Monday, October 27, 2008

Paralysis by analysis

Robert Kaplan has a new piece online at The Atlantic, one of GWS's favorite non-snark repositories. Kaplan offers something of a mea culpa for his support of America's invasion of Iraq, and while GWS normally admires Kaplan's realist-minded work, he's struck by...well, all of this drivel. If Kaplan wants to get some painful emotions off his chest, he should buy a diary.

Regarding the costs of Iraq, Kaplan seems unwilling to take the bull by the horns. He offers an apology and a veiled bit of shoe-gazing about how he and his fellow hawks failed to understand how difficult it might be to remake Iraq in Athens's image. But it's unconvincing, and as the piece progresses, Kaplan offers up what can only be described as a) cognitive dissonance, or b) a creaky arithmetic facility.

Talking about the human and financial costs of the war in Iraq, Kaplan says "To coldly state, without qualifiers, that these costs have been a price worth paying is to reduce foreign policy to the realm of inhuman abstraction. In any case, I don’t believe anyone making such a claim could pass a polygraph test." GWS concurs.

Six paragraphs later, however, Kaplan hints that he himself might fail such a polygraph: "Most fundamentally, does Iraq meet the parents’ test? Can you look parents in the eye and tell them it was worth losing their son or daughter over? As awful as it sounds, quantity matters here, for it says much about the scope of violence that is unleashed for the sake of a higher good." Wait...in the final analysis, the only cost we have to consider is if we could tell a parent in good conscience that his/her son/daughter's sacrifice was worth it? The bar we have to clear has been reduced to stone-jawed stoicism? Ah, that must be it: the key to victory, then, is to send people without consciences to grieving parents' doors! Surely there must be someone in Washington devoid enough of human feeling to carry out this critical act of belatedly justifying an open-ended invasion to the nation. Why didn't GWS think of that?

Kaplan makes an attempt to return to realism, drawing a distinction between a war with 500 combat deaths as opposed to a war with 4,000+ combat deaths, but GWS has to assume Kaplan was on deadline because no serious-minded individual would ever say something like this. Is there something important about the 8-to-1 ratio Kaplan invokes? Is there something trivial about 500 sets of grieving parents? Would 1,000 sets of parents warrant a moment of reflection from policy-makers, or would those 1,000 parents do well to find 3,000 other families with whom they can unionize? More to the point, Mr. Kaplan, weren't you just asking us to ground our foreign policy analysis in something other than "the realm of inhuman abstractions?"

Wouldn't it have just been easier to say, "On the single greatest foreign policy issue of my time, I was dead wrong"? History's going to say it for you eventually, so why not beat it to the punch?

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