NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – At times of crisis, we slip reflexively into finger-pointing mode. President Barack Obama’s critics blame the swift fall of major Iraqi cities to Islamist radicals on his decision to withdraw U.S. combat forces from the battered country. His supporters say none of this would be happening had President George W. Bush not destabilized the region by invading Iraq in the first place.
Mitt Romney — say the critics — tried to warn about the revival of radical extremism in the region during the 2012 presidential campaign, and was derided by the president and the news media. Obama — say the defenders — managed to extract U.S. forces from a country where they should never have been.
The debate calls to mind a classic “Doonesbury” comic strip from the 1980s, one I’ve mentioned before. Conservative Phil Slackmeyer is gloating to his liberal son Mark over Ronald Reagan’s victory. Each accuses the other of being insufferable over Watergate, Nixon, Vietnam and, finally, “the Cambodian bloodbath,” which the son accuses the father of gloating over. Phil responds, indignantly: “Me? That was you!” Taken aback, Mark asks his father if he’s sure. Phil’s answer: “Um … I think so. Whose fault did that turn out to be?”
Priceless satire — and tragic social comment. What was true then is truer now, three decades on: One of our few reliable weapons at moments when events spin out of control is to try to work out who’s to blame. In the end, we rarely have much trouble finding the culprit. By a remarkable coincidence, it’s pretty much always somebody we already don’t like.
It took not weeks or days but only hours for pundits to explain to their own satisfaction precisely why House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary in Virginia. On the day Lehman collapsed in 2008, one of the cable news networks promised a special program that very night that would tell us “who’s to blame.”
Much of the time, our immediate finger-pointing is an exercise in confirmation bias. Did the problems at Veterans Affairs happen because the VA is chronically underfunded, or because big government can’t run a large and complex health care system? Chances are that many of us had answers ready before the scandal arose.
Our efforts to assign blame from the first day, by fitting each crisis to what we already believe, carry with them a whiff of the can’t-do spirit — as if, unsure how to proceed in the world, we turn on each other instead.
It isn’t that figuring out who’s to blame doesn’t matter; it’s that blaming shouldn’t be our first instinct. We have difficulty, in these polarized times, distinguishing two questions: (1) How do we respond to this crisis? (2) How did we get here in the first place? The answers almost certainly overlap, but in the short run, deciding how to respond is more important than deciding on fault — and our partisan efforts to apportion fault often obscure our frantic efforts to choose a course of action.
Especially because, in a true crisis, apportioning fault is hard.
How hard? Consider: The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. The historian Roberta Wohlstetter’s authoritative study on what went wrong that day was published in 1962 — more than two decades later. In the intervening years, the U.S. managed to fight and win a huge war and rebuild its armed forces almost from scratch — all without knowing for sure whose fault the whole thing was.
The point isn’t that it didn’t matter what had gone wrong on that December day; nor is the point that nobody tried to figure it out. The point, rather, is that the analysis of an event of great complexity takes time and resources — and patience. Our contemporary yearning for quick and easy answers might be an artifact of our polarization, or of our busyness, or of our experience in a digital culture where our brains are trained to the belief that everything is or should be a click or two away.
Alas, the yearning is unrealistic and in some ways adolescent. Part of the mature reflectiveness we should demand of each other as adults is the recognition that some questions are hard. Mockery and blame are easy.
All of which brings us back to Iraq, where the central government may be near collapse, and the security forces are nowhere near ready for combat on the scale needed. The U.S. can’t pretend it isn’t its problem. The fact that all U.S. troops have withdrawn does nothing to absolve Americans of our share of moral responsibility, and in any case, continued success of the radical group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will wind up threatening U.S. security.
I don’t pretend to know the right course of action. I do prefer to pay attention to those who propose actual solutions. A decade or two from now, some future Wohlstetter will produce the definitive account of what went wrong in Iraq. Until then, let’s ignore the finger-pointers and try to resolve the crisis instead.
Stephen L. Carter (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Yale law professor, is a Bloomberg View columnist.