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March 7, 2007

What I got right and wrong on the Iraq war

-- by John Emerson

Brian Flemming has asked people to go into their March 2003 archives and report what they got right and what they got wrong about the Iraq War. (Via Crooked Timber and High Clearing). My old Zizka site is down, but I saved it in my computer.

Instead of March 2003, I looked at what I wrote on September 2002 (below the fold). By that time I was completely convinced that the Iraq War would happen, and the only debate I could see happening was between the realists and the neocons: the doves had been marginalized, and most Democrats were in hiding.

Things I mostly got right: the war, the occupation, the Bush administration, the Democrats, the media, the Bush long term strategy (endless war against someone or another) and the cynical use of the war as an excuse to ram through a mostly-unrelated domestic agenda. What I got wrong: I overestimated the negative international repurcussions in the Middle East and elsewhere. I feared the destabilization of the rest of the Middle East, and I also feared that Russia, China, India, or some other nation would try to take advantage once the US was tied down in Iraq. Those things could still happen, of course, but I expected things to be much worse internationally than they are by now.

So far the Bush Administration has been good for us cynics and negativists. Hopefully our run of good luck will end soon. I've been dreading the future for five years, and it wears you down.


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IRAQ WAR EDITORIAL (Sept. 7 [2002])

For about a month now, what I've been saying about the Iraq war has boiled down to two things. First, the war has been decided upon and will certainly take place. Second, whatever debate there is about the war will be within the right wing. President George W. Bush's adventurist branch of the right wing has seemingly alarmed ex-President George H. W. Bush's prudent branch, and we've been seeing a lot about that in the newspapers.

In my opinion this flood of conservative criticisms is a genuine vote of no-confidence in George W. Bush and his little team. (But see below.) Unfortunately, the Democrats are scarcely peeping a peep, and our President will be happy to ignore whatever peace movement emerges. By my guess he actually hopes for more, and more violent, demonstrations; this would explain some of the peculiarities of the security arrangements during Bush's recent Portland visit.
The debate going on right now is more about long-term strategy than it is about Iraq; none of the conservative critics of Bush's policy rule out an Iraq invasion. The Bush administration has put out signs that it plans, unilaterally and without allies, to force regime changes on one country after another until the world map looks the way we want it, and it is this adventurist strategy which a lot of the wiser heads are expressing doubts about.

It's rather difficult to come up with sober political judgements when you're unsure about the reliability of the information you're working with. Several unsympathetic observers have suggested that the whole Iraq debate is actually a smokescreen intended to divert attention to Iraq from such domestic problems as Enron, Harken, the deficit, etc., etc., etc. And in fact, the most grandiose and megalomaniac versions of the Bush strategy that we see might also be smokescreens. Perhaps they're just trying scare people enough to make their actual plan look sensible when it is finally revealed.

How should those of who are designated outsiders respond to all this? I don't have a good answer to that question and am not sure that there is one. Below I can only raise a few questions and make a few suggestions.


Go Easy on the Quagmire Theory

My guess is that the US military will be able to defeat Iraq or any other single nation with relative ease. Both hawk and dove sources tell us that American military spending over the last decade has surpassed that of the next ten nations in the world combined -- and most of the ten are our allies. Much of this spending has been on high-tech weaponry which makes other nations' armies obsolete. Furthermore, talking about quagmire or worst-case scenarios turns us into prophets of doom who seem to be hoping for US casualties. (At the same time, we should question those in the administration who occasionally promise us a cheap and easy war. We should go to war, if we do go to war, in the awareness of the possibility that there might be heavy American casualties).

On the other hand, the occupation of Iraq could very well end up being a quagmire. Anyone who still bothers to pay any attention to Afghanistan can see that that nation is descending into chaos. We can probably afford to let that happen, since Afghanistan apparently isn't really strategically very important after all. Iraq would be a much harder case, however, since we couldn't just walk away from the oilfields. The occupation of a hostile nation is one of the most brutal and thankless of tasks -- ask the Israelis, the French (Algeria), or the British (N. Ireland). I don't think that the Bush administration has really thought this part out very carefully.
It is sometimes suggested that we will be welcomed as liberators and that we will easily be able to set up functioning democracies in Iraq (and Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria), and then leave. This is outrageous, lying, wishful bullshit. The best organized popular forces in all those countries are the Islamic fundamentalists, and they will be the most likely beneficiaries of any instability. More likely is a ripple affect as one government after another in that area (including Pakistan and Egypt) collapses. Furthermore, the more tied down the US is in Iraq and neighboring areas, the easier it will be for Russia, India, China and the other medium powers to push their agendas without effective US opposition.

In my opinion, we really don't want too many things happening at once, and I think that the conservative criticism of Bush's adventurism is essentially this.

Why Saddam?

The Bush administration's contempt for the US people and for the indentured media probably accounts for the patchiness of their explanations of their motives and goals. We were friends with Saddam when he was gassing Kurds and Iranians. We had no real problem with the Taliban's oppression of women until Osama Bin Laden became the issue. (We still have no problem with what the Saudis are doing along that line, and most of the present rulers of the various areas of Afghanistan are about the same as the Taliban with regard to women's rights.) Afghanistan has not been liberated -- it's returning to civil war, and Pres. Karzai in Kabul isn't even able to protect himself. We have no idea where Bin Laden is, or whether he is alive. We have no idea where al Qaeda is or what they're still capable of.

And the Bush administration doesn't care much. As the justifications and explanations of their actions fall to the ground one after another, and as its stated goals successively fail to be attained, the Bush administration simply goes on the the next step of its secret plan.
Why Saddam? When did Saddam's existence become a crisis? What changed? Vice President Cheney was happily doing business with Iraq only three or four years ago. (He had to evade US law by using foreign subsidiaries, but that was easy enough to pull off). Two years ago the consensus was that containment of Saddam was working well enough. What has happened to change that?

The connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam is quite possibly nil. There may or may not have been one or two meetings between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi diplomat in the Czech Republic . A few members of al-Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan may have taken refuge in Iraq. Rumor has it that Timothy McVeigh had a swarthy accomplice who may have been an Iraqi, or maybe from al-Qaeda. That's the whole story. There's nothing more than that.
As for weapons of mass destruction, no new information has been brought forward except as rumor. As far as we know, two years ago Saddam's nuclear and germ warfare programs had already been stalled for some time, and we've been given no reasons to believe that anything has changed since then.

What's changed is the American administration and American public opinion. Like the Reagan administration, the present Bush administration came in with a war policy. And because of 9/11 and the suicide bombings in Israel, public opinion is ready for war against "them". So when the attacks came, Rumsfeld took immediate steps to move ahead with his already-existing plans for Iraq.

In my travels around the internet, I've been amazed at the propensity of many otherwise intelligent people to take the Bush allegations against Iraq at face value. This is, after all, an administration which has promised to lie to us, which preferentially operates in secret, which relies on alleged secret information about Iraq, and which has a track record of mendacity. Yet when I say this the characteristic response is "Yes, but what if they're right?" -- plus the accusation that I am paranoid (as if that's a bad thing).

What's the Long-term Strategy?

The war we're being asked to sign up for is an open-ended one, and the precession of objectives is already quite striking. So far, our enemy has morphed from Al Qaeda and Bin Laden (Bin Who?), to the Taliban, and finally to Saddam Hussein. The list of proposed later enemies includes Iran, Syria, N. Korea, the Colombian rebels, Libya. Cuba, Saudi Arabia, "all nations supporting terrorism", and ultimately China. Some pundits have proposed that we seize all the Gulf oil fields and run them ourselves. Rumsfeld has suggested that this war against whoever it is we're at war with could last three or four decades.

There has been some hedging recently, but the original plan seems to have been to go it alone, with few allies, little diplomatic support, and no UN authorization. Given the essentially unlimited scope of the proposed war, it seems that the Bush administration's planners have a virtually infinite confidence in American military preponderance and have decided to go for broke -- on the assumption that, presented with a fait accompli, Europe, Japan and Russia will have no choice but to knuckle under and accept what is effectively an American World Empire. (Latin America and Africa are already thoroughly subjugated, and once the Middle East is under our thumb there will be little resistance from anyone, except possibly China.)

When Michael Kelly talks about "The Hinge of History", presumably that's what he has in mind. (The pundits unreservedly supporting the Bush strategy are an unimpressive and ill-informed lot: Kelly, Ann Coulter, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will).

Who's Running the Show?

A phrase you don't hear so much any more is "The adults are in charge now". Many conservatives are now asking themselves whether the Bush administration is really up to the job. No one can possibly believe that George W. Bush is the best man for the most powerful nation in history to have at the helm during a major crisis. He is suited for the job neither by character, nor by education, nor by experience.

The original spin was that none of this made any difference, since he had good advisers. But his advisers are now fighting among themselves. The more recent spin is that he's "grown into the job", but there's really no evidence of that. He still looks like a cocky, lazy, ignorant frat boy with a massive sense of entitlement, and those of us who didn't trust or respect him on Sept. 10, 2001 have seen no reason to change our minds.

George W. Bush has two and only two political virtues. First, he is totally loyal to the powers that be. That is the only world he has ever known: his father, his grandfather, his uncles, his father's friends and dependents, and so on.

Second, he is able to speak to "the common man". He has learned to seem like a regular guy. He is able to communicate with the rather unsavory Republican "core constituency".

Bush was not installed to make policy decisions. Probably no one ever expected that he would have to do so. The present panic among the prudent right wing comes from the fact that he is in a position where he has to make some big policy decisions -- and he doesn't seem to be doing very well.

Besides Bush's competence, there is another concern. George Jr. was nominated because he could speak to the Republican "core constituency". Might they really be calling the shots now? This constituency includes people who, for example, want the Temple to be rebuilt in Jerusalem so that we can have Armageddon and The Rapture. And who believe that environmentalists and feminists are all Satanists, and that women should not work outside the home, and that all trees usable for lumber, wherever they may be, should be logged. And who believe that interracial marriages should be illegal (40% of Alabama voters, and they weren't the Gore supporters). And who believe that there is no such thing as an ecosystem. And who think that public libraries are a bad, socialistic idea. And who believe that whipping children until they bleed is a good idea. And who believe that gun owners should have been able to bring their guns into the Salt Lake City Olympics. And so on. (No, I'm not making any of this up, and there's a lot more).

So even the sane rightwingers are a little scared. God bless them. Because nobody's listening to us liberals, and our leaders are hiding in their burrows.

What Should we Do?

The Bush administration has already shown that they have no compunctions about milking the war for domestic political advantage. Already they have tried to use the present crisis to justify tax cuts, oil drilling in Alaska, and other pet policies of theirs with no intelligible relationship to the war. They have also used the war as a pretext for massive attacks on civil liberties and due process which they had wanted to do all along anyway. (The first announced arrest under the Patriot Act was of so-called "eco-terrorists" sabotaging logging trucks. Think about that a little: no connection to Al Qaeda, Saddam, or international terrorism. No intent to kill, and after twenty years, no killings. Yet they are the only terrorists we can find.)

So I don't think that the formula "Support Bush on the War, Fight him Domestically" is going to work. This open-ended war is going to last forever, and all along the way it's going to be used as a pretext for domestic outrages. The Commander in Chief controls the agenda, and any time the domestic opposition starts to show signs of making any progress, Bush can just heat up the international situation a bit. And if there is another terrorist attack on Americans, or if there are serious casualties in one of the projected wars, Bush can turn up the heat a lot further yet.
This is my understanding of the situation. I don't have a solution and don't propose a course of action. The indentured media and the Democrats are all pretty well intimidated already. Maybe we should all just sit quietly at home and practice our needlework and decoupage, because it looks like this war is going to happen, with or without our help.

Posted by John Emerson at March 7, 2007 9:17 PM

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