James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Iraq

  • Before Tonight's Speech About ISIS

    When people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. When people say "we can't look weak!" it's usually time to discount whatever else they say.

    Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

    Tonight I won't be able to hear President Obama explain what he intends to do in Syria and elsewhere, and why. So rather than giving my reaction after the speech, let me give it before.

    The magazine's cover eight years ago.

    Eight years ago I did a cover story in The Atlantic called "Declaring Victory," whose central argument was that the United States could best protect itself against the worst long-term damage from terrorist movements by refusing to be whipsawed, baited, or panicked into self-destructive over-reaction. The piece began with a reference to Osama bin Laden that could as well be applied to the barbarous ISIS of today:

    Osama bin Laden’s public statements are those of a fanatic. But they often reveal a canny ability to size up the strengths and weaknesses of both allies and enemies, especially the United States....  In his videotaped statement just days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden also boasted about how easy it had become for him “to provoke and bait” the American leadership: “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there.”

    ISIS, apparently with a number of Western-convert members, is by all evidence even more sophisticated about manipulating the psychology of the democratic West. As applies to them, I stand by the logic and arguments of the counterterrorism experts I quoted all those years ago. They said:

    • That terrorists can certainly injure a country, but the most dangerous wounds are always self-inflicted, through over-reaction. (The war in Iraq killed many more Americans, had a vastly greater economic cost, and did incalculably more diplomatic and moral damage to our country than did the horrific attacks 13 years ago tomorrow.)
    • That when politicians, columnists, and cable TV guests are most fervent in urging a president to "do something!" about a threat, they most often have in mind a "something"—military attack—that cannot eliminate a terrorist movement, and that often creates more opposition and even terrorism in the long run. The measures that are most effective in undermining terrorism often have least to do with dramatic, highly publicized "kinetic" acts.
    • That when people say "we must act now!" they are usually wrong. Usually time is on the side of the stronger player, which in this case is us. Usually the greatest weapon of the underdog is the potential to panic and rattle the other side.
    • That when people say "we might look weak," usually it's time to discount whatever else they say. Looking weak has little to do with being weak. Every person, institution, and state has ultimate interests to defend and lines that can't be crossed. But the more worried you seem about "proving" strength whenever it is challenged, the weaker you look. Speak softly. Big stick.
    • That there is an asymmetry, to use a current term, in decisions about the use of violence. If you don't attack today, you can always attack tomorrow. But if you do attack today, you have foreclosed other choices for a long time to come. (Our options in 2014 and beyond are limited by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.)

    You don't have to believe me on this, though as I say I think the article stands up. But if you can't trust me, I hope you will believe David Frum, who is now a colleague at The Atlantic but who during the early George W. Bush years was (as he points out) helping to make the case for war with Iraq. In a wise item today on our site he says:

    No matter how bad things, look, though, it’s always possible to make them worse. A war now against ISIS will do just that....

    Frum rightly captures the standard congressional/op-ed/cable-news reflex in time of crisis:

    Something must be done! This is something! Let’s do this!

    Barack Obama's early and well-explained opposition to invading Iraq, which gave him the opening to beat Hillary Clinton and become president, reflected awareness of all these points about the paradoxes of weakness and strength, of deliberation and haste. Most of the time as president he has acted from the same principles—the obvious exception being his mistaken early approval of the ineffective "surge" in Afghanistan. I hope that in his ISIS remarks and policies he does not feel tempted to again prove that he is "tough."

  • Two Ways of Looking at the Hillary Clinton Interview

    Whichever way you see it, the presumptive Democratic nominee has shown us something significant.

    Two first families: the Obamas and the Clintons at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death (Reuters)

    On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.

    There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.

    • One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.

    Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL  menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.

    If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico

    •  The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim. 

    That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.

    If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.

    I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks. 

    It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.

    The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed. 

    E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:

    “He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”

    At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq. 

    Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.” 

    But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.

    But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant. 

  • Stratfor on American Grand Strategy in Iraq and Ukraine

    "Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars." You wouldn't think politicians and thinkers would need to be reminded of this point, but they do. 

    Wikimedia Commons

    Yesterday I presented William Polk's assessment of America's strategic opportunities, and limits, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the environs. Among other things this was a caution against continuing to make things worse through continued use of America's most obvious, though often least appropriate, means of influence: its military.

    Now George Friedman, of Stratfor, has an analysis of U.S. options in Iraq and Ukraine that is very much worth reading as a complement. Over the years I've agreed and disagreed with various Stratfor presentations. This one seems very sensible and useful for me. You can read the whole thing at the original site—it's not even very long—but here are a few samples.

    An obvious but often overlooked truth:

    Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.

    That truth applied to Iraq:

    There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together -- thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense.... 

    The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.

    As applied also to Ukraine:

    When we consider Ukraine and Iraq, they are of course radically different, but they have a single thing in common: To the extent that the United States has any interest in the regions, it cannot act with direct force. Instead, it must act with indirect force by using the interests and hostilities of the parties on the ground to serve as the first line of containment.... 

    It is not possible for the United States to use direct force to impose a solution on Ukraine or Iraq. This is not because war cannot be a solution to evil, as World War II was. It is because the cost, the time of preparation and the bloodshed of effective war can be staggering. 

    A golden rule of warfare:

    Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars.

    The wisdom of Ike:

    Dwight Eisenhower was... far from a pacifist and far from passive. He acted when he needed to, using all means necessary. But as a general, he understood that while the threat of war was essential to credibility, there were many other tools that allowed Washington to avoid war and preserve the republic.

    Eisenhower was a subtle and experienced man. It is one thing to want to avoid war; it is another to know how to do it. Eisenhower did not refuse to act, but instead acted decisively and with minimal risk. Obama's speech at West Point indicated hesitancy toward war. It will be interesting to see whether he has mastered the other tools he will need in dealing with Ukraine and Iraq. It helps to have been a warrior to know how to avoid war.

    Required credit info from Stratfor as follows:

    Read more, The United States Has Unfinished Business in Ukraine and Iraq | Stratfor Follow us: @stratfor on Twitter | Stratfor on Facebook
     

    Next up for me: back to Mississippi, and Minnesota. 

  • The Graciousness and Dignity of Richard B. Cheney

    "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many."  

    An expert on being wrong shares his thoughts. (Reuters)

    A few hours ago I said (sincerely) that a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today's disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence as their successors chose among the least-terrible of available options.

    I unwisely included Dick Cheney, former vice president and most ill-tempered figure to hold national office since Richard Nixon, on that list.

    If I'd waited a little while, I would have seen a new op-ed by Cheney and his daughter Liz in (where else!) the WSJ denouncing the Obama administration's fecklessness about Iraq and much else. They say, unironically, about the current occupant of the White House:

    Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. 

    You want a specimen of being so wrong about so much at the expense of so many? Consider the thoughts of one Richard B. Cheney, in a major speech to the VFW in August 2002, in the run-up to the war:

    Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true.

    Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace.

    As for the reaction of the Arab "street," the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are "sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans." Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 

    "The freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace." Yes, that is exactly how historians will register the lasting effects of the invasion for which Cheney was a major proponent and decision-maker. Along with the rest of his forecasts. What a guy.

  • What's Worth Reading About Iraq

    Let's hear from some people who have earned the right to be listened to.

    ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria. ( Wikimedia )

    The big difference between the pro- and anti-Iraq war camps a dozen years ago was not about the odiousness of Saddam Hussein, nor (with the exception of exaggerated "smoking gun will be a mushroom cloud" scare-talk) an awareness of the damage he could do in his own country or elsewhere. 

    Instead the difference turned on whether you imagined that an armed invasion, by the world's dominant high-tech military, working mainly on its own (since it had failed to amass UN or broadly allied support), was on balance likely to "solve" the problem, much as the Civil War "solved" the problem of Confederate breakaway and World War II solved the problem of Nazi Germany. Or whether, on the contrary, an American invasion was unlikely to make things better, likely to make them worse, and certain to entangle American lives, fortune, diplomacy, and honor in the resulting unsolved mess for many years to come. 

    If you believed the former, you could be confidently pro-war. If the latter, the reverse.

    Last night I pointed out that many of the people who had cocksurely argued in favor of the war were now resurfacing unchastened to offer "expert" views. Now let's consider views from some people who by contrast have earned a claim on our attention, in particular about Iraq.

    1) William Polk, and Chuck Spinney. I've mentioned them before, many times. William Polk—a longtime scholar and diplomat whose first Atlantic article about Iraq was published in 1958—for his views on Syria and Afghanistan and related themes; Chuck Spinney—a longtime and prescient defense analyst whom I first wrote about in National Defense—for his views on strategy in all theaters, from American politics to the Middle East.  

    Now they are together, with Spinney providing an introduction to a new essay by Polk about America's largest strategic choices. Sample from Spinney:

    This week Mr. Obama opened the door to the possibility of bombing ISIS Jihadis in Iraq to support the floundering Shi’ite government we installed.  Yet, as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent has reported, the ISIS Jihadis in Syria and Iraq are coalescing into one proto-caliphate in their common Sunni areas. [see map at top of this item].  

    This raises the real possibility that we could end up arming and bombing the same Jihadis.  Such a development would increase the potential of unknowable blowbacks throughout the entire region, especially for the Kurdish ethnic groups in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as the state of Turkey itself.

    Sample from Polk, on the American predilection for military "solutions" to international problems:

    The rate of success of these [military] aspects of our foreign policy, even in the Nineteenth century, was low.  Failure to accomplish the desired or professed outcome is shown by the fact that within a few years of the American intervention, the condition that had led to the intervention recurred. 

    The rate of failure has dramatically increased in recent years.  This is because we are operating in a world that is increasingly politically sensitive.  Today even poor, weak, uneducated  and corrupt nations become focused by the actions of foreigners.  Whereas before, a few members of the native elite made the decisions, today we face “fronts.” parties, tribes and independent opinion leaders.   So the “window of opportunity” for foreign intervention, once at least occasionally partly open, is now often shut.

    Both very much worth reading. 

    2) Graham Fuller, a long-time CIA analyst of the region. In a new essay called "Why America Should Let Iraq Resolve Its Own Crisis," he writes:

    There is no way Washington should attempt to reenter this Iraqi agony again. The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself.... There is no longer any state to provide protection. And you do not dare turn your security over to an untested, untrusted new state structure for a long, long time....

    Iraq, perhaps with help from its two neighbors [Turkey and Iran], must come to terms with its own internal crisis. It can do so; sectarianism as a guiding obsession is not written in stone. Strong sectarian identity currently reflects the insecurities and fears of a complex society in chaos and political and social transition. 

    U.S. intervention, already once disastrous, can only delay the day when Iraqis must deal with each other again. We cannot fix it. Television images of ISIS aside, the problem belongs to the region more than it does to us.

    This counsel doesn't easily fit the part of a political speech or a talk-show segment where you are supposed to say, "Well, we have to do something." But it fits the history of the past dozen years, and long before, much better than most "do something" exhortations have, especially when the somethings involve troops, bombs, and drones.

    3) Lawrence Wright. You know him as author of The Looming Tower and other articles; I know him as a friend from Texas Monthly and afterwards; we all look to him for insight on the region. His new New Yorker entry is short on to-do items but vividly describes Iraq's current agonies. Sample:

    The Islamist storm passing through Iraq right now has been building up since the United States invaded the country in 2003, which unleashed longstanding sectarian rivalries that spilled over into civil war.... 

    At the time of the American invasion, Al Qaeda was essentially defeated, scattered, and discredited all over the Muslim world. Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda then....

    Al Qaeda was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation. What bin Laden invoked as an inciting incident for his war on the West was the First Iraq War, in 1990, when half a million American and coalition troops were garrisoned in Saudi Arabia in their successful campaign to repel the forces of Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait.

    Bin Laden had asked Zarqawi to merge his forces with Al Qaeda, in 2000, but Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war, and, for his purposes, there was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line.

    4) Eric Shinseki, again. This is slightly off-topic, but worth mentioning. In 2002, then-General Shinseki was in the news for cautioning that occupying Iraq would be a very hard, prolonged, and troop-intensive process. His then-superior within the Pentagon's civilian chain of command, Paul Wolfowitz, memorably sneered away Shinseki's warnings at a congressional hearing. 

    Now Shinseki is of course known mainly for his VA travails. This essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts his recent resignation as head of the VA in perspective. Sample:

    There is a rich anthropological literature on scapegoats. Scapegoats are people (or sometimes animals) who are held responsible for calamities they did not cause, and are sacrificed.... In the words of the great anthropological philosopher Rene Girard, “The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable.”

    Eric Shinseki is a modern American scapegoat.... Like Pentagon generals persuaded by body count numbers inflated by their subordinates that they were winning in Vietnam, Shinseki believed the numbers coming to him from his bureaucracy and thought his agency was improving its care for the veterans in his charge. 

    When the scandal broke, many in Congress called Shinseki out for weak leadership or criticized a systemic lack of integrity among VA bureaucrats. But VA administrators were just doing what those at the bottom of a bureaucracy always do when confronted with unfair metrics of accountability: Unable to change the system, they fake the numbers.... Just as junior officers inflated body counts in Vietnam so they wouldn’t be punished, so low-level VA officials responded to impossible demands for efficiency with fantasy book-keeping.

    If Congress wanted to find the true causes of the scandal, it had only to look in the mirror. Congress put the VA in an impossible situation by not providing the resources the agency needed to handle the massive influx of veterans wounded in the wars Congress had voted to authorize.

    To wrap up this look on the bright side, I'll say (seriously) that it is admirable of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney,* and of course George W. Bush to have stayed off the "here's what to do about Iraq" circuit this past week.   

    * I should have known that Cheney's self-restraint could not last. He and his daughter share their wisdom in the WSJ. This will be worth a follow-up post.

  • 'The Past Is Never Dead,' Bill Faulkner Told Us—but He Didn't Know About the Iraq War

    Some people have earned the right not to be listened to.

    If you're anything like me, when you hear the words "wise insights about the Iraq war," two names that immediately come to mind are Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. 

    Fortunately the Hertog Institute has engaged them both to teach a course, "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making." 

    I will confess that when someone told me about this today, I assumed it was an Onion-style joke. As in, "The Work-Family Balance: Getting It Right," co-taught by John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. But it turns out to be real. Or "real."

    In the cause of public knowledge, I am happy to offer royalty-free use of several items for the reading list. Like:

    • "The Fifty-First State?" from the year before the war. The Wolfowitz-Libby "study in decision-making" might consider why on Earth so many obvious implications of the war were blithely dismissed ahead of time, including by these two men. Or ...
    • "Blind into Baghdad," about the grotesque combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that characterized decision-making about the war. Or ...
    • "Bush's Lost Year," about the sequence of advantages squandered, opportunities missed, and crucial wrong bets made in the months just after the 9/11 attacks. Students might find this one particularly interesting, since it begins with a long interview with their own Professor Wolfowitz. For the Cliff's Notes version, see after the jump.

    Somehow I am guessing that the professors might pass up my generous offer. So instead, here's another "at first I thought this was a joke" candidate: a new essay by William Kristol and Frederick Kagan in Kristol's Weekly Standard with advice about Iraq:

    I'll give Kristol and the Kagan brothers this: They are consistent, in attitude as well as typography and headline writing and page layout. Here is what Kristol and Robert Kagan were writing 12 years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

    Sample of their level-headed and confirmed-by-history views: "The Iraq threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes." 

    Am I sounding a little testy here? You bet. We all make mistakes. But we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrongWrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. None of these people did that intentionally, and many of them have honestly reflected and learned. But we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.

    * * *

    Brian Beutler in The New Republic goes into this standing-to-speak issue very clear-headedly. For the record, he takes my side of the argument, sort of. Also, last week in New York magazine Frank Rich talked about the strange non-accountability of the liberal-hawk faction. His colleague Eric Benson interviewed me on that theme. For Kristol as a special case of someone so wrong so often that he's a reliable reverse-predictor guide to reality, see this, which doesn't go into his enthusiasm even now for Sarah Palin.

    And if you would like to see something not testy but deservedly bitter, consider what Andrew Bacevich says most recently about unrepentant war mongers.

    Update: I hadn't seen until now that Paul "Let's Disband the Iraqi Army, What Could Go Wrong?" Bremer has offered his wisdom about Iraq in the WSJ. Jeesh! Also see this by Steve Benen at the Maddow blog, and this by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the WaPo.

    More »

  • Paying the Costs of Iraq, for Decades to Come

    The wars are ending; the obligations, just beginning now.

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpg

    A little over 10 years ago, George W. Bush fired his economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, for saying that the total cost of invading Iraq might come to as much as $200 billion. Bush instead stood by such advisers as Paul Wolfowitz, who said that the invasion would be largely "self-financing" via Iraq's oil, and Andrew Natsios, who told an incredulous Ted Koppel that the war's total cost to the American taxpayer would be no more than $1.7 billion.


    As it turns out, Lawrence Lindsey's estimate was indeed off -- by a factor of 10 or more, on the low side. A new research paper by Linda Bilmes, of the Kennedy School at Harvard, begins this way:
    The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history -- totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion.   
    The most powerful and disturbing part of Bilmes's analysis is the explanation of why, even though American combat deaths and military exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to their ends, covering the costs has just begun. In the introduction she says:
    One of the most significant challenges to future US national security policy will not originate from any external threat. Rather it is simply coping with the legacy of the conflicts we have already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    As the paper lays out, a surprisingly large fraction of the long-term costs comes from the disability payments and medical obligations to people who served. People who were 18 or 20 years old when the war began, and who were injured or disabled (but survived), may need public help until very late in this century. The argument is too detailed to convey fully here, but here is an example:
    The majority of these costly measures - including supplementary pay increases, expansion of TRICARE [military health program] subsidies, upgrades to the VA system and increases in eligibility for veterans benefits - were adopted, at least in part, because the US was facing the first big test of the all-volunteer force (AVF). The AVF depends on pipeline of recruits, and research has shown that the recruiting pool to the AVF is sensitive to economic inducements, including veterans' benefits.

    But from a budgetary standpoint, these have been hidden costs of the war, in which cumulatively hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on expanding military health care, pay, recruitment, and service and retirement benefits, without any discussion about how to pay for them. Most of these costs were not covered by war appropriations. And when the topic of pensions is examined in the coming years, it is likely that any reforms that benefit the current generation of veterans will require additional long-term expenditures for the Defense department.
    Read it, and reflect on the people who have never been called to account for these and other misjudgments of what launching the invasion would mean.
  • WaPo: The Good, the Bad, Then a Different Good Again

    Taking responsibility, and avoiding it

    Admirable/good: The Post's columnist David Ignatius (disclosure: a very long-time close friend) begins a column today forthrightly saying that he regrets having supported the invasion of Iraq ten years ago:

    Ten years ago this week, I was covering the U.S. military as it began its assault on Iraq. As I read back now over my clips, I see a few useful warnings about the difficulties ahead. But I owe readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense.

    Invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein a decade ago was one of the biggest strategic errors in modern American history.
    We shouldn't overlook what it takes to write something this direct. One indication is its rarity: think of the other people who might have said something similar, and didn't. Which brings us to:

    Less admirable/bad: The Post's editorial page, which 10 years ago, under the same leadership as today, was one of the most impassioned voices about the need to invade, has so far not ventured one word about how it looks back on that all-in bet.

    Back to the good: OK, this is on an entirely different scale, but I can't help but be excited by the Post's Beer Madness bracket: a showdown of local D.C.-based beers.

    Thumbnail image for Beers2.jpg

    I've filled out my bracket and will watch to see if the expert panel makes the right choices.

    Seriously, very gutsy column by David Ignatius.
  • Invading Iraq: What We Were Told at the Time

    The cost of war is not reckoned solely in dollars and cents, but let's look at those financial costs.

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpgThe costs of the war that began ten years ago tonight are not strictly financial. But for now let's just look at the outlays in dollars and cents. 

    What did the Bush-Cheney Administration say about going to war? Here are two reports from the time. First, what happened to someone who dared say the war might be "expensive." From a reconstruction (by me) of the march to war:
    By late December [2002] some 200,000 members of the U.S. armed forces were en route to staging areas surrounding Iraq.... Declaring that it was impossible to make predictions about a war that might not occur, the Administration refused to discuss plans for the war's aftermath--or its potential cost. In December the President fired Lawrence Lindsey, his chief economic adviser, after Lindsey offered a guess that the total cost might be $100 billion to $200 billion
    Then, official estimates as combat began a few months later:
    On March 27 [2003], eight days into combat, members of the House Appropriations Committee asked Paul Wolfowitz for a figure. He told them that whatever it was, Iraq's oil supplies would keep it low. "There's a lot of money to pay for this," he said. "It doesn't have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." 

    On April 23 Andrew Natsios, [director] of USAID, told an incredulous Ted Koppel, on Nightline, that the total cost to America of reconstructing Iraq would be $1.7 billion. Koppel shot back, "I mean, when you talk about one-point-seven, you're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is gonna be done for one-point-seven billion dollars?" 

    Natsios was clear: "Well, in terms of the American taxpayers' contribution, I do; this is it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges ... But the American part of this will be one-point-seven billion dollars. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this." 

    In the end, what did it really cost? Matthew Duss and Peter Juul of CAP have a summary. Among the elements: the direct cost of the war was about $800 billion, compared with the "shocking" estimate by Lawrence Lindsay of $100 billion to $200 billion. The cost of veterans' care and disabilities would be another $400 billion to $700 billion. And Iraqi reconstruction, which Natsios and Wolfowitz had said would be essentially self-financing? This is how it compared not simply with Natsios's "one-point-seven billion dollars" but also, in inflation-adjusted dollars, with outlays for the Marshall Plan and other recovery efforts after World War II.


    IraqWar_fig2.png

    Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Powell, Feith, Tenet, Blair, their "conservative hawk" and "liberal hawk" allies in the press, and the rest: these are the costs they incurred. There is no undoing that decision. At least we can recognize what took place.

    And of course this cost, as Duss and Juul note:

    IraqWar_fig1.png
  • Why We Won't Learn From Iraq

    An enormous mistake, which probably will not prove "instructive"

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    Ten years ago today the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq. I argue that it was the worst strategic mistake since the end of World War II, and probably the biggest "unforced error" in American history. 

    Even as I've been ladling out the 10-years-after installments, I have very little faith or even hope that this ruinous decision will prove "instructive" in any way. Here is why:

    1) Avoidance. After Pearl Harbor, after Vietnam, after World War II, after the 9/11 attacks, even after civilian disasters like the Challenger explosion or Katrina, there were official efforts, of varying seriousness and success, to find out what had gone wrong, and why, and to yield "lessons learned."

    'Like infants, they live in a continuous present'
    That hasn't happened this time, for a lot of reasons. For the Bush Administration, there was no "failure" to be examined and explained. For the Obama Administration, the point was to "look forward not back." 

    People in the media and politics who were against the war know that it can grow tiresome to keep pointing that out. Example: Barack Obama would not be president today if he had not given a speech in Chicago in October 2002, saying that he (as a mere state senator) did not oppose all wars but was against a "dumb" and "rash" war in Iraq. Listen to how he talked in those days! He denounced "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." Because of that speech, six years later Obama could argue that his judgment had been right, and the vastly more experienced HIllary Clinton's had been wrong, about matters of war and peace. But there's no percentage for him in bringing that up now.

    WaPoMar19.png
    People in the media who were for the war have, with rare and admirable exceptions, avoided looking back. The Washington Post's editorial page was one of the most strident pro-war voices, part of a claque creating -- as I recall and noted at the time -- a kind of war frenzy in the capital. There is not a word about Iraq on its editorial page today (at right, but check it out for yourself). Say this for Paul Wolfowitz: While he didn't come close on this past week's talk shows to engaging Andrew Bacevich's challenge [which Harper's has now opened for non-subscribers], at least he recognized Iraq as a question he would have to address. George Packer was one of several influential "liberal hawks" who were making a pro-war case in the New Yorker. I view, and viewed, that era and its choices very differently from him. (For instance he now says, "Spending a lot of time in Iraq did not make you" -- meaning himself -- "more keenly aware of America's larger strategic interests. It rendered you less likely to ask the essential questions about the inception of the war.") But I am glad he addresses the issue today. 

    2) The 'continuous present' Our friend Mike Lofgren argues in the Huffington Post that all factions in politics and the media have not simply "failed" to learn. They live in a system that rewards not learning. For instance, he says:
    Aside from its inordinate fiscal and human cost, deposing Saddam Hussein and installing a Shia-led government has had the effect of strengthening the regional position of Iran. But having built up the Iranian bogey through its own stupidity, the U.S. political establishment is now contemplating how to coerce Teheran. This refusal to see the consequences of one's actions, and then using the disastrous result as an excuse to do the same thing again, is a recurring pattern of American statecraft.

    One can hypothesize that our leaders see world events as discrete and unconnected with anything that happened before; like infants, they live in a continuous present. 
    3) The recurring pattern of error. When politicians and the media were "wrong" about Iraq, what did wrongness entail? Reduced to its essence it meant:
    • Exaggerating the scale and imminence of a threat from Iraq;
    • Growing testily impatient with any solutions other than the "kinetic" (e.g., from TNY 10 years ago, "a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.");
    • Grossly underestimating the difficulty of "removing" that threat with military force;
    • Showing a failure of tragic imagination (different from a tragic failure of imagination, which was also true) about the ripple effects and long-term costs and consequences of taking a clear and "decisive" step now.
    If we were to "learn" from mistakes, we might avoid this specific set of biases and miscalibrations when it comes to another "preventive" strike against another threatening nation in exactly the same part of the world. But we see every one of these four elements of this syndrome -- exaggeration, impatience, polyanna-ism about military measures, naivete about long-term effects - in discussions about the "need" and "moral duty" to condone military action against Iran. 

    Of course Iran and Iraq are different; the challenges are different; the details of military action are different. But the similarities are even greater -- and whether we can bear them in mind as we contemplate the "next war" will say a lot about whether it is ever possible to learn.
  • Ten Years Later, What Paul Wolfowitz 'Owes to the Country'

    To put it another way: What would Albert Wohlstetter do?

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpg

    Andrew Bacevich has a wonderful essay, in the form of an open letter to Paul Wolfowitz, in the current Harper's. You have to subscribe to read it -- but, hey, you should be subscribing to any publication whose work you value. This essay isolates the particular role Wolfowitz had in the cast of characters that led us to war. As a reminder, they included:

    • Dick Cheney, who was becoming a comic-book churl by this stage of his public life;
    • Colin Powell, the loyal soldier, staffer, and diplomat whose "Powell Doctrine" and entire life's work stood in opposition to the kind of war that he, with misguided loyalty, was to play so central a role in selling;
    • Tony Blair, the crucial ally who added rhetorical polish and international resolve to the case for war; 
    • Donald Rumsfeld, with his breezy contempt for those who said the effort would be difficult or long;
    • Paul Bremer, whose sudden, thoughtless dismantling of the Iraqi army proved so disastrous;
    • Condoleezza Rice, miscast in her role as White House national-security advisor;
    • George Tenet, the long-time staffer who cooperated with the "slam-dunk!" intelligence assessment despite serious disagreement within the CIA; 
    • and of course George W. Bush himself, whose combination of limited knowledge and strong desire to be "decisive" made him so vulnerable to the argument that the "real" response to the 9/11 attacks should be invading a country that had nothing to do with them.
    But Paul Wolfowitz was in a category of his own because he was the one who provided the highest-concept rationale for the war. As James Galbraith of the University of Texas has put it, "Wolfowitz is the real-life version of Halberstam's caricature of McNamara" [in The Best and the Brightest].

    Bacevich's version of this assessment is to lay out as respectfully as possible the strategic duty that Wolfowitz thought the U.S. would fulfill by invading Iraq. Back before the war began, I did a much more limited version of this assessment as an Atlantic article. As Bacevich puts it now, Wolfowitz was extending precepts from his one-time mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, toward a model of how the United States could maximize stability for itself and others.

    As with the best argumentative essays, Bacevich takes on Wolfowitz in a strong rather than an oversimplified version of his world-view. You have to read the whole thing to get the effect, but here is a brief sample (within fair-use limits):
    With the passing of the Cold War, global hegemony seemed America's for the taking. What others saw as an option you, Paul, saw as something much more: an obligation that the nation needed to seize, for its own good as well as for the world's....

    Although none of the hijackers were Iraqi, within days of 9/11 you were promoting military action against Iraq. Critics have chalked this up to your supposed obsession with Saddam. The criticism is misplaced. The scale of your ambitions was vastly greater.

    In an instant, you grasped that the attacks provided a fresh opportunity to implement Wohlstetter's Precepts, and Iraq offered a made-to-order venue....In Iraq the United States would demonstrate the efficacy of preventive war.... The urgency of invading Iraq stemmed from the need to validate that doctrine before the window of opportunity closed.
    Bacevich explains much more about the Wohlstetter / Wolfowitz grand view. And then he poses the challenge that he says Wolfowitz should now meet:
    One of the questions emerging from the Iraq debacle must be this one: Why did liberation at gunpoint yield results that differed so radically from what the war's advocates had expected? Or, to sharpen the point, How did preventive war undertaken by ostensibly the strongest military in history produce a cataclysm?

    Not one of your colleagues from the Bush Administration possesses the necessary combination of honesty, courage, and wit to answer these questions. If you don't believe me, please sample the tediously self-exculpatory memoirs penned by (or on behalf of) Bush himself, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, Bremer, Feith, and a small squad of eminently forgettable generals...

    What would Albert [Wohlstetter] do? I never met the man (he died in 1997), but my guess is that he wouldn't flinch from taking on these questions, even if the answers threatened to contradict his own long-held beliefs. Neither should you, Paul. To be sure, whatever you might choose to say, you'll be vilified, as Robert McNamara was vilified when he broke his long silence and admitted that he'd been "wrong, terribly wrong" about Vietnam. But help us learn the lessons of Iraq so that we might extract from it something of value in return for all the sacrifices made there. Forgive me for saying so, but you owe it to your country.

    Anyone who knows Andrew Bacevich's story will understand the edge behind his final sentence. But you don't have to know that to respect the challenge he lays down. I hope Paul Wolfowitz will at some point rise to it.

    For another very valuable assessment of who was right and wrong, when, please see John Judis's piece in The New Republic.

  • How We Thought, and Think, About Iraq

    What did we learn, and when did we learn it?

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    I'll try to work through a number of items on this topic today. Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the start of the ruinous invasion of Iraq.


    1. The ongoing effect. A reader in the upper Midwest writes:

    I still believe that many people, perhaps especially in Washington, don't understand what a searing, formative experience the whole run-up to the war was for a generation of Americans--maybe more than one generation. (I'm 46.) The obvious propaganda campaign, the clearly trumped-up WMD scare campaign, the bullying that was the functional equivalent of redbaiting directed against naysayers, and finally the invasion itself: This disaster transpired in broad daylight, in slow motion, with millions around screaming for it to stop. But the Beltway crowd would not stop. Who could have witnessed this with eyes open and not be terribly, terribly sobered about the state of our political system, and the trajectory of our country?

    While I agree entirely with your critique of the war as summarized at the end of your post, it does focus on the invasion as a strategic blunder for the United States. Surely it was. But was not the fundamental issue the invasion's sheer lack of moral and legal justification? This was plainly a war of aggression against a country that had done nothing to us and posed us no threat. George W. Bush and his enablers made my country a rogue nation when they embraced the atrocious doctrine of preventive war, previously associated closely with fascist regimes. This is the worst of all, and for this there has been no accounting at all.

    To address briefly the final point: my judgment as of the springtime of 2002, as a reporter and a civilian, was that I had no special leverage in addressing the legal-and-moral wrongness of the war. I thought it was wrong to attack a country that hadn't attacked us, and said so in interviews and on shows. I thought the main additional information / judgment I could bring to the discussion was airing the unanimous view of experts in the region, and in military occupations, that "regime change" would unleash a host of other consequences that together would be worse -- for America, for the region, and arguably for Iraq -- than continuing to exert "non-kinetic" pressure on Saddam Hussein.

    IraqAd.png2. Who was right. Last week Stephen Walt reminded us of an advertisement placed on the NYT's op-ed page six months before the war began. It had the headline shown at right, and it was signed by 33 scholars of international relations.

    It is very much worth looking at that ad again, and reflecting on the list of signers. Almost every detail of the case it made has stood up well over the past decade. This was its argument:

    •     "Saddam Hussein is a murderous despot, but no one has provided credible evidence that Iraq is cooperating with al Qaeda.
    •     "Even if Saddam Hussein acquired nuclear weapons, he could not use them without suffering massive U.S. or Israeli retaliation.
    •     "The first Bush administration did not try to conquer Iraq in 1991 because it understood that doing so could spread instability in the Middle East, threatening U.S. interests. This remains a valid concern today.
    •     "The United States would win a war against Iraq, but Iraq has military options--chemical and biological weapons, urban combat--that might impose significant costs on the invading forces and neighboring states.
    •     "Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.
    •     "Al Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq. War with Iraq will jeopardize the campaign against al Qaeda by diverting resources and attention from that campaign and by increasing anti-Americanism around the globe."

    The people who signed that ad were right. They were startlingly right. The people who argued the opposite  -- Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Rice, Abrams, Feith, sadly Powell, of course Bush, much of the "liberal hawk" establishment notably and stridently including The New Republic and the Washington Post's editorial page -- were wrong. In most cases unrepentantly wrong. Yet here is the remarkable thing: in ongoing deliberations about Iran, Afghanistan, and overall U.S. strategy we now hear more often from the "wrong" camp than those who were right.

    Here are the 33 signers. It is a remarkable list. Not all of them are still around -- I particularly miss the voice, company, and integrity of Charles Moskos, and I am glad to note my college classmate Steve Van Evera -- but many are. As we think about Iran and other threats, I would like to see two op-ed or extended talk-show appearances by members of this list, for each one appearance by someone who was so gravely mistaken a decade ago:

    Robert Art, Brandeis; Richard Betts, Columbia; Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia; Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky; Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas; Alexander L. George, Stanford; Charles Glaser, University of Chicago; Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State; George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky; Robert Jervis, Columbia; Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh; Carl Kaysen, MIT; Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington; Deborah Larson, UCLA; Jack S. Levy, Rutgers; Peter Liberman, Queen's College; John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago; Steven E. Miller, Harvard University; Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern; Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago; Barry R. Posen, MIT; Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley; George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland; Richard Rosecrance, UCLA; Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland; Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State; Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina; Jack L. Snyder, Columbia; Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland; Stephen Van Evera, MIT; Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia; Cindy Williams, MIT

    To make this impolitely specific and blunt: before the next talk-show booker, op-ed page editor, think-tank event coordinator, or other gatekeeper on public attention invites the next Bush-era veteran or former advocate of invading Iraq on to share his or her wisdom, I ask that they include some people from the list above, or others whose judgment looks better rather than worse with the passing years.

    3. Failure of accountability. From another reader in the Midwest:

    In order to rally American opinion towards invading Iraq, the George W. Administration needed to: 1)  reverse the verdict on Vietnam; and 2) reverse the verdict on the related Powell Doctrine.  Colin Powell was a product of Vietnam.  The Powell Doctrine mandated limited goals, quick action and the use of overwhelming force as key criteria in deciding the use of US military force.   Powell's goal was to keep the US out of frivolous, unnecessary and quagmire-inducing wars, the three qualities most attributed to the Iraq invasion!

    The neoconservatives in and around George W.'s War Cabinet were busing airbrushing the lessons on Vietnam and the Powell doctrine throughout the 90s.  All those 'realists' associated with H.W. Bush and the first Iraq War were put on the defensive after 9/11 and vilified as 'appeasers' for not invading Bagdad in 1991.

    The political system actually worked at holding the prosecutors of Vietnam accountable: Johnson resigned, the Church committee held contentious hearings, the CIA was 'tamed.'  Everything associated with or against the war was Big News.

    But, as you said, after Iraq the neocons remain.  They are the walking dead. One reason may be the difference in nature between the two wars.  Soldiers were drafted in the '60s, a volunteer army serves today.  No one could escape Vietnam, but if you knew no one on the front lines in Iraq, you could tune out the bad news.  And although President Obama busted through the finish line (2008) because he opposed the Iraq invasion, he has not drawn sharp lines against the George W. Bush Administration and neoconservative dogma. 

    So, in 2013, we face a serious situation.  The Administration hasn't presented any over-arching framework for pursuing American power or redefining the US role in the world.  It is neither a strong voice against neoconservatism or strong one for realism.  The Obama Administration read the public disgust with foreign adventures by refusing to arm the Syrian rebels.  On the other hand, in bombing Libya, it continued to tramp over the Powell Doctrine.  By expanding the use of drones, it's ushered in a whole new approach to modern warfare.  All without debate.   What happens when other countries arm their drones?  Do we need eight aircraft carriers along with precision flying machines?

    There you have it: a vacuum into which all sorts of retread, base or hypocritical ideas of foreign policy have been pushed.... We are in a self-perpetuating loop.  Those who don't know do all the talking; those who do know keep their mouths shut.  

    4. Cowardice pays. From a friend who was in government through the Iraq-Afghanistan era:

    1. The past isn't past: Some of the worst failures in the Iraq debacle have-- by never really being punished-- become enshrined as matters of both policy and national identity.  To take just one glaring example: Abu Ghraib was the most sickening instance of institutionalized abuse by the US military to have come to light since at least the Vietnam War, arguably far longer.  Yet not a single officer was truly punished for it (BG Karpinski, who wasn't even truly responsible, got a one-grade demotion; nobody except a few NCO's served a day in the brig).  Needless to say, not a single civilian politician suffered even a career setback.  The result: Every policymaker now knows that there are no genuine limits on what you can get away with: At worst you'll end up like John Yoo, with cushy tenure and plenty of lucrative speaking deals. [NOTE: The incoming message originally and incorrectly said "John Woo," who is a film director, rather than John Yoo, the Bush Administration lawyer.]

    2. Cowardice pays.  Every policymaker knew, or should have known, that allegations of WMD were wildly overblown at best, and pure fiction at worst.  This information was available to everyone with a security clearance (everything that would subsequently come out about Saddam's purported nuclear and biological programs was available: I read it all, and was briefed on it, while the war resolution was being debated; the only surprise was the non-existence of chemical warfare stocks, which were always a red-herring for Americans outside of Iraq and its immediate neighborhood).  A case could be made that war supporters were duped by neo-con hawks in the Administration and their cheering-gallery in the media-- but the information was there, and there were plenty of informed sources telling policymakers the truth.  Nobody can claim they weren't warned.
  • On the 'Idealistic' Case for War

    "The status quo ante really sucked."

    As discussed previously here. One reader who served in the U.S. military during the Iraq era offers this argument:

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpgLet's see if we can make a better case for Iraq. I was a "liberal hawk," and I think I still am. In part I guess I was encouraged by the silence, or ecouragement, of the ex- Clintonites, and nobody beat the drum harder than the New Republic. [JF note: unless it was the WaPo's editorial page.]

    But the reason I supported the war, and still suspect it was the least bad choice, isn't one you've addressed and it's one I find opponents tend to evade. I mean, sure, get rid of a bad guy, yes, maybe WMD, whatever. But the reason I thought we should go to war in 2003 is that the status quo ante really, really sucked.

    I had been in the Arab world in the '90s and seen constant angry footage of people starving in a crumbling Iraq, held in that state by the U.S. military (I read figures of civilian lives lost, which are horrific -- and remember the UNICEF figure of 6,000 children under age 5 dying each month due to sanctions before the war). The large US military forces in Saudi Arabia protecting the Kurds, Basra and Kuwait infuriated folks -- remember it was bin Laden's big bitch -- and it ended soon after we went into Iraq. We had -- I think unwisely, but nonetheless -- effectively created client states in the North and South of Iraq dependent on US protection, and nobody has tried to make the case that there was any way to return Iraq to the Ba'athists without ugly consequences for those groups. And I've had the opportunity to speak with the airmen who flew the missions in support of that protection while under Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, and over a decade of that really dangerous work took a toll on them and their families. So I think the "let's not go to war" case might've been superior -- but let's not kid ourselves that it wasn't ugly, too.

    In the early 2000s, the Bushies I think made the best of all possible options in pushing so-called "smart sanctions," saying, look, we're stuck in this mess for the long haul so let's invest the manpower to try real real hard to keep certain things out of the regime's hands, and get as much food and medicine into Iraq as we can. And I think they did the diplomacy OK -- at least, before the thing went up for a vote in summer 2001, other countries were making the right noises about it. There had just been an awfully contentious election, folks at least where I was were _mad_ and I heard a lot of crap about Bush trying to push this thing through the UN because of his pathological hatred of the Iraqis -- but it was crap. "Smart sanctions" was a good idea, actually. And it died an ugly death at the UN, so your choices at that point were, somehow unseat the regime, or continue with the sanctions regime as it was.

    There are an awful lot of hard counterfactuals here. Who knew the Bushies would throw away a decade of expertise and interest in Iraq? And I have never understood why we needed to shepherd in a hand-picked government or even occupy the place -- I couldn't give a crap who rules Iraq so long as they know that if they mess with the populations in the North and South under U.S. protection they're going to get smashed -- but the war went the way it did and it was ugly, and we learned a lot of things about military accountability that, well, we're probably better off for having learned but it wasn't good. Certainly I didn't appreciate the importance of international "legitimacy" and alliance-building. But still I wish folks who opposed the war would have to append "I was for the continuation of the sanctions regime and basing forces in Saudi Arabia" (or else, "I was for the lifting of sanctions, and let what happens to the Kurds and Shi'a, happen") -- because it's a useful reminder that there wasn't a great path out of that hole. Some stuff's just really hard.
    This is offered for the record, and as indeed a more fully argued version of the pro-war case. On specific points: 1) To me, the very high likelihood that "the Bushies would throw away a decade of expertise and interest" was among the reasons to fear a bleak outcome from the war; and 2) I am willing to say that I would have preferred continuation of sanctions, plus troops in Saudi Arabia, to launching the invasion.

    From Mike Lofgren, oft-quoted here, author of The Party is Over:
    The whole democracy thing fatigues me. Since Nebuchadnezzar, every regime that has set out to attack another regime has done so with multiple public justifications (yes, even the most totalitarian). In the age of mass media, the justifications have become more elaborate, but all of the rationales boil down to three basic themes: (1) they were going to attack us first (aka the Texas manslaughter defense: "I was just protecting myself in advance"); (2); that other regime is really awful; and (3) the people groaning under the rule of that regime will be much better off once we invade and depose the regime. The Bush administration employed slightly different rationales for whichever audience it was trying to convince, but its main themes fit the historical template. All the bloviating about exporting democracy to the Middle East drew mainly from rationales (2) and (3).
     
    What struck me at the time of the Iraq invasion was that the neoconservatives and their fellow travelers, mainly Republican but also some Democrats, frequently displayed the most touching devotion (in public) to bringing democracy to the suffering peoples of the Middle East while evincing a high degree of cynicism (mainly in private) about how "Arabs only understand force." In some cases it wasn't even concealed, as Thomas Friedman demonstrated:
    "What they [meaning Iraqis] needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um, and basically saying, "Which  part of this sentence don't you understand?" You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This. . . . We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth." (Charlie Rose, 30 May 2003) 
    Finally, from a person I know with long experience in national-level politics:
    Not mentioned (this time) on your blog among the justifications for invading Iraq is what my "connected " (to Cheney and/or Rumsfeld) GOP friends told me during the run-up to the war, namely that although Saddam Hussein was not hosting terrorists himself, other nations were doing so with impunity because they believed the US would never strike their countries (as distinct from striking the terrorists), so they could sort of have their cake and eat it too. 

    The US, having discovered on 9/11 how vulnerable it was ("soft defenses, etc.") needed to buy a little time by forcing the terrorists out of the safe harbor host states, thereby disrupting them for that time-buying purpose, while we "hardened" our defenses against terrorist attack. By showing the leaders of the host states that we could step in and overthrown a head of state such as Saddam Hussein, we would be demonstrating that we could do the same thing to them, too. Thus their reaction to our invasion of Iraq would be to kick the terrorists out of the safe harbors, for fear of being toppled by a US invasion themselves...

    I recall saying, "Well, that's at least an explanation, but it has never been told to the American people."

    To which the reply was, "We can't tell the American people, because we don't want the terrorists to recognize how vulnerable we are, how soft our defenses against them really are."

    To which I said, "The terrorists presumably already know precisely how soft our defenses are; it would be the American people who don't, but who would if this explanation were offered in public." I also said, "This is why you should not go to war for reasons you don't disclose - disclosure allows the logic of your reasons to be tested," and I was pretty sure this purported reason could not withstand a public test.

    Wiser folks than I have long observed that when there are several or many purported reasons for taking a particular course of action , rather than one agreed-upon reason, it often turns out that was really no reason at all for that course of action. I still think this observation is probably true for why we went to war in Iraq. We did not have a real reason.
  • What the Iraq War Did to and for the Middle East

    The idealists' argument for going to war

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    Ten years after the start of the Iraq War, it can be easy to lose sight of how much of the argument for it was idealistic. By that I don't mean that such arguments were correct or should have been convincing; obviously I think the reverse. Rather I mean to distinguish the casus belli that is now most often discussed -- the discredited and possibly manufactured warnings about Weapons of Mass Destruction -- from the vision expressed by the war's most serious-seeming advocates.


    These were people for whom the WMD threat, or reminders about Saddam Hussein's [alleged] plot to murder the first President Bush, were useful ways to add urgency to what they viewed as the real, moral purposes in going to war. Depending on the advocate, these included: 
    • justified retribution for Saddam Hussein's brutality and atrocities against Kurds, Shia, and the Iraqi public in general; 
    • concern that the alternatives to war -- open-ended sanctions -- were mainly hurting the most vulnerable people in Iraq, including children who might starve or die from lack of medicine;
    • and, most sweeping of all, the potential of forced regime-change in Baghdad to set off a wave of liberalization and democratization that could free many other Arab and Islamic countries from tyranny and despotism. A wave of liberalization had swept through East Asia starting in the 1980s -- in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, elsewhere -- after the U.S. helped ease its former client Ferdinand Marcos out of office. Why not the Islamic world?
    Many of that era's "liberal hawks" expressed one or more of these arguments. I associate the third -- the fact that the Arab/Islamic world deserves democracy, too -- closely with Paul Wolfowitz, a hawk though not in normal terms a liberal, after hearing him make this case during an interview in January 2002. Many other people I interviewed later that year had a much more fatalistic, wary sense of whether the United States could really midwife democracy via regime change.

    We know how the WMD argument for the war stands up ten years later. What about the Wilsonian, moral case for democratizing the region as a whole? Fred Kaplan, of Slate and The Insurgents, examines that question today and says that it is another way in which the case for war was illusory and the decision to go to war was a huge mistake. For instance:
    Ten years later, it's clear that the Iraq war cast "a very large shadow" indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity's natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.

    Kaplan bases part of his analysis on a book I found extremely useful and have often recommended in this space. That is A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, which presents a history of the decaying Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century that should have guided our decisions about that same area in the early 21st.

    No one ever really "learns" from history, because choices never present themselves in exactly the same way, and because you can always choose similarities and differences to fit current needs. (As Ernest May and Richard Neustadt explained so well in Thinking in Time.) But it should have been easier to see the pitfalls of military action in Iraq, and we can't let this costly experience recede unexamined. Kaplan's piece is worth reading and thinking about.

  • Threat Inflation and Deflation, Cont.

    Assessing the past 10 years of war

    IraqInvade2.jpg

    For the rest of this month, I think I'll roll out a homemade logo, at right, to mark a range of discussion on what we've learned, forgotten, misconstrued, and never understood about the combat commitments that began when American forces invaded Iraq 10 years ago. This proceeds from a post one week ago on the necessary reckoning from the Iraq years, plus reader followups.

    Today's theme: threat inflation and its many ramifications. Several readers offer supplements, nuances, and in some cases rebuttals to my previous claims. First, from James Pringle of the University of New Hampshire, an argument that in some crucial ways threat deflation is a bigger problem:
    As an academic in the Earth Sciences, I would argue that threat deflation is rampant (but not in national security issues). Looking at where threat-deflation is common, and where threat-inflation is common, helps us to understand where either occurs. 

    If you look at many threats to society, for example anthropogenic climate change or cigarette smoking, there are or were large campaigns to downplay either the impact or existence of these threats.  They are funded by organizations with a clear interest in the matter -- coal companies and tobacco companies in these examples. It takes energy, time and money to inflate or deflate a threat.

    Peculiar to national security issues is that there usually no clear organized group that benefit from deflating the threat -- some general will make his career being the first leader of the new Cyber Command.  Is there anyone who can make a career saying it is not necessary?  Will any politician be celebrated for stopping some effort to "make us safer" in anywhere near the same proportion that he or she would be vilified when something bad happens? Are there any consultants who will earn large fees telling us something is not worth worrying about?  Why would we pay someone to deal with non-threats?

    Threat inflation may be bad for everyone, but it is good for someone -- a tragedy of the commons, if you will, where the commons is our pool of resources to either deal with threats or to invest in society. 
    On what I said was a specific current instance of threat-inflation: the drumbeat of warnings about the menace from Iran, a reader who asks that he not be named writes:
    I am a graduate student studying the proliferation of nuclear technology (especially centrifuges for uranium enrichment) in the Engineering School at [distinguished East Coast university.]  [He goes on to name advisors with extensive experience in assessing weapons threats from the Middle East and elsewhere, and with reputations for skepticism about some claimed threats.] In this email, I speak only for myself.

    Regrettably, I've found, this field of study is replete with slanderous rhetoric and name-calling on both sides of the spectrum, a good portion of  which is propelled by the colossal egos of a few with especially influential voices.  Mostly because I am loath to participate in such unpleasantries, I will keep my comments as brief and benign as possible.

    For the record: I believe that military action in Iran is completely unwarranted at this point and will remain so for (at very least) the near future.

    While I am thankful for the growing body of scientific experts willing to speak out and counterbalance our nation's penchant for "threat inflation,"  I worry that a number of anti-war scientist/activists are guilty of the same fundamental offense as their Bush-era nemeses: allowing their political agendas to shape their technical assessments.  Technical experts who maintain an a priori commitment to nonintervention can frequently do more harm than good.  By softening the facts, downplaying suspicious activity, and gratuitously applying the "alarmist" label to any and all who oppose them, these analysts weaken the public discourse and undermine the ability of the IAEA to insist on transparency from nations like Iran.

    In a recent post, you link to two op-eds by Yousaf Butt.  (I feel obliged to stress that both are op-eds and quite likely do not reflect the position of many or most Bulletin scientists.)  Like many of my colleagues, I cringe when the Washington Post, for example, levels sweeping allegations at Iran based on a tiny amount of new (even if credible) information.  So, I applaud Butt in one sense.  Unfortunately, though, based on my own reading of the evidence, I cannot agree that he has "debunked" much of anything:

    1. No loudspeaker magnet, barring a truly remarkable coincidence, would require the exact dimensions of the magnets in Iran's centrifuges, down to the nearest one-thousandth of a centimeter in two of the three specifications and to the nearest millimeter in the third.

    2. While the diagram he attacks in his second piece is by no means a smoking gun, the reasoning that leads him to call it  " either slipshot analysis or an amateurish hoax," was later shown to be a mixup in units -- he simply didn't have sufficient information.

    While I worry often about nuclear matters and "threat inflation," and while I am critical of the current trend that sensationalizes every alleged example of Iranian deception, I do believe in this statement, taken from a recent rebuttal to Butt: "the public needs to know the facts about Iran's nuclear program, even when uncomfortable, in order to design a responsible reaction to Iran that avoids war."

    I will ask the author of those Bulletin of Atomic Scientists posts, Yousaf Butt, if he has a reply. And on the taxonomy of inflated threats, Charles Stevenson, a long-time defense expert often quoted here, writes to say:

    I think your threat inflation discussion is mixing too many things and failing to make important distinctions. You're bundling apples, oranges, and walnuts.

    One kind of threat inflation is through analytic error -- as was the case among some but not all people regarding the missile gap until McNamara conceded the error in 1961. The same was true of Soviet military spending estimates -- too high in the 1960s and 1980s, too low in the in1970s. The Tonkin Gulf issue was a misreading of flash reports -- despite the general military rule of interpretation that "first reports are [almost] always wrong" -- by political officials who found that initial reading happily consistent with their other policy views. LBJ said what he thought was true and then refused to admit of error.

    A second type of threat inflation comes from worst case analysis and the impossibility of proving a negative. We want our analysts to consider worst case situations because sometimes they have turned out to be true [Japanese Zeros over Pearl Harbor = black swans]. Political leaders then face the challenge of being honest in citing threats without exaggerating likelihood. That was part of the problem with Iraqi WMDs. The other reason for the intelligence failure there was that VP Cheney kept asking, Is there evidence to prove that Saddam doesn't have WMDs? And the truthful answer, to the question posed that way, was no.

    The third type of threat inflation is self-serving cherry-picking of reasonable analysis.That's what the Pentagon does every budget season and what Presidents do when they've made that 51-49 decision and want to persuade Congress and the public of the wisdom of their action. Like Reagan in Grenada.

    We shouldn't automatically dismiss all threat claims as inflated, but subject them to questions of confidence and likelihood, etc., as the intelligence community does. But, yes, when Presidents lie, they too should be held accountable.
    Finally for right now, a reader's comments on the panic that ensued in America after 9/11 and that has not fully subsided:
    Since this all arises from a discussion of Threat Inflation, let me say that I was instantly offended by the spectre of Pearl Harbour that was purposefully raised in the aftermath of 9/11. They are not remotely similar events except in the number of deaths caused by an attack on American soil.  Pearl Harbor altered the military balance in half of the globe, which is why Yamamoto [Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had warned against attacking Pearl Harbor, since after the initial months of shock it would lock Japan into war with a far more powerful adversary] attacks was able to run wild for a while.  The 9/11 attacks didn't actually change anything, and I thought at the time it might be worthwhile for  the President to point that out.  "We mourn our dead, and we will pursue you and bring you to justice for your crime.  But we are as strong as we were before, and more united than ever..."  The speech writes itself, and has the virtue of being true. Instead we got the kind of panic that is unbecoming in great nation: "another Pearl Harbor", "the world will never be the same"    
     
    And then we diligently did the terrorists' work for them. What they were powerless to accomplish, we did: we changed ourselves to our detriment, and diminished our  liberties, our honor, and our place in the world's imagination.... all in aid of promoting a pre-arranged war against a shitty little dictator who had nothing to do with it. 

    I've highlighted "doing the terrorist's work for them" because I've so often argued that this is one of the most damaging aspects of U.S. policies and attitudes through the post-9/11 years (for instance in this cover story in 2006.) Thanks for everyone submitting ideas; more to come.

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