Hindsight’s insight

JONATHAN CHAIT is a contributing editor to Opinion and a senior editor at the New Republic.

ONE OF THE annoying things about the debate over the Iraq war is the constant flurry of accusations of hypocrisy. If you favored the war when it started but later decided it was a bad idea, or opposed it from the beginning but think it would be a mistake to leave, somebody, somewhere is going to accuse you of flip-flopping.

The silliest version of this accusation holds that if you favored other humanitarian wars, such as those in Bosnia or Rwanda, but want to withdraw from Iraq, you’re a hypocrite. For instance, 9/11 commission member and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “The critics who bother me the most are those who ordinarily would not be on the side of supporting dictatorships, who are arguing today that only military intervention can prevent the genocide of Darfur, or who argued yesterday for military intervention in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda to ease the sectarian violence that was tearing those places apart.”

It’s bad enough that one has to explain the difference between a decision you make looking forward and the same decision looking backward. (For those who don’t understand, try this: Going to the beach was a good idea at the time. Once you get bitten by a shark, it turns out it was a bad idea.) But must I really explain why it’s OK to favor some wars but oppose others? Because I’m one of the critics who apparently bother Kerrey the most, let me try.


Many liberals favored humanitarian military intervention in various places in the 1990s, and favor it today in Darfur, but can’t support the current mission in Iraq. (Personally, I’m torn on the issue, but I can easily defend the pro-withdrawal position because I hold it about every other week.) The argument for intervention was that the United States had a moral obligation to stop mass slaughter. Mass slaughter will probably ensue in Iraq if we withdraw. Ergo, those who favored war elsewhere but want to leave Iraq are hypocrites.

As Matthew Continetti put the accusation in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, “It may seem as though the Bosnia analogy is more applicable to Iraq today, where coalition forces are the only thing keeping the various sectional, sectarian and political factions from slaughtering one another.”

Well, no, it’s not applicable at all. The key fact in Bosnia is that people were not, for the most part, “slaughtering one another.” Serbs were slaughtering Bosnian Muslims (and later Kosovars). That’s a situation in which American military force could clearly solve the problem. All we had to do was inflict enough punishment upon the aggressors to make them stop.

In Iraq, on the other hand, you really do have ethnic groups slaughtering one another. One of those groups, the Shiites, is mainly using the machinery of the state. The other group, the Sunnis, is using insurgent tactics. But the point is, we can’t kill our way out of the problem, because success would entail not just persuading one side to stop its aggression but persuading both sides to make peace. And the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government shows no signs of wanting to make the concessions it needs to make for peace.

Is it possible that, if we hang on long enough, Iraqis will give up fighting and start to compromise? Sure, it’s possible. But the question of how possible it is cannot be answered from the lessons of Bosnia, Kosovo or the like. Those liberal hawks who have turned against the Iraq war are constantly being accused of losing their nerve or being driven by partisanship. But maybe there’s something to be said for letting your opinions be driven by changing facts.