The Skeptics

Is Stupidity Hard to Judge ahead of Time?

Chris Preble was pushing back against Max Boot yesterday, and I notice that Steven Metz of the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute chimed in, too. (Boot was lamenting the pretend-cuts in military spending that Secretary Gates is using to try to fend off actual cuts.)

As Metz succinctly put it, it would be “better to not undertake stupid interventions than to pay for a force to compensate for stupid interventions.” Boot responded by claiming that “stupidity is hard to judge ahead of time.”

I despise Twitter so I am willing to chalk the curious response up to the medium, but it ought to be said that the stupidity of the Iraq War was not terribly difficult to judge ahead of time perhaps anywhere on earth—other than inside the Beltway. John Mearsheimer and 32 of his colleagues tried—unsuccessfully—to intervene in the debate, noting that “even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.”[.pdf]

That judgment looks pretty solid in retrospect. Max Boot’s writing at the time, by contrast, looks terrible. As late as 2003, Boot was writing things like this:

Formal empire is passé, and Americans have little enthusiasm for it. Promoting liberal democracies with U.S. security guarantees is more our style. In Iraq, that means purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government…

This means using American troops to secure all of Iraq. It will be insufficient to set up a peacekeeping force whose authority extends only to the capital. It will be unacceptable to say that peacekeeping is not a job for the U.S. military. Since the United States is committed to a “unitary” Iraq, it will have to commit sufficient force to make this a reality. This probably will not require the 200,000 troops suggested by Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, but it will require a long-term commitment of at least 60,000 to 75,000 soldiers, the number estimated by Joint Staff planners. (emphasis added)

To recap that, Max Boot was arguing in 2003 that 60-75,000 U.S. troops could provide security all across Iraq, while simultaneously “purging the Baathists, providing humanitarian relief, starting to rebuild, and then setting up a process to produce a representative local government.”

So it’s certainly true that the stupidity of the Iraq War appears to have been hard for Max Boot to judge ahead of time. I actually wasn’t aware that he had admitted even today that it was stupid. But in any case, the stupidity of the endeavor wasn’t hard for everyone to judge ahead of time. We should pay more attention to the people who got that one right.