Published on Monday, January 8, 2007 by the New York Times
Quagmire of the Vanities
by Paul Krugman
The only real question about the planned “surge” in Iraq — which is better described as a Vietnam-style escalation — is whether its proponents are cynical or delusional.
Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks they’re cynical. He recently told The Washington Post that administration officials are simply running out the clock, so that the next president will be “the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof.”
Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science for his research on irrationality in decision-making, thinks they’re delusional. Mr. Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon recently argued in Foreign Policy magazine that the administration’s unwillingness to face reality in Iraq reflects a basic human aversion to cutting one’s losses — the same instinct that makes gamblers stay at the table, hoping to break even.
Of course, such gambling is easier when the lives at stake are those of other people’s children.
Well, we don’t have to settle the question. Either way, what’s clear is the enormous price our nation is paying for President Bush’s character flaws.
I began writing about the Bush administration’s infallibility complex, the president’s Captain Queeg-like inability to own up to mistakes, almost a year before the invasion of Iraq. When you put a man like that in a position of power — the kind of position where he can punish people who tell him what he doesn’t want to hear, and base policy decisions on the advice of people who play to his vanity — it’s a recipe for disaster.
Consider, on one side, the case of the C.I.A.’s Baghdad station chief during 2004, who provided accurate assessments of the deteriorating situation in Iraq. “What is he, some kind of defeatist?” asked the president — and according to The Washington Post, at the end of his tour, the station chief “was punished with a poor assignment.”
On the other side, consider the men Mr. Bush has turned to since the midterm election. They constitute a remarkable coalition of the unwilling — men who have been wrong about Iraq every step of the way, but aren’t willing to admit it.
The principal proponents of the “surge” are William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Now, even if the Joint Chiefs of Staff hadn’t given the surge a thumbs down, Mr. Kristol’s track record should have been reason enough to ignore his advice. For example, early in the war, Mr. Kristol dismissed as “pop sociology” warnings that there would be conflict between Sunnis and Shiites and that the Shiites might try to create an Islamic fundamentalist state. He assured National Public Radio listeners that “Iraq’s always been very secular.”
But Mr. Kristol and Mr. Kagan appealed to Mr. Bush’s ego, suggesting that he might yet be able to rescue his signature war. And am I the only person to notice that after all the Oedipal innuendo surrounding the Iraq Study Group — Daddy’s men coming in to fix Junior’s mess, etc. — Mr. Bush turned for advice to two other sons of famous and more successful fathers?
Not that Mr. Bush rejects all advice from elder statesmen. We now know that he has been talking to Henry Kissinger. But Mr. Kissinger is a kindred spirit. In remarks published after his death, Gerald Ford said of his secretary of state, “Henry in his mind never made a mistake, so whatever policies there were that he implemented, in retrospect he would defend.”
Oh, and Senator John McCain, the first major political figure to advocate a surge, is another man who can’t admit mistakes. Mr. McCain now says that he always knew that the conflict was “probably going to be long and hard and tough” — but back in 2002, before the Senate voted on the resolution authorizing the use of force, he declared that a war with Iraq would be “fairly easy.”
Mr. Bush is expected to announce his plan for escalation in the next few days. According to the BBC, the theme of his speech will be “sacrifice.” But sacrifice for what? Not for the national interest, which would be best served by withdrawing before the strain of the war breaks our ground forces. No, Iraq has become a quagmire of the vanities — a place where America is spending blood and treasure to protect the egos of men who won’t admit that they were wrong.
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