Monday, January 15, 2007

Julian Sanchez: "In Defense of My Retroactive Smugness"

Many doves opposed the war on the grounds that they feared something like what we're now seeing would occur. Here's Bill Galston, who I recall finding to be one of the more compelling critics of the war during the run-up:

The Bush administration's goal of regime change is the equivalent of our World War II aim of unconditional surrender, and it would have similar postwar consequences. We would assume total responsibility for Iraq's territorial integrity, for the security and basic needs of its population, and for the reconstruction of its system of governance and political culture. This would require an occupation measured in years or even decades. Whatever our intentions, nations in the region (and elsewhere) would view our continuing presence through the historical prism of colonialism.
And here's, well, me in September of 2002, responding to then-colleague Brink Lindsey:
In the absence of the rule of law and traditional liberal rights, the invisible hand may not function internationally as well as it does in robust markets, but it is not altogether absent: equilibria are established over time. Sometimes these are so unstable or inherently awful that almost anything would clearly be better. It's possible that tomorrow, photos will be released of Saddam and Usama sharing a tall milkshake with two straws. If that happened, I'd be duly embarrassed, and revise my assessment of the Iraqi threat. Under most conditions, though, the power vacuum created by the dramatic sort of regime change the administration envisions triggers a process of re-equilibriation at least as dangerous as the status quo. Deposing a dictator establishes a kind of political arbitrage opportunity, which political entrepreneurs are eager to exploit. In these cases, though, the transaction costs typically involve guns, bombs, and other implements of commerce in destruction. As post-invasion uncertainty rises, parties on the ground rush to exploit perceived differentials in local knowledge, and we see the same kind of flurry you would on a stock floor when a hot bit of news leaks—if the NASDAQ allowed traders to carry grenades. This is good in markets, because each act of arbitrage increases efficiency, and involves exchanges to mutual benefit. Exchanges of artillery lack this attractive feature. As we refrain from intervention domestically in the interest of encouraging productive trade, we should be guided by a defeasible presumption of non-intervention on the international stage in the interest of preventing this undesirable variety.

These are, admittedly, fairly general remarks, so arguably I didn't predict precisely how things would go down. (I imagine accompanying Megan on an ill-fated sightseeing trip to Iraq: "You were so worried about Baathist insurgents, but we're about to be beheaded by the Badr Brigade. Don't you feel silly?") But then, what Tolstoy said about families goes for nation building adventures as well: The happy ones all resemble each other; the failures are infinitely varied. This is not, I think, a point to try to cudgel doves with: Our argument was precisely that destabilizing a country riven by strong sectarian divisions will have chaotic and unpredictable results, and it's for this very reason that there should be a strong presumption against ambitious regime change projects. This argument is not really undermined if the actual clusterfuck that follows differs in the details from our ex ante hypotheticals about what this might entail.

All that said, there's a certain irony in Megan's writing this just on the heels of Michael O'Hanlon's Washington Post op-ed defending the "surge." His argument (rebutted ably by Mark Kleiman, incidentally) is that war critics are hypocritical for opposing escalation now, since we argued so strenuously all along that the invasion was carried out without sufficient troops to stabilize the country. So to recap: When it's convenient for the administration to point it out, we were right on the mark four years ahead of the hawks. But heaven forfend any general inferences about our relative credibility should be drawn from this.

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