Welcome to our final post of “Times the Experts were Wrong,” written in preparation for our review of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Professor Nichols, if you ever happen to read this, I hope it give you some insight into where we, the common people, are coming from. If you don’t happen to read it, it still gives me a baseline before reading your book. (Please see part 1 for a discussion of relevant definitions.)
Part 3 Wars:
WWI, Iraq, Vietnam etc.
How many “experts” have lied to convince us to go to war? We were told we had to attack Iraq because they had weapons of mass destruction, but the promised weapons never materialized. Mother Jones (that source of all things pro-Trump) has a timeline:
November 1999: Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball”—a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs—enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intel officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intel on to senior policymakers. …
11/6/00: Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million; $18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales. …
Jan 2002: The FBI, which favors standard law enforcement interrogation practices, loses debate with CIA Director George Tenet, and Libi is transferred to CIA custody. Libi is then rendered to Egypt. “They duct-taped his mouth, cinched him up and sent him to Cairo,” an FBI agent told reporters. … Under torture, Libi invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. …
Feb 2002: DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” …
9/7/02: Bush claims a new UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report states Iraq is six months from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no such report. …
9/8/02: Page 1 Times story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon cites anonymous administration officials saying Saddam has repeatedly tried to acquire aluminum tubes “specially designed” to enrich uranium. …
Tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”—Rice on CNN …
“We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.”—Cheney on Meet the Press
Oct 2002: National Intelligence Estimate produced. It warns that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities”—an assessment based largely on Curveball’s statements. But NIE also notes that the State Department has assigned “low confidence” to the notion of “whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.” Cites State Department experts who concluded that “the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.” Also says “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” are “highly dubious.” Only six senators bother to read all 92 pages. …
10/4/02: Asked by Sen. Graham to make gist of NIE public, Tenet produces 25-page document titled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It says Saddam has them and omits dissenting views contained in the classified NIE. …
2/5/03: In UN speech, Powell says, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Cites Libi’s claims and Curveball’s “eyewitness” accounts of mobile weapons labs. (German officer who supervised Curveball’s handler will later recall thinking, “Mein Gott!”) Powell also claims that Saddam’s son Qusay has ordered WMD removed from palace complexes; that key WMD files are being driven around Iraq by intelligence agents; that bioweapons warheads have been hidden in palm groves; that a water truck at an Iraqi military installation is a “decontamination vehicle” for chemical weapons; that Iraq has drones it can use for bioweapons attacks; and that WMD experts have been corralled into one of Saddam’s guest houses. All but the last of those claims had been flagged by the State Department’s own intelligence unit as “WEAK.”
I’m not going to quote the whole article, so if you’re fuzzy on the details, go read the whole darn thing.
If you had access to the actual documents from the CIA, DIA, British intelligence, interrogators, etc., you could have figured out that the “experts” were not unanimously behind the idea that Iraq was developing WMDs, but we mere plebes were dependent on what the government, Fox, and CNN told us the “experts” believed.
For the record, I was against the Iraq War from the beginning. I’m not sure what Nichols’s original position was, but in Just War, Not Prevention (2003) Nichols argued:
More to the point, Iraq itself long ago provided ample justifications for the United States and its allies to go to war that have nothing to do with prevention and everything to do with justice. To say that Saddam’s grasping for weapons of mass destruction is the final straw, and that it is utterly intolerable to allow Saddam or anyone like to gain a nuclear weapon, is true but does not then invalidate every other reason for war by subsuming them under some sort of putative ban on prevention.
The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor… a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians, a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the therms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty … a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.
Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime … but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. ..
Those concerned that the United States is about to revise the international status quo might conside that Western inaction will allow the status quo to be revised in any case, only under the gun of a dictator commanding an arsenal of the most deadly materials on earthy. These are the two alternatives, and sadly, thee is no third choice.
Professor Nichols, I would like to pause here.
First: you think Trump is bad, you support the President under whom POWs were literally tortured, and you call yourself a military ethicist?
Second: you, an expert, bought into this “WMD” story (invented primarily by “Curveball,” an unreliable source,) while I, a mere plebe, knew it was a load of garbage.
Third: while I agree Saddam Hussein killed a hell of a lot of people–according to Wikipedia, Human Rights Watch estimates a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed or “disappeared” in the last 25 years of Ba’th party rule, the nine years of the Iraq war killed 150,000 to 460,000 people (depending on which survey you trust,) and based on estimates from the Iraq Body Count, a further 100,000 have died since then. Meanwhile, instability in Iraq allowed the horrifically violent ISIS to to sprout into existence. I Am Syria (I don’t know if they are reliable) estimates that over half a million Syrians have died so far because of the ISIS-fueled civil war rampaging there.
In other words, we unleashed a force that is twice as bad as Saddam in less than half the time–and paid a lovely 2.4 TRILLION dollars to accomplish this humanitarian feat! For that much money you could have just evacuated all of the Kurds and built them their own private islands to live on. You could have handed out $90,000 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq in exchange for “being friends with the US” and still had $150 BILLION left over to invest in things like “cancer treatments for children” and “highspeed rail infrastructure.”
Seriously, you could have spent the entire 2.4 trillion on hookers and blow and we would have still come out ahead.
Back in 2015, you tried to advise the Republican frontrunners on how to answer questions about the Iraq War:
First, let’s just stipulate that the question is unfair.
It’s asking a group of candidates to re-enact a presidential order given 12 years ago, while Hillary Clinton isn’t even being asked about decisions in which she took part, much less about her husband’s many military actions. …
Instead, Republican candidates should change the debate. Leadership is not about what people would do with perfect information; it’s about what people do when faced with danger and uncertainty. So here’s an answer that every Republican, from Paul to Bush, could give:
“Knowing exactly what we know now, I would not have invaded when we did or in the way we did. But I do not regret that we deposed a dangerous maniac like Saddam Hussein, and I know the world is better for it. What I or George Bush or anyone else would have done with better information is irrelevant now, because the next president has to face the world as it is, not as we would like to imagine it. And that’s all I intend to say about second-guessing a tough foreign-policy decision from 12 years ago, especially since we should have more pressing questions about foreign policy for Hillary Clinton that are a lot more recent than that.”
While I agree that Hillary should have been questioned about her own military decisions, Iraq was a formally declared war that the entire Republican establishment, think tanks, newspapers, and experts like you supported. They did such a convincing job of selling the war that even most of the Democratic establishment got on board, though never quite as enthusiastically.
By contrast, there was never any real Democratic consensus on whether Obama should remove troops or increase troops, on whether Hillary should do this or that in Libya. Obama and Hillary might have hideously bungled things, but there was never enthusiastic, party-wide support for their policies.
This makes it very easy for any Dem to distance themselves from previous Dem policies: “Yeah, looks like that was a big whoopsie. Luckily half our party knew that at the time.”
But for better or worse, the Republicans–especially the Bushes–own the Iraq War.
The big problem here is not that the Republican candidates (aside from Trump and Rand Paul) were too dumb to come up with a good response to the question (though that certainly is a problem.) The real problem is that none of them had actually stopped to take a long, serious look at the Iraq War, ask whether it was a good idea, and then apologize.
The Iraq War deeply discredited the Republican party.
Ask yourself: What did Bush conserve? What have I conserved? Surely being a “conservative” means you want to conserve something, so what was it? Iraqi freedom? Certainly not. Mid East stability? Nope. American lives? No. American tax dollars? Definitely not.
The complete failure of the Republicans to do anything good while squandering 2.4 trillion dollars and thousands of American lives is what triggered the creation of the “alt” right and set the stage for someone like Trump–someone willing to make a formal break with past Republican policies on Iraq–to rise to power.
Iraq I, the prequel:
But Iraq wasn’t the first war we were deceived into fighting–remember the previous war in Iraq, the one with the other President Bush? The one where we were motivated to intervene over stories of poor Kuwaiti babies ripped from their incubators by cruel Iraqis?
The Nayirah testimony was a false testimony given before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 by a 15-year-old girl who provided only her first name, Nayirah. The testimony was widely publicized, and was cited numerous times by United States senators and President George H. W. Bush in their rationale to back Kuwait in the Gulf War. In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah’s last name was al-Ṣabaḥ (Arabic: نيره الصباح) and that she was the daughter of Saud Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Furthermore, it was revealed that her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by an American public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. Following this, al-Sabah’s testimony has come to be regarded as a classic example of modern atrocity propaganda.
In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die.
Her story was initially corroborated by Amnesty International and testimony from evacuees. Following the liberation of Kuwait, reporters were given access to the country. An ABC report found that “patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors… fled” but Iraqi troops “almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die.”
Kuwaiti babies died because Kuwaiti doctors and nurses abandoned them. Maybe the “experts” at the UN and in the US government should vet their sources a little better (like actually find out their last names) before starting wars based on the testimony of children?
And then there was Vietnam. Cold War “experts” were certain it was very important for us to spend billions of dollars in the 1950s to prop of the French colony in Indochina. When the French gave up, fighting the war somehow became America’s problem. The Cold War doctrine of the “Domino Theory” held that the loss of even one obscure, third-world country to Communism would unleash an unstoppable chain-reaction of global Soviet conquest, and thus the only way to preserve democracy anywhere in the world was to oppose communism wherever it emerged.
Of course, one could not be a Cold War “expert” in 1955, as we had never fought a Cold War before. This bi-polar world lead by a nuclear-armed communist faction on one side and a nuclear-armed democratic faction on the other was entirely new.
Atop the difficulties of functioning within an entirely novel balance of powers (and weapons), almost no one in America spoke Vietnamese (and no one in Vietnam spoke English) in 1955. We couldn’t even ask the Vietnamese what they thought. At best, we could play a game of telephone with Vietnamese who spoke French and translators who spoke French and English, but the Vietnamese who had learned the language of their colonizers were not a representative sample of average citizens.
In other words, we had no idea what we were getting into.
I lost family in Vietnam, so maybe I take this a little personally, but I don’t think American soldiers exist just to enrich Halliburton or protect French colonial interests. And you must excuse me, but I think you “experts” grunting for war have an extremely bad track record that involves people in my family getting killed.
While we are at it, what is the expert consensus on Russiagate?
At the same time, there is a growing consensus among reporters and thinkers on the left and right—especially those who know anything about Russia, the surveillance apparatus, and intelligence bureaucracy—that the Russiagate-collusion theory that was supposed to end Trump’s presidency within six months has sprung more than a few holes. Worse, it has proved to be a cover for U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement bureaucracies to break the law, with what’s left of the press gleefully going along for the ride. Where Watergate was a story about a crime that came to define an entire generation’s oppositional attitude toward politicians and the country’s elite, Russiagate, they argue, has proved itself to be the reverse: It is a device that the American elite is using to define itself against its enemies—the rest of the country.
Yet for its advocates, the questionable veracity of the Russiagate story seems much less important than what has become its real purpose—elite virtue-signaling. Buy into a storyline that turns FBI and CIA bureaucrats and their hand-puppets in the press into heroes while legitimizing the use of a vast surveillance apparatus for partisan purposes, and you’re in. Dissent, and you’re out, or worse—you’re defending Trump.
“Russia done it, all the experts say so” sounds suspiciously like a great many other times “expert opinion” has been manipulated by the government, industry, or media to make it sound like expert consensus exists where it does not.
Let’s look at a couple of worst case scenarios:
- Nichols and his ilk are right, but we ignore his warnings, overlook a few dastardly Russian deeds, and don’t go to war with Russia.
- Nichols is wrong, but we trust him, blame Russia for things it didn’t do, and go to war with a nuclear superpower.
But let’s look at our final fail:
Failure to predict the fall of the Soviet Union
This is kind of an ironic, given that Nichols is a Sovietologist, but one of the continuing questions in Political Science is “Why didn’t political scientists predict the fall of the Soviet Union?”
In retrospect, of course, we can point to the state of the Soviet economy, or glasnost, or growing unrest and dissent among Soviet citizens, but as Foreign Policy puts it:
In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires. …
Whence such strangely universal shortsightedness? The failure of Western experts to anticipate the Soviet Union’s collapse may in part be attributed to a sort of historical revisionism — call it anti-anti-communism — that tended to exaggerate the Soviet regime’s stability and legitimacy. Yet others who could hardly be considered soft on communism were just as puzzled by its demise. One of the architects of the U.S. strategy in the Cold War, George Kennan, wrote that, in reviewing the entire “history of international affairs in the modern era,” he found it “hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance … of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”
I don’t think this is Political Science’s fault–even the Soviets don’t seem to have really seen it coming. Some things are just hard to predict.
Sometimes we overestimate our judgment. We leap before we look. We think there’s evidence where there isn’t or that the evidence is much stronger than it is.
And in the cases I’ve selected, maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. Maybe Vietnam was a worthwhile conflict, even if it was terrible for everyone involved. Maybe the Iraq War served a real purpose.
WWI was still a complete disaster. There is no logic where that war makes any sense at all.
When you advocate for war, step back a moment and ask how sure you are. If you were going to be the canon fodder down on the front lines, would you still be so sure? Or would you be the one suddenly questioning the experts about whether this was really such a good idea?
Professor Nichols, if you have read this, I hope it has given you some food for thought.