New York Times uberpundit Paul Krugman wrote in a Dec 2006 column in praise of "those who warned against invading Iraq" and "got it right". Before we examine his list of alleged Iraq Cassandras, let me review what predictions could have changed my mind about invading had I been given reasonable grounds for believing them. The most important is the prediction that, despite the stability in Kurdish Iraq under U.S. military protection, and despite the surprising success America had in deposing the Taliban in favor of a legitimate and representative Afghan government, a sectarian civil war would eventually undermine our effort to liberate the rest of Iraq -- a region much more secular, prosperous, and literate than Afghanistan. The other crucial prediction would have been that Saddam in fact had no WMD programs -- i.e. no active nuclear or biological weapons program, and no systems for the wide dispersal of chemical weapons that otherwise aren't much more worrisome than high explosives, jet fuel, and box cutters.
Did any of Krugman's Cassandras present evidence supporting either of these predictions? No. In fact, with the single exception of Rep. Ike Skelton raising a concern about -- without actually predicting -- Iraqi ethnic strife, no Cassandra on Krugman's list made either prediction even in the absence of an argument supporting it. Instead, Krugman and his Cassandras warned about all kinds of things that never happened:
- mass civilian casualties of American bombing,
- US support for continued Sunni oppression of Shias,
- the Bush Administration prematurely ending its efforts to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq, (hah)
- wars by the Bush Administration against other rogue states,
- Iraqi attacks on Israel, possibly using WMDs,
- first strikes by rogue states cornered into acquiring WMDs,
- Iraqi WMDs falling into unknown hands, and
- unrest in moderate Middle Eastern states.
In fairness, half of the above warnings were from Krugman himself and not his Cassandras. However, the above do not include Howard Dean's extensive list of unrealized fears, which included:
- house-to-house resistance by the Republican Guard in Baghdad,
- use by the Iraqi Army of women and children as human shields,
- Iran and Turkey intervening inside Iraq, and
- environmental disaster in Iraq's oil fields.
Like the proverbial monkey typing on a typewriter, Dean managed to include in his lengthy list an observation that "Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms". However, his grab-bag of unrealized nightmares do not put him in the same league as Skelton, who went 3-for-3 in his sober critique (below) of Bush's strategy. Since Krugman's list included a former President, a nearly-elected President, and several Presidential candidates, I include an analysis of Bill Clinton's pre-invasion position below, to show that no important American leader made either of the two crucial predictions that if substantiated should have prevented the invasion. Instead, the quotes below make it clear that almost all of these leaders granted the premises in the Bush Administration's argument for invasion, and most merely quibbled over how much time to give the UN weapons inspectors.
What Krugman should have compiled was a list of leaders who questioned the evidence for Iraqi WMD. Unfortunately, nobody on Krugman's published list qualifies. In responding to readers, Krugman subsequently mentioned Dennis Kucinich, who like Krugman himself got on record before the invasion as pointing out the weakness of the WMD evidence. However, what I don't see in either's writings is an answer to the observation that Iraq was found out in 1995 to have had vastly more advanced WMD programs in 1991 than our intelligence at the time knew about or that UN inspectors could find. In the light of 9/11 it would have been dangerous to trust the safety of American cities to Saddam's rationality and a mere absence of evidence that Saddam had never resumed the WMD efforts that he was known to have wanted to resume.
Krugman quotes Al Gore as saying in a Sep 2002 speech: "I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century." Here's some of what Krugman doesn't quote from Gore's speech:
In the speech Gore expresses only two significant disagreements with Bush on Iraq. First, he says the justification of any invasion should be grounded on the 1991 cease-fire agreements, rather than on a new doctrine of preemption of non-imminent threats. Second, he disagreed (six months before the invasion) that the clock on diplomacy and UN inspections had completely run out. He didn't question whether Saddam had WMD programs, or that there existed a danger of Saddam supplying WMDs to terrorists. Gore's mention of possible instability in post-invasion Iraq was only in the context of arguing against ending a prospective occupation too early -- which is Bush's (increasingly mistaken) position now in 2007. There is absolutely nothing in Gore's speech that said the danger of post-invasion instability was a reason not to invade, and so no serious observer can count Gore as having correctly predicted that a resulting sectarian civil war would make it prove unwise for America to depose Saddam.
Clinton said in a Feb 2003 speech:
There are three reasons you should be concerned about this. Reason number one is, no matter how we cut it, if we go in alone, or even with a lot of allies, but with substantial opposition in the UN, then our critics will say this is a preemptive attack, not a police action to enforce the UN resolution. [...] Second thing is, there is a risk here in this conflict. Even though I think it will be over before you know it, a lot of innocent people will die, because whenever you drop big bombs, that happens. [...] Also, right now Saddam Hussein has maximum incentive not to use these chemical and biological weapons. If we go to war and he knows he's toast, then he'll have maximum incentive to use or give them away. [...] And the third thing is we ought to want to cost of the peace shared, because it's going to take years to rebuild Iraq. If we do this, we want it to be a secular democracy. We want it to be a model for other Middle Eastern countries. We want to do what a lot of people in the administration honestly want, which is to have it shake the foundations of autocracy in the Middle East and promote more freedom and decency."
Clinton's only criticism of Bush's Iraq policy is that it should be more multilateral so as to strengthen the UN and share the costs and risks of opposing terrorist access to WMD. Clinton did not question whether Saddam still had WMD capabilities, nor did he utter a single syllable of warning that deposing Saddam would lead to a sectarian civil war.
George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft
Krugman quotes Bush the elder writing with Brent Scowcroft in 1998: "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land." However, the context makes it clear that Bush and Scowcroft were worried less about sectarian hostility than about anti-occupation hostility, and even more worried about the New World Order:
The phrase "breakup of the Iraqi state" is the only hint that Bush and Scowcroft had an inkling of an Iraqi civil war. That phrase is employed to worry about regional balance of power, and not about invasion potentially leading to quagmire. No serious observer can count Bush and Scowcroft as having correctly predicted that a resulting sectarian civil war would make it prove unwise for America to depose Saddam.
Paul Krugman quotes Howard Dean as saying in a Feb 2003 speech: "Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms." Here's some of what Krugman doesn't quote from Dean's speech:
It is possible, however, that events could go differently, and that the Iraqi Republican Guard will not sit out in the desert where they can be destroyed easily from the air. It is possible that Iraq will try to force our troops to fight house to house in the middle of cities - on its turf, not ours - where precision-guided missiles are of little use. It is possible that women and children will be used as shields and our efforts to minimize civilian casualties will be far less successful than we hope. There are other risks. Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms. Iran and Turkey each have interests in Iraq they will be tempted to protect with or without our approval. If the war lasts more than a few weeks, the danger of humanitarian disaster is high, because many Iraqis depend on their government for food, and during war it would be difficult for us to get all the necessary aid to the Iraqi people. There is a risk of environmental disaster, caused by damage to Iraq's oil fields. And, perhaps most importantly, there is a very real danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror. [...] If you talk to military leaders, they will tell you there is a big difference between pushing back the Iraqi armed forces in Kuwait and trying to defeat them on their home ground. There are limits to what even our military can do. Technology is not the solution to every problem. And we can't assume the Iraqis have learned nothing over the past twelve years. [...]
Nor has the Administration prepared sufficiently for the possible retaliatory attacks on our home front that even the President's CIA Director has stated are likely to occur. [...] We must do more - much more - to protect our water supplies, our buildings and monuments, our bridges and highways, our dams, and our nuclear power plants."
Thus, after agreeing with the major premises of the Bush Administration's justification for deposing Saddam, Dean's warning about ethnic rivalries is merely a a third-tier entry in a list of nine "possibilities", the other eight of which did not come true. (So much for Krugman's invocation of Cassandra: "all her prophecies came true, and so it was with those who warned against invading Iraq".) The only other arguably prescient warning Dean made was about the "danger that war in Iraq will fuel the fires of international terror", but since 9/11 those fires have not so much as singed "our water supplies, our buildings and monuments, our bridges and highways, our dams, [or] our nuclear power plants". Cataloging worst-case possibilities is not the same thing as prescience, and no serious observer can count Dean as having correctly predicted that a resulting sectarian civil war would make it prove unwise for America to depose Saddam.
Dennis Kucinich said in a 2003-02-27 interview:
Kucinich clearly implied that Iraq's "untold suffering and misery and death" and reconstruction costs would be the direct result of America "bombing Iraq", but in fact only a small fraction of Iraqi deaths since the invasion have been due to U.S. munitions. In a 2003-03-21 statement, Kucinich falsely implied that the "shock and awe" campaign of precision-guided air attacks was designed to attack civilians:
Kucinich rightly questioned the evidence for Iraq's nuclear program in statements on 2003-03-19:
Despite misleading claims by the Administration, Iraq is not a nuclear threat. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed El Baradei has said that there is no evidence of resumed nuclear activates in Iraq. And, despite numerous claims by the Administration that Iraq has ties with Al-Qaeda and the potential to share weapons of mass destruction with Iraq, its own CIA Director told Congress that this unlikely to happen.
In the month before the war, Kucinich's many statements about Iraq warned repeatedly (and arguably incorrectly) that war would increase the risk of terrorist attacks against America, but never once warned of civil war in Iraq. None of Kucinich's statements explain why America should have believed in the 2003 absence of evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, when the record had shown that our 1991 belief in that absence had been horribly wrong. Nor did Kucinich explain why the safety of American cities should be based on the "unlikelihood" of Saddam Hussein doing something risky and evil.
Krugman quotes from an Oct 2002 speech in which Obama said:
It would be ludicrous to count this comment as a successful prediction that deposing Saddam would lead to a Sunni-Shia civil war. Obama also said in that speech:
Obama's speech gives no hint as to how the "international community" was going to ensure that 1) Iraq could not follow through on its undisputed and then-unaccounted-for earlier WMD efforts, and 2) any Iraqi WMDs would never fall into terrorist hands.
Rep. John Spratt
Krugman quotes Spratt saying in Oct 2002: "The outcome after the conflict is actually going to be the hardest part, and it is far less certain." What Krugman doesn't tell us is Spratt's next two sentences: "We do not want to win this war only to lose the peace and swell the ranks of terrorists who hate us. A broad-based coalition will raise our chances of success even more in the post-war period." Spratt gave no inkling of an Iraqi civil war, and instead was talking about the prospect that a unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq by America would expose America to more terrorism.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Krugman quotes Pelosi saying in October 2002: "When we go in, the occupation, which is now being called the liberation, could be interminable and the amount of money it costs could be unlimited." Here's the context that Krugman doesn't quote from Pelosi's statement:
Thus Pelosi's comment about an "interminable occupation" was in the context of fiscal costs to American taxpayers. Her discussion of "the cost in human lives" is explicitly about American lives, and she makes no reference to the costs in Iraqi lives -- and certainly not such costs incurred by possible Iraqi civil war. (Note that Pelosi did not question Saddam's possession of WMD.)
Sen. Russ Feingold
Krugman quotes Feingold saying in October 2002:
In fact, Feingold didn't merely make glib complaints about the invasion justification. He also warned of the so-far-unrealized danger that the invasion of Iraq would 1) scatter Iraqi WMDs into unknown hands and 2) lead to "unrest in moderate states" elsewhere in the Middle East:
Thus Feingold never even mentioned the prospect of sectarian strife in Iraq. His concerns about "stability" in Afghanistan were on the same level as his concern over a terrorist attack on a "French tanker in Yemen". The best that can be said of Feingold's warnings is that he was right that there were unknown "demands [...] in a post-Saddam Iraq". However, Feingold's vague fretting just doesn't add up to successful prediction that Iraq would descend into sectarian chaos.
Rep. Ike Skelton
Krugman quotes Skelton saying in Sep 2002: "I have no doubt that our military would decisively defeat Iraq's forces and remove Saddam. But like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it." As with Feingold, Krugman's quote doesn't do justice to Skelton, who raised several prescient concerns in the letter to Bush from which Krugman quoted:
2. How to ensure the action in Iraq does not undermine international support for the broader war on terrorism. [...] Actions without broad Arab support may inflame the sources of terrorism, causing unrest and anger throughout the Muslim world. This dynamic will be worse if Iraq attacks Israel-perhaps with weapons of mass destruction-and draws them into the conflict. Iran, which has the potential to seize a reformist path, may well move away from the United States in the face of attacks that could next be taken against them.
3. How to ensure that the United States can execute this operation successfully as well as its other military missions [...] How many casualties must the American people be prepared to take in a worst-case scenario? What military operations might we have to forego because of continued demands in Iraq?
Even though Iraq did not attack Israel, Skelton emerges from Krugman's list as the only Cassandra who actually warned of sectarian strife without burying that warning (as Dean did) in a laundry list of other warnings which didn't come true. Ironically, Skelton has one other significant difference with the Krugman Cassandras whose predictions were variously wrong or off-point: the prescient Skelton is the only Cassandra on Krugman's list who supported the war.
So what about Krugman's own record? Let's look at his Iraq-related columns in the few months before the invasion. Krugman wrote on 2002-09-24:
Krugman now cites this column as an accurate prediction about Iraq, but of course it isn't. The problem in Iraq hasn't been Iraqi resistance to American occupation. The problem in Iraq has been a sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shia. This Sep 2002 column makes no prediction whatsoever regarding sectarian civil war. On 2003-02-11 Krugman said he shared Europe's alleged
Nowadays, by contrast, Krugman is complaining that Bush has too much "staying power" in Iraq. On 2003-02-21 Krugman wrote
Fourteen months later, the hard-to-please Krugman was complaining about Bush "blunders" that included "disbanding the Iraqi Army, [...] appointing an interim council dominated by exiles with no political base and excluding important domestic groups." Krugman spent his 2003-03-07 penultimate pre-invasion column exclusively on the danger that the Bush administration would encourage a backlash against Hispanics because of Mexico's reluctance to support the invasion in the UN. Then on 2003-03-14 Krugman wrote:
The original reasons given for making Iraq an immediate priority have collapsed. No evidence has ever surfaced of the supposed link with Al Qaeda, or of an active nuclear program. And the administration's eagerness to believe that an Iraqi nuclear program does exist has led to a series of embarrassing debacles, capped by the case of the forged Niger papers, which supposedly supported that claim. [...] Need I point out that North Korea, not Iraq, is the clear and present danger? Kim Jong Il's nuclear program isn't a rumor or a forgery; it's an incipient bomb assembly line. [...] We all hope that the war with Iraq is a swift victory, with a minimum of civilian casualties. But more and more people now realize that even if all goes well at first, it will have been the wrong war, fought for the wrong reasons — and there will be a heavy price to pay.
On 2003-03-18 Krugman wrote:
Krugman's vague aside about "the problems of postwar occupation" cannot count as a prediction of the Iraqi civil war. The "series of wars" he warned of has not materialized. "War on the Korean peninsula" has not happened. No "targeted" regime has "struck first", and while Iran and North Korea have continued their already-existing efforts to develop nuclear technology, Libya in late 2003 renounced all WMD efforts. Krugman was right to question the evidence about Iraq's nuclear program, but he didn't predict that Iraq would turn out not to have such a program. On 2003-04-11 Krugman wrote:
Thus in Krugman's first post-invasion column, he admits having no foresight about the fateful question of how Iraqis will react to liberation, and again worries that Bush will not devote enough attention and resources to Iraq. The best that can be said for Krugman's prognosticating is that his faith in the Bush Administration's incompetence was rescued by the willingness of Iraqis to squander their liberation with a civil war. That's certainly not being "right about Iraq", and it's arguably not even being right about Bush (unless Krugman can show that a civil war was preventable). Krugman was right to focus on nuclear WMD and the lack of evidence that Iraq still was pursuing them, but his shrill claims of Bush Administration malevolence reflect an unwillingness to grapple with the systematic problems confounding US intelligence about Iraqi WMD (as documented in the definitive 2005 618-page report of the commission on WMD intelligence). The two fundamental problems were both CYA. First, the US intelligence community was determined not to repeat the errors it had made before the 1991 war that were discovered in 1995, when Saddam's defecting son-in-law revealed that the U.S. had vastly underestimated Iraq's nuclear and biological weapons efforts. Second, the Bush Administration was determined not to be blamed for allowing Iraq-produced WMDs to be used in any repeat of 9/11. If Krugman has ever addressed these two issues, I'd love to hear about it.