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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Would Bill Clinton have invaded Iraq? 

In the comments to this post by our sharp-penned co-blogger Cardinalpark, one of our leftish but nevertheless polite and reasonable commenters alleged:
Of course Clinton wouldn't have invaded Iraq. Most former presidents wouldn't have (including 41).

At one level, this is an easy claim to make, at least with respect to the last several presidents: None of them did invade Iraq, even when they had the chance (as was the case with Clinton and Bush pere). However, I am not at all sure that "most presidents" would not have invaded Iraq under circumstances similar to George W. Bush. Setting aside Bush 41 and Clinton, I submit that virtually all American presidents prior to Jimmy Carter would have invaded Iraq under similar circumstances. Do we really believe that Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Jack Kennedy or Harry Truman (each the author of geopolitical belligerance far greater and more erroneous than anything considered by George W. Bush) would not have invaded Iraq under the same circumstances? What about Woodrow Wilson, who never missed an opportunity to send a gunboat to support his foreign policy? Or Theodore Roosevelt? Or William McKinley, who was more than willing to wage a limited war of less strategic moment in the Philippines? Or James Polk? Or Thomas Jefferson, who launched America's first "small war"? President-by-president, I think we could construct a pretty persuasive argument that "most former presidents" would have invaded Iraq long before 2003. Certainly most of the great ones would have.

Indeed, there are many of us who believe that, in retrospect, the right time to have invaded Iraq was 1998, when Saddam booted out the UNSCOM inspectors the second time. George H. W. Bush might very well have done so had he been in office. How else to protect the legacy of the Gulf War? Clinton had the opportunity but did not, and history may well reveal this as one of his biggest errors. I think he knows this deep down, and that is why he has been curiously understanding of President Bush's decision (with occasional pandering lapses).

Why didn't Clinton invade Iraq in 1998, substituting stand-off bombing (the true "chickenhawk" tactic, by the way)? I think that two factors effectively limited his options. First, the Starr investigation and resulting impeachment made it very difficult for Clinton to take tough action abroad without appearing to "wag the dog." It is not honest to deny that the combination of an independent prosecution and Republican political attacks operated to limit Clinton's menu of options in foreign policy. This is not to say that Clinton would have invaded Iraq if he had not been under siege at home, but Republican attacks effectively took away the option of pre-emptive military engagements. The attacks on Clinton, however invited by his own moral weakness, damaged his ability to deal with both Iraq and al Qaeda aggressively.

Second, it is no secret that Clinton had a poor relationship with the military. He attacked military culture early in his term and built his fiscal policy around massive cuts in defense spending (as a proportion of national income). He filled his administration with people who were not comfortable around soldiers. The military responded in kind. It is not at all clear that he could have gotten the support within the military to launch an invasion of Iraq in 1998. The generals probably would have leaked to death any such effort, calling down the rage of the Republican Congress, which back then stood squarely against "nation-building."

One of the more interesting passages in Richard Clarke's book, Against all Enemies, reveals the intense frustration that characterized the Clinton administration's efforts to enlist the military in the war on al Qaeda:
Snatches, or more properly "extraordinary renditions," were operations to apprehend terrorists abroad, usually without the knowledge of an almost always without public acknowledgment of the host government. One terrorist snatch had been conducted in the Reagan administration. Fawaz Yunis, who had participated in a hijacking of a Jordanian aircraft in 1985 in which three Americans were killed, was lured to a boat off the Lebanese shore and then grabbed by FBI agents and Navy SEALS. By the mid-1990s these snatches were becoming routine [Counterterrorism Security Group] activity. Sometimes FBI arrest teams, sometimes CIA personnel, had been regularly dragging terrorists back to stand trial in the United States or flying them to incarceration in other countries. All but one of the World Trade Center attacks from 1993 had been found and brought to New York. Nonetheless, the proposed snatch in Khartoum [of bin Laden associated ABu Hafs al-Muratani] went nowhere. Several meetings were held in the White House West Wing with [National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger demanding the snatch. The Joint Staff had an answer that they used whenever asked to do something that they did not want to do:

- it would take a very large force;

- the operation was risky and might fail, with U.S. forces caught and killed, embarrassing the President;

- their "professional military opinion" was not to do it;

- but, of course, they would do it if they received orders to do so in writing from the President of the United States;

- and, by the way, military lawyers said it would be a violation of international law. (pp. 143-144)

Clarke believed that this was systematic (p. 145):
Whether it was catching war criminals in Yugoslavia or terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, it was the same story. The White House wanted action. The senior military did not and made it almost impossible for the President to overcome their objections.

This is, of course, as self-serving as the rest of Clarke's book. But that doesn't make it any less true. And there are more conservative voices that substantially agree.

Clinton, in effect, faced the same sort of obstructionism from the military as Bush has faced from the State Department. Perhaps, when the history of the era is written, bureaucratic in-fighting will be seen as the real reason why Bill Clinton did not put boots on the ground when it was obviously appropriate and propitious to do so, and why George Bush did notwithstanding the footnoted objections, leaked memos and hushed subversion of Foggy Bottom.

12 Comments:

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Tue Nov 22, 10:51:00 AM:

I think Clinton or Gore would have invaded Iraq. Any serious-mided president would have done it post 9/11.

The canard about UN or European support is completely bogus. Clinton dropped bombs on Serbian heads in Europe's backyard without their broad support, with Russia's complete opposition and without UN cover. He went running after Milosevic and threw him in the clink.

The thing for which Clinton had no appetite was for boots on the ground. And I have my own speculation as to his issue here --funnily enough,, I don't think its wag the dog stuff or Lewinsky. He's too thick skinned for that. I think it's that, at some level, he personally was a draft-avoider; and he had a difficult time executing an order to put men and women in harm's way. Think about ordering a General, a Vietnam veteran (like Tommy Franks), to put boots on the ground -- when you are perceived by that guy as a draft dodger. That's pretty tough.

If you read the history, Gore was a proponent for attacking Iraq in 1998 precisely because he wasn't saddled with that baggage. He was a journalist, but he at least made a showing in Vietnam.

I think Clinton was ultimately a badly flawed guy, incapable of important decisions like this, but he was a powerful intellect and at some level understands the need to protect the country's interests...  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Tue Nov 22, 10:53:00 AM:

Maybe Clinton didn't invade because:

(1) He realized he could defang the regime with some airstrikes and containment.

(2) Iraq offered no real danger to the United States or its interests.  

By Blogger honestpartisan, at Tue Nov 22, 11:29:00 AM:

In response to accusations about manipulation of WMD intelligence, defenders of the war on this blog and elsewhere have posited that the real reason for invading Iraq wasn't WMD (Wolfowitz admitted as much) so much as the need to change the political landscape of the Arab & Muslim worlds so that they're no longer breeding grounds for Al Qaeda ideology.

While there had been some terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda by 1998 (WTC, Kenya/Tanzania), there was nothing on the scale of 9/11 to confer any kind of political support for a war on this rationale. So the argument that Clinton would have, could have, or should have gone to war in 1998 strikes me as far-fetched.

Unless we're back at the rationale that WMD was the real reason for the war after all. Which is it?  

By Blogger Elam Bend, at Tue Nov 22, 12:16:00 PM:

It sure seemed to me that the Clinton crew was trying to prepare the nation for an invasion of Iraq. My impression at the time was that they only backed down after their publicity campaign went south. I particularly remember a 'town hall' meeting in Ohio that got invaded by wingnuts/moonbats and the Sec.State and Sec.Def. let themselves get shouted down.
I admit I was pretty ambivelent about an invasion at the time, but I was pretty upset that a) we seemed to be trying to make the decision by committee and b) our cabinet secretaries did such a poor job selling it.

I really found Albrights later crticism of Bush to be disengenuous as she was one of the big proponents for going after Saddam in the late 1990s.

As for 'Defanging' Sadam with airpower, Hoolie; that only took care of the conventional military threat. It didn't stop him from spreading his oil-money largesse around; including $35k to every Pali suicide bombers' families or playing footsie with other terrorist factions. Don't forget that Abu Nidal was staying in Bagdad up until his death right before the war AND, that according to Robert Baer, members of the Iraqi inteligence met with OBL in the nineties, OR that Zawqari was invited to Iraq from Afghanistan by Sadam.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Tue Nov 22, 12:38:00 PM:

" It didn't stop him from spreading his oil-money largesse around; including $35k to every Pali suicide bombers' families or playing footsie with other terrorist factions. Don't forget that Abu Nidal was staying in Bagdad up until his death right before the war AND, that according to Robert Baer, members of the Iraqi inteligence met with OBL in the nineties, OR that Zawqari was invited to Iraq from Afghanistan by Sadam."

And these things are worse than the current state of affairs in Iraq how?

---Further, the airstrikes seem to have taken out any last vestiges of WMD...  

By Anonymous Mixed Humor, at Tue Nov 22, 12:45:00 PM:

Clinton didn't send ground troops into Iraq because he lacked the political courage. Indeed it was December 1998 when Saddam Hussein should've been deposed from power, but instead the only policy put forth was one of weakness, hesitation, and lack of conviction. As with North Korea, Iran, Iraq, international terrorism, and every other foreign policy challenge, Clinton chose to punt so he could focus on his domestic agenda.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Tue Nov 22, 01:50:00 PM:

Screwy -
I think the state of affairs in Iraq is supremely better for the majority Shiites and Kurds than it was prior to American involvement. Deposing and arresting Saddam and killing his heirs, ushering in a democratic and constitutional government and serving as force protectors while they get their national army up and running has been extraordinary. Their economy is growing rapidly, unemployment is declining dramatically...

So I think positing that the Iraqis are worse off as a nation post Saddam is not a very good argument. Unless you are a Sunni from Tikrit...then I would say you are not too happy. Or if you are a member of Ansar Al Islam (Zarqawi's al qaeda affiliate in Iraq before the war), then you may not be too excited either...or maybe dead.  

By Anonymous docdave, at Tue Nov 22, 02:22:00 PM:

I have to disagree with you, Tigerhawk. I don't believe that any of the most recent presidents, LBJ, Nixon, JFK, Clinton, etc. (Carter couldn't even free hostages!!) would have had the balls to invade Iraq because they were too concerned with their political image to make such a bold venture. Regardless on how one feels about the man and his decisions, I believe that President Bush is a rare person with deep convictions who is not affraid to follow them regardless of personal discomfort and the absence of personal gain.  

By Blogger Charlottesvillain, at Tue Nov 22, 05:26:00 PM:

Clinton probably had Dick Morris poll on it at the time, and reacted accordingly. I believe his aderence to domestic polling and unwillingness to take unpopular stands (based on polling) explain his reluctance to put boots on the ground. War is unpopular, at least when you are in the thick of it, and I don't think the man was or is capable of fighting for a position that is unpopular.  

By Blogger Dan Kauffman, at Tue Nov 22, 07:54:00 PM:

"Perhaps, when the history of the era is written, bureaucratic in-fighting will be seen as the real reason"

You know, History is usually written from the record of Leaders, Parliments, the Military, a Historical review from the perspective of Bureaucracies might be interesting.

I have the feeling that Leaders, Governments, Regimes, Armies come and go, but the little gray clerks in tiny offices endure unchanged over the centuries. ;-)  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Wed Nov 23, 07:14:00 AM:

RE: Clinton invading Iraq.

I have an extremely clear memory of my husband's battalion preparing for an immediate deployment to... Iraq (!) - imagine that! - at the end of Clinton's presidency. And he's not a pilot, so we're not talking airstrikes. Now why on earth were they doing that if Clinton would never have invaded Iraq, Screwy? Or perhaps you know something I don't, being such an expert on military affairs and all.

Everyone had to get anthrax shots pronto and that caused major heartburn. It's not the kind of thing one forgets after fielding scores of phone calls from families.

But... I must have been deluded by the Bush administration - these memories are obviously the result of manipulated intelligence perpetrated on an unwitting Congress with the intent of getting us into an illegal and immoral war 5 years later. How *did* the man know? Plots within plots within plots.

Damn the Shrub. He's an evil genius...err...bumbling idiot...err...oh, I'm so confused.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Wed Nov 23, 10:11:00 AM:

Please Tiger, I didn't allege that, I asserted it. Among the post-manifest destiny presidents, it usually took an attack on us or an ally to bring us to war. We entered the World Wars reluctantly and only when provoked. Consider too, that we've had a despotic American-hating dictator 100 miles off the coast of Florida for the past 5 decades and we never put 150,000 troops there.

Before anyone goes waving the 9/11 flag, yes I know we were attacked. We were attacked by 15 Saudis, 1 Egyptian, 1 Lebanese, and 2 UAE natives (note for the slow: zero Iraqis). We responded with an immediate invasion of the country most responsible for harboring them: Afghanistan. Any president worth anything would have hunted Al-qeada into Afghanistan and taken out anyone who harbored them. And that was good policy, because it put rogue nations on notice. When Libya came out and publically announces it's abandoned its WMD program, I was impressed. Hussein was not only impressed, he was scared. Scared enough to abandon his own WMD programs (if he had not already). Faced with other (crazier) rogue nations like Korea, why single out Saddam? He was a classic bully and every bully is 2 parts coward. Saddam and could have been easily controlled. Invading Iraq (especially on the scale we have) is not a foregone logical conclusion. In fact, I doubt most former presidents would have even seriously considered it. (Continued embargos, reatiliation for treaty transgessions, and maybe even a bay-of-pigs type deal, but not a n invasion/occupation)  

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