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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The irrational attacks on ex-supporters of the war

The Seattle Times reports this morning on another “Defense Hawk,” Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wa.), who has turned against the war in Iraq. Dicks voted for the 2002 war resolution and vocally supported the war effort, but:

Dicks now says it was all a mistake -- his vote, the invasion, and the way the United States is waging the war.

While he disagrees with Murtha's conclusion that U.S. troops should be withdrawn within six months, Dicks said, "He may well be right if this insurgency goes much further."

"The insurgency has gotten worse and worse," he said. "That's where Murtha's rationale is pretty strong — we're talking a lot of casualties with no success in sight. The American people obviously know that this war is a mistake."

Usually, nobody much cares about a particular Congressman’s views on anything. There are 435 of them, and outside of the very few who comprise the House leadership, the influence any one of them singularly wields is minuscule.

But there is a reason why the conversions of the previously pro-war Rep. John Murtha, and now Rep. Dicks, have resonated so strongly, both among war critics who are quick to embrace them, and among war proponents who feel compelled to attack and discredit them.

The reason is this: Guys like Jack Murtha and Norm Dicks cannot be caricatured as anti-American hippy socialist cowards, and they thus give the lie -- viscerally and undeniably -- to the recently intensified attacks on not just the judgment, but the motives and patriotism, of anyone who is a critic of the war and/or a critic of the Bush Administration’s pre-war advocacy.

There is a growing tendency on the part of pro-war advocates to ascribe qualities of weakness, spinelessness, cowardice, hysteria, and anti-American subversiveness -- not to mention being “small hollow men [who] are the equivalent of those grubby little Nazis” -- to anyone who is against the war in Iraq or who favors an end to our occupation there sooner rather than later.

The new and improved line of attack is to dichotomize war opponents by, first, issuing the most back-handed of compliments to those who were anti-war all along – the unthreatening, marginalized “Michael Moore crowd.” They, we are told, are at least “principled” and "consistent" (though horribly misguided and dangerous in their consistent, principled stance).

The real villains now are those who have changed their minds about the war – the ones who went from being war supporters to war opponents. It is not just their judgment which is deficient, but their character, bravery and patriotism. It is this group that war supporters are now targeting as cowardly, unprincipled, implicit enemies of the United States who subversively care more about politically undermining the Commander-in-Chief than they do about winning the war. As they so often do, the Powerline boys most accurately illustrate this irrational rhetorical excess: "The only war the Democrats really have their heart in is the war to undermine the Bush administration."

There are, to be sure, a group of quite unprincipled U.S. Senators who originally supported the war simply because they were too afraid not to, and now that it is safe to do so, they want to change their minds and blame others, particularly the White House, for their vote. And there is also a small, marginalized segment of the anti-war contingent which is simply pacifistic and/or which believes that the U.S. is inherently evil, and that all measures taken to project American power should be opposed as a reflection and promotion of this evil. They would oppose any war, or almost any other action initiated by the U.S., and certainly those favored by George Bush.

But there is also a crowd in the pro-war camp comprised of people who favor the war because they believe we should eradicate and/or conquer Muslims, or who want to battle against Islam itself by spreading Christianity or simply killing or subjugating adherents of Islam. They would favor any U.S. war, or almost any other hostile action, initiated by the U.S. against Muslim countries, especially those favored by George Bush.

But just as the pro-war position can’t be reasonably attacked by citing the fact that some who subscribe to it do so for venal or intellectually corrupt reasons, the anti-war position cannot be attacked by pointing to the subset of anti-war critics who are motivated by less than noble objectives. Large numbers of war supporters– likely the vast majority – do not favor the war because they want to invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity, just as the vast majority of war opponents do not believe that the U.S. is an imperialistic, blood-thirsty force of evil which ought to "surrender to terrorists" and turn to pacifism.

That’s what Jack Murtha and Norm Dicks prove so conclusively – that there is an honorable, patriotic, good faith ground for converting from supporter of the war to an opponent. And Murtha, in particular, has become such a lighting rod for intense emotion and debate precisely because war opponents are so eager to demonstrate the existence of such an honorable anti-war conversion, while war supporters are equally eager to deny that such a thing is even possible.

Huge numbers of people who question the war and who oppose the Administration’s fighting of it -- including those who originally supported the war but now have changed their mind -- know that they are not motivated by hostility towards their country, or a cowardly “fear of fighting,” or some subversive pro-terrorist agenda. Like Murtha and Dicks, their conversion to anti-war opponent has been gradual and is a strictly pragmatic conversion: they no longer believe that the project is constructive, but instead, has become counter-productive and destructive, and therefore ought to be terminated.

Assume that one invests in a new business based upon certain optimistic assumptions about the market, the demand for the product to be sold by the business, the ability to contain costs. After pouring substantial capital into the business, the investor realizes that the initial assumptions were wildly inaccurate. He also realizes that the individuals he hired to manage the business made some critical, irreparable mistakes in operating the business at the outset. As a result, the investor has concluded that the business is almost certain to fail, and can never achieve meaningful profitability.

He is thus faced with only two options: (a) accept the fact that the ongoing costs of the business will outweigh the benefits and therefore search for the least harmful way to abandon it, or (b) continue to pour resources into the project simply because he does not want to change his mind and admit error, i.e., the “throwing good money after bad” behavior.

It can hardly be said to be a sign of cowardice or “fecklessness” if, under those circumstances, the investor decides to abandon the project rather than continue to pour money into it until he has no money left. Indeed, the decision, one way or the other, cannot possibly be seen as a function of how courageous or principled he is (unless one wants to argue that it actually requires courage to admit error and change one’s mind as a result). Instead, the decision is a strictly pragmatic one – based on an assessment of the facts of the business as they developed and a recognition of the disparity between the initial predictions and the realities as they evolved.

This is exactly what led Rep. Murtha, Rep. Dicks, and scores and scores of previously pro-war individuals to change their mind about the desirability of our occupation of Iraq. Here is Rep. Murtha explaining the rationale leading to his conversion:

The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.

General Casey said in a September 2005 Hearing, “the perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency.” General Abizaid said on the same date, “Reducing the size and visibility of the coalition forces in Iraq is a part of our counterinsurgency strategy.”
. . .
I said over a year ago, and now the military and the Administration agrees, Iraq can not be won “militarily.” I said two years ago, the key to progress in Iraq is to Iraqitize, Internationalize and Energize. I believe the same today. But I have concluded that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress.

Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. U.S. troops are the common enemy of the Sunnis, Saddamists and foreign jihadists. I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will be incentivized to take control. A poll recently conducted shows that over 80% of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops, and about 45% of the Iraqi population believe attacks against American troops are justified. I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis.

That argument amounts to nothing more than a practical assessment that our continued occupation in Iraq undermines, rather than promotes, the objectives that caused us to begin the war. It is driven by a cost-benefit analysis that the benefits which the U.S. can reasonably expect to derive from ongoing occupation are vastly outweighed by the costs. If a person has come to that conclusion, then his love of his country and his opposition to terrorism would compel, rather than prevent, his conversion from war supporter to war opponent.

That is why whatever else can be said about pro-war and anti-war advocates, for the vast majority of individuals on both sides, their viewpoints are not a function of bravery or cowardice, a desire to fight rather than surrender to terrorists, or a love of the U.S. versus a hatred for it. Favoring a war that you don’t have to fight in does not require courage, and opposing a war that you won’t have to fight in cannot even remotely be construed as a sign of “cowardice.”

For these reasons, these patriotism and "cowardice" attacks on anti-war converters are patent non-sequiturs. They are designed to smear, not to engage or to debate, and they are based on the false assumption that there is something inherently courageous and patriotic about favoring a prolonged U.S. military occupation and something inherently cowardly and unpatriotic about favoring a withdraw.

But changing one's mind about the desirability of this war based upon a rational conclusion that it is producing more harm than good for America is not a sign of cowardice nor evidence of a hatred for the U.S. It is a sign of precisely the opposite.

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