Sunday, June 29, 2014

Eating Crow

Back in 2003, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, a younger Shylock Holmes was an ardent neoconservative. Democracy was, in my view at the time, both an inherent moral good and a practical instrumental good (though I probably wouldn't have expressed it in those terms). More importantly, I took the Krauthammer position that the time to bomb a country seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was before the weapons were completed, not afterwards. Once they have the nukes, it's rather more difficult to threaten them (see, for instance, North Korea). Which is fine, as far as it goes, and indeed a short, sharp war along these lines might not have been nearly so bad. It sure would have made Iran think twice. There was, of course, a big question of 'yeah, and then what do you plan to do after the place is bombed?', to which I would have had only vague notions about trying out consensual democracy as a cure for the ongoing slow-motion calamity that is the Middle East.

Around the same time, the country group The Dixie Chicks were performing at a concert in London when lead singer Natalie Maines decided to unburden herself of the following observation:
"Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
It has long been a bugbear of mine when artists needlessly inject their political views into situations that do not call for them. In an audience of thousands of people, it is inconceivable that all of them will share your political preoccupations. It seems needlessly rude and antagonistic to turn everything into a political issue, particularly when most people just came to see you sing. 

Not only that, but I still feel that the moral righteousness of the left at the time was enormously overblown. I remember thinking at the time that the Dixie chicks seemed like complete morons. The whole tenor of the left's argument appeared to be mainly thinly dressed up pacifism and a knee-jerk dislike of whatever it was George Bush was doing. Regarding the former, if Saddam had in fact possessed weapons of mass destruction, would they have felt any differently about the ex-post outcome? I sure would have, but for most of the left, I honestly don't know if it would affect their assessment. Regarding the latter, I note that the urgency of getting out of Iraq among the left seemed to drop off a cliff as soon as Barack Obama was elected. I also note, however, that the same election result also made the right a whole lot more willing to consider frankly the possibility that it was a corpse-strewn fool's errand to try to turn Baghdad into Geneva. Hey, no-one said thinking in a non-partisan way was easy.

And yet...

When in comes to predictions, reality is a very equal-opportunity master. You have your views on how the world will evolve, and you may feel clever, or educated or erudite. You may feel that the people who predict differently from you are worthless imbecilic fools. And indeed they may be. But when you say that X will happen, and someone else says that Y will happen, you will find out, at least ex post, who was right.

So with more than ten years of hindsight, here are some randomly chosen recent headlines about Iraq:

et cetera, et depressing cetera.

So it is time to ask the question the Moldbug asked about Zimbabwe -given what we know now, who was right? Putting aside haggling over the specific reasoning and argumentation, who had the better overall gist of the wisdom of the Iraq war?

The answer, alas (for both my ego and the people of Iraq), is a clean sweep to the Dixie Chicks. They were right, and I was wrong. Dead wrong.

The narrow lesson, which I took to heart, is a general skepticism of democracy, especially when applied to third world hellholes, as a cure of society's ills.

But the broader lesson, which it is much easier to forget, is that one should be less certain of one's models of the world. Reality is usually messier and more surprising than you think. Overconfidence springs eternal, notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) how clever you think you are.

Let pride be taught by this rebuke, as Mr Swift put it. 

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