Here’s George Packer, noted liberal hawk, anguishing about his earlier support for the war in Iraq:
In the winter of 2003, what you thought about the war mattered less to me than how you thought about it. The ability to function meant honest engagement with the full range of opposing ideas; it meant facing rather than avoiding the other position’s best arguments. In those tense months, the mark of second-rate minds was absolute certainty one way or the other.
Well, why couldn’t you have thought of it this way? Way back in 1865 the United States deposed one of the more sordid apartheid regimes on the planet and then occupied the region so as to bring liberal democracy to the people there. But a mere five years later domestic newspapers like the New York Tribune pronounced the occupation a failure and declared that the nation was “tired” of the whole process. Eventually the occupation ended in the face of an armed insurgency and political revolt, and the occupiers left a corrupt one-party state in place that didn’t get around to respecting minority rights until 100 years later, and to this day still exports militant fundamentalism abroad that continues to threaten world peace. So, you know, if it couldn’t work here at home, why on earth would it ever have worked in the Middle East?
No, really, there’s no sense responding seriously to this. Prior to the war, in the “winter of 2003,” there were two distinct events taking place. On the one hand, we had a president whose incompetence was perfectly well known preparing to invade, on shadowy pretenses, a country rife with internal tension. On the other hand, we had a bunch of intellectuals, Packer and Christopher Hitchens among them, carrying out a public debate about liberal ideals and national greatness and whether anti-totalitarianism was morally preferable to anti-imperialism, or vice-versa. All well and good, but the latter event had nothing whatsoever to do with the former, and many a person displaying a “second-rate mind” in Packer’s little coffeehouse discussion were absolutely right about the president who was about to launch a war.