Is life a game of skill or a game of chance? The Israeli-born psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, says most people think it's the former when in fact it's the latter.
No serious person thinks the US can pull away from Iraq today when there is so much at stake. But that does not justify the initial decision to go to war; the US might conceivably have chosen a different battleground, different tactics, a different diplomacy. So were we wrong, then? And – galling as it may be even to contemplate – were Hans Blix and Jacques Chirac and Claire Short and the rest of them right?
I DON'T think so. Against Bush's Iraq wager was another wager, that went roughly as follows:
1. It was acceptable for Saddam Hussein to remain in power.
2. It was acceptable for there to be some question as to whether he had WMDs, because no one really believed Blix would be able to settle the matter definitively, any more than he had as head of the IAEA in the 1980s when he declared Iraq WMD-free.
3. It was of the utmost importance for the US and Europe to agree on a common agenda, and thus preserve the post-9/11 aura of solidarity, because consensus in the war on terrorism was a more valuable asset in the long run than this or that military victory.
4. It was acceptable for the military phase of the war on terrorism to begin and end in Afghanistan. Thenceforth, the war was to be conducted primarily as a law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering effort.
The idea of abandoning military efforts is equally suspect, because it meant a reversion to the anti-terror paradigm that so conspicuously failed to prevent 9/11. This isn't to say that such an approach is valueless, as recent British successes in seizing explosive caches show. But for such an approach to be effective, it would require security measures and civil liberties restrictions of a kind now unimaginable in open societies.
Is such a game of defense really preferable to a muscular, if somewhat bungling, game of offense?
Opponents of the war might have been on firmer ground if they had argued that, 9/11 notwithstanding, terrorism was basically a nuisance threat which claims far fewer lives than traffic accidents. But if they were not going to press that case, then the argument against war became considerably weaker: It would have meant the indefinite continuation of Saddam's rule. It would have meant continued uncertainty about the nature and extent of his WMD programs. It would have meant a diplomacy without urgency, like the feckless "Contact Group" of the 1990s that pretended to handle the Balkans.
May 14, 2004 -- A MAN has his head cut off by al Qaeda in Iraq, and The New York Times aggressively markets the idea - on its front page yesterday - that his death is somehow the fault of the United States.
"The family of Nicholas E. Berg challenged American military officials on Wednesday," according to lead paragraph in the Times' story, "insisting that the man beheaded by Islamic terrorists in Iraq had earlier been in the custody of federal officials who should have done more to protect him."
Whatever the circumstances of Nick Berg's detention in Iraq and his family's torment at his unspeakable murder, the Times' decision to offer this angle as its main story in the matter of his beheading is a very telling fact about that newspaper, the mainstream media and the politics of 2004.
No matter what happens in the war with Iraq, no matter what the evildoers do, the Times wants to bring it back to high-level American misconduct - misconduct so severe that it supposedly calls the entire mission in Iraq into question. To blame the United States for Berg's beheading might be acceptable for Berg's own grief-deranged kin. But it is not acceptable for The New York Times or anyone else.
The Times is leading the mainstream media in turning the United States into the bad guys in Iraq. But it is far from alone.
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