Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ezra Klein shows how it is done

Ezra Klein's mia culpa on Iraq is actually impressive.  He convinced me that he has learned from his huge mistake.  This is impressive, because he was barely legally adult at the time he made it.  I think everyone should read his column.

I think no one should waste his or her time reading my comment which I reproduce below.

This is a really excellent column.  I'm sure it was painful to write.  I have three thoughts.

First it seems to me that invading Iraq would have been an even worse mistake if there were WMD.  It is clear they wouldn't have been secured.   Before the invasion, it was clear that the US intelligence community didn't know where WMD were (they had given all the useful information they had to the UN inspectors and had given no useful information to the UN inspectors).  After the invasion, the failure to secure Iraqi high explosives (whose location was known) makes it very clear that if there had been WMD they would have fallen into the hands of insurgents and, eventually, al Qaeda in Iraq.  It might be hard to deter Saddam Hussein, but it is impossible to deter terrorists who are willing to commit suicide.

Second, Pollack continues to insist that Saddam Hussein was undeterable.  But we now know that he complied with all UN resolutions before the invasion (not long before but before).  What evidence could possibly convince Pollack that he was deterable ?  I think Pollack is trying to escape into the unknowable.  We can't read Saddam Hussein's mind.  It is impossible in theory to prove that Saddam Hussein wasn't so dangerous that we had to invade Iraq.  It is impossible in theory to prove that Cameron isn't so dangerous that we have to invade the UK.  In this case I think that claiming telepathy is the last resort of someone who was totally utterly wrong and now refuses to deal with facts and data.

Third note how little new evidence collected in 2003 before the invasion affected peoples' beliefs about WMD in Iraq.  This includes me (I was always convinced that Iraq didn't have a threatening nuclear weapons program and was convinced that there was anthrax and nerve gas in Iraq until well after the invasion).  The total collapse of the Bush administration's case that there was an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program and the conclusions of the IAEA seem not to have affected anyone's beliefs at all.  I think that the problem is that most people engaged in the discussion chose a side and then made a case.  

My belief is that once a politician or pundit has publicly declared a position, he or she generally won't allow evidence to cause a retraction.  I am quite sure that this is an optimal strategy to maximize influence or power.  Admitting one was wrong is costly (that's why I admire the column so much).  There is something terribly wrong about the incentives that pundits and politicians and such give each other.  Yes people are also naturally stubborn, but encouraging sticking to one's position in spite of contrary evidence makes things worse.

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