DeLong, invoking Daniel Davies, makes the first obvious point about Jon Chait’s attempt to mount a “liberal” defense of the Iraq War. Chait wasn’t just defending some abstract Iraq War–he was defending George Bush’s war. A war in which the ruling administration wasn’t run by the kind of people who would base crucial hiring decisions in Iraq based on people’s positions on the United States Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence, or who would actually sacrifice other domestic priorities to use a huge invading force, was simply never on the table. And Chait, who wrote well about the ineptitude of the administration’s conduct of domestic policy, is in a particularly bad position to make such an argument. It makes no sense at all to say that you were defending some hypothetical war that never had any chance of being fought.
Another classic D-Squared post, however, allows to bring Yglesias’ important point about policy looking forward:
Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most colossal waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.
Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I was first made aware of this during an accounting class. We were discussing the subject of accounting for stock options at technology companies. There was a live debate on this subject at the time. One side (mainly technology companies and their lobbyists) held that stock option grants should not be treated as an expense on public policy grounds; treating them as an expense would discourage companies from granting them, and stock options were a vital compensation tool that incentivised performance, rewarded dynamism and innovation and created vast amounts of value for America and the world. The other side (mainly people like Warren Buffet) held that stock options looked awfully like a massive blag carried out my management at the expense of shareholders, and that the proper place to record such blags was the P&L account.
Our lecturer, in summing up the debate, made the not unreasonable point that if stock options really were a fantastic tool which unleashed the creative power in every employee, everyone would want to expense as many of them as possible, the better to boast about how innovative, empowered and fantastic they were. Since the tech companies’ point of view appeared to be that if they were ever forced to account honestly for their option grants, they would quickly stop making them, this offered decent prima facie evidence that they weren’t, really, all that fantastic.
Application to Iraq. The general principle that good ideas are not usually associated with lying like a rug1 about their true nature seems to have been pretty well confirmed. In particular, however, this principle sheds light on the now quite popular claim that “WMDs were only part of the story; the real priority was to liberate the Iraqis, which is something that every decent person would support”.
Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make inaccurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”. By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford’s Law.
Application to Iraq This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than “some” or “some but not enough to justify a war” or even “some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs”. My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.
The mendacity of the administration’s selling of the war was telling in terms of the rank incompetence with which they’ve pursued it, yes. But the dishonesty of the sale was also necessary because fighting a war with Chait’s objectives was always a terrible idea. The war might have been justified to disarm a grave security threat–which is why, revisionism aside, this was always the centerpiece of the administration’s defense of the war–but implanting a pro-American liberal democracy in Iraq via force was always an exceptionally implausible idea with costs that vastly outweighed the negligible chances of success. The administration’s ineptitude may have moved the chances of it working from “exceptionally unlikely” to “less than infinitesimal,” but that’s about it. It was always a bad idea, and if something similar is proposed with a better President in the White House it will still be a bad idea.