In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks says the war on Iraq and subsequent occupation was ill-conceived, incompetently planned and poorly executed. I have no quarrel with that. What dismays me is that anyone expected any different. All wars are full of incompetence, mendacity, fear, and lies. War is big government, authoritarianism, central planning, command and control, and bureaucracy in its most naked form and on the largest scale. The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons.When I read that, it didn’t even occur to me that liberal anti-war types would object. But it should have. Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber takes Alex to task:
But to say that the incompetence with which the Iraq war was conducted was simply business as usual is not only to get Rumsfeld et al. off the hook for the quite specifically personal incompetence that they displayed and are still displaying. It’s to make a general claim that can’t be supported using the evidence that you claim is supporting it. An incompetently conducted war does not a general case against government make.What follows in the comments section is an astonishing parade of libertarian-bashing and state-praising. (Including some who even defend the Post Office! Okay, fine, if you really think Snailmail is good government, substitute the DMV instead.) Alex responds in the comments and also in a second post at Marginal Revolution.
So what’s going on? Why are (some) liberals so anxious to dismantle Alex’s anti-war position? Their reaction becomes explicable once you realize that the left-wing explanation of government failure relies crucially on the Bad-Men-at-the-Top theory. To admit that the incentives of political actors – politicians, bureaucrats, and voters – are systematically flawed is to admit their own favorite big-government schemes could fail even if their guys were in charge. To avoid such an admission, the blame for failures in governance must be cast on specific personalities like the hated George W. Bush.
And to be sure, GWB has been a phenomenally bad leader. If someone else had been in charge, maybe things in Iraq might have turned out a little better. Or maybe we wouldn’t have invaded in the first place. So if Farrell’s point is merely that the current administration deserves to get served a big helping of spleen, sure, he’s right. But Alex said nothing to imply that Bush & Co. should get off the hook. He was making a broader point: that wars, whether Republican wars or Democratic ones (of which there have been plenty), go badly for a reason. That reason is one that leftists like Farrell are loath to admit, because it reflects poorly on big government in general.
UPDATE: Hello, MR readers! My response to Tyler's criticism is posted here.