Related to another post from earlier in the day, and inspired by Michael’s article in the new issue of TAC and Reihan’s post on national defense, I started to think about the problem of persuasion. Michael notes that movement conservatism is not engaging in any serious rethinking–even most of the reformers/reformists are by and large tinkering around the edges and none of them has much of anything to say about changing U.S. foreign policy–and he observed that there was absolutely no reconsideration of the war in Iraq going on. Some of our realist friends would dispute that and say that they have been thinking about the lessons of Iraq, but for the most part the lessons they are saying they learned are not all that satisfying. What would war supporters have to accept to demonstrate to opponents that they had learned the right lessons?

Stating the opponents’ case, Paul Schroeder wrote this for TAC last year :

The argument here is that the war never went wrong; it always was wrong, in specific, basic ways [bold mine-DL]. The distinction is fundamental, eminently practical, and involves lessons that the U.S.—its government, elites, and broad public alike—has not yet learned. It accounts for the fact that all of the current plans for getting out of Iraq are not really plans for genuinely getting out, but plans for staying on in one way or another so as to minimize further losses, recoup sunk costs, and protect particular interests. It means that until we squarely face what we have not hitherto faced as a nation—what this war represented, what we have done, and what this says about who and what we are—we will not be willing or able to take the practical steps necessary to contain the fire now burning, dampen and extinguish it as much as possible, and do what is necessary at home and abroad to prevent an even greater fire next time.

For the most part, such self-examination and self-criticism have not yet begun, and I doubt that they will start anytime soon. Even though it seems obvious to us that the war was decisive in wrecking the reputation of conservatism and the GOP, I suppose there is a certain logic, or at least a certain inevitability in the enduring conviction that there was nothing wrong with the war in Iraq that more soldiers and better planning couldn’t have solved. As Michael says, “It would be too incriminating to question the justice of the Iraq War.” More important than that, though, it would require not merely rethinking and some genuinely painful change for conservatives, but it would probably also involve tearing down some long-established, more widely-shared national myths. As Anatol Lieven said regarding the potential for policy changes in the new administration:

How much of this is likely? Eight years in Washington left me with considerable pessimism about the capability of the U.S. policy elites—Democrat as well as Republican—to carry out radical changes in policy if these required real civic courage and challenges to powerful domestic constituencies or dominant national myths [bold mine-DL].

This got me to thinking about Reihan’s remark that he didn’t think the Iraq war was pointless. Of course, I do think it is pointless, and worse than that, and have said so repeatedly for years. If it is anything, it seems to me, it is now pointless. That’s one of the more complimentary things one can say about it. At one time the war may have had a purpose, and back then it was a bad one; now it doesn’t even have that. How can one possibly persuade someone on the other side of such a huge chasm that he is on the wrong side? This is a problem that goes beyond language, tone and framing, because once you get past all of these things war supporters basically accept an important national myth–America does not fight futile, much less unjust, wars–and this is plainly irreconcilable with recognizing the futility of the war in Iraq, to say nothing of acknowledging its injustice.

Reihan is as smart and fair-minded a person as you can find among supporters of the war, and if I could imagine persuading anyone on the other side that the war was, in fact, an exercise in illegal aggression that did nothing to benefit American national security and served no vital U.S. interests that person would have to be Reihan. Right away, however, I am struck by a basic difficulty: how can a war opponent honestly call the war what he regards it to be while persuading a reasonable war supporter that he should no longer support it? Debates over the war have been as fruitless as they have been in part because the core assumptions and foreign policy visions of people on either side are so wildly divergent and contradictory that they are barely talking about the same thing.

This brings us to the larger question of persuadability–who is actually persuadable on a given question? I have started to have the creeping suspicion that persuadability in debate is very much like being an undecided voter: the less you know, and the less you have thought, about a particular topic, the more likely you are to be persuadable. This has much less to do with being reasonable, open-minded or willing to look at evidence; persuadability is probably closely linked to lack of knowledge, and the side in the debate that successfully fills that gap first wins. The longer you have been tied to a particular view, and the more time you have spent articulating reasons for holding it, the less persuadable you are going to be. Those who are persuadable are also likely to be the weakest in their newfound convictions, which they will drop just about as quickly as they adopted them.

It is true that there are war supporters who have since soured on the war or some that even flipped and became staunch opponents; war has radicalizing effects, and especially when things go awry it can cause dramatic shifts in the views of some people. Some who trusted the administration’s claims were burned when those claims were proven bogus. On the whole, however, very, very few have come into opposition because of antiwar arguments. This is a sobering realization. Was this because those making the antiwar case made unpersuasive arguments? Viewed narrowly, the answer would have to be yes, but it seems to me for the most part people who have changed their view on the war did so because of events. Their changed view had nothing to do with antiwar arguments, except indirectly insofar as events seemed to vindicate some or most of war opponents’ warnings and undermined the optimistic claims of supporters. Michael laments that ideas don’t matter in movement conservatism, but I am beginning to wonder if they ever matter in these debates.