A FEW KIND WORDS AND SOME HARSH WORDS ON BUSH IN IRAQ
I detest the Bush administration, so any kind words that follow are not a whitewash. I do not know if kind words about a group you detest are more likely to be objective but I hope so. Some truth might offset the inevitable soon-to-come pro-Bush propaganda.
The United States needs in the Middle East a nation that is democratic, not militaristic, largely secular in government. If the government also had a large oil supply and was pro-US, that would be a plus but not necessary. Iraq was a good choice for pushing in the directions that we needed. It had a history of tolerable relations with European countries, a fairly well-educated citizenry, a middle class, professionals, a commercial tradition, and a long tradition of successful central government. Religious fundamentalists never controlled it as they did Iran. It had some heavy obstacles, such as strong ethnic divisions and a tendency toward severe repression; but those obstacles could be overcome over time. Tony Blair knew this but he could never say so in plain language.
Because we had once supported Saddam, and later fought him, the US could use that history as an excuse to intervene in Iraq even if it was a weak excuse.
The terrorist attack of 9-11 was an excuse whether or not Iraq had anything to do with the attack. As long as changing Iraq would benefit the US and eventually lead to less threat of terrorism, we could use 9-11 as an excuse. In the climate after 9-11, nobody was likely to defend Iraq. People objected to invading Iraq for other reasons that I go into below.
Other than alienating a lot of the rest of the world, the biggest obstacle was tactical. An invasion and conversion (occupation) of Iraq had to happen quickly and so had to be well planned on a firm base of knowledge and understanding. As we all know by now, that is where the worst of the problems came up.
Invading a country to change its government and way of life is morally reprehensible but in the climate after 9-11, Americans were in no mood for moral niceties. Americans wanted to kick some Muslim (Arab) butt whether or not the particular Muslims had anything to do with 9-11, and even if the particular Muslims were enemies of 9-11 terrorists. Bush is ignorant, especially of world affairs, but he is not that ignorant. He knew that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11 and that it was not the center of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism but he was happy to let Americans think that way, and happy to let them go after Muslims, if to do so would promote his attempt to convert Iraq into the right kind of ally. If we blame anybody for the moral crime of invasion and occupation, we should blame the majority of American people. I knew a few educated people that got caught up in kicking Muslim butt and in making the world safe for America by attacking the phantom menace of terrorism in Iraq.
To channel American outrage toward Iraq, Bush had to do some lying. Again, Bush is ignorant but not that ignorant. Saddam might have had some leftover chemical weapons but he had no nuclear capability, probably had no biological capability, and he certainly had no delivery system that the US had to worry about. The intelligence community told Bush so. The threat of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in Iraq was a gigantic ploy, one that Americans were ready to buy. Bush had to lie to the American people, lie to some of his own people, distort intelligence reports, and squelch dissenters from the intelligence community. Nearly all Americans also knew that Bush was lying about all this, and did not care. At the time, it all seemed to me like theater. If their President had to lie to provide an excuse to kick some Muslim butt, Americans were happy to go along. The fault lies with us as much as with Bush.
Tactically, the invasion and occupation (conversion) of Iraq were doable. There were no huge inherent tactical obstacles. Once Joe and Jane America were on board, the biggest hurdles were good planning and good execution.
In fact, the invasion did succeed. From a military point of view, it seemed beautiful. I think military people will study it for decades. It vindicated some of the needed ideas of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. The occupation (conversion) is another story.
Setting aside for now the immorality of lying, and of invading and occupying another country, what if it had worked? What if Iraq had stabilized quickly, adopted a reasonably democratic secular government? What if Iraq became a trading partner of the US and a supplier of oil? What if Iraqis spoke to other Arabs, and spoke to them not as puppets of the US? America and the world would have gained more than I can say. For a brief period after the invasion, Syria backed away from Lebanon, Lebanon tasted freedom, and the rest of the world smelled what a free Middle East would be like. Bush would have been hailed as one of the greatest foreign affairs Presidents in US history. If Obama can steward a withdrawal from Iraq and stabilization of Iraq that leads it to become a good state then Republicans will eventually hail Bush as a great hero. Get ready for revisionism. If Iraq turns out well, even I will raise a glass to Bush, at least of domestic beer.
Before revisionist history, we need to get some perspective by dwelling on the mistakes. This is where we reap the bad karma for moral turpitude.
Bush lied to some good people, chief among them Colin Powell. I could not watch Powell on TV even before we had confirmed that he was conveying lies. Powell did the right thing resigning when he did, and his resignation pretty much confirmed what we all suspected.
Bush alienated the intelligence community. I have no idea how long before they trust another American president. The Valerie Plame affair (in which Bush outed an active CIA field agent to punish her diplomat husband for criticism of Bush policies) is only the squiggles on the frosting of the cake. The real rock-hard overdone stale cake of underlying damage was in not listening and in altering reports to fit what Bush wanted. Why report the hard truth if it does not matter and might get you in trouble? He did the same thing with scientific reports, especially on the environment, but scientists are always ready to trust the next guy that comes along – spooks are not.
We knew Bush was lying when nobody discovered any WMDs. After two years, not finding them was only a formality, but still it confirmed what we all hoped was not true. We were not afraid there were no WMDs. We all knew there none, and, if the occupation had succeeded, we would have forgotten the issue. We were afraid to confirm that our President was stupid and a big fat liar. Bush tried to turn a necessity into a good PR campaign about how honest he was to reveal damaging facts but by then nobody could swallow it anymore.
The occupation (conversion) was not planned and it failed miserably. Here Bush really was as ignorant and dogmatic as he seems. A little ignorance in American leaders is cute but this is stupendous. There is no point going into details except one. When Bush fired General Shinseki for innocently telling the truth and for giving a valid military opinion, my blood ran cold and I knew we were in a lot of trouble. Ideology trumped strategy; no dissent allowed; the bad ideas of Rumsfeld won out; the good ideas of Rumsfeld were casualties of the bad ideas; and the war went on at least four years longer than it should have. Whenever in hindsight we want to credit Bush for a foreign policy success in Iraq, we had better return to this.
Americans are comfortable with a certain level of lying from leaders if only because it saves Americans from confronting their ideologies with the truth. Bush leaped over that line. He lied too much, ineptly, and in ways that hurt for a long time. Clinton nearly got the sack for a whole lot less. We really do not want to force politicians to tell the whole truth all the time but I do not know how to draw the line in a way that prevents future Bushes.
We diverted attention from Afghanistan and from other sources of terrorism. The enemies in Afghanistan bounced back, and our former gains were lost. Now we have to go do it all over again.
Millions of young people were recruited into the next generation of America haters and possible terrorists.
Sometimes “what if” can be useful. What if Bush had not rushed into Iraq but instead had taken care of business first in Afghanistan, and then tried to build a case for going into Iraq? By then, likely we would have known better not only how to invade but also how to occupy (convert). But by then, it is not likely Bush could have succeeded with the lies and not likely he could have whipped up the frenzy needed to invade a country that was the enemy of our enemies. By then, it would have been too late for the big lies to work. Even if Bush had made perfectly clear the strategic case for converting a Middle Eastern country, and had shown that Iraq was the best candidate, Joe and Joan America likely would not have gone along. So in 2002 Bush had a narrow window to bring about the invasion of Iraq, knew it, and acted on it.
What if the occupation had gone well? Despite the lies, Bush would be an international hero. With that kind of success, a few small issues such as national sovereignty would not matter much, to Americans or to most of the rest of the world including the Europeans. What if Bush had waited until Afghanistan was settled, somehow whipped up the will to invade and occupy Iraq, and then it had all gone well too? Bush would be an even bigger international hero despite the implications for national sovereignty. I have no idea what would be the long-run implications for world order but in the short run we would have seen large countries tidying up their empires and a lot of countries tidying up ethnic problems.
If America is to get along in the world, and maybe make it a better place, we have to answer two questions: How do we guide countries into the kind of civilized decent places we need them to be? What do we do when countries will not act decently, as with North Korea? We learned nothing about how to answer these questions during Bush. We need to be clear about what would really help us, such as a democratic secular nation in the Middle East, and how to work toward our goals. We need to be clear about mistakes and how to avoid them. Hopefully Obama will actually work toward answering these questions.