What We Got Wrong and Why

Among the many thoughtful posts in this week’s conversation—including Fareed’s on Thursday—one of the best came from a reader. His or her point was that for Tom and Fareed especially, but to a lesser degree for others among us, the war’s justification was practical and experimental: It might have certain good effects in the region and in the larger war on terrorism, or it might not—but avoiding action altogether was less tolerable than taking the risk of war. And, this reader went on, once the justification was put that way, on a practical and experimental basis, the ultimate verdict on whether or not the war was the right thing depends on how things go in Iraq and the region. In short, as Chou En-Lai said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, it’s too early to tell. But just because the outcome is still to be determined, and the job will require enormous imagination, flexibility, local knowledge, and staying power on our part, success or failure will depend in large part on whether Americans manage to summon these mental qualities. As Christopher wrote in his book on Orwell, what you think matters less than how you think—and how this administration thinks isn’t reassuring. For example, it’s very difficult for me to imagine a symposium called “What Did We Get Wrong and Why?” being held at the American Enterprise Institute, where so much of the Bush foreign policy has been incubated, let alone at the White House. On the other hand, I’m encouraged by this conversation in Slate and by how the participants thought. I hope it continues in other guises. Thanks for the chance to join in.

George Packer