Neoconservatives, the Iraq Debate and Ad Hominem Attacks

June 27, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsSecurity Region: United StatesIraq

Neoconservatives, the Iraq Debate and Ad Hominem Attacks

While those who advocated for the Iraq War were wrong, ad hominem attacks make for poor debate.

Like Brown, I do think those who've obviously reflected upon and learned from their mistakes are more credible—and, frankly, more interesting—commentators than those who cling stubbornly to their old positions, facts be damned. It's one thing to still believe that the 2003 invasion was the right course of action. It's quite another to argue that we did the right thing, say, in throwing low-level Baath Party members out of the military and civil service. If former officials and longstanding pundits are simply going to emulate Baghdad Bob, regurgitating comically stupid talking points, they're of no value. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

Relatedly, while bad judgments on complex issues don't necessarily devalue one's value as a commentator, bad faith does. For example, some of the pols and pundits in question have demonstrated a repeated willingness to shade the truth to advance their position.

Salon's Heather Digby Parton notes, "in 2008, the Center for Public Integrity and its affiliated group, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, released a study of the false rationales that led the nation into the Iraq War. It found that leading Bush administration officials had publicly lied at least 935 times," adding, "The major lie was about the Saddam Hussein regime possessing weapons of mass destruction. But the second most common lie was that there was a link between Saddam and al-Qaida, which made the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear weapon falling into the hands of the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11 particularly frightening."

Now, the group in question had a decided agenda and one can certainly dispute their coding decisions. Even some of the statements that Parton singles out as examples, such as Cheney's assertion that, "the evidence is pretty conclusive that the Iraqis have indeed harbored terrorists," are arguably true—if perhaps intentionally misleading. (That is, the "terrorists" in question were fighting for the Palestinian cause and weren't, as Cheney presumably hoped would be inferred, Al Qaeda-related jihadis.) For that matter, repeating an untrue fact that you genuinely believe to be true is not a lie.

Still, as Paul Pillar exhaustively and skillfully documented in Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and other senior Bush administration officials consistently cited intelligence they knew to be disputed when it supported their agenda and willfully ignored intelligence that they found inconvenient. Given the enormous pressures they were under in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, I'm willing to believe that they did so in support of a policy they genuinely believed necessary to secure the nation from foreign threats. But it’s their history of mendacity, not their bad judgments, that make them suspect as participants in the public debate.


James Joyner is an associate professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @DrjJoyner.