Last week I argued that reporters should not waste one more second of their time or ours asking questions about Iraq that begin, “Knowing what we know now...” Instead, I suggested some other ways of finding out what candidates had learned, or avoided learning, from the military struggles of the past dozen years.
Now Jonah Blank, who has been in the middle of the Iraq and Afghanistan debates of recent years, writes in with some further suggestions about the right questions to ask.
Jonah Blank, a longtime friend, is an author and PhD anthropologist; a former senior staffer for the Senate foreign relations committee; and a multi-time visitor to the war fronts of the Middle East and Central Asia. I first met him when we were both living in Japan in the late 1980s; we worked together at U.S. News in the late 1990s; I frequently consulted him for guidance on strategic and counter-insurgency questions in the 2000s. I turn the floor over to him:
Here are a few other questions that reporters might ask, which could (if answered with even a shred of honesty) help voters discover which potential leaders deserve their consideration.
“Question 1. Do you accept the conflation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons into the unified category of Weapons of Mass Destruction?”
If "Yes": Thank you for playing-- You probably aren't presidential material.
Why is this significant? Because the single greatest sleight-of-hand in the war debate was combining chemical weapons (widely available, and morally reprehensible, but no danger to the US homeland) with nuclear and biological weapons (tightly controlled, but posing great danger to the US homeland). Everyone in policy-making circles knew that Saddam might have had chemical weapons-- he'd used them before, against foreign foes and his own citizens.
But everyone also knew that these posed no threat to Americans (unless they happened to be invading Iraq). Biological and nuclear weapons would have posed a great threat, but-- as every policy-maker with access to relevant classified information knew or should have known-- there was virtually no credible evidence for a significant Iraqi bio or nuclear program. How did the promoters of war finesse this issue? By lumping chemical weapons (easy to acquire) together with biological and nuclear weapons (difficult to acquire) into a single category of WMD.
Why is the question predictive of future behavior? Because this dishonest meme has become a standard policy-making tool: We treat all WMD as threatening to the US, and this may permit policy-makers to sell future wars on similarly dishonest grounds. At some point, a president will likely accuse some future target of possessing a WMD program, and he or she may well be correct-- but this will not necessarily constitute any true threat to the US.
“Question 2. If, as president, you were presented with a claim similar the case against Saddam in 2003, what steps would you take to evaluate it?”
If the answer does not include some form of, "I'd demand to see all the evidence, and I'd demand that the Intelligence Community present me with both the best case for this evidence and the best case against it", then: Thank you for playing-- you're definitely not qualified to be president.
Why is this significant? Because it was absolutely clear to the Intelligence Community that top-level policy-makers had no interest in the "Red Team" assessment (that is, the case against the case). This placing of political agendas ahead of analytical assessments led to the intelligence failures in Iraq.
Why is this relevant for the 2016 candidates? Because very few of the Congressional leaders who supported the 2003 invasion had actually bothered to read the intelligence reports.
Don't believe me? Ask them directly: There are logs for every piece of relevant intelligence, registering exactly who has read them, and on what date and time. Some Senators or Congressmen were briefed by staff who had read the intel, and again the logs would reveal this.
Why is this relevant for the 2016 candidates, few of whom were in Congress at the time? Because every present and past Senator or Representative (that is, more than half a dozen of the current crop of likely candidates) has had access to such intelligence-- if he or she has chosen to read it. Every candidate who has ever held such office, and has advocated sending US troops to Iraq, Iran or Syria, should be asked the following question: "Have you personally read the intelligence reports-- and can we check the logs to verify?"
Reporters on the campaign trail, citizens at town-hall meetings, opponents prepping for debates, over to you!
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