Heroes in Error

Media, War and Politics

But at the core of my support for the war was an analytical failure I think about often: Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration. In particular, I supported Kenneth Pollack’s Iraq war.

Ezra Klein

No. The core of your support for the war was a moral failure. A guy who murders his wife doesn’t get to hide behind a claim about bad analysis after he discovers that she wasn’t in fact screwing the mailman. Oh, you invented an imaginary war to support? That isn’t bad analysis. It’s a crime.

You will note that the commentariat is currently full of decennial mea culpas, and what that tells you is that people like Ezra Klein who skipped the protests in order to type in favor of the death of thousands have been richly rewarded with careers in the popular media. This makes their post-hoc apologies completely of a kind with their antebellum cheerleading: it entails no personal risk and carries with it the prospect of professional advancement. For these people, commenting on war, “supporting” or “opposing” it is a matter of career advancement, totally lacking in human content. Six out of ten dentists prefer Afghanistan, four Iraq.

Let me tell you what Ezra Klein still believes. He believes that even in his utter failure, he was more right than the kids who skipped class to go swarm the National Mall. He believes their opposition to be adolescent protest and knee-jerk antagonism toward any foreign policy undertaken by the US. He believes that the grannies and Code Pink ladies and hippie undergrads and black storefront denominations who hollered the loudest were right only by accident; they were the big hand of the stopped clock and Iraq was the coincidental hour. They didn’t read The Threatening Storm . . . or The New Republic; they didn’t listen to Colin Powell’s UN presentation; they still haven’t heard of Stephen Hadley.

Phony empiricism in the service of being totally wrong is one of those grand American traditions, like tailgating or real estate speculation. Its perpetrators get to double their column inches, the first time in elaborate tautological error, the second time in grotesquely self-serving repentance  Perversely, in admitting to being total idiots who got everything backwards the first time around, all of their subsequent forward-looking pronouncements gain an additional patina of respectability; their past dimness somehow implies a present sagacity.

Ezra Klein is a policy reporter who was wrong about the most significant bit of policy in his adult lifetime. This makes him an up-and-coming star of journalism and a sought-after public intellectual.

Personally, I’ll stick with the kids and their dreadlocks and the grannies.

24 thoughts on “Heroes in Error

  1. Indeed. And I bring this up not to toot my own horn, especially since I think I overstated some stuff at the time, but because I made a a very intentionally effort at the time of the war to document what was knowable before the war started specifically for this purpose, i.e. to be able to show at a time like this that it was possible to know before the war started that the case for war was built on lies and that there were clear ulterior motives for the war.

    I did that on my website with the following articles written in 2003 and 2004:
    This War Is About So Much More: http://rationalrevolution.net/war/index.htm

    Refelction On This War – One Year Later: http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/reflection_on_operation_iraqi_fr.htm

    “I began writing this piece the when the war with Iraq started, March 21st. I wrote the entire piece before the war in Iraq was officially declared over by President Bush on May 1st. The majority of the information pertaining to Iraq had been written before the statue of Saddam had been pulled down on April 9th. Since that time I have continued to edit the piece for grammatical and spelling mistakes and have restructured a few sentences and added some content to offer more detail, but for the most part all of the content about Iraq in this piece was assembled prior the fall of the Saddam statue, which I feel is significant because it shows that there was enough information available to the public prior to and during the war to be able to understand the war in a different light than what was portrayed in popular media. It also shows that there was a large body of evidence that the Bush administration was lying about the situation in Iraq, as well as other things, even before the war started.

    I wrote this piece because I felt that it was apparent before the war even started that the Bush administration was lying. When the war started it prompted me to put that information down in the light in which I viewed it, and this piece is the result of that. I wrote this piece at a rapid pace while also doing research in books and on the internet. The piece is over 200 pages long in Word single-spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font.

    Again, what is important to keep in mind while reading this paper is that it was all written prior to the “Mission Accomplished” declaration by Bush with information and perspectives that were available largely before the war even started.”

  2. Is it not surprising that a technocratic mindset will lend itself to support for war because they both devalue the direct human impact of policies over the simplistic rendering of reality provided by charts?

    1. Jonathan Cohn’s comment is reminiscent of Hamzah Saif’s illumination in “Accounting for the Drone Debate” of how a focus on body counts and the numbers of “militants” or “civilians” killed by drones obscures the humanity of the dead. Imperialism, colonialism and war —and their justifications—require analytical and statistical “legibility” in James Scott’s term, excluding inhomogeneity and empathy for the Other.


  3. Ezra Klein is a policy reporter who was wrong about the most significant bit of policy in his adult lifetime.

    The current yarn Klein is spinning would indicate that – and maybe that’s your point (and maybe I’m splitting meta-hairs here) – but in light of the guy murdering his wife analogy, this seems to swing back around and let him off.

    As you said at the outset: It was a moral failure. That’s what he’s paid for: Being a moral failure. You give him too much credit by assigning him beliefs when he just pretending to have them.

  4. Interventionistism is bullshit. I don’t just mean that US’s claims of humanitarian intervention are bullshit (in every case!). I mean the philosophy of humanitarian intervention itself–the interventionist paradigm–is bullshit.

    Let’s say the motives for Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Nicaragua, Kosovo, Panama, Libya, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, Darfur, DR Congo, Yemen, East Timor, Dominican Republic… any one of those, had actually been humanitarian. So fucking what? Nothing short of a pathology can account for one country literally availing itself of the responsibility of making life and death decisions for anyone, anywhere in the world.

    What I’m saying is, the Iraq war wouldn’t be been any more justified if the lies had all been true–we’d still be an imperialist, homicidal maniac going ape shit on people we couldn’t even name because we believe it’s our God-given right to do whatever the fuck we want. Throwing a grenade into the neighbor’s apartment because the woman in 3B says she’s pretty sure he beats his wife and kids doesn’t make you a humanitarian; it makes you a psychopath. I believe it was Clinton who said America owns the world.

    The morality is simple. Leave people’s shit alone. And don’t fucking kill people for any reason!

  5. what is morality? “we” kill people and take their shit because “we” can. moral reflection is masturbation. of course, Klein is doing is something entirely different and way more demeaning: boot licking.

  6. “But at the core of my support for the war is an embarrassing moral failing of monstrous proportions, which is why I try to never think about it. Rather than looking at the war as, well, war, I invented my own Iraq war to support—and I called it Fred, and it had different aims, like recycling and dressmaking, and promoted by different people, elves and babies, conceptualized in a different way, with candles and music. In particular, I supported James Cameron’s war, the one with the smurfs!”

  7. Thanks Ralph! Without you I wouldn’t have been subjected to all these mawkish mea culpas.

    As Gore’s roommate once said: Sanctions mean never having to say you’re sorry.

  8. Ezra Klein had more to say about his “path to hawkishness” back in September 18, 2004, in a post now deleted from pandagon, but still available at the internet archive:

    And, finally, I lived in Santa Cruz, home of reflexive dovishness and factually incorrect tirades. So I became pro-war…

    I’m quite ashamed that, during the whole of the run-up, I never thought to notice that the President’s rationales and statements were less credible and more infantile than those of the white-bearded peaceniks denouncing him on street corners. […]

    Update: Robert Farley seems to have felt similarly:
    “I know that one of the hardest obstacles I had to overcome in adopting an anti-war position on Iraq was the recognition that I would be on the same side as all those dumbass hippies I knew at the University of Oregon, as well as those dumbass hippies I know in Seattle. At the time, I always strove to distance my arguments from theirs”

    Truly a brother-in-arms. One of the tougher lessons for me to learn was that bad arguments don’t necessarily indict a point-of-view, doesn’t matter how many of them there are…

    And to answer some in the comments: you’re right, there were many level-headed folk making perfectly cogent points against the war. I don’t defend myself for reaching the wrong conclusion. But my environment, same as Matt and Robert’s, was a reactionary campus packed with far-leftists, and their arguments were the ones being screamed into my ear, and thus their arguments were the ones I reacted to.

  9. Mass-mediated commentators are mostly enemies du peuple. Their words can be safely dismissed. (They can also be harvested into a life-long blogging project.)

  10. I opposed the war in Iraq (and was quoted at the time in a NY Times article to that effect) for entirely empirical reasons: it was rather obviously a stupid idea.

  11. Let’s not forget, Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, the two Matts and all the other [now] successful bloggers] who are all accessories to murder…all in order to leapfrog those who had/have actual analytical talent.

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