There’s really nothing that can be written to make sense of the horrible decision to invade Iraq ten years ago. And reading again, just some of what happened, makes my stomach sick all over again. As does this from Jim Moore, Bang the Drum Loudly: The Failed Journalism That Sent America to War in Iraq.
The White House had mixed up journalists’ ambitions with misleading intelligence and brewed up a myth that yielded a powerful national belief in its illusion. A political Sasquatch, the aluminum tubes story was the first to begin banging the drums of conflict. The truth, finally, was tortured until it was no longer recognizable.
And the sons and daughters of America were sent marching off to war wearing the boots of a well-told lie.
Paul Krugman in his column today points out that no much has changed with journalism in the US since then, Marches of Folly.
Ten years ago, America invaded Iraq; somehow, our political class decided that we should respond to a terrorist attack by making war on a regime that, however vile, had nothing to do with that attack.
Some voices warned that we were making a terrible mistake — that the case for war was weak and possibly fraudulent, and that far from yielding the promised easy victory, the venture was all too likely to end in costly grief. And those warnings were, of course, right.
There were, it turned out, no weapons of mass destruction; it was obvious in retrospect that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into war. And the war — having cost thousands of American lives and scores of thousands of Iraqi lives, having imposed financial costs vastly higher than the war’s boosters predicted — left America weaker, not stronger, and ended up creating an Iraqi regime that is closer to Tehran than it is to Washington.
So did our political elite and our news media learn from this experience? It sure doesn’t look like it.
The really striking thing, during the run-up to the war, was the illusion of consensus. To this day, pundits who got it wrong excuse themselves on the grounds that “everyone” thought that there was a solid case for war. Of course, they acknowledge, there were war opponents — but they were out of the mainstream.
The trouble with this argument is that it was and is circular: support for the war became part of the definition of what it meant to hold a mainstream opinion. Anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration. This was true in political circles; it was equally true of much of the press, which effectively took sides and joined the war party.
All in all, it was an object lesson in the dangers of groupthink, a demonstration of how important it is to listen to skeptical voices and separate reporting from advocacy. But as I said, it’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned. Consider, as evidence, the deficit obsession that has dominated our political scene for the past three years.
Now, I don’t want to push the analogy too far. Bad economic policy isn’t the moral equivalent of a war fought on false pretenses, and while the predictions of deficit scolds have been wrong time and again, there hasn’t been any development either as decisive or as shocking as the complete failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Best of all, these days dissenters don’t operate in the atmosphere of menace, the sense that raising doubts could have devastating personal and career consequences, that was so pervasive in 2002 and 2003. (Remember the hate campaign against the Dixie Chicks?)
But now as then we have the illusion of consensus, an illusion based on a process in which anyone questioning the preferred narrative is immediately marginalized, no matter how strong his or her credentials. And now as then the press often seems to have taken sides. It has been especially striking how often questionable assertions are reported as fact. How many times, for example, have you seen news articles simply asserting that the United States has a “debt crisis,” even though many economists would argue that it faces no such thing?
Dean Baker has much more to say about the economic lies we are being told over and over today, that are causing us harm, Three card Monte with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid..
This is the great Three Card Monte trick. What will matter to the living standards of our children and grandchildren is the upward redistribution that we have seen over the last three decades. If this upward redistribution continues, then most workers will see little benefit from economic growth in the future. In that situation, their living standards may not be much better than those that workers are seeing today and possibly even worse, because a small group at the top will get most of the benefits of growth.
However this is not an issue of intergenerational distribution, it is a question of intra-generational distribution. Yet many economists are running around saying the opposite, arguing that we have to cut Social Security, Medicare and other programmes that primarily benefit the elderly in order to help our children.
This speaks to the incredible corruption of the economics profession. The vast majority of economists are supporting, or at least acquiescing, in plans to cut Social Security and Medicare even though they know that the upward redistribution of income is the real threat to future living standards.
When my children make a mistake I always tell them, “everyone makes mistakes, the key is to learn from it and never make the same mistake again”. I wish my country would heed that advice.