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Opening Arguments

Know what I mean?

Following the news is such a part of my job that it's tough to give it up sometimes even on vacation. This time I managed to do it, though. So I came back to work ready to look freshly at unfolding events and discovered, alas, it was the same old crap they'd been shoveling when I left.

The big deal in the last few days, I discoverd, is the question being asked of Republican presidential candidates: If you knew then what you know now, would you have gone into Iraq as president?" Now, if this were an honest attempt to get good information helful to the American voters, the journalists would be throwing some version of it to Democrats like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton: If you'd known then what you know now, would you still have voted for the war? But of course they'll never do that, so the question is revealed as just one more tiresome "Gotcha!" question designed to snipe at the GOP field.

It's an utterly stupid question on the face of it. Nobody ever "knew what we know now." They had to make decisions based on what they knew then.  The Middle East is a mess right now, most would agree, and we can play the "why is it a mess" game all day long. It was George W. Bush's fault for going to Iraq and Afghanistand. No, it was Barack Obama's fault for screwing up the gains we made there and pulling out heedlessly. Hell, we could even go back to the meddling and betrayals of Great Britain in the region.

The only question that matters is not how we got to where we are, but what do we do about it now? Based on what we know now and with the realization that things might not turn out the way we think they will.

Of course the "If you knew then" question doesn't always have to be a "Gotcha!" Chris Wallace spent three minutes tryint to get Marco Rubio to say whether the Iraq war was a mistake.  And . . .

What Wallace is really asking is “Was the Iraq war worth fighting notwithstanding the bad intel on chemical weapons?” Did we gain enough from knocking out Saddam and building an Arab democracy that we can now say it was worth doing even though the risk from WMD wasn’t what we thought it was? That’s not a gotcha question, especially to a candidate who’s positioned himself as the neoconservative champion in the field. Candidate Rubio’s said that the world is a better place without Saddam. Is it so much better that President Rubio might launch a ground invasion to remove a similarly nasty character in power somewhere who threatens U.S. interests, as part of a new “freedom agenda”? And the weird thing is, despite his dogged refusal to use the M-word, Rubio basically does answer that important question. At one point he says that neither he nor Dubya would have used force absent that faulty WMD intelligence, that Saddam would have been dealt with eventually through a different “process.” Translation: The world may be better off without Saddam but not quite better off enough, a fair conclusion given the news today about ISIS overrunning Ramadi and Shiite death squads en route to confront them.

Not quite a "gotcha!" but not all that helpful, either.

The lesson I always take from Iraq is the same one I took from Vietnam: War is the last resort, there will always be unintended consequences, so don't ever enter one unless you absolutely have to. And if you do, win it as quickly as possible. Don't fool around with it. Since we didn't apply that Vietnam lesson to Iraq, I suspect we'll keep making the same mistake.

As it happens, I spend part of time on vacation reading Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." Here is what it says about haste and caution:

"Yu says:  'So long as victory can be attained, stupid haste is preferable to clever dilatoriness.' Now Sun Tzu says nothing whatever, except possibly by implication, about ill-considered haste being better than ingenious but lengthy operations. What he does say is something moe guarded, namely that, while speed may somtimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish -- if only because it means impoverishment to the nation."

2,500 years we've had to learn and we don't.