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JONATHAN CHAIT

We can't surrender to the doves

January 14, 2007|JONATHAN CHAIT | jchait@latimescolumnists.com

I DON'T WANT to accuse American doves of rooting for the United States to lose in Iraq because I know they love their country and understand the dire consequences of defeat. But the urge to gloat is powerful, and some of them do seem to be having a grand time in the wake of being vindicated.

Radar magazine recently published an article bemoaning the fact that pro-war liberal pundits have not been drummed out of the profession for their error. In it, lefty foreign policy guru Jonathan Schell sniffs, "There doesn't seem to be a rush to find the people who were right about Iraq and install them in the mainstream media."

Being right about something is a fairly novel experience for Schell, and he's obviously enjoying it immensely. But before we genuflect to Schell's wisdom, it's worth recalling that his own record of prognostication is not exactly perfect. After the 9/11 attacks, Schell railed against attacking the Taliban, which was sheltering Osama bin Laden and much of the Al Qaeda hierarchy. "A military strike against the Taliban or any other regime is full of perils that ... are far greater than the dangers we already face," he warned. For instance, he wrote, "millions of Afghans could starve to death this winter," Pakistan's government could be overthrown, etc.

Or go back to the last war we fought with Iraq. Schell insisted that we could force Iraq to leave Kuwait with sanctions alone, rather than by using military force. But the years that followed that war made it clear just how impotent that tool was. Saddam Hussein endured more than a decade of sanctions rather than give up a weapons of mass destruction program that turned out to be nonexistent. If sanctions weren't enough to make him surrender his imaginary weapons, I think we can safely say they wouldn't have been enough to make him surrender a prized, oil-rich conquest.

Most liberals made the same argument as Schell in 1990, and as subsequent years exposed the silliness of the claim, many of them were humbled. Indeed, most Democrats in the Senate voted against the Persian Gulf War, and that vote disqualified many of them from running for president in 1992. The presidential nomination went to a governor, Bill Clinton, who didn't have to vote on the war, and he selected as his running mate then-Sen. Al Gore, one of a handful of Democrats who supported it.

Gore certainly deserves credit for his foresight as one of the very few public figures to support the first Iraq war and oppose the second. (Having supported both, I'm batting .500.) But this method of judging one's worth solely by his or her record of supporting or opposing the right wars has pretty limited value. Sen. John Kerry, who opposed the first Iraq war and favored the second, has a more dismal record than Vice President Dick Cheney, who at least got one of his wars right. Does that mean Cheney is necessarily a wiser foreign policy sage than Kerry?

What's even sillier is judging someone's foreign policy insight solely based on his or her stance on the last war. Over-learning the lessons of the last war is a classic foreign policy blunder. Yet many liberals want to make the lessons of the Iraq debacle the central basis of American foreign policy. The story in Radar is of a piece with this growing impulse.

But this is the flip side of the same impulse that got us into the current mess. Because the doves made so many bad predictions leading up to the Gulf War -- remember the mass uprisings in the Arab world and tens of thousands of U.S. casualties? -- many of us ignored warnings this time that proved more prescient.

There are many lessons to be absorbed from Iraq. We'd be foolish not to absorb them; only the most dense war supporter has come away from the experience unhumbled. But the failure of a criminally negligent administration to carry out a highly challenging rebuilding task in the most hostile part of the world does not teach us everything we need to know about the efficacy of military power.

Of course we'll learn lessons from Iraq. I'm worried that we'll learn too much.

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