On the 'Idealistic' Case for War

By James Fallows

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.

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