Ten years ago today the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq. I argue that it was the worst strategic mistake since the end of World War II, and probably the biggest "unforced error" in American history.
Even as I've been ladling out the 10-years-after installments, I have very little faith or even hope that this ruinous decision will prove "instructive" in any way. Here is why:
1) Avoidance. After Pearl Harbor, after Vietnam, after World War II, after the 9/11 attacks, even after civilian disasters like the Challenger explosion or Katrina, there were official efforts, of varying seriousness and success, to find out what had gone wrong, and why, and to yield "lessons learned."
'Like infants, they live in a continuous present'
That hasn't happened this time, for a lot of reasons. For the Bush Administration, there was no "failure" to be examined and explained. For the Obama Administration, the point was to "look forward not back."
People in the media and politics who were against the war know that it can grow tiresome to keep pointing that out. Example: Barack Obama would not be president today if he had not given a speech in Chicago in October 2002, saying that he (as a mere state senator) did not oppose all wars but was against a "dumb" and "rash" war in Iraq. Listen to how he talked in those days! He denounced "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." Because of that speech, six years later Obama could argue that his judgment had been right, and the vastly more experienced HIllary Clinton's had been wrong, about matters of war and peace. But there's no percentage for him in bringing that up now.
People in the media who were for the war have, with rare and admirable exceptions, avoided looking back. The Washington Post's editorial page was one of the most strident pro-war voices, part of a claque creating -- as I recall and noted at the time -- a kind of war frenzy in the capital. There is not a word about Iraq on its editorial page today (at right, but check it out for yourself). Say this for Paul Wolfowitz: While he didn't come close on this past week's talk shows to engaging Andrew Bacevich's challenge [which Harper'shas now opened for non-subscribers], at least he recognized Iraq as a question he would have to address. George Packer was one of several influential "liberal hawks" who were making a pro-war case in the New Yorker. I view, and viewed, that era and its choices very differently from him. (For instance he now says, "Spending a lot of time in Iraq did not make you" -- meaning himself -- "more keenly aware of America's larger strategic interests. It rendered you less likely to ask the essential questions about the inception of the war.") But I am glad he addresses the issue today.
2) The 'continuous present' Our friend Mike Lofgren argues in the Huffington Post that all factions in politics and the media have not simply "failed" to learn. They live in a system that rewards not learning. For instance, he says:
Aside from its inordinate fiscal and human cost, deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a Shia-led government has had the effect of strengthening the regional position of Iran. But having built up the Iranian bogey through its own stupidity, the U.S. political establishment is now contemplating how to coerce Teheran. This refusal to see the consequences of one's actions, and then using the disastrous result as an excuse to do the same thing again, is a recurring pattern of American statecraft.
One can hypothesize that our leaders see world events as discrete and unconnected with anything that happened before; like infants, they live in a continuous present.
3) The recurring pattern of error. When politicians and the media were "wrong" about Iraq, what did wrongness entail? Reduced to its essence it meant:
Exaggerating the scale and imminence of a threat from Iraq;
Growing testily impatient with any solutions other than the "kinetic" (e.g., from TNY 10 years ago, "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.");
Grossly underestimating the difficulty of "removing" that threat with military force;
Showing a failure of tragic imagination (different from a tragic failure of imagination, which was also true) about the ripple effects and long-term costs and consequences of taking a clear and "decisive" step now.
If we were to "learn" from mistakes, we might avoid this specific set of biases and miscalibrations when it comes to another "preventive" strike against another threatening nation in exactly the same part of the world. But we see every one of these four elements of this syndrome -- exaggeration, impatience, polyanna-ism about military measures, naivete about long-term effects - in discussions about the "need" and "moral duty" to condone military action against Iran.
Of course Iran and Iraq are different; the challenges are different; the details of military action are different. But the similarities are even greater -- and whether we can bear them in mind as we contemplate the "next war" will say a lot about whether it is ever possible to learn.
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.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The unwillingness of the former secretary of state to take questions from the press contrasts sharply with Jeb Bush’s marked affinity for public disclosure.
Howard Kurtz reported on Sunday night that the Hillary Clinton campaign has decided to open itself to more press interviews. Kurtz quoted the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri: “By not doing national interviews until now, Palmieri concedes, ‘we’re sacrificing the coverage. We’re paying a price for it.’”
Meanwhile Jeb Bush chatted July 2 with the conservative website, the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller interview broke an unusually protracted no-interview period for Bush. It had been more than two weeks since he appeared on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon. Bush spoke that same day, June 17, to Sean Hannity’s radio show and ABC News. Five days earlier, he’d spoken to Germany’s Der Spiegel—altogether, five interviews in the month of June. That brought his total, since the beginning of February, to 39, according to the Bush campaign.*
Chicago has seen a double-digit increase in the percentage of kids graduating from high school. Skeptics say educators and kids are manipulating the numbers—but does that even matter?
Desiree Cintron’s name used to come up a lot during “kid talk,” a weekly meeting at Chicago’s North-Grand High School at which teachers mull over a short list of freshmen in trouble.
No shock there, says Desiree now, nearly three years later.
“I was gangbanging and fighting a lot,” she says, describing her first few months of high school. “I didn’t care about school. No one cared, so I didn’t care.”
Had Desiree continued to fail in her freshman year, she would have dropped out. She is sure of that. It was only because of a strong program of academic and social supports put together by her teachers that she stuck it out. Desiree pulled up a failing grade and several Ds. She gave up gangbanging and later started playing softball. She connected with a school determined to connect with her.