As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.
Otherwise: the "missile gap." The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong — or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.
The issue I have is the conclusion he decides to draw from that excerpt.
We're all going to use the anniversary as a reason to cast blame and demand accountability from everyone who was wrong ten years ago. That's fine. But it's more important, I think, to try to learn some actual lessons, and this is the key one. The lesson isn't that threats are never real. The lesson is that, nine times out of ten, the official account of the threat is overblown by at least half.
So keep that in mind for the next war. If you listen to the war supporters, and their case still sounds reasonable even after you discount everything they say by 50 percent or more, then maybe you should support military action. But that ought to be your standard. Your default assumption should be that they're overstating the threat by at least that much.
Really? Just chop the supporters’ case in half and see if you still agree with it? How does that work exactly? And does it even make sense?
I mean, if you know someone is lying about all sorts of facts regarding capabilities and the imminence of threats, why should you take anything they say seriously? Even 50% of it? Think about the lead-up to Iraq for a minute. What does the 50% rule make of the claims about WMD? If you thought Iraq only had half of the WMDs the Bush administration claimed it did, you would still have been 100% wrong. More to the point, the case for war wasn’t about the possible threat that an Iraq armed with WMDs might pose in the distant future, but the fact that Iraq was an imminent threat to use those WMDs against the U.S. and its interests, either by themselves or through a terrorist proxy. Throughout the build-up to invasion, the argument was pushed towards the fact that we simply could not wait any longer to let the UN weapons inspectors do their jobs in tracking down the non-existent WMDs, but had to attack immediately to head of the terrible threat those WMDs represented.
Same with the hype around Iran. Forget for a moment the technical arguments about Iran’s supposed nuclear capabilities. Yes, they’re being hyped and overblown as well, but the real key to the hawks’ arguments for attacking Iran is that, unlike every other nuclear power in world history, as soon as Iran obtains nuclear weapons they will immediately go on a suicidal nuking spree of other nuclear-armed powers who could easily wipe them off the map without even denting their nuclear stockpiles.
The threat escalation is not so much about making the threat or the evils of the regime in question greater than they are, though that usually becomes part of the game, but in claiming that there isn’t time to implement less drastic measures like containment and negotiation to achieve a workable solution to the issues. The real hype is in making the threat seem imminent, even when in reality it is at most something in the far future, or which might never even occur. All because if you can make the threat seem immediate, it reduces your options down to the most drastic, namely attacking, which is what the war boosters most want.
And while hyping the threat (and therefore discounting that hype) is part of the equation for determining your choices, even at best it is only a small part. After all, it wasn’t the lack of any real threat that made the Iraq War the strategic clusterf*ck it was for the U.S., it was how everyone involved in the planning chose to ignore and discount the downside risks to military action.
If Iraq should have taught us anything, it should have been that simply focusing on reasons for going to war without considering the effects of the war itself and its aftermath is a sure-fire recipe for strategic disaster.
Remember all those long, detailed discussions of the possible complications that the overthrow of the Iraqi government could unleash? Yeah, me neither, because they never really happened. So far as the war’s supporters were concerned, once Saddam was gone, it would be all cakes and flowers. It was “idiotic” to believe that there may be some animosity between Sunnis and Shias, that Iran might enjoy watching its greatest regional rival destroyed and replaced by a friendly regime, that invading another majority Musilm, Arab state might precipitate more of the anti-American terrorism its boosters were claiming it was being fought to end.
Hell, even a rather successful intervention like the one in Libya, which did not have any real threat factor linked to it at all, generally ignored the possible downside risks, such as what the instability and revenge-minded rebels might do to those they saw as Qaddafi supporters, or even each other, and what possible repercussions the overthrown of Qaddafi might have on the region at large, the most salient of which to date is the civil war in Mali that has resulted in yet another Western intervention.
And yet, to read Drum, the potential downsides to military actions don’t even merit a mention, which is unfortunately all too common in most discussions in the media.
Until that changes, I’m willing to bet most of these arguments for military intervention will look far better than they really are.