Lessons Learned???

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Aug 21, 2010 at 14:00


Matt Yglesias has a very admirable little post trying to get at why he was wrong about invading Iraq, "Four Reasons for a Mistake":

1. Erroneous views of foreign policy in general: At the time, I adhered to the school of thought (popular at the time) which held that one major problem in the world was that the US government was unduly constrained in the use of force abroad by domestic politics. More forceful intervention in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo had all been called for. This led to a general predisposition in favor of military adventurism.

Pattern recognition is hard.  Computer scientists in the 1950s didn't know this. We do.  But this is ridiculous!  All the more kudos for fessing up now.

2. Elite signaling: When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously....

Bob Dylan: "Don't follow leaders."

Addendum:  Especially leaders who are listening to Democratic campaign consultants.

3. Misreading the politics: It seemed to me that the political consequences to George W Bush of invading Iraq to disrupt a nuclear weapons program and then discovering that there was no such program would be disastrous....

The very first thing Bush did in early September 2002 was lie about a non-existent IAEA report.  That lie caused him zero problems. Pattern recognition is hard.  But this is ridiculous!  

4. Kenneth Pollack: The formal case for war that I found compelling was Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq." ....

"The Threatening Storm" turned out to be Ed Wood sound effects.  Ooops!

Kudos all around for Matt's willingness to admit mistakes and more than that, to try to understand why.

What worries me, though, is the limited nature of the lessons he seems to have learned.  I'd like to be proven wrong.

Or at the very least, I'd like to hear Matt reflect on how he'd do things differently going forward.

Bottom line: Good for Matt, but don't stop now!


p.s. Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns & Money adds:

What I especially like is his willingness to conclude that his mistake in judgment on a specific issue was a product not merely of idiosyncratic circumstances, but of a structurally flawed way of thinking about the world, and specifically an over-willingness to trust elite opinion (this is especially impressive for for someone from Yglesias' background, i.e. upper class Harvard grad etc.).
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Lessons Learned??? | 29 comments
Maybe he'll have a similar epiphany regarding education reform? (4.00 / 10)
He is certainly making the four same mistakes:

1. Erroneous view of education policy in general. He is adhering to the widespread belief that American public schools are failed institutions in general and that pervasive standardized testing is the best approach to improvement.

2. Elite signaling. When elites such as Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, the Walton Family, and Chester Finn tell him the the best way forward in American education is to use standardized test scores to fire "ineffective" teachers and close schools, he seems all ears.

3. Misreading the politics. His faith in the bipartisan Washington Consensus is blinding him from seeing the seething resentment building from teachers, parents, and communities that are being ravaged by mistaken education policies.

4. The Center for American Progress. The formal case for mistaken education reforms continues to be put forth by a Beltway alliance of CAP, AEI, and the C of C whose analysis and reports on education are deeply flawed.

What do you think?


Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...


This MO of his seems to apply to every issue. (4.00 / 2)
I can't think of one in which he doesn't follow that pattern. So perhaps he can continue to write mea culpas on every major issue now? Granted, those as yet unwritten columns will prove tedious in their formularity, but it would be a start.

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
Yeah, I admire the honesty of this post (4.00 / 1)
It's been a while since I've seen someone make such an embarrassing admission--he supported the war because Hillary Clinton did?--but an even more honest post would have simply said, "I was was wrong about Iraq because I'm wrong about most big issues."

[ Parent ]
Now THAT would be worth the price of admission! (0.00 / 0)


"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -Woody Allen, My Speech to the Graduates

[ Parent ]
Well, So's His Whole Class (4.00 / 2)
    "I was was wrong about Iraq because I'm wrong about most big issues, just like everyone I know, and everyone they know."

Now, who in Versailles (the original or the current version) ever had wisdom or the guts to say anything like that?


"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Or (0.00 / 0)
he could simply post Warning: Don't Trust My Judgment at the top of every post.

[ Parent ]
I Think (4.00 / 2)
You might well expand this a bit into a diary we could run in hopes of moving things along a bit.

'Cause it sure does seem like an easy fit.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Better Elite (4.00 / 1)
If you do expand it, I'd suggest with coming up with better elite than this list.  Something more obviously Democratic and "liberal".  They obviously exist.  

Does Kennedy count as the sponsor of NCLB?  I've heard complaints that Bush didn't fully fund NCLB, but that is basically what Obama is doing, funding it.


[ Parent ]
IMHO Kennedy Got Snookered On Several Levels (4.00 / 2)
Doing anything at all with Bush after the stealing of the Florida election was arguably the worst moral/political decision Ted Kennedy ever made.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Yay I know. (0.00 / 0)
Kennedy fer sure. Just about anyone else who supported NCLB legislation who happened to be in the "liberal elite." Plenty to choose from.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
I've already got something else planned for tomorrow (0.00 / 0)
related to the recent outing of "ineffective" teachers by the LAT. Maybe next week, unless another outrage emerges.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Well, (0.00 / 0)
I was sort of hoping you might do a quickie for Monday, since it really wouldn't need a great deal more detail to make the point.

And I'm happy you've chosen to go after the LAT.  That really stuck out, particularly being in their circulation area & all.  (There's an LAT paper box just across the street, I can see from my window.)

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Okay (0.00 / 0)
I'll be in touch.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Color me unconvinced and unforgiving (4.00 / 3)
When you reason from your class pretensions, this is where you wind up. Matt would have us believe that he's seen the light, but given his history, I wouldn't count on it. At Harvard's prices, humility is never on offer. Otherwise it might as well be Cal State Fresno. Then what would Matt have to sell, apart from himself?

Whatever else is true, we absolutely can't have that.


He ignored his biggest mistake (4.00 / 6)
which never entered his head:

It is possible to lose a War.

Funny how no none ever considers that possibility when they march off to War.


Or Worse Yet (4.00 / 2)
That "winning" a war might not actually win the war.

That's the same damn thing the Brits discovered back in Churchill's day.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
Color Me Not Impressed (4.00 / 11)
I certainly don't claim any special brilliance because I was predicting disaster back in 2002, but that list seems to me to reflect beltway group-think and it's troubling in the extreme that the same blindness still infects Washington to the exclusion of reasonable debate.

Perhaps the worst thing about policy "debates" seems to be that some sources are "official" or "legitimate" or what "all the serious people are talking about" -- and all the rest of the information sources in the world simply don't exist.

I wasn't (and am not) an expert on Middle Eastern history, but just doing some marginal online research at the time disclosed some unambiguous truths about Iraq such as:

1. Saddam Hussein was enemies with Al Queda. He was a secularist tyrant with an entire library of books about the man he most admired -- Joseph Stalin. That ought to be a tip off right there that Saddam thought of himself as the new Saladin to unite the Middle East under HIS rule.

And the one thing even conservatives know about Joseph Stalin is that he was certainly NOT was a religious extremist!

2. With a role model like that, Saddam might therefore be expected NOT get along with a Wahhabi extremist who wanted to take Islam back to the era of the Righteous Caliphs like Osama.

3. And of course, the statements issued by Osama calling the socialist Baath party "heretics" or "apostates" (which were never allowed to be quoted in any length length or analyzed seriously) ought to be enough to tip you off right there -- if you bothered to look up the implications of "heresy" to someone like a Sunni extremist.

One could go on for hours about all the fairly obvious and easily accessible evidence that was ignored by all the "serious people."

But, what it all comes down to is that whatever the "serious people" in and around government are thinking and saying is taken as the gospel, and nothing else can even get a word in edgewise.

And we're not even talking about "hostile" sources, just flat neutral news sources pointing out the history and politics of the region.

It just takes enormous intellectual rigor NOT to notice that the Emperor is stark naked when tons of evidence is right in front of you. Yet it seems that everybody in the national media and especially liberals, is able to master this skill of learning unerringly who to quote, what once can think and what will get you labeled as a "leftist kook" or "outsider", and what are the bounds of "acceptable debate".

What is worst is that no independent checking of facts seems to be permitted, except from "acceptable" sources. And information is weighed not on whether it presents a cohesive and informed  narrative that is both consistent with all the available evidence and also has predictive value -- the way that one might check a scientific theory by making a prediction and then seeing if the evidence was in accord with the prediction, but rather on whether everybody who "matters" is thinking or saying the same thing.

Until we are able to apply an objective standard to journalism we cannot progress.

You notice that a persistent criticism of Media Matters is the way that the media abrogate their duty to simply tell viewers that one side in a debate is simply "making things up." That's because information is not weighed according to some objective standard, but according to the perceived importance of the people who are saying it.


This. (4.00 / 3)
That's because information is not weighed according to some objective standard, but according to the perceived importance of the people who are saying it.


[ Parent ]
William, Your Fingers Are Slipping! (4.00 / 1)
I'm SURE you didn't mean to troll-rate this comment!

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
No, I surely didn't (0.00 / 0)
Mea culpa, and thanks for the slap on the back of the head. Sorry, bystander.  

[ Parent ]
No problem. (0.00 / 0)
I hadn't caught it before you and Paul did.  If I had, I'd have laughed and figured it out... especially, since my only contribution was a single word. :D

[ Parent ]
You Were In A Different Universe (4.00 / 1)
Light from yours couldn't reach where he lived.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
"Elite" opinion (0.00 / 0)
If I remember correct, none of this had anything to do with "elite" opinion on Iraq.  Those in Matt's circle didn't believe Sadam had anything to do with 9/11, but thought he had WMDs and was dangerous.  It was all those stupid little people who thought this was directly about 9/11.

But 9/11 proved we had to take threats like this seriously, so the "serious" logic went.


[ Parent ]
Wait! (4.00 / 1)
Doesn't Yglesias support the war in Afghanistan? At the very least he hasn't come out strongly in favor of withdrawal. I see little moral distinction between supporting the Iraq war in 2002 and the Afghanistan war in 2010.

Perhaps Hillary's "elite signaling" is confusing him again, but if it's redemption he wants, maybe he ought to start calling loudly for an end to American involvement in this catastrophe.  


Almost (0.00 / 0)
He doesn't think the war in Afghanistan is worth the cost.  He thinks our actions in Afghanistan are more or less positive in isolation, but the same money and resources could be used much better.

[ Parent ]
Being against Afghanistan now doesn't impress me (0.00 / 0)
because it is so obviously a mess.  I mean he figured out Iraq was wrong after it became a mess too, right?

What I want to know is what he thinks about Iran?  What is his view of Chavez?

Educate, Agitate, Organize, Mobilize, Act!


[ Parent ]
afaik (0.00 / 0)
he thinks war with Iran would be an amazingly horrible idea in basically every respect -- but I'm not sure if there's anyone who thinks otherwise who isn't a right-wing radical, so I don' t know how useful this is as a litmus test.

I don't remember him posting very much about Chavez beyond pointing out that rightwing hyperventilation about him is pretty dumb.

Also here's a post by him from 2004 which I found linked somewhere else -- basically he turned against the war relatively early, but even his revised position seems wrong to me. (That said, even back then he was admirably open about admitting to having been an idiot.)


[ Parent ]
Competing heuristics (4.00 / 5)
Kudos to Yglesias for this admission, especially if Compos' characterization is to be believed, that is, that Yglesias traces his error to a systematic bias: deference to elite opinion. I'm skeptical that he has in fact learned the error of that approach, about which more in a moment.

But as he described his errors it became clear to me that the heuristic he uses in the face of partial information and uncertainty is to trust elite opinion. Mine is to mistrust elite opinion. Both heuristics are overly crude (it's the nature of the beast) but I submit mine is a much better heuristic, a useful starting point on any issue under review.

What is the elite consensus? The truth is probably in the opposite direction.

Why do I remain skeptical? Because Yglesias appears to be deploying the same heuristic on other (all?) issues, for instance, on education policy, as jeffbinnc points out. All he appears to have learned is that when every conclusion reached using his heuristic is overwhelmingly and without exception proven grossly off the mark, then you issue the mea culpas. But not when you are just mostly wrong.

The other reason is that virtually none of the other issues for which his elite bias is operative are or were as crystal clear as the Iraq case. The whole frickin' world and anybody with a moment's reflection realized the fraud the administration was perpetrating (exaggeration for effect, but pretty darn close).

You had to be an ostrich with your head in the sand or somewhere else to not see it. You had to be totally ignorant of the preceding 20 years, 50 years, 200 years, 500 years, all the way back the first empire, basically, to believe on the Iraq issue that to use a "go with the elites" heuristic was not an obvious Type II error.

That degree of willful ignorance must take years of deprogramming to overcome, not just one online mea culpa about Iraq.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?


Lessons Learned??? | 29 comments
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