Five long years ago President Bush gave the go ahead for the Iraq invasion. Why, oh why, did he do that? While the President defended his decision today, there are few who now agree, even among those of us who supported the invasion at the time. Indeed, in hindsight, it's hard to imagine how this could ever have seemed a sensible thing to do - perhaps even downright insane, as in Greg Cochran's immortal tale, "The Death March of the Penguins
If the President had decided (because of a stroke with truly interesting side effects) that we could no longer stand idly by in the eternal conflict between penguins and skuas ( penguins = Good, skuas = Evil) and sent an expeditionary force to Antarctica, an expedition in which a thousand soldiers froze to death and ten thousand others lost limbs to frostbite - an expedition that cost one hundred billion dollars, a conflict in which the skuas and blizzards left the issue in doubt, one in which we discovered that penguins are thoroughly unlikable when you get to know them better - if he had done this instead of invading Iraq, the country would be substantially better off than it is today.
So how did this happen? Ah, there are many theories. One complication in trying to pinpoint the cause is that the enterprise has been so ineffective and costly that no justification could seem to have been worth it. That doesn't mean that we must ignore the actual course of the war in judging its antecedents - we must to some extent weigh the judgemntal faculties of its potential sponsors in assessing their complicity. If an uninsured house burns to the ground - an outcome no one could wish for - would we judge the father smoking a pipe as suspiciously as the child playing with matches? Again, there are lots of suspects, and no doubt plenty of co-conspirators and accessories after the fact - but who or what was the main culprit, the sine qua non
, the determining factor in whether or not this war ever took place?
Surely the favorite
is that it was all about oil. Obviously, the oil angle hasn't really worked out too well - nothing has worked out too well. But mightn't this have been the casus belli nevertheless? I don't think so because oil men are too smart for this. Any oilman would have counseled a conciliatory approach to Saddam. The Butcher of Baghdad was a beaten man in 2003 - he wished for little more than to hold on to his little Iraqi fiefdom. He'd have jumped at the chance for a little more sovereignty in exchange for a few $billion more in oil revenues. What oil executive would have risked his future supplies for something as risky as a war? None - no oil man would have wanted that. I can't find any record of any big oil people pushing us into the war. Notably, Jim Baker, G.H.W. Bush's longtime crony and oil industry lawyer, was decidedly cool about the invasion in 2002. Reading this account
of Baker's advice gives a good idea about how uncontroversial military action against Iraq was in late summer 2002 - there seemed to be little doubt that it would happen, just a lot of questions about how it would happen.
Then there is the military-industrial-complex theory of the war. This one centers around Dick Cheney and his Halliburton contacts
. The Iraq war has no doubt been a financial boon for a number of firms supplying the war effort, and it would be naive to think lobbyists representing "war profiteers" didn't push hard for the invasion. Just supplying bullets
alone has to have generated some serious profits to several arms manufacturers. But as enthusiastically as the defense industry might have supported it, I don't see them being the prime movers behind the war.
The other credible theory is the Neocon-plot origin of the war. If we look at the most vocal cheerleaders ante-bellum, they were the neocons. Kristol, Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Mark Steyn - they were beating the drums pretty hard in the run-up, eager to topple the evil Baathist empire and witness the founding of the Baghdad House of Burgesses
. Within the administration, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith led the hawk faction in pushing for the war. Yet these guys were ready to attack anyone
remotely associated with terrorism. Most of the neocons were clearly motivated by our "special relationship" with Israel and a desire to eliminate overtly hostile regimes. I have no doubt that the influence of neocons in the administration had a powerful effect in not only pushing us towards war but also in gaining widespread support in the halls of power for the war effort. But I don't think we have a smoking gun here.
I don't think we need to consider the ostensible rationales behind the war. I do think it's plausible that the administration sincerely believed
Saddam possessed WMD - but this "belief" was never based on objectively derived facts - it was based on wishful thinking and bolstered by a steadfast refusal to look into the matter with any seriousness of purpose. If David Kay indicated otherwise, he must be a dupe or some kind of pacifist, or Saddam must be hiding them somewhere. Nevertheless, such willful blindness to reality could not drive us to war - it must instead be a symptom of something else. The same with all the other rationalizations put forth at the time.
On the eve of the Iraq war, we were now in our 11th year of the Gulf War cease-fire. Every other week, it seemed, American jets were firing on Iraqi aircraft violating either the Northern or Southern no-fly zones. The oil-for-food program was notoriously rife with corruption, and no full accounting had ever been done of Iraq's chemical weapons programs. The horror of 9/11 still had most of us angry and impatient for revenge. Our victory in Afghanistan appeared to be a triumph of determination and competence, as what appeared to be a carefully crafted campaign came to fruition with few casualties and general approval. Meanwhile more and more horror stories of Saddam's brutality - of his and his sons' insanity
- made us wonder why do we need to put up with this madman any longer. My feeling at the time was that an invasion would be a quick fix to what seemed like an otherwise interminable situation. We invade, we topple Saddam, we take the sword from whichever competent and unrelated-to-Saddam Iraqi general we could find, leave him in charge, set up cordial relations, and help them transition to a Pakistani-style military-constitutional government. What's the problem?
The problem started to become clear just a few weeks in when Iraqi cities started burning not from street-to-street fighting or American bombs but from Iraqi citizens on a looting spree. There would be no Iraqi general to hand over his sword - there wasn't even a constabulary police force left standing. There appeared to be not a shred of executive authority operating anywhere in the entire country. The place was complete chaos, with no trace of civil order in the souls of its citizens. Good move - now what?
I think what confuses people about the war is the question of who's really in charge in the executive branch. Because Bush isn't particularly knowledgeable or diligent or effective as a communicator (to say the least), everyone assumes he must not really be calling the shots. But I think this greatly underestimates him. On the contrary, an intellectually curious, hard-working, articulate man would no doubt be more inclined to work to build consensus, solicit competing viewpoints, and get to the bottom of things before committing the nation to a such a high-risk endeavor as invading another country. But a stubborn, ignorant, petty man is just the type to engage the nation in such a poorly-considered escapade.
A decade earlier his father had helmed a triumphant victory in Iraq, but one which was soured in many minds by his refusal to go after the criminal despot himself. Instead, in what in hindsight (in 2002) appeared to be a lack of will, President G.H.W. Bush (and his Defense Secretary Cheney
!)had let the bastard off the hook, withdrew our troops, and imposed a set of conditions that the dictator must abide by - which conditions the Butcher of Baghdad would proceed to thumb his nose at for the next 10 years.
This bothered the younger Bush enormously, and he no doubt felt a strong need to avenge his father's "humiliation." He also saw what this hollow victory meant to his legacy - nothing, as Bush Sr. was soon to be turned out of office. Bush has been quoted
as hoping (in 1999) for an opportunity to become a successful Commander-in-Chief and build his legacy off of that. After 9/11, there was a general feeling in the administration that we had to strike out at all troublesome spots, Iraq being top of the list after Afghanistan. In "Plan of Attack," Woodward leaves little doubt that Bush wanted to go into Iraq, and had (secretly) told Rumsfeld to begin preparations for military action.
Securing some of the world's richest oil fields; enriching Halliburton and other defense contractors; securing Israel's future; sending an unmistakable signal to terrorists and terrorist sponsors everywhere that the U.S. means business; eliminating a threat to peace and stability and a source of WMD in the Middle East - all these motivations - however fanciful or venal they might have been - no doubt played some role in pushing us towards war. But the fundamental drive to war lay in the heart and soul of the man in charge. He pushed for it, he insisted on it, he executed it. Our country has paid the price and will continue to do so for years to come.