991. I’ve got no special insight into the psychology of Iraqi Republican Guard soldiers, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they’d rather switch than fight. Where’s the percentage in fighting a losing battle with the most powerful military in human history? I wouldn’t stake my life on an easy victory, but I would put a substantial amount of money on it.

In the best-case scenario, Hussein doesn’t pass WMD off to terrorists and he never gets to launch the Scuds. Shortly after the air war begins, he’s deposed by a Republican Guard coup. We take Baghdad without a single U.S. battlefield casualty. Triumphalism is in the air, and the chorus of self-congratulatory “I-told-you-so’s” rings out in op-ed pages and TV talk shows across the land.

But our troubles are just beginning.

Welcome to the Occupation: At this point, we’ve conquered Iraq. Now what do we do with it? One plan being floated, according to the New York Times, uses the postwar occupation of Japan as a model. In this version of the MacArthur Regency, Iraq will be governed by an American military commander such as General Tommy R. Franks, commander of United States forces in the Persian Gulf.

The MacArthur Regency worked in Japan because the U.S. occupiers entered a country sick to death of war, with a tradition of deference to authority (encouraged by the Emperor’s call to cooperate with U.S. authorities) and a monocultural middle class that could form the basis of a democracy. As historian John Dower puts it, “the ideals of peace and democracy took root in Japan–not as a borrowed ideology of imposed vision, but as a lived experience and a seized opportunity…. It was an extraordinary, and extraordinarily fluid moment–never seen before in history and, as it turned out, never to be repeated.” That process is particularly unlikely to be repeated in Iraq, a fissiparous amalgam of Sunnis, separatist Shiites and Kurds. Keeping the country together will require a strong hand and threatens to make U.S. servicemen walking targets for discontented radicals.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger–no dove, he–noted that he was “viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country.” As well he should be. Such a policy would be the most generous gift imaginable to the Al Qaeda recruitment drive. It makes Bin Laden’s ravings about a Crusader-Zionist alliance to de-Islamicize the Middle East look half-plausible to the angry young men of that hate-filled, backward region.

March 19, 2003:

After our quick victory, and after the “Arab street” fails to rise, you’re going to hear a lot of self-congratulation from the hawks. But the fallout from this war is likely to be long-term, in the form of a protracted and messy occupation, and an enhanced terrorist recruitment base.

March 22, 2003:

Likewise, it’s gratifying to see us greeted as liberators, even if, like me, you view armed evangelism in the service of liberty as the most dangerous foreign policy rationale since, well, since… ever. But I’m with Jim: the folks who think the immediate reaction of the locals betokens the success of the occupation are saps. The British forces that stepped in between the Prods and the Catholics in Derry in 1969 were initially welcomed by the latter as protectors. Remember how well that worked out.

June 20, 2003:

Peter Taylor’s book Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein describes the short honeymoon beginning August 1969, when British troops were greeted by the Catholic population as gallant protectors. He quotes one soldier:

I felt like a knight in shining armor. It was marvelous. “Cheers!” “Nice to see you!” “Hello soldier!” Kids were following you everywhere… Six o clock in the morning and you’d have full breakfast. They’d be out there with trays.

Sectarian violence and IRA attacks on British troops soon put an end to this, however. … And it would get worse. From early 1971 until Bloody Sunday January 30, 1972, IRA snipers had killed 24 British soldiers. By that time, British paratroopers were understandably paranoid, and increasingly contemptuous of the Catholic population. The result was 13 dead civilians and untold new recruits for the IRA (Still, I bet Derry was safer than Washington D.C.!)

Does any of this sound familiar?

I wasn’t prescient, and I didn’t get “lucky” (some luck). I read the newspaper and listened to the administration’s claims about why we were doing it and what would likely happen. I tried a little judicious study of discernible reality, employing what I hope is a decent nose for discernible bullshit. Follow the nose. It always knows.

At the end of the post Dale Franks takes issue with libertarians who want a quick withdrawal from Iraq. He writes:

I am of the view that, when Iraqi forces become the poster boys for Iraqi security, rather than American troops, there remains a good chance that they will, with their local knowledge, be able to do an increasingly effective job of handling the sectarian violence.

Speaking Frankly, I am not of that view. Of that view, I am not. Speaking Healy, that’s not what I think. But if I’m right, that won’t make me prescient.

08/09/2006 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

This Again, Again

So here, in pertinent part, is Tyler Cowen’s attempted smackdown of coblogger Alex Tabarrok’s defense of libertarian foreign policy :

Had Alex his way, the first Gulf War never would have happened. Saddam and his sons would rule Iraq, owning both Kuwaiti oil revenue and nuclear weapons, and probably itching for a rematch with Iran. Sound like fun?

Had the first Gulf War not happened, there would have been no mass presence of US troops on Saudi soil, and a good chance the Trade Towers would still be standing. If you’ve read much at all about Al Qaeda, you’re aware of how important the Gulf War was as a recruiting device for AQ. If you’ve read Peter Bergen’s first book on Al Qaeda, for instance, you know that he says that for Bin Laden, the presence of American troops on Saudi soil launching an attack against Iraq “was a transforming an event as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan had been a decade earlier.” The bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Bergen notes, were carried out on August 7, 1998 because the first US troops for Desert Shield arrived on August 7, 1990. And here’s shrill Bush-hater Paul Wolfowitz on the topic:

Sustained U.S. bombing of Iraq over those years, and the stationing of U.S. forces “in the holy land of Saudi Arabia,” were “part of the containment policy that has been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device, even more than the other grievances he cites,” Wolfowitz said.

And as far as Cowen’s Iraq Resurgent nightmare scenario goes, I thought the current crisis was that an unchecked nuclear Iran was going to dominate the Middle East. If I start thanking God for the Gulf War and shivering about the counterfactual of a powerful Iraq facing off with Iran, I feel like that’s only going to get me all confused and distract me from what NRO tells me I’m supposed to be worried about this week.

I’m not saying it’s a sure thing 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if we never fought the Gulf War. I’m just saying it’s not as obvious to me as it clearly is to Tyler Cowen that “the first Gulf War never would have happened” is such a showstopper, debate-wise. if you can think through the possibility of unintended consequences in domestic policy, it’s worth giving it a shot when it comes to foreign affairs as well, where our leaders are generally no more enlightened and prescient than they are on the home front.

It’s interesting: I’m a big fan of MR, and from what I can tell, Tyler Cowen is smart enough to kill me with his brain, a la Scanners. Yet from what I can tell from today’s indignant post (and the few other times he’s blogged about war), he doesn’t apply much of that brainpower to foreign policy, preferring to rely on gut reaction. Which is better for this kind of thing.

08/06/2006 | Uncategorized | 23 Comments

The Siege

I saw the 1998 movie “The Siege” on USA network last night. Pre-9/11, it’s just another “Peacemaker” or “Sum of All Fears”–distinguished principally by the filmmakers’ politically incorrect decision to cast terrorists that aren’t some variety of Slav. Post-9/11, it’s as close to prescient as Hollywood gets.

* Terrorism that’s mostly low-tech, yet nonetheless terrifying; bus bombings, buildings levelled (including FBI counterterrorism headquarters) and no supervillain WMD;

* Terrorism that’s decentralized and cellular, and that feeds off of military attempts to neutralize it: “Is this the last cell?” “There is no last cell!!”

* Terrorists that make no demands for concessions and no attempt to negotiate, but simply seek to kill as many Americans as possible, as visibly as possible;

* Calls to repeal the Posse Comitatus Act–opposed, but nonetheless acquiesced to, by the military establishment;

* Annette Bening protesting to bad guy Samir that “Islam is a religion of peace!” and getting punched in the face for her trouble;

By the time they show the Army interrogating a jihadist and having the Dershowitz debate with considerably less moral agonizing, I’d have been floored if I wasn’t already couched. The guy’s tied to a chair, naked.

Sure, the notion of the FBI as the guarantor of our liberties and the American way of life was tough to credit. But otherwise, I can’t think of another major motion picture that got so many predictions so right.

One wrong note: In contrast with the events of 9/11, many of the terrorists are Iraqis, enraged by U.S. foreign policy. But here again, it may be prescient.

05/12/2004 | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Punditry by the Tinkle

I’m increasingly finding blogs annoying. Both reading them and having one. I find myself thinking “WHY am I checking this guy’s site again just because he updates 17 times a day?” With some people, between brain and blog, there is no interlocutor, to paraphrase Hesh. So I feel guilty for reading them.

But having a blog is even worse. I find myself feeling vaguely guilty for not formulating and writing down an opinion on, say, the Spanish elections, or Richard Clarke. It’s like an irksome social obligation that you haven’t met and sits in the back of your mind, like a thank-you letter you still haven’t sent.

(Oh wait: I just did formulate an opinion on Clarke. His opening rhetorical gambit in front of the 9/11 Commission was a classic Washington non-apology apology–a mea culpa that doesn’t admit responsiblity for anything. “I’m sorry: even though I was unbelievably prescient about the threat represented by OBL, I couldn’t get our chuckle-headed president to do anything about it. And for that I ask your forgiveness. Buy my book.” But the Bush team’s response has been at least as contemptible. In logical structure, it’s no different than the Clintonites’ response to the latest victim of presidential grabass. “The president groped me.” Response: “She’s a stalker. She’s a self-promoter. She’s got an agenda. She hates the president.” Umm, yes, but did the president grope her?

Might be we could learn a few things from the senior counterterrorism adviser to two presidents, even if his motivations aren’t entirely pure. Are we supposed to wait for revelations from a Washington insider with pure motives?)

Then if I end up starting a post, I feel lousy if it’s not particularly original. Lacking the time or inspiration to devote the effort I did a year ago to arguing against the Iraq war, this blog has degenerated into a series of smartass remarks about George W. Bush and links I think are cool. Who knows, maybe it’s better that way. Kevin Smith tried to mature away from dick jokes and he ended up with Ben Affleck crying in the fetal position. Maybe I’ll stick to the snark.

In any event, this is just by way of saying, I’ve lost that blogging feeling. I’ve got other writing projects I’m working on, a full-time job, and little time to devote to this site. Not that anyone’s complaining, but I thought I’d let you know to expect even less from me in the weeks to come. An occasional snide remark, or funny link is all I can offer you for the time being. I’ll do more if and when I feel like it.

03/30/2004 | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Feeling Politically Homeless

Looked at the new issue of National Review today, and found myself irked by several of the items therein. First–a minor point–there’s a John Derbyshire review of Tim Pat Coogan’s new book on the Easter Rising of 1916; in the review, Derbyshire condemns all variants of the “physical force tradition” in Irish republicanism–including the just-war form practised by Michael Collins–as green fascism. Collins died fighting the kind of thugs that today make up the “Real IRA,” and to compare him and Pearse to Nazis (Easter 1916 as the Irish “beer hall putsch”) is a repugnant use of the reductio ad hitlerum.

Second, there’s a snarky response to an intelligent letter to the editor that rightly condemns the NR staff for their ad hominem attacks on war skeptic and Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel “(R.-France)” as NR puts it. Hagel won two purple hearts in Vietnam, mind you, and if I might get ad hominem myself for a second, it’s pretty rich for the laptop bombardiers on the NR staff to insinuate that he’s a wuss.

Finally, Ramesh Ponnuru writes about the factionalization of the libertarian movement over Iraq. Ponnuru is generally more evenhanded in such matters than Jonah Goldberg, but not this time. He looks down his nose at Ivan Eland’s argument that interventionism breeds terror and that America should learn “not to meddle gratuitously in disputes that don’t concern [us].” “That is not a serious thought,” writes Ponnuru.

Well, I don’t know about that. For years Eland’s been making sober, serious arguments about the national security dangers posed by promiscuous interventionism in an age of weapons of mass destruction. He looks pretty damned prescient to me. It would be nice if Ponnuru could respond with something more than a sneer.

09/27/2002 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments


THE HALF-LIBERTARIAN BLOGOSPHERE: One of the most disappointing aspects of blogworld’s response to the Francis Fukuyama attack on libertarians is that virtually every big-name blogger has conceded that Fukuyama is basically right about foreign policy. As noted last week, Fukuyama wrote that:

The hostility of libertarians to big government extended to U.S. involvement in the world. The Cato Institute propounded isolationism in the ’90s, on the ground that global leadership was too expensive. At the time of the Gulf War, Cato produced an analysis that argued it would be cheaper to let Saddam keep Kuwait than to pay for a military intervention to expel him — a fine cost-benefit analysis, if you only abstracted from the problem of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a megalomaniac…. Sept. 11 ended this line of argument.

In response, Brink Lindsey blogged that “I’m a libertarian… and my only complaint with the Gulf War is that we didn’t take Baghdad. Virginia Postrel, far and away the most prominent libertarian on the cloning issue, supported the Gulf War.” Glenn Reynolds, mightiest of all bloggers, and himself quite hawkish, links (scroll down a bit) to a series of libertarian bloggers’ responses to Fukuyama, most of which can be summed up as “as a libertarian, I say bomb the hell out them.”

But these concessions are unnecessary. Cato has nothing to apologize for on its analysis of the Gulf War, and still less on its observation that foreign-policy interventionism helps spur terrorism. First, Fukuyama’s suggestion that Cato’s opposition to the Gulf War stemmed from a parsimonious, green-eyeshades analysis of the budgetary costs of foreign wars is a willful distortion. The study to which Fukuyama refers, which can be found here, is a response to the Bush One administration’s explicit rationale for the Gulf War–“jobs, jobs, jobs,” as Secretary of State James Baker put it. Since the first Bush Administration offered economic reasons as its lead justification for liberating Kuwait, it was hardly inappropriate to point out that that justification made no sense.

But reducing the libertarian argument for foreign policy restraint to a mere accounting rationale is a straw man, and Fukuyama must know it. Cato’s opposition to promiscuous interventionism is rooted in an American tradition that goes back at least to George Washington’s farewell address. This tradition recognizes that the Constitution was established for the “common defense”–not to establish a “New World Order,” nor to “rid the world of evil” by leaping to the defense of corrupt autocracies half a world away. It recognizes that statism’s greatest leaps forward have occurred during wartime. And it appreciates that many of the arguments against economic intervention in the domestic sphere–lack of information on the part of the intervenor and dangerous unintended consequences, to name two–apply with even greater force to military intervention abroad.

Moreover, on the subject of dangerous unintended consequences, Cato looks positively prescient. Consider this passage from a policy study by Ivan Eland drafted well in advance of 9/11:

U.S. officials need to be far more cognizant of the potential adverse responses to Washington’s policy initiatives. For example, U.S. military and economic aid to certain nations–such as Israel and Egypt–may cause nations unfriendly to those countries to covertly sponsor terrorism using WMD in the United States. Independent groups–for example, fundamentalist Islamic cells–could also sponsor acts of mass terror in opposition to those policies. That scenario has already occurred. The World Trade Center bombing was perpetrated by an Egyptian fundamentalist group unhappy with U.S. support for the governments of Israel and Egypt.

Forgoing any incremental gains in security that might result from intervening in the Bosnias or Somalias of the world is a small price to pay for avoiding the very real potential of having an American city annihilated with WMD.

05/05/2002 | Uncategorized | Comments Off on THE HALF-LIBERTARIAN BLOGOSPHERE: One of

CHAIT CHASTENED? Jonathan Chait is

CHAIT CHASTENED? Jonathan Chait is looking even less prescient than he was yesterday (see post immediately below), given the most recent suicide bombing. Brutal as the West Bank occupation and crackdown are, in a way the Israelis are showing remarkable restraint. I can’t imagine what kind of reprisals Americans would endorse if we took proportionate casualties from terror. None of that changes the basic point however: the Sharon policy is unsustainable and counterproductive.

04/10/2002 | Uncategorized | Comments Off on CHAIT CHASTENED? Jonathan Chait is