Threat Inflation, Threat Deflation, the Bushes, and Robert Byrd

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Following this post on the impending tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, and this argument from a "liberal hawk" on why he had been proud to support the war, a few reader reactions. I am behind on this for the usual reasons but also because of the cumbersomeness of Internet connections in Beijing. Here we go with a sampling of response.

Threats aren't always inflated. Many people wrote to make a point similar to this one:

The only example of threat deflation I can think of was George W. Bush pre-9/11.

Further on the G.W. Bush record, from a veteran of Republican politics now in the Midwest:

I have all sorts of thoughts about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, for another time.  I'm probably not the first reader of yours, though, to note that you set the bar for honorable conduct pretty low with your reference yesterday to former President Bush.

Bush was the one person most responsible for the disaster Iraq became; he has never either apologized or accepted responsibility for his mistakes, and has devoted the years since he left office to presiding over his ghostwritten insta-memoirs and giving lavishly compensated speeches to closed audiences.  If you think Bush deserves credit for not criticizing how President Obama has tried to repair the damage Bush caused, you have a more charitable soul than I do.

My capsule view of Bush: I believe that the temperamental combination he brought to the presidency was lethal. I think of the big three elements of this mix as ignorance, incuriosity, and decisiveness.

  • Ignorance was his low level of pre-existing knowledge of the complexities of the world.
  • "Incuriosity" was his apparent lack of passion about learning what he didn't know.
  • Decisiveness was his desire, nonetheless, to make big, sweeping choices quickly -- for instance, ten years ago that it made sense to invade Iraq.

In these matters of temperament, completely apart from political beliefs, you can see Bush as the opposite of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and also of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. I argued nine years ago that even if George W. Bush served only one term as president, his legacy would be large and disastrous. Still, since leaving office he has been an honorable contrast to other members of his team, notably his vice president and first secretary of defense.

I said that Al Gore deserved credit for an early anti-war stand. A reader in Maryland writes:

You forgot Robert Byrd:

Before: "If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict."

During: Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. (March 19, 2003)

After
: Of the more than 18,000 votes he cast as a senator, Byrd said he was proudest of his vote against the Iraq war resolution.  (June 12, 2006)

Back to the Bush family. The message I quoted from a liberal supporter of the war said that one honorable reason to invade Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate the first President Bush. A reader replies:

I was struck, though, by this quotation from your "liberal hawk" and "avowed leftist":
I think just the assassination attempt on Bush 41 is plenty all by itself--what kind of country are we if we let another country's leader pull something like that with impunity?
One trouble with this is that the assassination attempt on Bush 41 was always dubious and has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now.  Another is that the US has attempted, sometimes successfully, to assassinate leaders of other countries -- notably Castro, whom the US tried to assassinate many times.  Would [this hawk] agree, I wonder, that Cuba would be justified in invading the US in retaliation?  If not, kind of country is Cuba if it lets another country's leader pull something like that with impunity?  Obviously that is a rhetorical question, whose answer is "a small, weak, and thoroughly menaced country that knows it couldn't bring the invasion off."  But morally, by this standard, a Cuban invasion of the US would be completely justified....

Which reminds me: Obama's opposition to the war, mentioned by your reader CJ, is highly disputable. I was always criticial, myself, of the whole 'quagmire' argument directed by many American liberals against the Iraq war: it'll cost (us) too much, it'll last too long, it'll cost too many (American) lives.  Imagine a Soviet politician who'd argued against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on those grounds; or a Japanese who'd argued against the attack on Pearl Harbor, or against Japan's imperial conquests in Asia, on the grounds that it would last too long and cost too much, and Japan would become stuck in a quagmire.  What American would hail such people for their great wisdom and insight into world affairs?  Usually we condemn the USSR and Japan for their aggression against other countries, but only "hippies" would condemn the US for aggression.

In the run-up to both Iraq wars I knew some opponents and protesters who argued that, contrary to the promises of our leaders, these wars would not be cakewalks and would last longer and be bloodier and more expensive than we were being told.  I told them that I hoped they were wrong, because they were effectively hoping for a long, bloody, costly war.  I preferred that as few people died or were hurt as possible, and that there were other better reasons to oppose those wars.  When they thought about it, they tended to agree with me.

Having myself made a "quagmire"-style argument before the war, I naturally think that such a perspective was a useful reason to oppose the war. Let's spell it out. Much of the stated case for war was in two parts: (1) Saddam Hussein is evil and dangerous, and (2) there is a quick and feasible answer to that question. I was saying about part (2): No, there is not a quick and feasible answer. In cases of life-or-death imminent existential threat or emergencies like Pearl Harbor, questions of practicality don't matter. But they sure do in a "preventive" war of choice -- which I hoped we would not launch.

One more for now:

I was puzzled at the time, and remain puzzled, by the fact that people who accepted the basically humanitarian argument for war (Saddam is dreadful, and the Iraqis would be better off if we deposed him) did not think: if we depose Saddam for these reasons, a lot depends on how we handle the aftermath. Luckily, we do not have to speculate about this: we already have an aftermath carried out by the Bush administration ready to hand, in Afghanistan. How's that going?

It wasn't as clear then as it is now how badly Bush and Cheney blew that one, but it was clear enough for me to think, at the time: the people in the Bush administration are not interested in any sort of serious investment in making the countries they invade better, more governable, whatever. Rumsfeld will try to prove his theories about how you can do everything with next to no footprint, Bush and Cheney will go haring off after the next big thing, etc. So if someone thought that invading Iraq would be justified IF we were willing to undertake some sort of serious effort to make Iraq a better place, then she ought also to think: what are the odds of that? and then: given the available evidence, not that good.

I did not accept the humanitarian justification for invasion myself. (Not that I doubted Saddam's awfulness -- I was on the Turkish side of their border with Iraq during one of the last bits of the Anfal campaign -- but I didn't think that necessarily meant that invasion would be a good idea.) But I really never understood why the people who did accept it were so apparently uninterested in the evidence of our competence at nation-building provided by our conduct in Afghanistan after the Taliban were defeated.

And, why not, here is one more (from a large harvest). Soon I will be in Shanghai, where the Chinese government's foot-on-the-neck of the Internet is usually lighter than in Beijing, and I should be able to catch up on a range of arguments:

The [liberal hawk] reader comments that Iraqis are surely better off now than they were under Saddam's power....

First, he, and you and I are really in no place to say what makes Iraqis 'better off'. That is a question for actual Iraqis living in Iraq. But from what we can say as outsiders:  Iraq under Saddam was no paradise, but the infrastructure of the country was completely obliterated during the war, leaving people who previously had electricity, running water, general physical safety and comfort with none of those. Second, a huge number of Iraqis died as a result of the war. Huge. Well over a hundred thousand. We should keep them in mind when making throwaway claims about life being 'better' for Iraqis, when the invasion coalition killed so many of them. I had an Iraqi roommate for a time who had lost so many friends in the war he had lost count.

Basically, I just want to acknowledge that there is no straightforward way to measure whether lives are 'better off' as a result of any traumatic event like a war, and that any discussion of such has to include mention of the unspeakable damage that this war has done to a generation of Iraqis. And any discussion of possible future military adventures for the US should too.
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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.
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