If a journalist working today somehow manages to make it through his whole career without ever committing an analytical error as large as the one Iraq war supporters made, it would tell you precisely nothing about the overall quality of his work. That speaks to both the the enormity of the Iraq error and the Iraq war's uniqueness as a historical calamity. One could be a disastrous public policy analyst across a whole range of issues and never make a call that bad; one could similarly do completely unremarkable work for decades, but have made the correct call about Iraq on the basis of a coin flip.
It follows that having been correct about Iraq doesn't in and of itself tell you very much about the quality of any particular pundit's position on the horrendous problems Iraq now faces. I'd even stipulate that though I personally am inclined to oppose drone strikes and other uses of force in Iraq right now, you're better off looking elsewhere for strategic and moral justifications for that view. Or the opposite view. I'm convincible.
But on the other side of this argument are people who both supported the invasion, and believe further military involvement is the right course now. They should be regarded with incredible skepticism, and not simply because of the magnitude of their initial mistake.
Iraq war opponents have developed a strong and understandable impulse to write its supporters out of all debates over the use of American military force, and of the current debate in particular, forever. Paul Waldman yields to it here. James Fallows, who was among the most prominent American analysts to get both the strategic and moral arguments against the war exactly right, explains, "This was a very, very big one, arguably worst U.S. self-inflicted strategic error."
Taking this view, one's original position on the Iraq war carries unusual heuristic value precisely because supporters of the invasion displayed such poor and consequential judgment. This is appropriate but imperfect skepticism. I suspect some supporters of the Iraq war will see their opinions about the country's post-war collapse into sectarian conflict vindicated by events, if only thanks to dumb luck.
But there is ample reason to take a jaundiced view of Iraq war supporters who also now lament the country's deterioration and support some level of military re-engagement.
Regardless of what anyone thinks of going into Iraq in 2002, it's a tragedy that the successes of the 2007 surge have been lost & abandoned.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) June 13, 2014
Set aside his "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln" attempt to bracket the origins of the actual chaos, and the fact that we actually invaded Iraq in 2003, not 2002. Fleischer's actually done us a useful service, by exposing the improper considerations motivating some, though not all, of the hawks who share his view.
I don't think many people outside the current administration have a reliable sense of how feasible various military actions are, what they might accomplish, or what their consequences might be. So the argument for re-engagement rests largely on retrospective tut-tutting. The science-fiction rendering of today's plot holds that we should go back in time, negotiate (or perhaps impose) a status of forces agreement arraying things exactly as the war's supporters wanted—while ignoring the competing concerns of the Iraqi government, the U.S. military and the majority of Americans—and everything will turn out ok.
Back in 2008 John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, warned of an open-ended commitment to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. This reflected a quiet recognition that our destruction of Iraq had created a long and unpredictable risk of sectarian conflict in the country. But it also underscored the fact that war supporters knew they'd be fully and finally disgraced if the tinderbox ever combusted. They allowed concerns about potential damage to their professional reputations to seep into, and compromise their strategic calculus, and the results of that calculus became politically unsupportable.
But non-specific arguments for military re-engagement in many cases reflect similar, extrinsic, though backward-looking, considerations. A desire to escape moral culpability for a mess they helped create. A related desire to neutralize the political consequences of their errors of judgment by laying the bloody but inevitable denouement around a different president's shoulders—and around the shoulders of those who were correct about the initial question of invasion and appropriately skeptical that a longer war would have ever yielded a palatable outcome. Any port in a storm.
In and of themselves these do not constitute arguments that American military force can't possibly improve things. Perhaps it can. As noted, I'm skeptical. But it's crucial for everyone to recognize that double-down interventionists have much more on the line than a desire to provide accurate, dispassionate risk assessments, and to price that into their arguments. We should set the bar for those arguments very high. Unfortunately, the substantive dispute about Iraq still lies on a largely partisan axis, and because the country elected and re-elected a president who was right in the first instance, the "opposition" is now composed of people who blew it over a decade ago. And so they're the ones getting calls from reporters and network news producers looking for a fresh take today.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.