March 22, 2013

Rhetoric And The War Ten Years On

I had to go back and read what I had written ten years ago at the beginning of the war with Iraq.

If you had asked me just a day ago what my position on the war was at the time, I would have told you that I was against it, largely because I did not think a case had made on anything more than emotions. I was also wondering how the whole “keep spending while we cut taxes” thing was going to work.

Few of my concerns showed up on Rhetorica. I was too busy doing my rhetorical analysis thing. A post I wrote on 3 February 2003 — Making A Case For War — was typical. I was continuing to respond to the State of the Union address and various criticisms of it. At the time I wrote:

Should we be fired up for war? Should we fight Iraq? I do not know. I leave such questions to the war bloggers. My interest in this is the rhetoric of war as it appears in the Bush 2003 SOTU [broken link]. If his goal is to prepare us for war, if his goal is to persuade us that war is right, then he is doing the time-honored thing to make that case: appealing to our emotions.

But part of what I was doing in this post was wondering about what kind of appeal the American public really wanted — not that such a thing is easy to determine. Here’s how I concluded:

The thinking seems to be–and I agree–that Bush needed to use facts to outline his argument for war. If this sentiment is indeed pervasive, it may indicate an as yet unarticulated rejection of war. If no facts are forthcoming, then all that’s left are emotional appeals. And if we are crying for facts, then we may be crying for peace.

And that, Rhetorica readers, is about as close as I came to taking a stand on one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

While it has never been difficult to determine my politics — I have been transparent about it in various ways — it was a rare thing for me to make political stands in the course of examining and criticizing the rhetoric of the press-politics relationship. The name of this blog used to be Press-Politics Journal, not The Doom Files.

Much has changed in ten years.

Many people are revisiting their relationship to the start of war recently given the grim anniversary of our unprovoked attack on Iraq. I was alerted to Peggy Noonan’s retrospective by a tweet from Jay Rosen:

She laments the damage done to the Republican Party by our rush to war. I think she may be right.

What we’re reading here is simply more shallow punditry — one of the primary currencies of the  rhetoric of a failing culture. Compared to damage done to our state, our nation, and our economy, the damage done to any particular political party is nothing. She pays only the slightest of lip service to the damage done to all of us as she pretends to be offering cogent commentary about politics. I’m reminded of fiddles and burning cities.

Given the damage, I think all of us who spoke publicly — journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians – about the run-up to war owe our society an apology to the extent that we did not deal in facts and reality as we allowed ourselves to be swept along by emotion. Many of us on the left and right allowed ourselves to be cowed by those who questioned the patriotism of anyone with the nerve to ask tough questions or point out inconvenient facts. We over-reacted to 9/11. We attacked a country without provocation. We tortured people. We killed so many that the count may never be known. We destroyed our reputation in the world. We ruined our economy.

I am sorry.

I wrote about rhetoric — certainly a worthy project. But I did not say enough about what I think the rhetoric really indicated.

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2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this immensely, largely because it was Rhetorica that helped me see that the war was very badly argued.
    I also happen to believe that the Iraq war was very well fought and has resulted in irreversible gains, in sharpest contrast to what has happened in the AfPak theater – and no, we never took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan; we committed more troops there every single year from 2001 through 2009.
    To be clear about what I mean by “well fought” and “irreversible gains”: we will of course never know how many people perished through misrule, domestic tyranny, and unprovoked war during Saddam’s regime, but the number is unlikely to be below 2 million and may be as high as 4 million. A reasonable guess would be an average of at least 100,000 per year for the 24-year span, 1979-2003. Iraq Body Count’s figures work out to an average of, at most, 12,000 per year since the invasion. An order-of-magnitude reduction in the state-sponsored death rate. Probably a million lives saved, net, since the spring of 2003.
    There is very little chance of a police state like Saddam’s reappearing and no chance of Iraq meaningfully threatening its neighbors in the foreseeable future. My own best guess is the remnants of the Iraqi nuclear program were destroyed by the IAF in the raid on a nuclear reactor in far eastern Syria in early September 2007. Our own State Department created a program to re-employ Saddam’s WMD scientists and technicians after the invasion. So not much worry there, either.
    I expect that your description of the ways in which the Iraq war was badly argued would differ from mine, mainly by being more subtle and complex. Mine has two elements: poor characterization of risk management, and the WMD distraction.
    In project-management terms, the war was presented as a choice between two alternatives: risk avoidance and risk acceptance. That is, either do nothing and take the consequences, or wage total war and take the consequences.
    I believe it was actually a choice between the other two risk-management techniques: risk transference and risk mitigation. That is, continue with the (to my mind, interminable and unproductive) UN resolution process and try to cobble together some kind of global force to eventually do something; or respond in a deliberate, targeted manner to remove the threat, but without assuming indefinite responsibility for, eg, governance. Which is sorta-kinda what we ended up doing. But we didn’t argue it that way.
    For a pithy explanation of why arguing about WMD was nothing but a distraction, I can do no better than to quote Heinlein: “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.” Apparently it was not acceptable, a decade back, to simply say that we were removing a dangerous man from the global stage – notwithstanding that a US News & World Report cover story from sixteen years earlier had called Saddam “the most dangerous man in the world,” an assessment with which no serious observer disagreed.
    But when push came to shove, we couldn’t discuss the obvious.

    What remains in 2013 is, firstly, the AfPak disaster, which is by far the greatest defeat in American military history, and secondly and more subtly, the effect on our political health when our military capabilities runs so far ahead of our democratic decision-making abilities.
    I support President Obama’s occasional, but highly effective, disregard for the fiction of Pakistani sovereignty over large portions of its claimed territory. I even support the drone campaign, although like many people I would like to see a bit more process wrapped around it; but even in its current making-it-up-as-we-go-along mode, it has taken at least an order of magnitude fewer lives than conventional bombing would. And make no mistake, conventional bombing is the only real-world alternative.
    But we were not attacked by Afghans or Pakistanis on 9/11/2001; we were attacked by Saudis, fanatical adherents to a minor memetic mutation of the state religion of the KSA. (Which now financially controls nine-tenths of the Muslim institutions in the world, including, as far as I know, nine-tenths of the mosques in the US.)
    The mismatch between limited rhetorical ability, and for that matter limited airing of truth, and superb military logistics seems likely to be a major root cause of the later (and almost certainly global warfighting) phase of Strauss and Howe’s “Crisis of 2020.”

  2. acline 

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jay. It’s nice to know someone is still reading.

    I agree re: the performance of our military. Similar to Viet Nam, however (and when/where the lesson should have been learned), politicians can end up bungling it.

    I’m still not convinced saving Iraqis from their dictator was a good reason to invade.