Hey, the system works

Kevin Drum and David Adesnik are gnashing their teeth over Colin Powell’s statements about a nuclear Iran — and the fact that they were based on shaky empirical evidence. Kevin writes, “It’s hard to believe our credibility can get any worse on stuff like this, but obviously we’re trying.” I take the “glass-is-half-full” approach on ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Kevin Drum and David Adesnik are gnashing their teeth over Colin Powell's statements about a nuclear Iran -- and the fact that they were based on shaky empirical evidence. Kevin writes, "It's hard to believe our credibility can get any worse on stuff like this, but obviously we're trying." I take the "glass-is-half-full" approach on this one. A lot of IR scholars were convinced that what happened in Iraq was evidence that contrary to a lot of democratic peace theory stretching back to Kant, the executive branch could gin up any excuse to go to war and it would fly with the other branches of government and the American people. I always thought this was exaggerated. Iraq was a sui generis case in which, post-9/11, the administration went after low-hanging fruit in the form of a country in the same region that we'd fought a decade earlier, and was in noncompliance with a lot of UN Security Council resolutions. There aren't a lot of countries like that -- even Iran isn't like that. Furthermore, the post-invasion revelations about the mistakes that were made were not going to just fade away. The Powell episode bears this out. If Iraq did anything, it made all the relevant actors -- including the Bush officials who leaked to the Washington Post -- recognize that the hurdle to justify coercive force is going to be higher from here on in. Maybe, just maybe, the failures of intelligence in Iraq have made everyone set the evidentiary bar just a bit higher for future military action. One final random thought -- is it me, or did the Powell episode happen at almost blog speed for the U.S. government? Basically, Thursday's post corrected Wednesday's post. Now one can question whether the U.S. government should really operate according to the norms of blog posting, and I share Kevin's concerns about U.S. credibility. Credibility is sustained by being right, but it's also sustained by admitting when you are wrong. This strikes me as a case where the government was forced to be more transparent with the quality of the information they had than at any time in the run-up to Iraq. And that's a very, very good thing.

Kevin Drum and David Adesnik are gnashing their teeth over Colin Powell’s statements about a nuclear Iran — and the fact that they were based on shaky empirical evidence. Kevin writes, “It’s hard to believe our credibility can get any worse on stuff like this, but obviously we’re trying.” I take the “glass-is-half-full” approach on this one. A lot of IR scholars were convinced that what happened in Iraq was evidence that contrary to a lot of democratic peace theory stretching back to Kant, the executive branch could gin up any excuse to go to war and it would fly with the other branches of government and the American people. I always thought this was exaggerated. Iraq was a sui generis case in which, post-9/11, the administration went after low-hanging fruit in the form of a country in the same region that we’d fought a decade earlier, and was in noncompliance with a lot of UN Security Council resolutions. There aren’t a lot of countries like that — even Iran isn’t like that. Furthermore, the post-invasion revelations about the mistakes that were made were not going to just fade away. The Powell episode bears this out. If Iraq did anything, it made all the relevant actors — including the Bush officials who leaked to the Washington Post — recognize that the hurdle to justify coercive force is going to be higher from here on in. Maybe, just maybe, the failures of intelligence in Iraq have made everyone set the evidentiary bar just a bit higher for future military action. One final random thought — is it me, or did the Powell episode happen at almost blog speed for the U.S. government? Basically, Thursday’s post corrected Wednesday’s post. Now one can question whether the U.S. government should really operate according to the norms of blog posting, and I share Kevin’s concerns about U.S. credibility. Credibility is sustained by being right, but it’s also sustained by admitting when you are wrong. This strikes me as a case where the government was forced to be more transparent with the quality of the information they had than at any time in the run-up to Iraq. And that’s a very, very good thing.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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