Friday, October 01, 2004
First, assuming that you were in favor of the invasion of Iraq at the time of the invasion, do you believe today that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea? Why/why not?
Second, what reaction do you have to the not-very-upbeat news coming of Iraq these days, such as the stories I link to above?
Third, what specific criteria do you recommend that we should use over the coming months and years to measure whether the Iraq invasion has been a success?
Those are some good goddamned questions, and we at TigerHawk are up to answering them. This is a long post, though, written over several days. During that time, of course, most other "contestants" have put up their posts. However, I have studiously avoided reading the other posts that respond to Mr. Kerr's challenge, mostly to see how well I could do without free-riding on the vast and creative resources of the other participants. Any stupidity herein is purely my own.
Was the invasion of Iraq a good idea?
The invasion of Iraq was a good idea, although it was probably launched four or five years -- or perhaps 12 years -- later than it should have been. The war on terror, which I consider a war against Islamic fascism, does not by itself justify the invasion of Iraq. The removal of Saddam by invasion was very much in the interests of the United States whether or not we understood that we were at war with Islamic facism. However, the attacks of September 11, 2001 created the political context that would both permit the invasion of Iraq and substantially decrease our willingness to tolerate the risk of a re-armed Iraq. In order to understand why the invasion of Iraq was in our interests even if there were no "war on terror," and why the various reasons for invading Iraq compounded after September 11, we have to establish the context.
Context: Saddam was not only vile, he was a reckless leader and therefore could not be reliably deterred
Neither Saddam's villainy nor his irrationality were reasons to invade Iraq, but both traits made it impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt about anything. There was no depredation beyond his morality, and substantial evidence that he was too reckless in his judgments to be deterred.
Much has been made of Saddam's unspeakable brutality, which long precedes his rise to dictator of Iraq. From Kenneth Pollack's book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which was and remains the argument to beat on this subject:
What little we know about Saddam's early life indicates that it was unpleasant for all involved. Various sources claim that [Saddam's step-father] often beat Saddam with an asphalt-coated stick and kept him busy stealing with his own sons and their cousins. For his part, Saddam was something of a loner, famous for carrying an iron bar wherever he went that he would heat until it was white hot and then use to impale unawary animals -- dogs, cats, whatever made the mistake of coming within his reach. (p. 7)
He extended this transporting amorality to the moment of his ascension to power:
Like his idol, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein quickly set about purging the party and government of any but his most devoted and nonthreatening adherents. In the most famous of the events of this first purge, Saddam convened a meeting of the senior members of the party.... He produced Muhyi 'Abd al-Hussein, secretary-general of the [Revolutionary Command Council of the Ba'th Party]. Mashadi had openly opposed Saddam's succession, and when he appeared on the twenty-second, it was physically apparent that he had paid a terrible price for his opposition. In a broken voice, Mashadi read a long, contrived confession regarding a Syrian-backed plot against the nation he had led. Saddam then took the podium and named fifty-four additional conspirators -- all of them sitting in the room. As each one's name was read out, armed guards walked down to him and led him out of the auditorium to meet his fate. Many broke down in tears and had to be dragged out by the guards. Many of those who remained began to sob uncontrollably as Saddam read the list of names. That same day, Saddam convened a kangaroo court of high-level officials to try and sentence the guilty. In the coup de grace of this macabre production, Saddam then ordered all of the other high party officials whose names had not been called to participate in the firing squads that dispatched the victims. In the words of the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, "Neither Stalin not Hitler would have thought up a detail like that. What Eichmann-like refuge in 'orders from above' could these men dig up in the future if they were ever to marshal the courage to try to depose their Leader?... With this act, the party leadership was being forced to invest its future in Saddam." (Pollack, p. 10)
The savagry of Saddam and his dearly-departed sons was virtually bottomless, and so well-documented that we ought to be able to take judicial notice of it.
Beyond his inhuman brutality, Saddam made decisions very badly, in many cases irrationally, usually in blind pursuit of his dream to become the biggest Arab macher there is or ever was. Pollack argues extensively and persuasively that "Saddam is also one of the worst gamblers and risk takers in modern history[, and his] behavior is ... completely unrestrained by the Iraqi political structure.... Saddam's foreign policy history is littered with bizarre decisions, poor judgment and catastrophic miscalculations." (p. 253, 257) Saddam's history of defeat in aggression was astonishing when Pollack published his book in 2002: In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a sneak attack on Israel, surprising the rest of the world, including the Iraqis. While most other Arab states sent a brigade or an air force squadron to show solidarity, Iraq sent an entire armored corps and about a hundred aircraft. By the time the Iraqis reached the Golan heights, the Isrealis were there to destroy them.
In 1974, Saddam abrogated the "March Manifesto," which had granted the Kurds (who had the backing of the United States, Isreal and Iran) limited authority back in 1970. Saddam sent in his army having concluded, incorrectly it turns out, that the Shah would not intervene to help the Kurds. This conclusion was essential to Saddam's decision to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, because at the time the Iranian military was substantially more powerful than Iraq's. Contrary to Saddam's expectations, Iran invaded. Saddam was ultimately forced into signing the Algiers Accord of 1975, which guaranteed Kurdish autonomy (once again) and, for the Shah's troubles, recognized all of Tehran's disputed territorial claims against Iraq (including the Shatt al-Arab waterway).
In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, beginning a war that would last eight years. Saddam was concerned that revolutionary Iran would spark a revolution among Iraqi's majority Shia. Rather than crack down internally (which we know he was more than willing to do and did successfully for almost thirty years) he decided to attack a much larger and better armed country that was in the grip of a revolutionary fervor. He launched the invasion with no real planning, and his army was stopped by "paltry" (Pollack's word) Iranian resistance after having achieved exactly none of its objectives. By January 1981 Iran was counterattacking (also incompetently, but successfully nonetheless), and it eventually devestated that generation of the Iraqi army. Iraq was only able to stop Iran through the routine use of chemical weapons, including in encounters where they conferred no tactical advantage.
Apart from grievously miscalculating the risks of invading Iran, which decision itself casts doubt on whether Saddam had the judgment necessary to be deterrable, Saddam repeatedly made insane decisions during the course of the war. Specifically, when things started going bad for the Iraqis on the battlefield, Saddam began lobbing missles into Iranian cities. The problem, though, was that Iran's significant cities were much further from the border than Iraq's population centers, so Iran was able to retaliate against Baghdad with much greater destructive force than Iraq was able to deliver against Iranian civilians. These exchanges would "go on for weeks or months before Saddam would realize that he was taking more damage than the Iranians and so would halt his attacks." Saddam would never learn this basic fact of that war: he would initiate city-exchanges with Iran seven times during the war (July-August 1982, October 1982, December 1982-January 1983, February 1984, March-June 1985, January-February 1987, and August-September 1987), "each time with the same results." If ever there was evidence that Saddam could not be deterred by mutual assurred destruction, this was it.
After only two years of peace, Saddam again took his country to war when it made no sense to do so. In 1990, we understood --correctly -- that Saddam's chief concerns were his country's growing internal economic problems, the unchecked power of the United States (Pollack pp. 260-261), and his own stature within the Arab world. Invading Kuwait was so obviously idiotic in light of these interests that Western analysts ignored the warning signs, and persistently doubted that Iraq's mobilization toward its southern border was anything more than the rattling of sabres. But invade he did.
While there are those who argue that the United States -- specifically the U.S. Ambassador -- unwittingly signaled Saddam that we would not intervene, we learned years later that Saddam "had concluded that there was a high probability that the United States would oppose an invasion of Kuwait militarily and he believed that he could defeat the expected American response." (Pollack, p. 261, emphasis in the original) What? That very idea was so insane it is virtual proof that Saddam was not deterrable.
Not only did Saddam invade Kuwait with the expectation that the United States would response, but he held fast to his decision after George H.W. Bush parked 700,000 soldiers, 3,500 tanks and 1,700 combat aircraft on his doorstep. He first believed -- apparently sincerely -- that the multinational forces would not, in the end, counterattack. Then he clung to fantasy after fantasy that Iraq would win even after the coalition counterattack. More proof that Saddam was not deterrable.
Then, less than two years after Stormin' Norman blew his army out of Kuwait in hours and Saddam was forced to submit to a cease-fire that was humiliating by his standards (even if not nearly humiliating enough for my taste), Saddam ordered an attempt on the life of President George H.W. Bush, when the latter was visiting Kuwait. What possible purpose could that serve, other than satisfying some tribal urge for revenge? Does anybody still think that such a man was deterrable?
The final reckless moment came during the four months between the passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 in November 2002 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. After the fact we know that Saddam could have complied with 1441 in a way that would have made it virtually impossible for George Bush to order an invasion. All he had to do was comply fully with 1441 and the resolutions that preceded it. The disarmament resolutions did not impose difficult or unfathomable requirements -- South Africa and the Ukraine had disarmed, and Libya threw in the towel shortly thereafter. Had Saddam been compliant, rather than evasive, he would still be in power today. Instead he recklessly frustrated Hans Blix, who (luckily for Saddam) seemed to think that his job was to find weapons rather than audit Iraqi compliance. Saddam's partial compliance did, of course, accomplish the division of the Western alliance, but he calculated incorrectly that George Bush gave a rat's ass how Jacques Chirac would vote. Saddam permitted the Willing to wreck his regime because he fatally miscalculated, an unacceptable failure in an enemy one hopes to deter.
Context: WMD, containment, and the Iraqi nuclear program
The presence or absence of "WMD" is important to the political debate over the benefits or lack thereof of the Iraq war, because it was one of the two or three rationales for regime change that Bush and Blair served up to rally Western democracies. The question of "stockpiles" is also important to those who believe that preemption is only lawful if an enemy attack is "imminent." Neither of these considerations are important to my support for the Iraq war. My support for the war rests on three pillars, each of which is heavily supported by evidence and widely believed by all but the most ideological opponents of the war.
First, nuclear weapons are the only "WMD" that are actually dangerous enough that we should go to war rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy. Chemical and biological weapons are unlawful, and could certainly kill a few thousand people in any deployment, but a nuclear weapon detonated in an American city could kill a million people. Casualties aside, if that city were New York or Washington a nuclear attack might weaken our economy more than the Great Depression or shatter our institutions more than the Civil War.
Second, Saddam had tried twice, at great expense, to build a nuclear weapon. In his first few years in office he embarked on an ambitious program, with the complicity of the French, to build a weapon. That dream died in 1981 when fourteen Isreali jets swept out of the western desert to destroy his reactor at Osiraq. He then rebuilt his program, dispersing it through the country under extremely tight security. It was so well hidden that United Nations weapons inspectors only uncovered the centrifuges and other elements of the program (after years of searching in the teeth of Iraqi resistence and denial) when two key people with knowledge of the program defected. Without those two lucky defections, Saddam probably would have had a bomb by the late '90s. I do not know of any knowledgeable person on the right or left who seriously contends with these facts.
Third, Saddam's regime retained the knowledge necessary to rebuild the program as soon as the sanctions went away. Continuing military and economic pressure, increasingly supplied only by the United States and Great Britain, was all that stood between Saddam and a bomb.
[Update (Oct 9, 2004): The report of the Iraq Survey Group, which the press is spinning as proof that we lacked sufficient reason to go to war, is actually evidence in support of the argument that the degrading sanctions were the only thing keeping Saddam from getting a bomb:
Interviews with the toppled leader and other former Iraqi officials made clear that Saddam had not lost his ambition to pursue weapons of mass destruction and hoped to revive his weapons program if U.N. sanctions were lifted, [the] report said.
According to the ISG, the effectiveness of the sanctions did improve after the September 11 attacks, but I, for one, do not believe that the effectiveness of the sanctions would have outlasted Saddam, Uday and Qusay (see the argument that follows). The Iraq Survey Group report, therefore, is evidence in support of my rationale for the war, even if it damages the President's political case.]
So thus far we know that Iraq had nuclear ambitions and the knowledge necessary to get a program going quickly, we know that Saddam was willing to kill innocent people in massive numbers without discrimination, and we know that nobody with a stake in the region could safely conclude that Saddam would be deterred even by the threat of nuclear retaliation.
These three facts in combination mean that Saddam could not have been ignored, and of course we were not ignoring him. Between 1991 and 2003, we contained Saddam Hussein. The containment of Iraq, however, was breaking down rapidly by 2002 for reasons we discuss below. We needed a new policy for Iraq even if we hadn't been attacked on September 11.
Context: We could not sustain the containment of Iraq much longer
At the end of the Gulf War, the United States led the United Nations to support the containment of Iraq, with which no peace treaty was signed. "Containment" is a familiar word in the foreign policy lexicon, because we used it to describe an array of Cold War policies designed to confine the expansion of Communism, particularly of the Soviet variety. But the containment of Iraq was, by design, quite different from the containment of the Soviet Union, in part because of Saddam's history of aggressive miscalculation. Pollack, again, put it best:
Containment of Iraq was always a subtly different strategy from that which the United States had successfully employed against the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. With the Soviets, U.S. strategy was simply to deter or prevent them from pushing out beyond the borders of their "bloc" - the USSR itself and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia. What the Soviets did within the confines of the Iron Curtain was their business. From the state, containment of Iraq was intended to be different. It proceeded from the central premise that Saddam Hussein was too dangerous a leader to allow to develop weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. Thus, containment of Iraq was intended not just to prevent Iraq from conducting new aggression beyond its borders but to prevent Iraq from rebuilding the military power to be able to even entertain the idea of new aggression. The United States did not want to have to deter or defeat another Iraqi invasion. Instead, the goal was to deny Saddam the capability to mount a threat in the first place. Consequently, containment of Iraq was always a much more ambitious undertaking than containment of the USSR had ever been. (emphasis in original, Pollack pp. xxiv - xxv).
Because the containment of Iraq was by its nature far more intrusive than the containment of the Soviet Union, we could sustain it only with an aggressive four-legged strategy. The containment program included disarmament sustained by U.N. resolutions banning many weapons systems, requiring strict accounting for permitted weapons, and inspections, draconian economic sanctions enforced by the world's largest economies and endorsed by the countries that border Iraq, the containment of Iraq's army and air force supported by a big presence of U.S. troops in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, and military coercion, primarily from the air via the "no fly" zones. All four of these legs had weakened substantially by 2002 for reasons exhaustively detailed in Pollack's book and elsewhere (and discussed in summary form below), and there was no reasonable prospect that containment could be reinvigorated and then sustained for the duration of the Saddam - Uday - Qusay regime.
The affirmative disarmament program was a corpse by the fall of 2002 -- it had effectively died when Saddam evicted the weapons inspectors from Iraq in the fall of 1998. It took 100,000 American and British soldiers in the deserts of Kuwait and the credible threat they would invade to persuade Saddam to let Hans Blix and his team do their inspecting thing four years after their eviction, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that Saddam would not have expelled Blix the moment the soldiers went home. He had done so before, and it had cost him nothing. Affirmative disarmament could only have been sustained with a big military presence on Saddam's border, and that was becoming increasingly problematic for other reasons.
The sanctions regime, which was the only thing that really prevented Saddam from restarting his weapons programs, was on the verge of collapse because of smuggling (which was obviously illegal) and oil-for-food deals (which we theoretically legal but which we now know were extremely corrupt and subversive). The smuggling of Iraqi oil through Turkey, Syria, Jordan and even Iran had exploded by the end of the Clinton Administration, and cash to the regime increased from perhaps $350 million in 1999 to $2.5 - $3 billion two years later. The countries surrounding Iraq, including our putative allies (Turkey and Jordan) and Iraq's arch enemy (Iran), were smuggling staggering sums of cash and goods into Iraq because the sanctions made the illegal trade so profitable. And Saddam was winning the propaganda war over the sanctions. Leftist NGOs, the major media and various of our perfidious "allies" favored outright repeal of the sanctions for the effect they appeared to have on Iraq's citizenry, particularly children. Rarely did anybody listen to the United States and the United Kingdom, which proved that Saddam was spending staggering sums of hard currency -- more than enough to feed his people -- on palaces and mosques. France and Russia were campaigning hard to lift sanctions completely, and resisted proposals from the Bush administration to "smarten" or refocus the sanctions on imports that truly posed a threat because they wanted to sustain the pressure for outright repeal.
Just as smuggling and public relations problems undermined sanctions, the hideously misnamed "oil-for-food" program (misnamed because it permitted the importation of lots of things other than food), which granted the Iraqis the freedom to award very lucrative contracts, became a wedge with which Saddam could divide his opposition through the promise of trade. Without, I'm sure, appreciating the irony in the least, Saddam used the lure of business (and bribes) via the oil-for-stuff program to campaign for the end of sanctions entirely!
The American military presence in the Gulf State, particularly Saudi Arabia, was under tremendous pressure. The fact of the American presence in Arabia was politically very difficult for local governments. If opposition to American soldiers in Saudi Arabia became too fervent, and there was every sign that it might (Bin Laden fanned that resentment for very specific reasons), the Gulf states might well have decided to take their chances with Iraq rather than depend on a significant American presence in the region.
Whether or not we would have been expelled from the Gulf at some point in the next decade, the Gulf states were increasingly reluctant to permit us to launch coercive raids from their facilities, including air strikes. By the fall of 2002, the Saudis had forbidden us from flying strike missions from their bases, confining those operations to Bahrain, Kuwait or carriers at sea. This was not a moral position -- the Saudis and others had been very clear that they would support a specific war to end Saddam's regime. But they could no longer tolerate the open-ended coercion of Iraq as part of a long-term strategy of containment.
Even the no-fly zones -- probably the least important element of containment unless you were a Kurd -- were becoming difficult to sustain. The French had withdrawn during the Clinton administration (notwithstanding his famed multilateralism), leaving the United States and the United Kingdom to fly more than 10,000 sorties per year over enemy airspace, suffering enemy fire virtually every day. The fact of the enemy fire is not relevant -- we didn't lose any planes or pilots on no-fly sorties -- but it did require us to retaliate against Iraqi air defenses. According to Pollack,
Iraqi propaganda has convinced much of the Arab world that the no-fly zones are illegal and that the U.S. and U.K. response strikes are killing large number of innocent Iraqi civilians. Although most of the Arab governments know this is untrue, they also hate the anger that these responsive strikes create among their publics. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia continue to support the NFZs only because the southern zone provides vital warning of an Iraqi attack....
Of course, we now know that containment had worked for ten years to deprive Saddam of functioning WMD, but we also know that it was failing as a strategy when George Bush put the issue to the world, and that Saddam would soon be free to do for a third time what he had almost done twice before -- build nuclear weapons. While we might have delayed the day of reckoning for several more years, we were going to face that day eventually, and on that day it was almost certain that we would again go to war in Iraq. As I wrote above, September 11 both changed the way any American should weigh the risks of a nuclear Iraq, and it made certain of our policy options in Iraq, including specifically invasion, more possible politically.
What were those policy options in the fall of 2002? There were six.
First, we might have decided to repeal the sanctions and ignore Saddam, all on the theory that he was not really a threat. There were certainly lots of people on the left who argued precisely that. The problem with these arguments is that they all presupposed effective containment. Iraq was supposedly not a threat because it did not in fact have WMD. But that misses the point. With containment going the way of the dodo, one had to recast the question to ask whether Iraq could quickly become a threat if it faced no sanctions and its skies were free of the USAF and the RAF. Virtually nobody could make that argument, since Saddam had proven that he was catastropically dangerous on multiple prior occasions.
Second, we might have rebuilt containment. This was probably the leading argument of the anti-war crowd in the fall of 2002, and it seems to be the point that John Kerry is making when he says that the invasion was the "wrong war at the wrong time." But how? That strategy was tried and it failed. The French rejected "smart sanctions," calling for their abolition. [Update: French, Russian and Chinese complicity in covering up the oil-for-food scandal is just more post hoc evidence that there was no chance to shore up the sanctions regime.] Weapons inspections did resume after 1441, but only because Bush was "rushing to war" and it never occurred to Saddam that Bush and Blair actually meant what they said. Does anybody honestly think that the inspectors would have remained long after the 3rd ID came home? Also, given Saddam's bizarre unwillingness to come clean with the inspectors after sweet old Hans Blix gave him every chance, how could we know to a post-September 11 level of certainty that a restored containment regime was working? Remember, the only real evidence we have that containment was working has come since we invaded the country and learned that Iraq had not restarted its weapons programs.
Third, we might have relied on pure deterrence, and hoped that the threat of nuclear retaliation would cause Saddam to think twice about using the nukes that he surely would have built once the sanctions were off. But how could we rely on our ability to deter a regime that has consistently made reckless decisions? Deterrence requires that that the deterred party actually be deterrable!
Fourth, we might have tried to topple Saddam's regime via traditional covert means. There are, as I have written elsewhere, numerous reasons to believe that assassination or other covert methods of regime change would not have worked in Saddam's case:
Saddam was famous for his paranoia and security apparatus and we were famous for our inadequate intelligence assets in Iraq. And even if it might have been possible to take out the father, Iraq would have exploded in a struggle for power between the two hideous sons. Democrats who falsely bleat that Iraq is a "haven" for terrorists today do not like thinking about the chaos in Iraq after Saddam's death, whether by natural causes or otherwise.
Fifth, we might have tried the "Afghan approach," meaning support of internal opposition forces backed by subtle American military power -- special forces and air support. But that was not a practical solution either (me again):
Insurrection from within was also not feasible, the silly promises of Ahmed Chalabi notwithstanding. Iraq's military remained formidable for the region, even if it was laughable compared to a well-equipped Western army. Previous attempts to overthrow Iraq had failed miserably without American military support. Even if we had persuaded the various groups hostile to Saddam to believe us this time and try again, they could not have succeeded without massive American intervention. Then where would we have been? We would have "owned" a very different mess in Iraq, a country liberated from Saddam via the combined efforts of various rival groups and the American military, only with even fewer troops on the ground and even less capacity to impose security. As difficult as the last 18 months have been for Iraqis, it is hard to believe that it is worse than the chaos that would have followed a civil war fomented by America.
The sixth option, which was the only option left after the others were discarded, was invasion.
There were, of course, other arguments advanced both inside and outside the administration to support the invasion of Iraq. Some of those arguments are notorious (that he had "stockpiles" of WMD, or that he cooperated with Al Qaeda), some are appealing from a moral point of view (he was an almost uniquely sadistic dictator, and since we had sustained him against Iran it was our responsibility to take him out), some are profoundly true (it is America, not France, that upheld the credibility of the United Nations) and some of those other arguments are "unspoken" in the sense that it was against our diplomatic interests to advance them, even if like the elephant in the room everybody knew they were there.
Of the "unspoken" arguments in favor of invasion, there were several that I found particularly appealing. Being TigerHawk, I liked Thomas Friedman's "real reason," which was
to burst what I would call the "terrorism bubble," which had built up during the 1990s.
This bubble was a dangerous fantasy, believed by way too many people in the Middle East. This bubble said that it was OK to plow airplanes into the World Trade Center, commit suicide in Israeli pizza parlors, praise people who do these things as "martyrs," and donate money to them through religious charities. This bubble had to be burst, and the only way to do it was to go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something—to let everyone know that we, too, are ready to fight and die to preserve our open society. Yes, I know, it's not very diplomatic—it's not in the rule book—but everyone in the neighborhood got the message: Henceforth, you will be held accountable. Why Iraq, not Saudi Arabia or Pakistan? Because we could—period. Sorry to be so blunt, but, as I also wrote before the war: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them.
Put simply, after September 11 we had to wreck a country in the Arab world, occupy it, sustain ourselves in that occupation, and never waiver. Only doing as much as that would burst the terrorism bubble, as Friedman put it, and it was Iraq's misfortune that we had the best casis belli and the least need for the continuing services of its regime.
Under this view, smashing Iraq achieves two objectives. First, assuming we persist in Iraq, we will have dismissed Bin Laden's charge that America lacked the stomach to wage this war. We are making Bin Laden a liar with every casualty we suffer in Iraq. Second, we needed to reinforce the credibility of our threats aimed at other regimes that might otherwise consort with terrorists. If even a few of these weasel Arab dictators believes "there but for the grace of Allah go I," then the war was worth it.
I also agree with the argument that we had to occupy Iraq in order to roll-up Iran and Syria. We now have an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of the Middle East, and we have soldiers in every country on Iran's border. There are those (like Chris Matthews) who argue that Iran is the real threat, both because of its sponsorship of jihadists and because of the advanced state of its nuclear weapons program. Most of those people argue that in going after Iraq we "invaded the wrong country." I'm not so sure. I think that the occupation of Iraq strengthens our hand in dealing with Iran, one way or the other.
I also agree with those who argued that we needed a war to change the political dynamic in the Middle East. The world needs more representative, more accountable, more democratic government in the Muslim world. Advocates of this argument included Tom Friedman (again), Donald Rumsfeld and ultimately George Bush. Friedman called this the "right reason," and Rumsfeld described it as "draining the swamp," but they mean the same thing. Even if the Iraqi government that emerges from the present difficulties is not a paragon of Jeffersonian democracy, it still may be the most accountable government in the Arab world by a longshot. The Islamists fear this result terribly, which is why they are fighting it so hard in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally, Saddam's Iraq was the last meaningful Arab threat to Israel's survival. I believe that we needed to neutralize Iraq because it was the last reasonable justification for Isreali intransigence. The intifada, which Israel has largely defeated, has obscured the extent to which Israel is fundamentally more secure today than it has been since it was founded. With Saddam out of the way and Bush in legacy mode, I predict that we will see significantly greater American pressure on Israel to make concessions than we saw in Bush's first term, or that we will see if Kerry is elected. Such pressure would give Sharon the cover to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank more decisively, which would enhance Israel's security and our own.
However, none of these subsidiary reasons, spoken or unspoken, persuades me that the invasion of Iraq was the right policy. For me, the looming end of containment was forcing us to develop a new strategy to deal with Saddam's persistent ambitions. Of the options available to us, invasion afforded the greatest chance to keep Saddam from acquiring nuclear weapons. The attacks of September 11 quite correctly altered America's taste for risk in such things, but they were not the most important reason to go to war.
What reaction do you have to the not-very-upbeat news coming of Iraq these days, such as the stories I link to above?
I think most of the not-very-upbeat stories coming out of Iraq are true, but they do not necessarily reflect failure in our Iraq policy except as against the expectations of people who like their wars quick and sanitary. Nor do they necessarily prove that the Bush Administration made big mistakes in Iraq (although there must be decisions they wish they could "do over").
War is brutal, and even victorious wars of any duration or consequence involve many defeats along the way. The Axis won countless victories early in the war, and continued to beat the Allies soundly in local fights even as they were losing the strategic war. I'm sure Churchill would not have played well on CNN if there had been television cameras at Dunkirk. The Confederacy whacked away at the Union routinely during the first two years of the American Civil War, but never achieved a strategic objective or broke the Union's willingness to fight. But how ugly would the Battle of Bull Run have appeared if broadcast on the BBC?
The question, and it is the only really interesting question, is whether we are winning the strategic war against Al Qaeda and its jihadist allies, and that is virtually impossible to assess from the press accounts from Iraq. I do agree with the president, though, when he says that Al Qaeda is terrified that a pluralistic representative government might actually succeed in Iraq. Otherwise, why fight us where we present our hardest target, the United States Marines? And if Al Qaeda is in fact terrified that pluralistic government will spread in the Arab world, that seems like a very good reason to keep draining the swamp.
What specific criteria do you recommend that we should use over the coming months and years to measure whether the Iraq invasion has been a success?
Over the next several months there should be only three specific criteria. First, we must continue to kill as many of the insurgents as possible, whether by land or by air. Recognizing that the military does not report "body counts" for all sorts of good reasons, we nevertheless must visit lots of death and destruction on the enemy.
Second, we should hope to see many new volunteers for the police, border patrol and armed forces. As long as applicants exceed spaces by a big ratio, we know the Iraqis remain eager to build their own peaceful country out of the ashes of Saddam's tribal dictatorship.
Third, we need to keep the political process on schedule. George Bush was right when he said "you're supposed to vote" when the enemy is trying to destroy your society. We need to see Iraq dig in, and Iraqis thumb their nose at the bad guys.
Over the medium-term, we need to get significant improvement in the economy. This can be done by spending some of the billions that have been allocated to reconstruction, spreading small amounts among Iraqi entrepreneurs, and securing the oil industry. The "good news" of higher oil prices is that Iraq will earn substantially more money than we originally planned from the oil that it is actually able to sell.
Over the long-term, we need to maintain the political division between the Shia of Iraq and the mullahs of Tehran. That division has been very much in evidence this year, and that is very encouraging, but we need it to continue if we are to leverage our presence in Iraq into regime change, or at least severe behavior modification, in Tehran and Damascus.
To those few of you who have read this far, thank you for your time.
An interesting analysis, which supports many of my own views regarding Iraq. Conflict was inevitable. 9/11 made it possible to engage on our terms.
A couple of questions: what kind of concessions do you see, or would you recommend, Bush pressuring Israel to offer? It seems Clinton got them to offer everything but unconditional right of return, and Arafat turned them down. Appeasement failed Israel as it always does. Would you ask them to take down the wall? Right now it is the source of their security.
As far as the "bad news in Iraq," I agree that it is "true," but that it is far from the whole story. You link to enough Iraqi blogs, and we've seen enough first hand accounts to understand that there are steps forward every day, many not noticed. Of course war is hell, and the media can now cover it like never before. Terrible as it is to read of each day's horrors, by historical standards the campaign remains quite exceptional in many ways, even if not free of errors. Tactically, the biggest mistakes we've made in my opinion have been our wavering for public relations reasons, even as our adversaries broke all the rules of war.
Assuming that we face long term conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it will be interesting to see how our military adapts based on experiences in Iraq. A generation of officers will be shaped by this conflict. Over the next decade, how will they influence military strategy and execution?
I congratulate you for a scholarly and compelling analysis of issues that are tossed about daily, but without anything resembling the depth of thought and skillful expression that you have taken the time to provide.
Parkway Rest Stop
Thank you. Great analysis. Curious to know what you think would constitute a failure in post invasion Iraq? Does civil war or a partitioned Iraq constitute a worse result than a continuation of the Hussein dynasty? What is the worst case scenario at this point?
Here's a worst-case scenario:
Massive fighting breaks out (probably in Baghdad) between Iraqi factions, rather than between insurgents and coalition troops. If a full-blown civil war (which could even develop into a 3-or-more-way war, Kurd/Sunni/Shia, which takes into Lebanon circa 1984, game over man game over) breaks out, we could pull out, or put in as many more troops as we have. Neither of those options is palatable.
This, I think, is what incidents like last week's carbomb at the water plant dedication ceremony are meant to provoke. Most of the insurgency probably understands that they can't afford to piss off the population at large too much, but there seems to be one faction which has absolutely no tactical goals, focusing instead on bloody, massive attacks on civilians *qua* civilians.
When Iraqis blame such incidents on the Americans, this is not (just) paranoia, but rather defensive denial. If they accepted the enormity of what this nihilistic faction wants, they would feel honor-bound to fight back. Ready to see (say) a Shi'ite army invading Fallujah, outside the constraints of the interim Iraqi authority? Me neither.
Anyway, that's what I think the worst-case would be.
Great analysis. Lays out the argument almost exactly as I see it. I don't believe we could afford to have Blix declare Iraq WMD free. It would have left us with no excuse to attack, and would have resulted in the sanctions being lifted and Saddam free to restart his WMD programs.
Thanks. You've made the case, I've been saying for years. I never thought containment was a good idea. When the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 (regime change)was signed into US policy by the Clinton Administration, I thought we finally would do the right thing.. He did not. It was all just words, no serious action would be taken. After years of warnings from the very same Administration, I find it hypocritical of them (Democrat leadership) now to say it was wrong to go into Iraq and take out Saddam.. I had voted for them in the past, but will never again, until the liberal leadership changes. I live in NYC and lost friends and co-workers in 9-11. Whatever it takes to change the face of the Middle East, it is worth it.. It is long overdue and have no choice. No more playing cat and mouse with despots. If the entire world would realize this and stop appeasing and lining their pockets with blood money (Germany and France) we would not be in the position we are now. It would have gone a lot smoother. Whatever it takes and Bush has my vote, this time around.
The only thing I would add, and as more of an aside than anything else, is that the perfidious French and Russians assured the delusional Saddam that the U.S. was bluffing. And even Saddam could see the protests around the world by socialist sponsored peace groups.
If they had backed our play none of this would have happened. Saddam may have been nuts and a terrible gambler, but living in Bahrain with millions of dollars and Palestinians to torture beats all hell out of waiting in a Baghdad jail for the noose. You can't tell me if he'd been convinced he wouldn't have bolted.
Spongeworthy makes a good point, which I had forgotten -- there were rumors, at least, of "negotiated regime change." Saddam might have abdicated with assurances of immunity, if only he actually believed that the Coalition would go through with its promise to invade. Whether Saddam's refusal to bargain for such a result was the product of French perfidy or Saddam's incompetent decision-making is beyond my ken. In any case, Saddam's obsession with his stature before the Arab world probably would have interfered with his ability to think clearly about the abdication scenario, so I wonder whether we can actually blame the French for this one.
Excellent analysis jack. A couple of additional thoughts:
1) i can't now recall whether you mentioned it, but often lost in the fog of Iraq discussion is that we actually passed a bill in Congress which made regime change in Iraq a law in '97/'98.
If there is any doubt that the entire discussion about Iraq is 100% pure politics and has nothing to do with foreign policy development and implementation that is consistent with American moral and strategic interest, it should be discarded. Recall that at the war's inception, over 70% of Americans favored it. Why? 9/11 angst; fear of the potential nexus between Saddam and Al Qaeda; and a fundamental understanding that we failed in 1991 by not completing the mission. To me, Brent Scowcroft looks like the most clueless fool of all. As if beating the tar out of Saddam in 91 but not running him out of Baghdad would make him our friend, rather than a more belligerent and dangerous enemy...idiot.
2) Any argument about Iraq is mostly really a disagreement about war tactics in the overall context of America's War against Islamic fascism in the Middle and Far East. And most of those doing the arguing (like Dan Rather and Michael Moore) are not qualified to engage in this discussion. During WWII, should we first have invaded North Africa, Italy and a bunch of Pacific islands instead of going to the center of Europe? Should we have invaded via Normandy or Calais?
Did Afghanistan make sense? Iraq? Why? Historians will determine this, not journalists.
That's really the nature of the discussion. Part of the reason for this absence of proper focus is merely media myopia and politics. But much of it is attributable to an absence of effective articulation by the Bush Administration. Maybe it shouldn't be articulated, so that's okay...again, that's a tactical question. Why should we alert Syria, Iran and the rest of the bad actors that we intend to fry their assets before it falls on them? The axis of evil speech spelled it out, but the press derided it. Enough said.
But for those of you who've missed it, this is WW IV (Cold War was WWWIII). It's a war focused on the spread of Islamic fascism from Iran, around the Middle East and towards the Far East. Iraq is a small battle.
And by the way, we've already won the first battle in Afghanistan (where they will have their first free election in their 5000 year history); and we are well into winning the Iraq battle.
The news there is consistently good set in that frame --from occupation handover to election process and planning. Do we lose brave men and women in that process? Yes we do. And that is always sad and bad news. But this war is about our fundamental way of life, and therefore it's worth it.
I can't wait til this election crap is over.
Your arguments are good, but I think you have missed a wider issue. Considered in isolation, the removal of Saddam is a good thing. It has not happened in isolation.
As you correctly point out, the "war on terror" is actually a war on "Islamic fascism". This can be and is interpreted in two ways: as a war between religions, and as a war against religion qua fundamentalism. I believe that the former cannot be won, and should not be won: one form of fundamentalism is as bad as another. The latter war can be won, but the invasion of Iraq has dealt its prospects a grievous blow. Here's why. Saddam was a divisive, secular wedge in the Middle East. The manner of his removal has united the Arab nations in their anger at America (as anyone with an inkling of understanding of the Middle East must have known it would). The invasion has effectively legitimised terrorism.
You called terrorism a bubble, but it is more like an abscess: prod it and it gets worse. It is not a sickness that can be cured by aggression. I am not suggesting that nothing be done; on the contrary, it requires active intervention to solve the problem. However, the current administration is clearly not philosophically equipped to deal with it (observe their false dichotomies: "you are with us or you are against us" is one of the harbingers of fascism).
The war on terror must be recognized for what it is: a war on what is called religious fascism or fundamentalism, but really stems from the belief that one is entitled to coerce others to one's point of view. Only when we understand the nature and the causes of a conflict can we hope to resolve it. Terror is not a cure for terrorism; liberty is. One absolutely cannot bring liberty at the point of a gun; and liberty and democracy are not the same thing -- just ask a former citizen of Soviet Russia.
First Let me say that this was an excellent article with great insight and research, and very well laid out. I completely agree with your assessment of this subject and the facts you laid forth. This was very necessary for many reasons, all of wich I believe you laid out. I also wish to request your permission to use some of your material on my own blog, The Fire Ground. As I will be posting a link to this reply in my blog.
In response to you Mr. Turner:
The only way Saddam was a wedge in the region is by the fear and loathing he generated in his fellow Arab leaders. He was a poison thorn weakening any attempt any other leader may have made to stabilize their own country. Removing him has not united the Arab nations against us, it has motivated them to take that stabilizing step. They now realize that with that stabilization and the removal of terrorists from their country they will not be in line to face the same type of regime change. And quite the contrary to making terrorism legitimate, it has rocked the Islamic fascist community to the core. So much so that Terrorist groups from around the region and even the world are sending anything they can into the region to try and stop what they know will eventually lead to their downfall, the Democratizing of the Middle East, starting with Iraq. They know that if that happens then their war against us will turn into a war against their own home countries, since Democracy is the root of what they are fighting against.
The current Administration is acutely aware of this fact I assure you, and I propose that this end result is probably one of the MAIN reasons that we invaded Iraq. To rephrase that, Iraq was the most legitimate target to start the spread of Democracy in the Middle East, so they (the Admin) took the chance when they had it. They are prodding the “bubble” of terrorism and succeeding in making it give. It will eventually, do to this prod, explode as any such bubble must. Eventually to disappear as the sunlight of Democracy dries up the shattered remains. This is not coercing, this is not bringing Democracy at the point of a gun. We have removed a threat to OUR liberty, and offering the chance to live free to another nation. It just so happens that we knew, from the stories of defectors, that the majority of Iraqis want freedom, and wanted to be rid of Saddam. Their wishes went hand in hand with ours. We removed Saddam at the point of a gun, we give liberty with the open arms of freedom. Also your hint at the Soviet Union, as a not so hidden attempt to compare the USSR to what we are helping to create in Iraq is at best unfounded. The Soviet Union was a communist state. Iraq, with our help, is becoming a Democratic state in which the people of Iraq will decide how things go. Not us, and not some mullah or dictator.
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