Politics

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

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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
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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.