On Threat Inflation and Liberal Hawks

In response to a post yesterday, arguing that it's time for another look at the fateful decision ten years ago to invade Iraq, these reader messages.

1. Threat inflation. I said that nearly all the major official "threats" of the modern era proved in retrospect to have been hyped. Missile gap, Tonkin Gulf, WMD, etc. Reader JA immediately replied, "You left out terrorism." And reader AS wrote:

It's true that we came close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. But according to a well documented article in the Atlantic [plus others],  the missiles themselves were an inflated threat, i.e., according to US generals at the time did not materially hurt US security and could easily be traded, as they eventually secretly were, for US missiles in Turkey.

Again, reflect on this. Virtually all of the danger-to-the-nation warnings we've received in modern history prove to have been false, or overblown and hyped. Also, from MM in Massachusetts:

We're in heated agreement about the danger of threat inflation  and the Cuban Missile crisis in particular. Building on that notion, Able Archer 83 was another incident not in the public discussion (as much) but was a terrifying moment in history: a moment where two nuclear giants almost had it out over little more than a lack of communication.

2. The 'bomb Iran' resolution. I mentioned the efforts of Senators Lindsey Graham, Robert Menendez, et al to promote a Congressional resolution backing the government of Israel on whatever it decides to do about Iran. YR and others pointed me to the text of the resolution, which includes this sentence:

Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.

Noted. On the other hand, and for the record, here is what the parts of the resolution just before that say:

Congress ... (7) declares that the United States has a vital national interest in, and unshakeable unbreakable commitment to, ensuring the existence, survival, and security of the State of Israel, and reaffirms United States support for Israel's right to self-defense; and
(8) urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

3. Liberal hawks. On accountability for people's views ten years ago, I said that unlike the architects of Vietnam, those who urged the U.S. toward war in Iraq had largely escaped reckonings about their views. A reader in Nebraska writes:

I might argue that Tony Blair has been held more accountable than most U.S. politicians - at least in his home country.

From reader DG in Texas:

At the time, the propaganda machine made anyone opposed to the war "unpatriotic" - unfortunate way to limit free speech.  It is now too hard to even discuss because of the damage to our young generation - remembering how we treated Viet Nam Vets.  The whole thing is just too sad to think about.

And from CJ :

One suggestion (not exactly original to me -- I believe Timothy Noah of Slate made this point previously [JF note: for instance here] re: accountability: not only are the people who got Iraq wrong treated as wise men, but those who got Iraq right (with the highly notable exception of President Obama) remain marginalized as too radical or (as Paul Krugman said today) as "hippies". Why aren't people like former Senator Graham [Robert Graham of Florida] called upon more in the places where public opinion is shaped?

Good question. Finally, from Alan Thomas, who says he is proud to be known as a liberal hawk:

Ten years ago I was profiled in a WaPo piece, by Linton Weeks, on ordinary Americans who supported the war; I filled the role of token leftist:
An avowed leftist, Alan Thomas, 33, doesn't like Bush, but he believes in the war. "I don't support the president. I'm skeptical about his sincerity in wanting democracy in Iraq. But I feel he's committed to it," Thomas says.

Thomas works the night shift in a group home for mainstreamed developmentally disabled adults in Kirksville, Mo. He's the son of college professors. He and his wife, Kate, 27, live in an apartment and drive a 1989 Chevrolet van. They have two mutts rescued from the humane society. They also run a small shop that sells things they think are cool, such as bumper stickers that read "Bush/Cheney: America's Second Choice."

"I'm sympathetic with the plight of the Kurds and the Iraqi people," Thomas says. "And I'm disappointed in, and embarrassed by, the left."

Asked if he voted for Bush, he laughs. "No, no way. Never."

Though Thomas enthusiastically supports the war, he says he'll reevaluate his position after the regime change. "If Bush tries to install a puppet dictator or if there are human rights violations, I'll be decrying it as loudly as anyone else on the left," he says...

The United States, Thomas says, "should clean up the world. We have the power.  I'm kind of a weirdo. It's wrong for us to sit on our hands and not do anything."
I for one still stand by everything I said.  But then, I never advocated for the war based on the WMD argument anyway, and acknowledged at the time (though Weeks didn't use those quotes) that it was a thin pretext used to sell it to the public and the U.N.  Honestly, although my personal motive had to do with human rights (and notice that Weeks did print my caveat that anticipated the possibility of something like Abu Ghraib), I think just the assassination attempt on Bush 41 is plenty all by itself--what kind of country are we if we let another country's leader pull something like that with impunity?

I have trouble understanding why you think it's so obvious now that the liberal hawks were wrong.  Maybe circa 2006 it looked that way, but aren't Iraqis better off today than they would be if Saddam (or his sons) still had a grip on power?

To answer the questions in the final paragraph: let's assume that many Iraqis may indeed be better off. For Americans that's not the relevant fact. After all, many people in Cuba, North Korea, etc might be better off if the U.S. invaded there too.

The question I am asking is whether this was a sane investment of American lives, money, national focus and attention, and international reputation. I argued before the war and soon after that it wasn't, and I think time has strengthened rather than weakened that case. Still, I respect an "idealistic hawk" willing to speak up for his views -- rather than, like many who were making similar points ten years ago, pretending this never really occurred.

PS If you are in Beijing on Sunday evening, March 3, see you at the Capital M Literary Festival, with Jorge Guajardo. Details here.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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