Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What Floats?

Thomas Friedman has always bugged me, infinitely so since this morning, when I heard Bill Moyers speech to the Third Annual Media Reform Conference in Memphis Tennessee last weekend. Friedman apparently blithely admitted to an interviewer that he endorsed CAFTA without ever having read the bill, simply because it purported to further the cause of "free trade." -KW

Not Just Wrong, but All Wrong
by Paul Campos

Twenty years ago, in its pre-season baseball issue, Sports Illustrated predicted the Cleveland Indians would finish with the best record in the major leagues. Cleveland went on to finish with the worst record. Statistical guru Bill James pointed out that this represented an example of what might be called Maximum Possible Error.

When it comes to the Iraq war, some of our most prominent pundits have achieved similar results. Perhaps the most spectacular example is provided by William Kristol.

Since the start of the war, Kristol has claimed that "there's almost no evidence" Iraqi Shiites wouldn't be able to get along with Sunnis; that it was a mistake to worry that Iraq "would fracture into feuding clans and unleash a bloodbath"; that the January 2005 Iraqi elections represented "a genuine turning point," comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall; that the situation in Iraq wouldn't get worse in 2006, and thus opposition to the war would prove to be an electoral disaster for Democrats; and that the Iraqi response to the bombing of the Samarra mosque this past February was "evidence of Iraq's underlying stability in the face of attempts to undermine it."

This is just a sample of the many things Kristol has said about Iraq that turned out to be not merely wrong, but the exact opposite of the truth. They represent nothing less than the Maximum Possible Error on all these matters.

And what has been the result of this astonishing performance? Have Kristol's employers fired him for gross incompetence? Has he been exiled from the national media for having been completely wrong, over and over again, about the most important issue facing America today?

Far from it! Kristol has just been hired by Time, America's leading news weekly, to write a column. This is the journalistic equivalent of handing the former captain of the Exxon Valdez a case of whiskey and the command of a fully loaded supertanker.

The nation's elite media continue to be in denial about the fact that most of America's most prominent pundits were wrong about Iraq. (Admittedly not all of them were as wrong as Kristol. The average pundit couldn't manage to be as wrong as Kristol if he tried.)

One symptom of this denial is the bizarrely upward trajectory of Kristol's career path. Another is how the fact that a number of commentators who were every bit as right about Iraq as Kristol has been wrong (modesty forbids me from noting I was among them) has gone down the memory hole.

These people pointed out that it was quite unclear whether Saddam Hussein still had any weapons of mass destruction; that, in any case, Iraq presented no military threat to the United States; that invading the country could well trigger factional bloodshed which would last many years; that fighting terrorism by trying to install democracy at gunpoint in Iraq made no sense; and that the whole project was likely to end in disaster.

At best, these dissenters were dismissed as "unserious" semi-pacifist hippies, who didn't understand how "9/11 changed everything." Often, their patriotism was slandered by supposedly respectable commentators like law professor Glenn Reynolds, who in the tradition of Joe McCarthy made ominous claims about how critics of the war were actively pro-terrorist, or at the very least were "acting unpatriotically" and "hurting our troops abroad."

And so it goes. For example, the terribly serious New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who just six weeks ago declared that the only rational alternatives in Iraq were a 150,000-troop escalation or a phased withdrawal, has now announced he'll support President Bush's 21,000-troop escalation - but only if Bush proposes a massive tax hike and does some other things that are as likely to happen as Saddam Hussein and John Belushi showing up to co-host next week's episode of Saturday Night Live.

If chutzpah was a crime, these guys would be serving life sentences.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado.


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