My relative silence here is mostly the result of being extremely busy at work, but another factor has been that what little energy I have left over for personal writing has been spent mostly on other sites. I was very active on e.thePeople for a while, but I finally got tired of timeouts and general slowness, an interface that makes it all but impossible to follow threads, and a moderation system that was apparently designed to be abused more than it is used productively. I’ve switched to America’s Debate (which I found only because it’s hosted at the same company I am) to fulfill that same conversational need. If the one-sidedness of Democratic Underground or Little Green Footballs starts to annoy you, I recommend AD as a place where you’re likely to see more than one side of an issue, and where the signal-to-noise ratio is relatively high. But that’s not really what I’m here to write about.

One of the themes that keeps coming up in my conversations about the Iraq war is “right answer, wrong method”. As I put it in one thread, just because you nailed one bad guy by stabbing in the dark doesn’t mean stabbing in the dark is a good approach. This is why teachers, particularly those in science classes, used to mark me down not for getting an incorrect answer but for not showing my work…and I’m glad they did. Without seeing my work, they could not know whether I was using the right method, and therefore whether I would get the right answer the next time.

Another reason that methods matter is that the distinction between methods and results is not as clear-cut as most people think. It’s like the idea that drugs don’t have side effects; they have effects, and a “side effect” is merely one that we didn’t want or intends. Doing things a particular way often has many effects besides the one intended, and often those other effects become more significant in the long term than the immediate goal.

To tie this back to Iraq, I can think of several examples where the US might be achieving a right result by a wrong method, and hurting itself in the long term.

  • The whole way we got into this war was wrong, even if in retrospect it turns out to be the right thing to have done. The conclusion came first, and there’s an ongoing effort to rationalize it. It’s about UN resolutions. No, it’s about WMD. No, it’s about liberating the people of Iraq. The reasons change, but the conclusion remains the same. That’s a common sign of logic running backward.
  • Alienating would-be allies just because they don’t agree with our timetable will have effects that last well beyond the war in Iraq.
  • Remember the chemical weapons factory we thought we’d found right after the war began? Haven’t heard about that for a while. Remember the reports of soldiers exposed to sarin a couple of days ago? Silence again. The loud proclamations that accompany each discovery, and the embarrassed silence that follows, show that the Bush administration (followed by the media) is searching not for the truth but for evidence to support a particular conclusion. It’s as wrong in this case as it is when a detective suppresses evidence that might exonerate the suspect – even if that particular suspect is guilty. The next one might not be.
  • In the Mike Hawash case, a US citizen has been detained in isolation, without adequate access to legal representation, for weeks. No charges have been filed, or even hinted at. The only semi-plausible explanation seems to be that a few years ago he donated money to an organization that was subsequently determined to have unspecified ties to terrorists. Worse yet, there are apparently hundreds or perhaps even thousands of cases like this. Even if the Kafka Kops do succeed in catching a few terrorists this way (which is no more likely than if citizens’ civil rights were respected) the method is totally wrong.

Do I believe Iraq has chemical or biological weapons? Probably. Do I believe that war in Iraq can be justified? Quite likely. Do I believe that the war had to happen right now, this way, with all of the other effects that attend to our choice of timing and methods? Absolutely not. Even if we do find chemical weapons, even if we succeed in freeing the Iraqi people and not just abandoning them in a year or so to a whole new kind of hell, our methods are wrong and in the long term we’ll be the worse for it. As a software engineer I’m particularly aware of how the “quick fix” can become a disaster in the long term. The difference with Iraq is that the time scale is decades instead of months and the cost is measured in human lives instead of dollars. Methods still matter, and it’s still worth trying to do things the right way even if it takes longer.