Something Smells, Ctd

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It appears from all the emails that re-hashing some of the flim-flam deployed in taking us to war is not as big a bore as some would believe. But it's still a difficult task, because although many facts are available, the key question of good faith is definitionally elusive. In the case of Cheney, where the records will have been destroyed or sequestered, and where the suspicion of deception is greatest, we may never know for sure. My own sense is that it was an obvious mixture of genuine concern and less genuine corner-cutting. In their own way, they thought they were doing the right thing. But their refusal to involve the larger body politic, to bring in Democrats, to bring in even sensible Republicans and Bush cabinet members, led to the mess they're now in. They weren't fully honest with us, or prehaps with themselves, and their arrogance and defensiveness and secrecy prevented them from becoming more honest. And so the conduct of the war has been accompanied by behavior more redolent of a cover-up. Hence Libby's perjury. And the interminable lies about torture and detention. And the wiretapping and secret gulag of torture sites. And the weird war-plan that did not focus on WMDs. The arrogant dismissal of the insurgency, the refusal to accommodate it, the inability to look ahead, and the reflexive tendence to deploy fear as a political weapon. And on and on. It's no way to run a war you might hope to win.

Another reader, frustrated by the lefty bias of my last reader's interpretation, offers another view. More sympathetic to Bush and Cheney in some ways, but therefore more devastating in others. I reprint it here partly in the interests of airing various scenarios, but partly too because it comes closest to my own rough-edged and evolving sense of what happened. History will judge in the end:

Your "something smells" post illustrates, I think, why many of us who are disgusted with the Republicans are in such a quandary. The left constantly gets it half-right, the rest is a bit of naivete mixed with off-base cynicism. The effect is one of looking at a fun-house mirror: there's always a lot of truth and accuracy, but its upside down, and a little bit wobbly.

So, I'd like to address some of his points:

1. Many of us knew the WMD intelligence and evidence were flimsy. We also knew that the Bush administration knew it. This was not controversial, especially after Powell's UN appearance. (From 2002 onward, the people who were brilliant and devastating about this were Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan and Bob Novak, all paleocons.) However, based on Saddam's evasive behaviorthat is, his failure to verifiably disarm, as outlined in 18 U.N. Security Council resolutions spanning ten yearstended to suggest that he was hiding something. Bush et. al. made what seemed at the time a low-risk bet that there would be WMD. Confident he was right, and having every reason to believe so, he fed the nation a pretty big bullshit sandwich. Perhaps he should be impeached for this. Nevertheless, not knowing for sure what was there, and Saddam's reluctance to clarify, presented a certain risk in itself, did it not? (For the sake of argument)

2. Democratization and humanitarian relief were not issues once WMDs fizzled; they were issues from the beginning, for better or worse.

Bush made a point of telling the Iraqis their liberation was near on TV, in the very speech in which he declared his decision to invade. Also, the gassing of the Kurds had been brought up ad nauseam, and weakly, as a humanitarian casus belli. Once the WMD fizzled, the humanitarian issues were re-emphasized.

3. The "vital resources" argument is a tired one, and unproven. To suggest that the capture of bin Laden was inevitable with extra troops smacks of a kind of historical fallacy, teleology. Perhaps extra troops in Afghanistan would have simply meant more American deaths after all.

Other than calling your reader's attention to the overlooked virtue of temperance especially necessary when one employs the solecism "irregardless" while also calling the citizenry "supremely ignorant" in the same email I won't address the rest of the argument. Much of it is perfectly true. It still does not explain why the Clinton administration, even without the religious bigots, essentially agreed with the reasoning behind the Iraq invasion (see The Threatening Storm by Kenneth Pollack.) Nor does it explain why, with all of the overwhelming "geo-strategic" rationale and political force behind it, the Iraq invasion didn't take place before 9/11.

The answer, ahem, is that before 9/11, all of the reasons presented by your reader, however true, simply were not powerful enough. The risks as our country, and Bush and Clinton, saw them, of leaving Saddam in power, of tolerating the Iranians, of allowing a certain level of instability in the oil-rich Middle East, were tolerable. Even the dreaded Israeli lobby couldn't have forced us into a war under the circumstances that existed at that time (and I don't mean to suggest it doesn't exist).

After 9/11, the Bush administration and any thinking person reassessed these risks. But what led up to that date is what seems important to me, perhaps more important than geo-political rationale.

Beginning with Gulf War I, the United States military experienced victories of such lopsided proportions as to be virtually unheard of in military history. Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Serbia…Somalia? A mere failure of will! Our military entanglements, our weekly bombing of Iraq, reached us through a golden daze, by a somewhat nettlesome Headline News. Coupled with the greatest economic expansion in the history of the world, we became identical to Britain, c. 1910. We were lost in a cornucopia of goods and technology, lost in a haze of confidence and complacency.

We were hated long before Bush, before 9/11. We were hated during the Clinton years. Remember? We were hated not just because of envy, but also because, like all rich countries, like all monopolies of power or markets, we suffered the natural human failure of hubris. When we were attacked on 9/11, we reacted with the over-sensitivity of any cocooned monopoly: How could they? We were horrified by the violence, yes, but like a monopoly we were shocked, shocked, that anyone could question our rightness, our good intentions.

With at least ten golden years of history behind us, we told ourselves how good we were and convinced ourselves that the blighted Arabs needed our way of life, needed our product. We convinced ourselves that the Middle East was no different than Bosnia. There would be some resistance, but after a show of American power the population would fall into a sluggish acquiescence. Everyone would live happily under the flag of Nike.

Free-market economics, rather than Hobbes, is the driving philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld. He invaded Iraq with 100,000 troops because he believed the "spontaneous forces" latent in Iraq merely had to be tapped into to turn it into New Zealand. Some were a little concerned when we heard this phrase of his, recognizing its Hayekian overtones. We began to suspect that he was a fanatic Friedmanite, treating Iraq like some Libertarian laboratory, applying a philosophy that worked under certain precise circumstances to an irrational place. The light footprint of our military was to a significant extent borne of our better instincts, of a free-market ideology, worse: a do-gooder freemarket ideology. The rough and tough Rumsfeld thought that the U.S. merely had to subtract itself for the most part from a country whose order it had just annihilated, rather than act as a leviathan, providing the necessary security and force.

Having watched free markets sweep across Eastern Europe and Russia, we naturally thought the same would occur in Iraq. And flush with the profound success of our economic philosophy in our own country, we hurriedly grafted it onto a country so benighted, whose culture was so alien to liberal capitalism, that we instead cast it into further moral darkness and depravity. It was a kind of economic five-year plan. Many of us honestly believed that in five or ten year's time, in 2007 or 2012, Iraq would be awash in foreign capital. The historical naivete of the Republicans was breathtaking. Their shrunken time-frame was not conservative, was that of their enemy, a naïve, atheist liberal, of a teenager even.

The seed of failure in Iraq can be found in the heady optimism of the late 1990's. I question your reader's arguments from a logical perspective, but there is no doubt that Iraq was the insane dream of a wounded country enjoying power and wealth unheard of in history. In 20 years, people may look at it and say, just what the hell was that all about? I do not think the reasons will ever be fully understood.

(Photo: Alberto Pozzoli/Getty.)

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