They Got It Right: (1) Robert J. Art

Shouldn’t we be hearing more from the brave sages who pegged the dangers — even called the outcome — of the Iraq war remarkably, precisely right. This begins a series of interviews with a slate of them.

robert art

Robert J. Art of Brandeis University

Commentary around the Iraq war — and the prospect of a sequel in Iran — is full now of confessions of past error — most of them partial and opaque confessions, well short of the full “mea maxima culpa.”

See, for example, from the original “war blogger” Andrew Sullivan’s Time column, “What I Got Wrong about the War.” His grievous analytical errors may all be erased in time, Sullivan concludes cheerfully: “it is far too soon to know the ultimate outcome of our gamble.”

Or see Michael Ignatieff’s gentle slapping of his own wrist in the New York Times Magazine in August for Getting Iraq Wrong and presumably for proclaiming “The American Empire: Get Used to It” in the same magazine back in January, 2003, just before the war began. His contrition is hedged by the sense he was “right to be wrong,” as Tony Judt noted in the Times, about “the worst foreign policy error in American history.” From the not quite chastened war enthusiasts the insinuation is that “wrong for the right reasons” beats “right for the wrong reasons.”

But let it not be forgotten that there were serious, smart professionals who, in timely fashion, were simply, sweepingly right about the Iraq catastrophe that’s still metastasizing. It wasn’t guesswork, and it wasn’t secret.

On my office wall I keep posted a quarter-page New York Times ad ad from September 26, 2002 — paid for by the signatories because the Times wouldn’t accept it as an op-ed — in which 33 scholars of international relations spelled out the reasons why “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST.”

If they had been stock-pickers applying the same diligence, foresight and clarity to the market that they applied to Iraq five years ago, by now they’d be managing big portfolios. They might be hedge-fund trillionaires. But in the curious marketplace of foreign-policy ideas, the signers here are today mostly obscure, unthanked scholars, whose advice hasn’t yet been heard by the general public.

Their thinking sounds conservative today, prudent in the style of the “realist” school of foreign policy. Many of their arguments against the war seem clairvoyant, almost miraculous now, the moreso because we’ve been conditioned to accept that the evidence on Iraq and the judgment on war was all foggy. Their main points, on the contrary, were pretty simple:

(1) Saddam Hussein, murderous despot though he was, had not been credibly linked to Al Qaeda or 9.11 (2) Even if he had nuclear weapons he couldn’t use them without massive retaliation from the US or Israel. (3) As the first Bush administration understood after routing Iraqi forces from Kuwait, conquering Baghdad and changing the regime could spread instability in the Middle East, threatening US interests. (4) The United States would win a war with Iraq, but Iraq could make it ugly, perhaps with chemical and biological weapons, perhaps with urban warfare. (5) “Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the Unites States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.” And (6) Al Qaeda was the greater threat than Iraq. War on Iraq would divert the more urgent campaign, and take down the American reputation in the process.

Robert J. Art of Brandeis University outside Boston was first alphabetically among the signers of the Times ad, and first in our series of interviews this week. He was looking forward toward Iran as well has in the rearview at Iraq:

If I thought that Iran, armed with nuclear weapons under the current or some like leadership, would actually use them, or be emboldened to go out and attack various countries like, for example, Israel or Saudi Arabia, I would say: let’s go! But Israel has nuclear weapons. The Cold War demonstrates that extended deterrence does work. The American nuclear umbrella can work, has worked, is working at present. Iran’s conventional forces are quite weak.

You have to take the long-term view, and the long-term view is you’ve got a country where something like 60 percent of the population is under 25. The worst possible thing would be to launch a military strike. First of all it would not be small. It’s not ‘surgical.’ You don’t just go and bomb sites. You have to bomb the air defense sites. You have to bomb the missiles they can retaliate with. You bomb the Revolutionary Guards. You do a lot of bombing. This is not a 24-hour operation. You’re talking about days or up to a week. And there will be lots of casualties. The political fallout in the rest of the world will be terrible. We’ve lost so much legitimacy. But the consequences in Iran for Iranian-American relations, I think, would be disastrous. All you do is embolden the hard-liners. They just turn around and say: see, we told you so. And here we’ve got a potential base of millions of young Iranians who like the United States and love American culture. I can’t think of anything stupider than to engage in a military strike.

Professor Robert J. Art of Brandeis, in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 15, 2007.

Robert Art calls himself “a realist with a heart.” Colleagues respect him as the textbook type of strategic analyst, often consulted by the Pentagon and the CIA and well connected in the network of academic think tanks. His most recent of many books casts a rueful, independent eye on the modern US record of Coercive Diplomacy, meaning the use of military force or threats to change behavior, from Haiti to North Korea.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Robert Art(16 MB MP3)

Next up: Michael Desch at Texas A & M, then Barry Posen and Steve Van Evera at MIT.

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  • hurley

    Scoundrel times. Rather than fall on their swords, or at the very least retreat into a contemplative and repentful silence, the laptop bombardiers seem to be singing Luther Ingram’s tune, If LovingYou is Wrong, I Don’t Want to be Right:

    Wherefrom this mood of righteous self-pity? Chris mentions Ignatieff and Sullivan, but we mustn’t forget Paul Berman, indignant as ever merely to have his words quoted back to him:

    Or Kanan Makiya, who recently served up a foul stew of sophistry, bad faith, and chop-logic the likes of which I’ve rarely encountered:

    Or the increasingly egregious Christopher Hitchens, who recently had the ineffable bad taste to try and redeem his position by recourse to one of its victims:

    The term “lustration”comes to mind, but of course nothing could be more remote. They will continue to fail upwards, no matter the millions of lives lost, the suffering, the chaos, the waste, borne aloft to an evermore grotesque celebrity.

    Anyone else we might add to the list?

  • hurley

    And this, from the article by Ignatieff Chris linked:

    In politics, learning from failure matters as much as exploiting success. Samuel Beckett’s “Fail again. Fail better” captures the inner obstinacy necessary to the political art.

    I don’t have a mainline on Beckett, but I can imagine his outrage at the distortion of his meaning. To enlist Beckett, the quasi-pacifist, in support of the war in Iraq is to grievously misread both Beckett and the world. For shame.

  • Potter

    I listened to that recent On Point show with Kanan Makiya and I was very touched. I also read the recent article by Dexter Filkins in the NYTimes. As well I was one of the fortunate ones to attend the gathering of “Lydonisitas” in Cambridge, a time similar to this when there was no show only Chris doing his thing. At that gathering Chris interviewed (and taped) Kanan Makiya. Was it in 2002?. It was before the invasion of Iraq. I will have to check the date and perhaps listen again to the mp3. It should be interesting. That first encounter endeared me to Makiya I think forever. So if we are crucifying people, first count me out. Been there, done enough of that. That is NOT to say we should allow folks rationalizations about it today when they should be admitting error. But there is quite a difference for me as far as culpability/blame goes between the principals in this disaster, and everyone else, influential or not.

    (I have not listened to the interview above- trying to gear myself up for it. I don’t know what to expect. At first I was going to skip over these- but I am softening.)

    My overwhelming feeling after listening to Kanan Makiya on that recent radio show is that he has taken on, to his soul, much more responsibility for this disaster than he needs to or should. He was used.. as Filkins notes. That’s my strong feeling despite his words and his struggling to find the right ones; it was what was coming through his emotions. He is clearly tortured by what has happened.

  • hurley

    Potter, Unlike you, apparently, I’ve yet to perform a crucifixion (“Been there, done that,” as you write), but the Christian theme leads to a useful formula: repentance must proceed forgiveness. I see very little repentance on display; rather, various blithe attempts to evade rightful responsibility for a disaster. There are the occasional vague formulations of wan remorse, but on the whole the tenor is one of mournful defiance — mournful not at the havoc they’ve helped to unleash, but at the potential damage done to their reputations, their amoure propre, which they are determined to restore. So they fabulate a sort of mea minima culpa designed only to spare themselves a proper moral reckoning. I know, indirectly, one of the major cheerleaders for the ongoing atrocity, and his private response to what he helped set in motion was, “Well, they had nothing left to lose.” Nothing left to lose but their lives, two million of them and counting. As to Tom Ashcroft’s interview with Makia, we’re obviously tuned to different frequencies. While he was, as you say, “clearly tortured” — as well he should be — he was hardly repentant. He was evasive, and refused to dignify the legitimate sense of grievance expressed by many of the callers. Makia fell back on specious analogies, characterized one not terribly subtle caller’s questionable rhetoric as representative of “the Left,” and by implication of those who’ve had the temerity to hold him to account, and concluded by way of saying that, given the chance to do things differently, he would not do so. “Touching,” indeed: about as touching as a bull shark. Even Ashcroft seemed bemused and incredulous by the end. That was my impression, anyway, and I don’t offer it as anything else…What this all points up is the strange culture of impunity that seems to have taken hold among the political and social elite, and this in a country founded on rather severe Protestant values, the notion accountability among them. How explain someone like Henry Kissinger, a war criminal by any reasonable definition of the term, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and event that Tom Lehrer said marked the death of political satire? How explain the new revolving door wherebye one moves seamlesly from the role of war-architect to president of the World Bank (MacNamara, Wolfowitz)? In part, because they weren’t held accountable. To hold someone accountable is not to “crucify” them. It is to perform an essential duty in the service of the truth, in the absence of which “justice” is just a convenient fiction for whoever happens to be in power. The final paragraph of Tony Judt’s op-ed sums up many of the issues at play here better than I could:

    “Finally: In a democracy, war should always be the last resort — no matter how good the cause. ”To jaw-jaw,” as Churchill reminded Eisenhower, ”is always better than to war-war.” So the next time someone waxes lyrical for armed overseas intervention in the name of liberal ideals or ”defining struggles,” remember what Albert Camus had to say about his fellow intellectuals’ propensity for encouraging violence to others at a safe distance from themselves. ”Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed,” he wrote, ”but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything.”

    Amen, and amitie.

  • Zeke

    The thing that stuck me most forcefully about the On Point interview was Tom Ashbrook’s tone. Usually overcaffienated and overly credulous (for my taste), his tone in this interview sounded weary and sad. I was touched by that; it seemed a genuine response to the failures of those who presume to change the world. Somewhere I heard a quote from Tolstoy recently–perhaps on that show. It said: “Kings are the slaves of history.” Increasingly, I think this is true.

  • hurley

    Just had a chance to read my message. Sorry for the typos. Too engrossed in Federer’s defeat to give a second look. So crucify me!, as the old joke used to run. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • OliverCranglesParrot

    Nice work, again Chris. These interviews are very welcome around here.

    hurley says: To hold someone accountable is not to “crucify” them.

    I wrote this up Friday after listening to the show; I wanted to think about it. Seems appropriate to the thread:

    My stance on this matter, mentioned in a previous thread, is simply how do we follow-up on these policy issues with some sort of accountability? There is absolutely no clarity on how policy makers, analysts, and for lack of a better word, policy mouth-pieces, are held accountable. It seems to me that this would encompass more than simple rewards/retributions. It should be part of an overall approach to the process of risk management. It would be instructive, for me at least, to understand how forecasts and outcomes are reconciled in this policy sector; a sector with private machinations, but large public effects.

    It seems to me that there needs to be a balance and dialog and process clarity between the (often kangaroo) court of public opinion and the opaque curtain of the policy management class. It has occurred to me over the last several years that the same players seem to pop up on these matters regardless of batting average. Perhaps my perceptions are way off as memory can distort. Which presents the problem again: there seems to be no relatively simple method, with clarity, on how these matters are reconciled (i.e. how policy makers and policy analysts are held accountable). I suggest that leaving this area to an elite, insulated management class will continue to rub many in the general public raw and continue to inflame passions: disconnects of this size can lead to extremely dangerous scenarios. Of course, I haven’t heard much in terms of advocacy for some sort of process to ameliorate this situation and close the gap. Perhaps it’s because non-specialists either run with a herd or ignore the whole situation and the specialists have no incentive to close the gap, which would likely increase demands for tangible means of accountability.

  • Potter

    Hurley, as I said:

    “That is NOT to say we should allow folks rationalizations about it today when they should be admitting error. But there is quite a difference for me as far as culpability/blame goes between the principals in this disaster, and everyone else, influential or not.”

    My “been there done that” refers to continuing to react to folks whose articles etc., in my mind at least had little if anything to do with why we actually were taken to war. Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens? For goodness sake!

    Regarding the potential damage to their reputations, further dissembling harms them further.

    Regarding Makiya’s refusal to come around to repentance, one could hardly expect that while he was being hammered. I would not. The normal human response is to defend oneself after such blows. I thought he was not trying that hard to defend himself either because he was feeling responsibility and sorrow for what has happened. Makiya was not responsible for all those deaths, however many. Also- he was clearly weighing the balance against leaving Saddam in place. And where do you get two million??? Maybe you are speaking of the displaced ( which are more than that).

    Regarding your;

    “Makia fell back on specious analogies, characterized one not terribly subtle caller’s questionable rhetoric as representative of “the Left,” and by implication of those who’ve had the temerity to hold him to account, and concluded by way of saying that, given the chance to do things differently, he would not do so.”

    “Temerity” speaks to your perception ( not mine). He was taking cover from the hammering. What you forget is that Makiya did not have to be there taking callers. Also what I heard was that he WOULD have done things differently.

    “a war criminal by any reasonable definition of the term, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,

    By all means-do hold Henry Kissinger, MacNamara and Paul Wolfowitz accountable. So do I. But again there are degrees of accountability which you don’t seem to acknowledge. It takes years for society as a whole to do that though I don’t recall any of the aforementioned escaping.

    I am in total agreement with your quote from Judt- besides the point here, but a good quote nevertheless. I believe that Makiya felt that violence would be necessary to liberate Iraq from decades of Saddam’s tight hold, decades of an increasing reign of terror where possibilities of overthrow from within were near impossible. Although I was against the war from the moment I heard it was being considered, I can understand this view. I can understand it and I exempt Makiya. Can you tell me that Bush and Cheney would NOT have gone to war if Makiya so advised?

  • Potter

    Hurley–P.S. Also regarding my “been there done that”, I felt that I crucified Makiya myself in 2005 when he was on ROS, in the comments thread. You can read it. Makiya left the studio, Chris says, quite upset. I felt that as an “Iraqi-American” by being for this intervention he was behaving more as an Iraqi than an American. So I felt it was a betrayal of sorts or a split within him where he had to choose the one over the other and this was his chance to see change in his lifetime. It may have been selfish in that sense I don’t know. Certainly I cannot believe he wanted war to gain a wife as the wikipedia mentions. That’s cruel to suggest even in jest about a man so occupied by morality and justice ( whatever you may think). I don’t think he was thinking whether this would be in our ( the US’s) best interests because his emotions seemed to be with the terrorized Iraqi people. And that is how he was used by this immoral administration.

  • frederic.fournier

    While I really enjoyed the “they got it right” series, I have a huge problem with one idea that has been repeated by many of the guests: deterrence.

    Back in the cold war, there were 2 nuclear powers basically, the US & the USSR with their respective allies. Nukes had to be delivered accross the world by strategic bomber or ballistic missile. If you chose to open nuclear hostilities there was no hiding it.

    But how does deterrence work if tomorrow a nuclear bomb explodes in New York City harbor or in Tel Aviv, with no missile and no bomber, no smoking gun and no one claiming responsibility? Who can we nuke back when we have no idea who’s nuking us?