I’ve been having an amicable discussion with a friend over the pros and cons of the Iraq war. In the waning days of the Bush administration, it’s useful to take stock. Below is an edited version of my response:
There are good arguments and bad arguments for opposing the Iraq war. My problem with Stellman is that he's rehashing all of the bad, hackneyed arguments against the Iraq war. That shows a lack of intelligence. He's just repeating disreputable, leftwing arguments against the war.
It's quite possible to raise intelligent objections to the Iraq war. But those are not the objections he's raising. So I don't respect that.
I also can't respect a man (Stellman) who parrots the talking points of Jim Wallis.
“One of the reasons I disliked Bush so much was that he moved away from his 1st term promise to have ‘a humble foreign policy’."
I don’t dislike Bush. I think he’s a well-meaning individual who’s trying to do the best he can given his intellectual limitations.
He made a shortsighted statement about foreign policy. He didn’t anticipate a contingency like 9/11. It’s not a bad thing to change your mind and adapt to new challenges.
And, in context, he was referring to the do-gooder nation-building of Clinton. That’s quite different than nation-building as a tactic in national security. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of nation-building. But, in fairness to Bush, we need to make allowance for a very different context.
“I think the worst thing that George Bush did was to squander the good will that we had in the eyes of the world after 9/11.”
Sorry, but I can’t bring myself to take that seriously. That’s one of the bad antiwar arguments. To begin with, I take exception to the asymmetry. Why should we care what the "world” thinks of us, but the world shouldn’t care what we think of it?
It’s not as if the international community enjoys the moral high ground. Just look at the UN. World opinion is not a morally serious standard of reference.
The point at issue is not what people think of us, but to they have good grounds for what they think of us.
More to the point, you can’t formulate a national defense posture based on what other people think of you. That’s really rather silly, don’t you think?
Keep in mind, too, that world opinion is largely shaped by state run media.
The world was sympathetic to the US on 9/11 because they saw us as weak on 9/11. They like a weakened US. They would like to see us on our knees.
When we fought back, we lost the sympathy vote.
As a practical matter, most of our allies are in no position to help us militarily.
They can be useful in other aspects of counterterrorism, such as internal policing, counterintelligence, and the financing of terrorism.
Lets keep in mind that other nations aren’t doing us a personal favor when they cooperate in counterterrorism. They are doing themselves a favor. It is in their national self-interest to partner with us in counterterrorism. Many of these nations are far more vulnerable than we are.
Transitioning to Bacevich:
“WITH Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the evangelical moment in US foreign policy has come to an end. The United States remains a nation of believers, with Christianity the tradition to which most Americans adhere. Yet the religious sensibility informing American statecraft will no longer find expression in an urge to launch crusades against evil-doers.”
I see no evidence that Bush’s foreign policy is distinctively “evangelical.” There’s nothing evangelical about the neocons. There’s nothing evangelical about Rice or Rumsfeld or Cheney.
“Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.”
He doesn’t bother to explain how the Bush administration is presuming to interpret God’s will.
“Niebuhr specialized in precise distinctions. He supported US intervention in World War II - and condemned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended that war.”
I don’t blame Truman for dropping the bomb. I did a post on that:
I don’t blame presidents for trying to keep us safe, even if they make some mistakes in the process. I fault a president for stupid policies, but not for mistaken policies, per se.
In the nature of the case, there are many situations in which we don’t know the outcome of a policy until we implement the policy—at which point it may be too late to undo the damage.
I’ll cut a president a lot of slack if he’s acting to protect us from our enemies. I much prefer that to a president who plays it safe to protect his own reputation.
“After 1945, Niebuhr believed it just and necessary to contain the Soviet Union. Yet he forcefully opposed US intervention in Vietnam.”
The Vietnam War is not all of a piece. It was an incremental phenomenon that extended from about 1949 to 1975. We judge it with the benefit of hindsight.
American involvement in SE Asia was reasonable in the early stages of the conflict. There came a point of diminishing returns. We should have cut our losses far sooner.
“The vast claims of Bush's second inaugural - with the president discerning history's ‘visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty’ - would have appalled Niebuhr, precisely because Bush meant exactly what he said. In international politics, true believers are more dangerous than cynics.”
I agree with Bacevich that Bush is idealistic to a fault. But that is deeply ingrained in the national psyche.
I myself am far more cynical. I think we should use Cold War tactics in counterterrorism. I think we should instigate civil wars in hostile regimes. Turn factions against each other. That’s the sort of thing the CIA used to do before Frank Church destroyed the CIA.
I would be more ruthless than Bush, although I have my limits.
“Grandiose undertakings produce monstrous byproducts. In the eyes of critics, Abu Ghraib”
What happened at Abu Ghraib was simple incompetence, aggravated by the coed military.
“And Guantanamo show that all of Bush's freedom talk is simply a lie.”
I don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with what we’ve done at GITMO. If anything, we’ve been far too soft and accommodating. Foreign-born jihadis aren’t American citizens or POWs. They’re not entitled to the same treatment.
“We've tried having a born-again president intent on eliminating evil.”
That’s a straw man argument. Bush was never intent on eliminating “evil.”
“It didn't work.”
Actually, it did work. We won the Iraq war. It took too long. The effort was too costly (in blood and treasure). But thanks to Petraeus, we won.
And the jihadis did a great deal to discredit their cause in the eyes of the Muslim world. Muslims got tired of seeing jihadis murder fellow Muslims.
There are good antiwar arguments and bad antiwar arguments.
A better antiwar argument would simply say the invasion of Iraq wasn’t worth the effort. The benefits didn’t outweigh the costs.
It would also say that Bush set the terms of success too high. I t was almost impossible to “win” given his definition of victory.
But objections like that are too modest and pragmatic for the antiwar critics. They want to come up with a completely different paradigm of counterterrorism.
“It is interesting that you mentioned Bush’s ‘intellectual limitations.’ I don’t doubt that he was ‘well-meaning,’ but it seems to me that his advisers, from Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, etc., were all from a school of thought – the ‘pre-emptive war’ school of thought.”
I’m not opposed to the principle of preemptive action. Whether Iraq was a good candidate for the application of that principle is a separate issue.
“Look at the way Bush 41 went about building a coalition in the first Iraq war. The circumstances were different, but Iraq was a clear aggressor, and when Bush pulled the trigger, there were armies from more than 20 or 30 allied nations in the desert, crossing the line with us.”
Bush 41 is better at that sort of thing than his son. But it was also easier for him to pull off. Saddam had invaded Kuwait. The world regarded that as a dire threat to its economic security.
“The Bush 43 administration for some reason had a target on Iraq (even though there was no evidence at all that Iraq was involved in 9/11.”
I think the hawks felt that 9/11 gave them a pretext to do things which needed to be done all along, that were long overdue. It created a political climate for a more aggressive foreign policy.
In peacetime, the nation is risk-averse. As such, it allows various dangers to our national security to mount and go unchecked.
So, in a sense, they exploited 9/11 to further a preconceive agenda. But there’s nothing inherently dishonest about that. They felt we should have a more aggressive foreign policy even before 9/11, and 9/11 merely drew spectacular attention to the threat we were facing all along, a gathering threat due to our past neglect.
In a democracy, timing matters. The public mood can turn on a dime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking advantage of that fact. You need public support to get things done. That’s the nature of the democratic process.
“Yes, Saddam was supporting terrorist actions in Israel, but some different argument needed to be made about that. I was glued to the TV/Internet in those days. What can you say about Powell’s speech before the UN? I remember the photograph of the crop-duster plane they found, suggesting that Iraq was some how going to attack the US with anthrax. What about Cheney’s invocation of Saddam’s ‘reconstituted’ nuclear weapons program? Do you remember the stories about ‘the aluminum tubes’? A presidential administration that must resort to such fear-mongering to build a case for war has got to be lacking in some very important respects.”
I don’t have any problem believing that gov’t officials sometimes lie to the public. But I find it implausible to assume that the case for invasion was all predicated on a campaign of deception.
i) A number of the key players have since retired, viz. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Bremer, Richard Myers, Andrew Card, Powell, Tenet, Tommy Franks.
Having retired, they are free to speak their minds. To write lucrative, backstabbing, tell-all memoirs in which they settle old scores and accuse the boss or their administration rivals of an evil plot to hoodwink the nation. They haven’t done so.
ii) A number of “experts,” both inside and outside the administration, assured Bush and/or the nation, that Saddam had WMD, viz. George Tenet, James Woolsey, Richard Butler, David Kay. Even Hans Blix was surprised by the absence of WMD in Iraq.
Foreign intelligence agencies like MI-5 corroborated the claim.
Saddam’s own generals thought he had WMD. Remember the biochem suits?
iii) The problem with lying about WMD as a pretext to invade Iraq is that the invasion of Iraq would expose the pretext as a lie. So that would be a really stupid lie.
It’s as if I lied about the presence of illegal drugs in student’s locker as a pretext to search his locker when a search of his locker would expose my pretext as a lie.
Of course, people do dumb things, so this is possible. But it does suffer from an antecedent improbability.
You’ve also had supporters of the Iraq war like Thomas McInerney whose sincerity is unquestionable, or so it seems to me. They may be misguided, but I have no reason to impute dishonest motives to them.
“I don’t want to say what the response should have been. But what it was, was the source of a loss of the world’s good will that we possessed after 9/11. Bush’s response at that time was at least the beginning of ‘the grounds for what they think of us’.”
I don’t care. I’ve never been able to read that objection with a straight face. There are reasonable objections to the Iraq war. This isn’t one of them. Or national defense posture can’t be dictated by whether or not the world loves us.
“Bush could have spent his good will seeking authorization to do the very things you mentioned, instead of committing the nation to war in Iraq.”
Authorization from whom? Congress? The UN?
“I believe he thought it was going to be a ‘cakewalk’.”
He clearly underestimated internal opposition and overestimated internal support.
But the “cakewalk” phrase comes from a 2002 article by Ken Adelman, and not from Bush or a member of his war cabinet.
“Ironically, Bush's having taken out Saddam does seem to have freed up Iran to become the ‘nuclear threat’ that it is today. One useful thing that Saddam did was to keep Iran focused on Saddam.”
I don’t see how that follows. If Saddam were still in power, and Iran felt threatened by Iraq for that very reason, then that would be a tremendous incentive for Iran to go nuclear.
“Richard Clarke was a counterterrorism expert from the Clinton years who carried over into the Bush administration. If anything, he was a ‘get things done’ person who had the right ideas. And yet, in Bush's first year, the importance of his work was pushed further down the ladder.”
But Clarke’s policies were a failure, were they not? They didn’t prevent 9/11, and they didn’t prevent terrorist attacks leading up to 9/11.
“When you speak of ‘preconceived agenda’ the Iraq agenda wasn't an agenda that was in the best interest of the needs of the country at the time.”
That may be the case. I’m not defending the Iraq war. I’m simply responding to stock objections to the Iraq war, most of which strike me as illogical.
“It was preconceived in the 1990's and it came from being low on the priority list to assert itself. (Feith was writing about Iraq, for example. There were probably many others I was not aware of).”
There was dissatisfaction with the way the Gulf War ended. That we didn’t “finish the job.”
“Bush, and his acceptance of this ‘preconceived agenda’ -- when such was not the national security priority du jour, exhibited a contemptible kind of leadership, by adopting this agenda, seemingly without having challenged it in any way.”
But Bush sincerely thought it was a national security priority. And so did the hawks who were promoting this venture.
“There was, as you say, a reasoned case against Iraq. Where was that case being made in the Bush administration? In retrospect, it seems simply to have been squelched.”
I don’t know that it was “squelched.”
Another theory I’ve read is this: some career analysts thought the intel was thin, but they didn’t speak up because they felt their superiors had already decided to do Iraq, and it would have an adverse affect on their career advancement to tell the boss something he didn’t want to hear.
I don’t know that that’s true. It’s just one theory I’ve read. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it’s true, it also sets up a circular predicament. Based on the assumption that Iraq is a done deal, no one dared to tell Bush otherwise. Of course, their inaction would guarantee that Iraq was a done deal.
I can’t blame Bush for acting on the info he had if other info was withheld from him. Intelligence briefings are filtered through a chain-of-command.
Now, I can understand if career analysts were concerned about professional repercussions in case they spoke out. You get promoted or demoted by pleasing or displeasing your superiors.
But if they didn’t challenge the president, then they’re in no position to know if he was committed to a particular course of action.
In fact, if you think the key players are as devious as you take them to be, then it might be in their interests to keep him out of the loop and feed him just one point of view so that he wouldn’t overrule their preconceived agenda.
Since I’m not one of the inside players, and don’t know which theory is true.
“Of course government officials sometimes lie. But from an individual who was clearly an evangelical Christian, on the heels of the much-lying Clinton administration, to have been less than truthful on a public policy such as this one, was, in my opinion, the pivot point upon which the whole Republican and conservative agenda crashed. Republicans had Pres, House, and Senate for the first time in generations, and the very first thing they did with it was to make a shipwreck of it.”
i) That’s not my point. In context, the point I was making is the fact that just because gov’t officials sometimes lie to the public, this, of itself, doesn’t lead me to automatically question the veracity of what a gov’t official says. I take into account whether he has a motive to lie. When you lie to the public you assume a certain risk. If you’re caught in the lie, you pay a political price. You lose influence and power.
ii) You are also imputing a level of deception to the administration which I don’t find plausible. You tend to cite the same half-dozen examples, some of which are quite debatable. As politicians go, I think that Bush is more honest than most.
“It was clear that an agenda was adopted and then there was an effort to ‘sell’ that agenda to the public. Wolfowitz even said that he was not in favor of ‘leading with the WMD story’ (not an exact quote, but there were several ways of selling the ‘agenda’ -- this was the least plausible, but the one most likely to ‘work’.) But selling the agenda via the argument that the geopolitical situation in the middle east probably warranted something like an action in Iraq, was not likely to build the kind of public support the administration -- Bush on top -- needed to start such an action.”
I’ve read that accusation from others. At the time I went back and Googled his statements. That’s a misrepresentation of what he said. He thought there were several reasons to invade Iraq. WMD was one, and he thought that Iraq did, indeed, have WMD. They decided to emphasize WMD because there was a consensus on that issue.
In a democratic republic, you do have to “sell” your policies to the public. That’s how the democratic process works. You need public support to garner Congressional support. There’s nothing sinister about this.
“The correct thing to do at the time was simply to sit on the situation.”
“But Cheney took that comment and turned it around to say, ‘Saddam has reconstituted his nuclear weapons program’."
But Cheney later corrected that statement.
Now Cheney is an interesting case in point. He’s very bright. He was Secretary of Defense during the Gulf war. And he may have been dissatisfied with the aftermath of the Gulf War, so he was looking for an opportunity to complete some unfinished business.
If so, there’s nothing nefarious about that. It may reflect a lack of judgment, but it isn’t evil or devious.
I do think Cheney may be a bit pigheaded. I remember his shortsighted statement about how the insurgency in Iraq was in its “final throes.” At the time he said it, that assessment was obviously premature. Which suggests to me that he had lost his detachment.
“In effect, this administration played on the fears (real or imagined) of the public to sell its agenda.”
I’ve heard Tenet say in TV interviews that the administration really was afraid of what might happen next. Was 9/11 the prelude to another attack? They didn’t know. They had to play catch-up.
“And I found that to be a reprehensible thing from an administration that portrayed itself as everything we conservative Christians were hoping for in 2000.”
Well, I’m a natural born, lifelong cynic, so I’m impervious to the kind of disillusionment you describe. I voted for Bush because I thought he was better than Gore. If I had it to do all over again, I’d still vote for Bush rather than Gore.
BTW, Bush did some good things in his first term. Except for stabilizing Iraq, I think his second term has been an unmitigated disaster, but bad is that is, it’s better than a John Kerry administration.
In a fallen world we’re often confronted with crummy choices.
“I took particular umbrage at being manipulated in such a way.”
I never felt manipulated by the Bush administration since what the Bush administration said was corroborated by other sources outside the Bush administration.
I was never a big fan of the Iraq war. I just thought that most of the anti-war arguments were illogical.
We blame the Bush administration for every erroneous statement it made in the ramp up to war, but we don’t blame the Cato Institute for every erroneous statement it made in opposition to the war:
If you assume the Bush administration was lying through it’s teeth, then, in consistency, you must assume that antiwar groups like the Cato Institute were lying through their collective teeth as well when they made all sort of apocalyptic projections which didn’t pan out.
You’re also assuming that subsequent events have falsified all of the administration claims. But Stephen F. Hayes, my namesake over at the Weekly Standard, has argued that documents we uncovered in Iraq confirm some of our suspicions.
Likewise, you have, as I recall the recent, underreported discovery of 1.2 million tons of yellowcake in Iraq.
“Feith came close to saying that everyone else in the administration was totally incompetent with his vision.”
My point is that, to my knowledge, none of the key players who has since retired has implicated the Bush administration in a web of deception. And Feith, for one, has argued that public perception of the war, shaped by the news media, is often at variance with the facts:
Of course, we have to take what he says with a grain of salt since he’s trying to make himself look good. But we could say the same thing about antiwar critics like Richard Clarke or Michael Scheuer.
“There could be other motivations for these individuals to not write more about it. And perhaps that reason could be that to expose the incompetence (or worse) of others would be to expose one's own culpability even more.”
No, they usually exempt their own conduct in the following way: “I served in the administration. Unfortunately, the administration made many avoidable mistakes because my colleges and superiors failed to heed the wisdom of my sage advice. If only they had taken my prescient warnings to heart, everything would have turned out for the best. But, alas, they failed to recognize my singular brilliance and unerring foresight!”
“Keeping Saddam contained.”
There were problems with the containment strategy. Iraq had porous borders. And the sanctions hurt the underclass rather than the ruling class. And let’s not forget the UN food-for-oil scandal.
“At that point, we had the re sources to verify things inside Iraq, even without the UN.”
“If I recall, Blix wasn't finding anything, and wanted more time to look even further. Bush was instrumental in shutting down that effort so that he could invade.”
The argument is that UN inspectors couldn’t do their job as long as Saddam was in a position to move things around.
One other thing: I can't work up much resentment towards men and women who try to defend us from our enemies, even if they make some mistakes, as long as they were acting in a conscientious fashion.
I do blame gov't officials if they're incompetent.
I also blame them if their worldview is fundamentally flawed.
And I also blame them if they'd rather risk the public safety than risk their own popularity (e.g. Bill Clinton).
Finally, I resent someone like McNamara who admitted, long after the Vietnam war had run its course, that by 1967, he and other insiders had already concluded that the Vietnam war was a lost cause, yet he kept that to himself, so the war continued and escalated for another 6 years, with all the gratuitous dead and wounded.
Life is short. I don’t have time to research all of the controversies surrounding the Iraq war. I’m not a policymaker. I have no influence on policy. But I am aware of the fact that many urban legends about the Iraq war have gained popular currency.