Neuron Culture


Capt. Andy MacLean, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, after his unit’s first night of serious combat in the Iraq War, Apr 1-2, 2003. Image by David Leeson/Dallas Morning News/CORBIS SYGMA



The floor of the National Museum of Iraq after it sacking during the second week of April, 2003.


Among the responses to my previous post, “Why we’re suckers for war talk“, was a comment accusing me of “the error of assuming from start to finish that Bush’s decision to go to war was in fact wrong.” Well, people still argue about whether evolution or climate change are real, so why not argue over this? I suppose it’s open to debate. Maybe I should leave that to history, rather to my own lyin’ eyes.

Then again, maybe not. Instead, let’s call a spade a spade; let us, please, set and keep the record straight.

Bush’s war in Iraq was, is, and will remain a mistake, wrong in its premises, motives, rationales, and execution. It has failed not because of bad luck or planning — though bad planning has made it worse — but because it was a wrong-heaeded mission from the start, a pursuit of fantasy justified by lies. To say it failed because of undercommitment or a few errors utterly misses the point. It’s like saying a baseball pitcher lost a game that he might have won had he pitched more artfully or known his hittters better when, truth be told, the pitcher took the mound not to play baseball but to bean a particular batter in the head. To talk of Bush’s mission in Iraq as a quest to spread democracy, rights, and decency is to ignore what his real mission was. The ostensible motives for invading were lies, and the real motives and rational wrong-headed and — the point at hand here — fueled by spectacularly blind and prejudicial thinking, which is to say, error biases.

The Bush regime never had real interest in whether Iraqis enjoy democracy or rights. Bush has had every chance to show regard for the rights, safety, and welfare of Iraqi citizens and for the integrity of Iraqi society and culture, but even as our soldiers have often tried valiantly to support these things, the administration has made it clear it values them not a whit.

The administration declared its regard for Iraqi society in the occupations’s earliest days, when it ordered our soldiers to stand by while the country’s infrastructure and culture legacy was destroyed and its people began murdering one another (as predicted) to settle old scores and manuever into the power vacuum we had created. We could spare soldiers to pull down Hussein’s statue but not to protect either power plants or museums holding humankind’s most ancient treasures. And now that they want enough cover of stability to slip out, Bush is quite willing to cede power to parties eager to deny women a wide array of rights. And Bush himself, by ignoring both good advice and the most obvious need, to grant Iraqis, as the country’s ruling power, a reasonably peaceful existence and the safe pursuit of livelihood, education, or even a safe walk to the market. We have spent far more paying Halliburton for overcharges than we have building basic infrastructure for electricity, clean water, and health care, much less safe streets or places to work Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Inalienable for us, perhaps, but of little importance to people daily suffering a terror we unleashed and had every reason to anticipate.

So much for Bush’s motives and honorable intentions. His actions declare clearly his values. As to toppling evil, Bush and Co. sought to negate Hussein’s power only so they could assert their own. This administration did not go to war to promote democracy; it went to war to promote its own cynical definition of American interests. It felled Saddam not to keep the Iraqi people safe from brutality (a brutality we had funded and overlooked for years) but to avenge what Bush considered an embarrassment and pursue a spectacularly arrogant vision of how we might bring to the Mideast a culture friendly to our interests.

What does this have to do with error biases? We got in this mess because the Bush administration indulged in and sold precisely the sorts of “error biases” Kahneman and Renshon write about. They overestimated their own abilities, assets, and ideas. They underestimated or profoundly misunderstood the abilities, assets, and resourcefulness of their potential foes. They operated from an overconfident, simplified view of how events would unfold (another bias the article discusses) — and so failed to foresee the potential for lawlessness, resentment, and insurrection. (Indeed, they not only failed to foresee those things, they actively shouted down those who did.) Their hubris — founded in precisely the biases Kahneman and Renshon enumerate — convinced them that This Would Be Different. They so overestimated their powers of execution and insight — Shock and Awe, the Democracy Domino cascade that would follow — that they did not even take the most basic precautions offered, sometimes frantically, by a huge range of experts and students of nation-building, occupation, regime change, or whatever you want to call it, of the dangers and trouble that might and indeed did follow. When you drive as well as us, why wear a safety belt? We’ve got it under control. Don’t be a wimp. Be forward-leaning. Think hawkish.

Kahneman and Renshon spell out the full range of these biases. George Packer and Mark Danner, among others, document their stunning manifestations.

Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Other times it’s laid by arrogant folly. Need we really debate which road we’re now traveling?


  1. #1 Scarlet Seraph
    January 10, 2007

    Well said. And at this point, Bush can’t let it ago. After all, HE HAS NO OTHER LEGACY. No domestic programs worth the name, no other foreign successes (North Korea got the bomb on his watch; Iran might get it on his watch; Putin is restoring Soviet insanity on Bush’s watch…)

    Bush has nothing but some faint hope that history will judge him better than, say, Van Buren or Jackson, or Harrison.

    Somehow, I doubt it will.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vause
    January 10, 2007

    Why I would want to put my head above the parapet to defend good ol’ Dubya God only knows, but this is delurking week … given just how useless this administration has been at everything it’s tried, don’t you think you’re being a little harsh is claiming they never cared one bit about spreading democracy or improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis? I mean, to any intelligent person it looks like they didn’t give a shit, but maybe that’s another example of how they always overestimate their assets and abilities: once they’d got rid of the bad guy, surely (they thought) law, order and power generation would automatically fall into place?

  3. #3 _Arthur
    January 10, 2007

    “We fight them over there so not to have to fight them here”
    Ridiculing the “Appeasers”
    The appeal to “Show them America will always retaliate”
    “Never accept Defeat”

    All those have strong echoes into the US population, even when false, or wefully counterproductive.

    Americans are quite willing, (well, slightly less so now) to pour another $100B of military “investment” into Iraqi sands, but, try to raise that same $100B with a gas tax, and the US Joe Q. Driver will rebell, and complain loudly.

    The pain of losing a handful troopers each week is felt only as a statistic, the number of Iraqi corpses is irrelevent (but watch the necocons protest as a man against a 500,000+ number), and the pain of paying for the War(s) is completely academic, since all the money is borrowed anyways.

    If the Democrats wants to convince the US people that the war is COSTLY (let alone amoral and utterly counterproductive), they should make Bush pay for it all, by levvying new taxes, or cutting services to the bone. Now The People would know a ltitle more what a Land War in Asia — well, 2, but who is counting — entails: a higher tax bill.

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