One of the most systematic errors in human perception is what psychologists call hindsight bias — the feeling, after an event happens, that we knew all along it was going to happen. … “Liberals’ assertion that they ‘knew all along’ that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias,” agreed Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who has studied the hindsight bias and how to overcome it. “This is not to say that they didn’t always think that the war was a bad idea.”
If we didn’t think it would go badly, why did we think it was a bad idea?
Echidne dug out of her archives a prediction from April 2004 that “the net effect of the war and occupation in Iraq is to increase the forces of international terrorists, not to somehow make the world safer.” But was anyone predicting disaster before the war began?
A five-minute web search turned up a Paul Krugman column from September 24, 2002:
Of course the new Bush doctrine, in which the United States will seek ”regime change” in nations that we judge might be future threats, is driven by high moral purpose. But McKinley-era imperialists also thought they were morally justified. The war with Spain — which ruled its colonies with great brutality, but posed no threat to us — was justified by an apparent act of terror, the sinking of the battleship Maine, even though no evidence ever linked that attack to Spain. And the purpose of our conquest of the Philippines was, McKinley declared, ”to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”
Moral clarity aside, the parallel between America’s pursuit of manifest destiny a century ago and its new global sense of mission has a lot to teach us.
First, the experience of the Spanish-American War should remind us that quick conventional military victory is not necessarily the end of the story. Thanks to American technological superiority, Adm. George Dewey destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay without losing a single man. But a clean, high-tech war against Spain somehow turned into an extremely dirty war against the Filipino resistance, one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died.
Second, America’s imperial venture should serve as an object warning against taking grand strategic theories too seriously. The doctrines of the day saw colonies as strategic assets. In the end, it’s very doubtful whether our control of the Philippines made us stronger. Now we’re assured that military action against rogue states will protect us from terrorism. But the rogue state now in our sights doesn’t seem to have been involved in Sept. 11; what determines whose regime gets changed?
Finally, we should remember that the economic doctrines that were used to justify Western empire-building during the late 19th century — that colonies would provide valuable markets and sources of raw materials — turned out to be nonsense. Almost without exception, the cost of acquiring and defending a colonial empire greatly exceeded even a generous accounting of its benefits. These days, pundits tell us that a war with Iraq will drive down oil prices, and maybe even yield a financial windfall. But the effect on oil prices is anything but certain, while the heavy costs of war, occupation and rebuilding — for we won’t bomb Iraq, then wash our hands of responsibility, will we? — are not in doubt. And no, the United States cannot defray the costs of war out of Iraqi oil revenue — not unless we are willing to confirm to the world that we’re just old-fashioned imperialists, after all.
I’m sure if I had more time to look I could find a lot more. Until then, here’s something I wrote on the eve of the invasion that, IMO, holds up pretty well.