Media Criticism

No, the Cold War Didn't Teach us That Forcible Regime-Change Is Swell

David Brooks can't even learn from our Iraq mistakes right

|

ANY poor rube can come to a simple conclusion! |||

David Brooks had a weird column in Tuesday's New York Times, titled "Learning From Mistakes," which used the occasion of Jeb Bush's fumbling of the Iraq War question to sort through the conflicted post-facto feelings of former war enthusiasts like David Brooks.

"History is an infinitely complex web of causation," Brooks wrote. "The Iraq War error reminds us of the need for epistemological modesty." Someone really should have whispered those lines into the ear of 2003 David Brooks, who was busy publishing such sneering dreck as:

any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion—that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed—but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis. But those who actually have to lead and protect, and actually have to build one step on another, have to bring some questions to a close.

But 2015 Brooks still manages to get a lot of stuff wrong, too, in a way that's worth pondering as politicians and thinkers busily prepare us for our foreign policy mistakes of the future. For instance, check out this historically bass-ackwards explanation for how interventionists, just like Stella, got their groove back in the late '90s:

After the 1990s, many of us were leaning in the interventionist direction. We'd seen the fall of the apartheid regime, which made South Africa better. We'd seen the fall of communist regimes, which made the Eastern bloc nations better. Many of us thought that, by taking down Saddam Hussein, we could end another evil empire, and gradually open up human development in Iraq and the Arab world.

Bolding mine. What a bizarre set of conclusions, if this intellectual progression was true, which it isn't. Apartheid fell not because America or anyone else "took down" the regime, it fell because of heroic activism from within the country, and also because the superpowers pulled out of South Africa. Central Europe became free not because Eisenhower drove the Russkies out of Budapest, or Reagan sent Tom Cruise to provide air cover for Lech Walesa, but—again!—because of the brave actions of anti-totalitarians on the ground, who triggered the (collapsing) Soviet Union's imperial withdrawal. U.S. foreign policy was certainly important in both happy stories, but it was not decisive, and there was no action anything like a large-scale invasion.

The inapt Central Europe/Iraq analogy was one of the most obvious and still-bewildering idiocies of the George W. Bush era. But in fact the peaceful revolutions there had very little to do with why U.S. military interventionists got more spring in their step throughout the '90s. The hawks got bolder, logically enough, because of that decade's three comparatively successful uses of the U.S. military—in the 1991 Gulf War, the 1995 Bosnian intervention, and the 1999 Kosovo bombing.

Interventionism means never having to say you're sorry. ||| Twitter
Twitter

Regardless of the wisdom of these three wars (or the smaller, less chest-puffable skirmishes from Somalia to Haiti to Kurdistan), each were far more successful in achieving military objectives and limiting U.S. casualties than almost any intervention critic predicted. The phrase "Vietnam Syndrome," still as ubiquitous as flannel shirts during the Grunge era, became as rare as ring-pull zippers by the time the Backstreet Boys ruled the skool. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went from being a leading opponent of intervening against Slobodan Milosevic in 1993 to being not just the leading Republican proponent of same in '99, but also author of the most radically interventionist new foreign policy doctrine in modern U.S. history.

Interventionists got cocky about how much democracy could be spread at U.S. gunpoint. They over-relied not just on the fantasia of Central Europe analogies, but on the examples of Japan and Germany after World War II—as if there would be anything comparable to the domestic political will to essentially run vanquished foes for decades on end if need be.

That latter misconception still governs the flawed recommendations of the GOP's many hawks: If only we just exert more will in Iraq (and elsewhere), then we can glide toward an eventual landing of pro-American stability. Like economic interventionism, the useful thing about this argument is that it's unfalsifiable—we'll never know what it would have been like to keep hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq, for the very good reason that Americans would never tolerate the exertions required.

David Brooks's compatriots William Kristol and Robert Kagan in August 2003 were singing a song every bit as delusional as Paul Krugman's when he talks about economic stimulus: "[T]his is the time to bite the bullet and pay the price," the two wrote, in the marvelously headlined piece "Do What It Takes in Iraq." "This is one of those problems that can be solved with enough money."

Want to really learn from our mistakes? Then we need to realize that, as the lady once said, you will eventually run out of other people's money, whether at home or abroad.

Read Reason's Iraq retrospectives from 2008 and 2013.

NEXT: Reason Weekly Contest: Name That Pot Snack Brand Name!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In fact there was a striking lack of progress toward greater liberty in the ME during the 90s despite what was going on nearly everywhere else in the world. It’s almost as if military intervention in the ME was meant to *stabilize* ME tyrannies, not undermine them . . .

    1. Almost?

      1. I mean an enemy of the state could make it seem that way. *I* would never doubt our wise and benevolent leaders.

    2. The thing is, the tyrants were oppressing the people. The people didn’t want freedom, they largely wanted the security and stability that shariah would provide.

      From the plebs’ persepctive, the Islamists have a degree of moral authority, while the liberal ideas of freedom are associated with corruption and cronyism and their proponents have little to no moral authority..

      1. “From the plebs’ persepctive, the Islamists have a degree of moral authority, while the liberal ideas of freedom are associated with corruption and cronyism ”

        Exactly. This is exactly exactly why western military intervention cannot bring liberal democracy to the ME, and why as in South Africa and Eastern Europe it has to come from within. Once liberal democracy is the ideology of a foreign invader (however well intentioned), it becomes something to resist for its own sake.

      2. If your ideal of “moral authority” was the right to choose whether to feed someone head-first, or feet-first, into an industrial shredder, I think you have a flawed vision.

  2. I’m still amazed and delighted at how insulting that cover was. “The Simpletons” is just…perfect for these idiots.

    1. I grin every time I see it. “Apt” is the one word that leaps to mind.

    2. Yes, it’s one of the best Reason covers. I also like this one, with such a cute police officer on it.

    3. It would make a strong “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” warning to command/control types if framed by the front door.

    4. The best part is Friedman’s idiotic grin. It makes him look like a retarded teddy bear.

      1. I don’t think it’s the grin that does that.

  3. “David Brooks’s compatriots William Kristol and Robert Kagan in August 2003 were singing a song every bit as delusional as Paul Krugman’s when he talks about economic stimulus: “[T]his is the time to bite the bullet and pay the price,” the two wrote, in the marvelously headlined piece “Do What It Takes in Iraq.” “This is one of those problems that can be solved with enough money.””

    On the bright side, I liked Robert Kagan’s dad’s books on the Peloponnesian War.

    So at least some good’s come out of that family.

    1. Donald Kagan’s Intro to Greek History is excellent. My everlasting thanks to the forgotten commentator here who recommended it several years ago.

      http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/clcv-205

  4. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went from being a leading opponent of intervening against Slobodan Milosevic in 1993 to being not just the leading Republican proponent of same in ’99, but also author of the most radically interventionist new foreign policy doctrine in modern U.S. history.

    I would argue Graham’s is worse… “Invade everyone, everywhere, every time!”

    1. It’s not even that well composed. “Do stuff! Just do stuff!”

  5. Worst pundit for the New York Times: Friedman, Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd?

    Choice quotes:

    Friedman: Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair ? very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window ? not a care in the world.

    Dowd: Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

    1. Brooks, blaming Penn State rape on SOCIAL LIBRULISM: I don’t think it was just a Penn State problem. You know, you spend 30 or 40 years muddying the moral waters here. We have lost our clear sense of what evil is, what sin is; and so, when people see things like that, they don’t have categories to put it into. They vaguely know it’s wrong, but they’ve been raised in a morality that says, “If it feels all right for you, it’s probably OK.” And so that waters everything down. …

      Kristof: Sorting out the facts will take time, and we may never know for sure what is true or false in Somaly Mam’s past. I now wish I had never written about her, given my doubts, and I assume the same is true of The Washington Post, CNN, Time and other news organizations. But I also hope that people will be as diligent in covering the scandal that is human trafficking as the (likely) scandal of false or embellished backstories. – Nicholas Kristof, totally failing to apologize for helping noted liar Somaly Mam lie about her sex-trafficking work.

      1. Just going by your quotes, Kristoff ‘wins’. Jaysus these fucking people. The NYT is the only place these guys could get employment.

  6. The comparison of central Europe and Iraq is totally stupid and jaw-dropping, but it is still possible to install a liberal(ish) democracy via forcible intervention ex Grenada, Panama, Kurdistan (sort of). Doesn’t mean you should but most of America’s interventions have been neutral or positive in outcome (not considering $$).

      1. A typically convincing argument backed by lots of hard evidence.

        1. Cytotoxic|5.22.15 @ 1:36PM|#
          “A typically convincing argument backed by lots of hard evidence.”

          Calling your opinion bullshit requires only the evidence of reading your bullshit posts;
          Evidence: Cytotoxic posts bullshit.
          Conclusion: Cytotoxic’s post is bullshit.
          Now, bullshit artist, you claim all those are possible and, given that you’re making the claim, I see no evidence.
          Can we presume you’re slinging bullshit once again? Why, yes we can.
          Bullshit.

  7. “The Iraq War error reminds us of the need for epistemological modesty.”

    Que?

  8. What I learned from the cold war is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change. ,

    1. +1 Drago

  9. Worth noting that Kosovo is a total shithole still.

    1. Tell that to Cytotoxic.

      1. Kosovo has been a shithole since the Turkish Caliphate.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.