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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results

Many people, me included, have wondered why the media continues to give prominence to the pundits that got the war wrong rather than those who got it right. Jonathan Chait disagrees with this. He makes the argument that although he and others were wrong abut the war, it doesn't mean people should stop listening to them:

We can't surrender to the doves, by Jonathan Chait, LA Times: 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. ...

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.

Sorry Jonathan, maybe we don't drum you out of the profession -- there aren't simply two extremes where we listen fully or don't listen at all -- but we are going to pay less attention to what you have to say. That's how it to goes when you are wrong about important things. And unlike the parade of polar extremes presented to us in your argument, there are people who have been generally correct all along and I prefer to give more weight to their views than to those who have been so spectacularly wrong.

Update: Spencer Ackerman adds:

never mind what you said, it's what you're buying, by Spencer Ackerman: Jon argues that we shouldn't ignore Iraq hawks because Iraq doves have been less than wise themselves. I agree.

The trouble is that Jon's focus is misconstrued. Using Jonathan Schell as his foil, he writes, "it's worth recalling that his own record of prognostication is not exactly perfect," and proceeds to list some bungled predictions. But predictions are not the issue: the thought process that goes into someone's positions is. ...

That's a more important consideration than someone's record of predictions: the rationale that leads them to such predictions. Remember Al Gore's September 2002 Commonwealth Club speech against the war. Gore was certainly right to oppose the war, but his premises included the desirability of deposing Saddam Hussein -- only this was to occur short of war somehow -- which introduced an element of incoherence to what was, in top-line form, a correct case. By contrast, Richard Clarke had the right argument against the war...

What would make Jon's case a lot clearer would be if he specified what he thinks the lessons of the Iraq war actually are. He says there are several. Sure. But if he says we should learn only some things and avoid learning others, it would be nice to know which is which. Otherwise, one fears that the thinking that led Jon into his support for the war is still alive and enslaving the mind of a really great guy.

    Posted by on Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 08:47 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan | Permalink  TrackBack (4)  Comments (53)

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