Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Rethinking Iraq

A lot of people are doing it; I am too. Some of it is, perhaps, predictably American short-term carping; but whether justified or not, my feelings about the Bush administration's actions in Iraq, once relatively positive (in an early-2003, nonimperialist, liberal interventionist sort of way), are going through a serious re-evaluation. And the cause is not, I think, primarily or even significantly events on the ground in Iraq (i.e., the collapse of the WMD concern, the struggles with internal conflict, etc.); rather, the main motivation behind my rethinking is the Bush administration's way of responding to those events.

More than a year ago, Joshua Micah Marshall described the Bush administration decisionmaking process as something along the lines of "inarticulacy meets screwball meets Machiavellian genius." (Wish I could find the link.) Whatever he exactly said (and of course, he's made this same point again and again), I think it has proved prophetic. There genuinely appears to be a really deep incompetence, muteness, blindness, ignorance, call-it-what-you-will, in this administration, as well as profound stubbornness: an absolute refusal to admit any of the above. (The latter quality probably shouldn't be surprising; any group of people who aspire to the White House are almost inevitably going to possessed of a certain level of arrogance/condescension: witness the Clinton administration paralyzing disbelief in their own constant, low-level dishonesty. "You put those files there." "No we didn't.") But brilliantly, or horrifyingly (or both), Bush & Co. seem to also have the talent for taking advantage of all the flailing around which surrounds their actions, and pushing through even further action. In other words, while everyone--including people close to the president--is desperately trying to understand what in the world is going on in Iraq, Bush and his key people decide to do something (maybe consist with what they were doing before, maybe not, it doesn't really matter) in Iraq. I don't know how else to describe this except, as the above quote presents it, as exploitation: an exploitation of American patriotism and resolve following 9/11, an exploitation of a military establishment which supported the president and now finds itself in a situation of profound murkiness and danger, and (least in importance, but not negligible) an exploitation of the convictions of liberal hawks like myself, who saw the war in Iraq as a potentially principled act which could, among other things, make certain that the (I still think imperative) role of liberal nations in countering wicked tyrannies, combating terrorism and constructing international norms would remain a presence in our increasingly globalized world.

Exploitation is undemocratic. To be exploited is to be manipulated by someone cannot truly respond to or interact with, for ends unknown or unclear to oneself. Now, broadly understood, "exploitation" needn't necessarily be an evil (in the same way, strictly speaking, not all "propaganda" is bad): if I was being used, manipulated, "exploited," by God--as who is to say that I'm not, in every way and every day?--or, failing that, by a set of Platonic philosopher-kings, it's possible (depending on how you think about the relationship between freedom and truth) that I wouldn't have much to complain about (the same way I, arguably, couldn't complain about propaganda if the ideas being drilled into my head are "good" for me). But leaving aside that moral debate, it is, I believe, uncontestable that to be exploited by one's elected leaders is a democratic wrong, a crime against the modern notion of democratic citizenship. I'm not an absolute democrat, by any means. But the more I read and think about events in Iraq, the more important the Bush administration's apparent messing with our (and others') heads looms in my feelings. I still believe that the decision to invade Iraq was justifiable; I still believe that a great many of the arguments made by Bush (and the liberals who went along with him) regarding Iraq hold water, the WMD issue notwithstanding. But, as I mentioned before, I am increasingly coming to think that the decision wasn't, as Matt S. put it, sufficient: that is, the argument for war, which was solid on its own terms, did not in fact fully address all the variables of the situation (some of which were known, and were pointed out by anti-war critics; some of which were not). What is pressing the most on me at this time, however, is the sense that the Bush administration, caught (at least partially) unawares by these same variables, is crudely building the policy's insufficiency back into the original argument, adapting the imperatives which led to the original decision so they appear only strengthened by present results. ("Invading Iraq has increased terrorism in Iraq? Well, of course it has! That's why it's called the 'war on terror.' Get it?")

I'm still processing all this, as are many others. Here's some quotes from four people who supported the Iraq war. For the first two of them, the primary reaction to Bush's latest speech is a kind of grudging wonder at what he's pulled off. For the other two, the exploitive actions of the Bush administration result in an unexpected fury. All are worth reading. Right now I'm leaning more and more towards the latter two, but then, I always have a terrible time making up my mind about these things.

From Jonathan Rauch:

"I don't believe the Bush administration went to war in Iraq on a 'neoconservative' mission to reorder the whole Arab world, although it certainly hoped for favorable side effects. I think the administration went to war because it believed that leaving Saddam and his sons in power for another 10 or 20 or 30 years -- with the U.S.-led containment effort already in tatters -- would be untenable and irresponsible. I think the administration believed that with 9/11 memories fading and a presidential election coming up, the chance to get rid of Saddam might never come again. So the administration took the chance. In Iraq, what was a war of choice has now become a postwar of necessity. The jihadis filtering into Iraq perceive this even if some Americans do not. If the United States succeeds in proving that there is a liberal, moderate alternative to both the Baath Party and militant Islamism, the Islamists' false choice is exposed. The establishment of a reasonably competent, honest, and stable government in Iraq would be a staggering blow to the appeal of political Islam worldwide. From the Islamists' point of view, this is a life-or-death struggle. America must fail in Iraq...From the jihadis' point of view, a victory over America in Iraq -- meaning the Americans go home without having managed to set up a viable, moderate government -- would be a twofer. American prestige and power would be wounded, and the false choice between Islamism and corrupt secular tyranny would be confirmed. 'You see?' the Islamists would say. 'It really is just us or the devil. The Americans won't stay and can't win.'...Remember what we learned two years ago this Thursday. The other side is not going to go away and leave us alone. If the world's 200 million or more Arab Muslims are not given hope, they will lash out in fear."

From Andrew Sullivan:

"What else did President Bush mean when he challenged the terror-masters to 'bring 'em on,' in Iraq? Those are not the words of a man seeking merely to pacify a country, but to continue waging war against terrorism....Opportunity knocks. Last week, Paul Wolfowitz...in with a piece in the Wall Street Journal, specifically cit[ed] the occupation of Iraq as a central part of the war against terror. 'Even before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters, if you'd asked Gen. Mattis and his Marines,' Wolfowitz wrote, 'there was no question in their minds that the battle they wage - the battle to secure the peace in Iraq - is now the central battle in the war on terrorism.'...[Hence] the reason the Bush administration went to the U.N. last week to seek more troops from foreign countries for peace-keeping and security purposes was...not merely an admission that they had goofed in estimating the number of troops required to pacify the country. It was a move designed to liberate the U.S. military machine from peace-keeping in order to concentrate on war-making - against the terror network they had come to destroy. Listen to U.S. Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq. He just opined on CNN that attacks against U.S. forces have increased in 'sophistication, especially in the improvised explosive devices that they are using, and we're working to learn from that and to be able to counter them.' He went on, critically: 'This is what I would call a terrorist magnet, where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity... But this is exactly where we want to fight them. ...This will prevent the American people from having to go through their attacks back in the United States.' You won't find a better description of the 'flytrap' strategy anywhere - or from a more authoritative source."

From Will Saletan:

"Bush wants us to support his postwar Iraq policy as reflexively as we supported the war on al-Qaida in Afghanistan. That's why he delivered this speech just before the anniversary of 9/11....How was our action in Iraq part of the campaign against terrorism? The old argument, which Bush repeated Sunday, was that Saddam 'sponsored terrorism.' But again, Bush offered no evidence that Saddam had done so in a way different from Iran, Syria, or even Saudi Arabia. Instead, Bush argued that regardless of whether terrorists in Iraq were at war with us two years ago, they are today....[Furthermore] Bush argued that ousting Arab tyrants is inherently necessary to the war on terror....Think for a minute about what these two arguments entail. The first justifies any war in which, as a result of our actions, terrorists attack our troops. Imagine an invasion of Cuba, whose dictator has long rankled Bush and would be easier to topple than Saddam was. No doubt al-Qaida and other terrorist groups would send agents to try to kill the occupying troops. Bush could then defend the occupation as part of the 'war on terror.' The second argument is equally fraught with implications. Yes, tyranny breeds terrorism. But if the 'war on terror' requires us to overthrow tyrants just because they're tyrants, we'll be at war for the rest of your life....To justify this burden, Bush tells us it's still about 9/11. He tells us terrorists are trying to 'inflict harm on Americans' to make us 'run from a challenge' in Iraq. He tells us we must be 'resolute in our own defense.' He tells us we must 'spend what is necessary to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror.' He conflates enemies. He spins circular logic. He appeals to our pride. He continues to misrepresent the terrorist connections on the basis of which he justified the Iraq invasion, and he expands the definition of the 'war on terror' so that Iraq can be crammed into it anyway, along with dozens of other countries. Two years after 9/11, he has so thoroughly twisted the meaning of what happened that day that, in effect, he has forgotten what it was."

From Timothy Burke:

"I can accept a skeptic who wearily, resignedly argues that because the President represents the United States and because he’s committed us as he has in Iraq, we have no choice but to look for the best possible long-term resolution of that commitment. I can accept someone who reminds me that there were many people whose motives for supporting the war before it began were well-intentioned, reasonable or potentially legitimate. I continue to feel, as many do, that unseating Saddam Hussein is something that anyone ought to recognize as a positive good. I can even accept that there are many within the Bush Administration who may have had good intentions or reasonable opinions in promoting an attack on Iraq. [But] I am not prepared to cut any slack to anyone who thinks that supporting the current policy as it has been shaped by the President and his advisors is sensible, effective or ethical....The fundamental strategic idea of the war in Iraq, when the dust of the initial campaign settled, turned out to be a kind of 21st Century Maginot Line, plopping a bunch of US troops down in an exposed situation and daring every possible organization and group to take a shot at them, while also leaving endless space for geopolitical end runs around the fortress....In many cases, considerable good is coming from their efforts. Iraq may yet emerge as a freer, better, more hopeful society, and the Iraqis will be able to thank the United States if that happens. But whatever is happening in Iraq that is good...its final state will mean almost nothing in determining whether terrorism becomes an even more potent global force: it will only determine whether one nation and one people live better or worse than they did before 2003. In contrast, the manner and style with which this war was prosecuted in the first place encouraged and empowered terrorists, and the necessary long occupation that now must ensue—for I acknowledge that we can’t just pack up and leave, that milk is spilt—has given terrorists an easy target and enormous ideological capital all around the world....This is either a war against terror, fought in the wrong place, in the wrong way, by the wrong leadership, or it is a wider war against tyranny and for democracy, fought without even the faintest clue of what to do next by a leadership that barely understands or believes in democracy themselves."