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Why Were “Radicals” Right on Iraq?

Rod looks back on the Iraq war debate and acknowledges that its “radical” opponents got the main question right:

I don’t think this makes radicals always right, or beyond mockery. But I learned that sometimes, radicals of the left and the right see things, however imperfectly, that most of us don’t.

What I’d like to address here are some of the reasons why “radicals” saw what others didn’t. One very important reason was that “radicals” tend to be very skeptical of those in political authority. If one common non-“radical” response to a government claim about a foreign threat is to assume that “they know things we don’t,” the “radical” response will be to question the evidence for that claim and to cast doubt on the assumptions behind it. “Radicals” have a much lower level of trust in government in general and much less willingness to defer to leaders’ arguments. When those arguments are based on evidence as thin and unpersuasive as the case for invading Iraq was, it becomes even easier for “radicals” to disbelieve what they are being told. While having some understanding of the region wasn’t necessary in order to see that the invasion was folly, many “radicals” had enough that they realized that the administration’s ambitious project for Iraq was a disaster in the making. There’s no question that familiarity with and opposition to past U.S. policies in the region informed and drove a lot of “radical” opposition to the war, which reinforced the existing skepticism. If you already opposed Iraq sanctions because of the harm they did to the civilian population, for example, you weren’t very likely to endorse a full-scale invasion of the country.

“Radicals” were already effectively on the margins of policy debate (ignoring them was not and still isn’t limited to the debate over Iraq), so there was never any danger that they would be shunned and ostracized by their colleagues. That meant that they were willing to state objections to the war that more “conventional” people shared but chose not to say publicly. Another factor was that “radicals” were not interested in being partisan “team players,” and the idea that they should swallow or mute their objections to a bad policy on the basis of partisan loyalty or for the sake of the party’s political fortunes seemed ridiculous to them.

One of the things I hope that Americans have learned from the Iraq war is that what were considered “radical” arguments against the war in the U.S. in 2002-03 weren’t really all that radical. The people in government advocating for an illegal, preventive war to counter a threat that did not yet exist and never would were the ones proposing a radical “solution” to an entirely manageable problem, and they did so without any consideration of or preparation for the consequences. When judging someone’s “radicalism,” one should always focus on the substance of the policy he is proposing rather than the position or status of the person.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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