They Got It Right: (2) Michael Desch

William Kristol — still writing that the Iraq War and the George W. Bush presidency are bound for long-run glory — may be the case study of neo-con imperviousness to evidence, also of invincible error as a career move that works in our media. The historian David Kaiser has posted an exhaustive Kristol file on Iraq, a five-year string of howlers. Except that almost nobody’s howling.

Jebediah Reed at Radar Online has done a scorecard on four commentators “getting rich by being wrong” on Iraq: David Brooks and Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Peter Beinart, who has graduated from The New Republic to hard covers. “At the pundits’ table,” in Reed’s subhead, “the losing bet still takes the pot.”

But let’s be constructive. The thread through my string of interviews here is that some people got it certifiably right — 33 foreign policy scholars who signed and paid for a New York Times ad in September 2002 that argued concisely that “WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST.” What were they thinking? How did they know?

michael desch

Michael Desch of Texas A & M

Michael Desch, then at the University of Kentucky, observed just as the US invasion of Iraq began, that the Ominous Precedent and in a sense the strategic model for the Bush warriors was Israel’s war on Lebanon, led by Ariel Sharon in 1982 and ended 18 years later by Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon.

Israel’s Lebanon war and the U.S. war in Iraq are alike in at least four respects. Proponents of both wars regarded them as parts of larger plans to change fundamentally the strategic landscape in the Middle East. Advocates of each took liberties with the truth in making their cases for war. Both the Israelis and the Americans made some questionable alliances in the course of their wars. And finally, both sought to implement major political transformations in deeply divided societies.

Michael Desch, “Ominous Precedent” in The American Conservative, May 5, 2003

As chance would have it, Michael Desch now holds a Texas A & M professorship named for the Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in the school of public policy named for the President of the United States. He remains, in our conversation, unflinchingly critical of “the party of war” and the thinking that took us to Iraq. At the top of the chattering pyramid, Desch is struck (as I am) by “how few have paid any price for being wrong.” We have a political system, and it seems a public conversation, that are “completely unaccountable.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Michael Desch (11 MB MP3)

In the works: conversations with New York Times ad signers Barry Posen and Steve Van Evera of MIT, Peter Liberman of Queens College, Steven Miller of Harvard and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and others.

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  • Potter

    Okay- William Kristol makes my blood boil. I am going stright for the linked howlers.

    And for Hurley I am adding Richard Perle, David Frum and Fred Kagan.

    I only listened to this once but I think I heard it said that the American people were 90% plus for the war. Not so. I have researched the polls. If you read them, a majority were not for the war in the months leading up, and certainly they wanted multilateral action if we did go. It was only after being demagogued on the Saddam-9/11 connection over and over and over did opinions begin to move in favor. What really helped it seems was Colin Powells appearance at the UN. If we really want to hold people accountable- at the top on my list would be Powell. He was someone who so many saw as a man of integrity. If he resigned at the proper time, it would have meant something.

  • Potter

    I wasn’t howling through David Kaiser’s Kristol file.

    It’s human nature to have ears for what you want to hear and that’s what I think holds up Kristol and Kagan, Frum and the others. Whether what they say is in touch with reality is beside the point because there is obviously an audience for the good news, even about war, even if it’s fabricated, even if we know somewhere in our brains that it can’t be so. Reality is too hard.

    from Kaiser:

    Meanwhile, Kristol’s columns have never—literally never—seriously addressed the human costs of this war. He has never referred to the two million refugees that have left Iraq or the roughly equal number that have been internally displaced. He has not discussed the tactics of Shi’ite and Sunni militias very much, or even alluded to the basic fact—surely an indicator of something?—that no American has been able to go anywhere in Iraq without armed escort for years. And he has never said much about the Americans who are actually fighting the war. On September 23, 2003, in one of his first calls for more forces, Kristol made an interesting remark. “And contrary to what some say,” he and Robert Kagan wrote, “more troops don’t mean more casualties. More troops mean fewer casualties–both American and Iraqi.”

    Disconcerting, Kristol wears a smirk only a mother would love. In this case a mother in academia, preoccupied with morality.

  • Potter

    I believe Tom Friedman got rich, if he is rich by marrying money ( and I don’t care), not by getting Iraq wrong but also by his (much praised) writing before Iraq on the Israeli Palestinian conflict and after with his books on popularizing Globalization.

    Also- regarding those that “got it wrong”- this is too wide a category to throw a lot of people into including presidential candidates. Some got it totally wrong. Some were very nuanced about it-i.e. we should only go to war if…… Some have reversed since and especially shortly after the invasion. Some have been constructive since.