Thinking through the invasion of Iraq, again

Blogger Dennis Mangan writes:

At this point, everything that could go wrong in Iraq just about has, due both to lack of strategy and the Administration’s ridiculous belief that Iraqis hunger for democracy. Ousting Saddam was the only mission that we could reasonably have accomplished, and we did that—three years ago.

Mangan’s way of putting this got me to thinking. I’ve always believed that President Bush and his advisors sincerely believed in the existence of WMDs in Iraq. At the same time, we know that the Bush team did not pursue every possible avenue to prove the existence of WMDs; they ignored voices that doubted the WMDs, they emphasized the evidence that supported WMDs and disregarded other evidence, and so on. So here is the thought that now occurs to me. On one hand, the administration determined to invade Iraq to find and eliminate its WMDs. On the other hand, that was not their whole purpose, because they also had the idea of democratizing a Muslim country, namely Iraq, to make it a model for the democratization of the whole Mideast. Those are two very different purposes.

The question that then arises is, how much of their motivation in invading Iraq was the need to destroy WMDs, and how much of their motivation was the desire to use Iraq as the nucleus of a democratized Mideast? Was the destruction of WMDs 100 percent of their purpose, and democratization merely the logical step following that, i.e., once we had occupied Iraq, we had to do something with it, and democratization was the way to go? If that was the case, then they still would have had to be 100 percent convinced of the existence of WMDs in order to launch the war.

But now suppose that the discovery and destruction of WMDs was only 75 percent of their purpose in invading Iraq, and democratization 25 percent. In that case, would a certain softness concerning the evidence for WMDs be acceptable, since WMDs were not the sole purpose for invading Iraq? In other words, it wouldn’t matter if the evidence for the WMDs was not rock solid, since WMDs were not the sole reason for invading.

But what if the destruction of WMDs was only 50 percent of their purpose, and democratization 50 percent? Wouldn’t that downgrade even further the importance of WMD evidence? Or what if the destruction of WMDs was only 40 percent of their purpose, and democratization 60 percent? In that case, wouldn’t definite proof of WMDs cease to be a requirement at all?

I am opening up the logical possibility that the administration’s overriding purpose from the start was to use Iraq as a launching pad for the democratization of the Mideast. And therefore they really didn’t care if the WMDs existed.

There are, however, huge problems with this theory. The overriding public purpose of the invasion was WMDs. If they were not found, the administration would have launched a major war, an unprecedented, pre-emptive war, on false grounds. Since pre-emptive war was a major plank in the administration’s post-9/11 national security strategy, the last thing they would have wanted would be to discredit the very idea of pre-emptive war by launching such a war for the sake of a threat that turned out after the war to be non-existent. Also, the failure to find WMDs would be a huge political embarrassment, likely leading to Bush’s defeat in the 2004 election (a fate from which he was only narrowly saved by the unprecedented badness of his opponent). For these reasons it is impossible to believe that the administration was not 100 percent convinced of the existence of WMDs.

My thoughts have thus returned to the same place where they were during the interminable debate about WMDs back in 2002-2003. The administration believed in Iraqis WMDs, AND it wanted to use Iraq as the launching pad for democratization. Both statements are true. If Bush team had not believed in Iraqi WMDs, they would not have chosen Iraq for this experiment, or, if they had, they would have used a different rationale for invading Iraq in the first place. As it was, the two aims came together (or so the Bush people thought) perfectly.

- end of initial entry -

Jonathan L. writes:

I’m glad you’ve revisited this issue, as the evidence for conscious mendacity on the part of the Bush administration is—I think—insuperable. While the various pieces of ambiguous technical evidence that turned out to have been false (the aluminum tubes, Nigerian “yellow cake”, etc.) may be excusable individually, in aggregate they strongly give the impression of bad faith. Most damning, however, are the many claims which stretched all bounds of logic or credibility. The idea that Saddam Hussein would so blatantly furnish a pretext for U.S. invasion as by entering into a strategic alliance with al Qaeda is barely within the realm of plausibility, while the claim that Iraq was building a force of unmanned aerial vehicles to attack the East Coast with chemical or biological weapons is just plain risible. Add to this the fact that there were rumblings about Iraq even before 9/11 and you get the picture of an administration set upon a predetermined course of action and concerned with the evidence for it only so far it could be used as a pretext.

My intuition is that WMD constituted only 50% of the rationale for the war; the administration believed they existed, but weren’t particularly concerned in what number or what condition. After the invasion we’d surely dig up something, and in any case that would all be forgotten when Iraq became a splendorous example of Middle Eastern democratization. The desire to extract the U.S. from enforcing a thankless, interminable, and ultimately futile sanctions regime, the itching to try something—anything—to stir up a Middle East whose pathologies could no longer be safely ignored, and the inchoate (or maybe not so inchoate) longing to avenge the assassination attempt on Bush Sr. were all probably just as important as fear of WMDs in determining the decision to go to war.

LA replies:

While I don’t agree with some of Jonathan’s specific assertions, his overall argument has an impact on my views and may provide a plausible explanation for the mystery of the Bush team’s thought process. What he’s saying is, the Bush people believed there would be some kinds of WMDs, but they simply weren’t concerned very much about what specific kinds of weapons evidence would turn up, because they thought (or inchoately assumed) that the great success of the war, the instant adoption of democracy by the Iraqi populous as predicted by neoconservative ideology, would make the WMDs issue become relatively unimportant. Weapons of mass destruction would be swallowed up in victory.

Jonathan has in effect presented a modified and more plausible version of the speculation I offered in my blog entry before I dismissed it. It’s not—as I speculated—that the hope for Iraq’s eventually becoming a model of Mideast democracy made the Bush team not demand absolute proof of WMDs; rather it was their expectation of Iraq’s own rapid democratization that made them not demand absolute proof of WMDs.

Ken Hechtman’s e-mail, below, came in at almost the same moment at Jonathan L.’s, and makes pretty much the same point. He writes:

Keep one thing in mind. Why are you and anyone else still thinking about WMD at this late date? Why does it still matter? It only matters because the democratization project turned into a counter-insurgency quagmire. How we got into that quagmire in the first place is a question that’s still worth revisiting.

Bush and the rest expected the democratization project to succeed (you’ve gone into why they expected it against all reason in previous posts). And if it had succeeded, nobody who mattered would still be talking about WMD four years later. Four years after Gulf War I, nobody was still talking about April Glaspie’s pre-invasion meeting with Saddam Hussein. Four years after the Grenada invasion, nobody was talking about whether the Cuban-built airport was for military or civilian planes.

It wasn’t just Bush and the neocons who believed it either. Pretty much everybody outside the hard left and the paleo right believed the war itself was going to be quick, easy and painless. Under those circumstances, there just didn’t seem to be much percentage in being right about WMD. In some cases (the mid-ranks of the Pentagon and CIA, the Senate, etc) being right was thought to be a career-limiting move. That’s why Kerry was “for it before he was against it”.

“Bush lied” is a bumper sticker. It’s not a serious explanation of who knew what, when and with what degree of certainty. It doesn’t begin to address the question of how easy the administration made it to get policy-supporting facts onto their desks and how hard they made it to reach them with any policy-challenging facts.

Tom A. writes:

I am certainly no intelligence expert, but it should be noted that; (1) Saddam Hussein certainly had WMD before Gulf War I, and had used them; (2) he was required to destroy such weapons under the GW 1 armistice terms, and supply proof of their destruction to international insepectors. No such proof was ever supplied, and what exactly became of these weapons is still something of a mystery; (3) it was discovered via inspections after GW 1 that Iraq was surprisingly close to developing a nuclear weapon; (4) Saddam’s people constantly sought to evade inspections of potential WMD sites; (5) it has been proven that Iraq had an active and ongoing WMD research program prior to Gulf War II; (6) the Clinton Administration certainly believed that Saddam possessed WMD; (7) so did almost all foreign intelligence services; (8) many of Saddam’s own operatives, some of them quite high up, also believed that Iraq had such weapons. Bush didn’t lie—he believed what almost everyone else believed at the time. Not everyone, but almost everyone …

Given the above, it would have been criminal, after 9/11, for the Bush Administration not to have removed Saddam from power. Whether or not there were proven connections between Al Quaeda and Iraq, would you have wanted to take the chance, had you been President, when the price of being wrong could have been hundreds of thousands of dead? The decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam was certainly correct. It was the insane decision to seek to create a multicultural democracy in Iraq that led to disaster. In seeking to disarm Iraq, Bush was fulfilling his constitutional duty to defend the United States. In seeking to build “democracy” he arrogantly acted as a self-appointed world-saver, and reaped the whirlwind.

LA replies:

I’ve made the identical argument a thousand times. But the fact remains that to launch a pre-emptive war, everyone expected that hard evidence was needed, a smoking gun. That didn’t turn up, but, given Hussein’s continuing pattern of resisting inspections and concealing things, it was hard to conclude other than that he still had active WMD programs. That was my view. On the basis of Saddam’s own behavior, which was absolutely conclusive in my opinion, I gave up my previous demand/expectation for a smoking gun. Still, to get political support for such a war, a pre-emptive war, harder evidence was needed, and it’s clear that the administration was not 100 percent serious about the need to find it. “Slam dunk,” said George to George, and that was enough. And that’s where this blog entry began, with the insight that Bush was not 100 percent serious about the WMDs. This insight is aggravated by Bush’s shocking failure to give a speech to the country afterward explaining the failure to find the WMDs. In all the annals, of U.S. history, can anyone think of a failure of leadership like this, an unmanly act by a U.S. president like this, an act of contempt for the American people like this? Busherón launched a pre-emptive war for WMDS, they weren’t found, and he didn’t feel he owed the country the most solemn explanation of this. Imagine what Republicans would have said if a Democratic president had acted like this.
Jonathan L. writes:

Thanks, and let me just follow up with a somewhat countervailing thought. Regardless of the extent, condition, or even existence of Iraq’s WMD arsenal circa 2003, the likelihood that it would be reconstituted once the sanctions regime fell apart was not just good but darn near certain. Thus the administration may have felt perfectly justified in fudging the particulars of Iraq’s weapons program since the “greater truth” was that it was guilty of trying to acquire WMDs—if not now then as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

The war was thus the product of a completely understandable desire to extricate the U.S. from its strategically untenable position in Iraq (forced as it was to maintain a sanctions regime that even its allies flaunted, and zones of protection for Muslims that only infuriated other Muslims) as well as the administration’s desire to try something—anything—to shake things up in the Middle East since 9/11 had exposed that status quo as equally untenable. Neither rationale was a politically viable pretext for war, however, and so the need to portray Iraq (with conscious duplicity, I believe) as an immediate strategic threat. Neoconservative meliorism is certainly one explanation for the current disaster in Iraq, but let’s not forget that it was Bush’s signature contribution to the ideology—an unreflective vitalism—that got us into Iraq in the first place.

LA replies:

I’m confused. First Jonathan justifies the invasion on rational grounds, then he says that the invasion was driven by Bush’s unreflective vitalism.
Tom S. writes:

I agree—Bush has done an appalling job at explaining his motives and actions to the American people, or even at keeping the American people informed as to what is going on. For a wartime president, this is a terrible failing. If today, left-wing defeatists, far-right anti-Semites, Muslim grievance-mongers, and a biased media dominate our discussions of the war, the tongue-tied White House is at least partially responsible.

Michael Jose writes:

What I find so interesting in this article is that you are only just considering a possibility that I had already pretty much believed back in 2002: that the WMDs were largely a pretext for a different agenda. [LA replies: I don’t think anything I have said here adds up to the suggestion that the WMDs were a pretext, and I am troubled that he has so misconstrued the carefully argued statements I’ve made here.]

After 9/11, and particularly after the fall of Afghanistan, there was a huge push for “transforming the Middle East.” Perhaps the president didn’t talk a lot about democratization, but I sure remember the neoconservative pundits loudly calling for the Middle East to be reshaped into democracies.

It seemed to me that the major goal at that time was to try to expand from Afghanistan into a wider war in the Middle East, massive regime change for all or almost all Arab countries (as well as Iran), and the creation of democracies across the Middle East.

Going to war in Iraq was the first step in expanding the war, so it always seemed to me that the WMDs were more of a pretext than anything else; that is, it gave us a legal reason why we could attack Iraq and thus start our project.

I remember arguing about whether or not democratization was possible on the FrontPageMag message boards back in 2002 and 2003. People insisted it was doable, because all people wanted freedom.

So now when people insist that the reason we went to war was all about Saddam’s WMDs, and that they didn’t realize that democratization would become the mission, or that democratization was brought forward as a goal to distract from the lack of WMDs, I am stupefied.

(It actually shocked me prior to the war when I mentioned the democratization thing to a friend and he replied that he hadn’t heard about anything like that at all, it was all about removing Saddam and getting rid of the WMDs—as time went on, and more people said stuff like this after the invasion, I started wondering if I had been living in a parallel universe). Perhaps I need to read through more of Bush’s speeches, because maybe he didn’t say anything about changing the face of the Middle East or about bringing freedom to Iraq, or democratization. Maybe I came to this conclusion early because most of my ideas of the pro-war side came from reading the columnists and ideologues rather than the politicians.

But then again, the invasion was called “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” not “Protect Our Freedom,” or “Desert Justice,” or something else that would indicate that the primary purpose was defense of ourselves. The message of the very name of the operation should have, I think, alerted people to the possibility that we were going into this with the idea of democratization and/or liberalization.

I guess part of me just feels that there has been an incredible naiveté on a lot of people’s parts about the administration’s intentions in launching this war.

LA replies:

If I remember correctly, Mr. Jose, under a different name, participated in the epic length debates that occurred at this website in 2002 and 2003, or else I remember his pen name from the (at that time very readable and valuable) discussion boards of FrontPage Magazine. In any case, the issue at this site was overwhelmingly WMDs. My own argument, reiterated, oh, about 725 times, was the standard argument: we could not accept the nexus of Iraqi WMDs and terrorist groups that might get a hold of those WMDs.

Obviously, since we would be taking over Iraq, we would be responsible for reconstructing its government in some fashion and the understanding was that this would be some kind of democracy, but the practicalities and the pros and cons of this were not discussed in detail (as I have lamented, oh, about 725 times). Yes, the general idea of democratization was certainly there. It was in the president’s national security strategy statement. It was in various pronouncements of the neocons. But the focus was not on that. The focus was on the immediate justifications for invasion. Further, what dominated the debate on the anti-war side was not any idea that the war would not be good for this or that reason, but that the war had to be opposed because it was being pushed by elements hostile to America. The supposedly evil motivations of the neoconservatives occupied easily 80 percent of the anti-war right’s oxygen in this debate.

Mr. Jose’s statement, that the debate was all about using Iraq as a springboard for democratization, is not the way I remember it. The main argument by the anti-war right was not anti-democratization, it was anti U.S. imperialism in the Mideast, it was anti the U.S. getting into a war for Israel’s sake at the behest of the evil neocons.

In conclusion, I think Mr. Jose’s memories are incorrect, colored by the public discussion in the post invasion period when democratization was indeed turned into the main purpose of our policy.

M. Jose continues:

“Mr. Jose’s statement, that the debate was all about using Iraq as a springboard for democratization, is not the way I remember it.”

I think that I may have been unclear.

I am not saying that democratization was the main point being debated in 2002 and 2003. What I am saying is that it was clearly one of the administration’s goals, and that the larger agenda of transforming the Middle East, which the Iraq War came out of, was largely based on the idea of democratization. (The fact that I argued with people about it is relevant because it showed that it was on people’s mind as a goal back in 2002 and 2003, and so it should be no surprise that it became the post-war focus. I did not mean to imply that it was the major point being discussed). It was clear soon after 9/11 that the neoconservatives had an agenda of democratizing the Middle East (although I will admit that there was some question over whether they wanted real democracy or just wanted a system for installing puppets that they could portray as democratic). In any case, there was a larger “transformation” agenda at work here. Iraq was not initially thought of as a war in itself, but one step in the larger picture of our goals in the Middle East; that is, there was no indication that we would stop with Iraq.

After 9/11, most of the neoconservatives were pushing for a much larger war, with the stated purpose being to change the Middle East with the idea that we would “drain the swamp” that produced terrorism. Iraq was part of this larger war that in which the U.S. would topple most of the Middle Eastern governments and replace them with democracies (although again, one could argue how genuine the “democracies” would be). From this perspective, the particular justifications for war with Iraq seemed less important to me than the overall picture and agenda, although the reasons to attack Iraq specifically became, in practice, what was argued about.

When it had become clear that Iraq would be the next target in the War on Terror, the focus did shift to justifying this particular war. Since there were doubts about Saddam’s ties to terrorism that directly affected the U.S., particularly to Al Qaeda, were in doubt, the focus shifted to his WMD programs. At this point, the arguments turned into what he did or didn’t have for WMDs—although this argument was also about how much the administration could be trusted and how much some of those who were pushing the war could be trusted (I don’d mean ordinary folks like Lawrence Auster here, but rather those who had connections such as Ledeen and Perle).

But it was clear from the get-go that this was part of a much larger agenda; the idea that we only cared about getting rid of WMDs, I think, comes from the fact that once they were brought up as the I think that the idea that there was any chance that we would go to war simply to get the WMDs, or that democratization was not going to become the main goal of the policy comes from concentrating entirely on the debate on war with Iraq that occurred after Iraq became the target, and not thinking about the “transformation of the middle east” milieu that was brewing back in late 2001 and early 2002. This “World War IV” stuff colored my perception of the Iraq War far more than any of the debates post-invasion.

One quick thought:

“[LA replies: I don’t think anything I have said here adds up to the suggestion that the WMDs were a pretext, and I am troubled that he has so misconstrued the carefully argued statements I’ve made here.]”

I am sorry if I misinterpreted you. I was interpreting this:

“I am opening up the logical possibility that the administration’s overriding purpose from the start was to use Iraq as a launching pad for the democratization of the Mideast. And therefore they really didn’t care if the WMDs existed.”

as a statement that you were considering the possibility that the WMDs might have been focused on more to get public support than because the administration was concerend about WMD

LA replies:

Well, you’re missing my next paragraph, where I immediately said that that logical possibility was impossible.

Michael writes:

Actually, your logic does not preclude the possibility that the WMDs were just (or mostly) a pretext.

What you rejected is the idea that Bush had any doubts that Iraq had chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. While in your post you presented this as tantamount to rejecting the idea that the WMDs were not Bush’s motivation, it is not necessarily the case.

As long as we are talking about chemical weapons, or even non-person-to-person-contagious biological agents (e.g. anthrax), it is fully possible that Bush thought Saddam had these but was not really concerned that they constituted a threat. And, similar to Jonathan L.’s statement that they did not care much about the number or condition of Iraq’s non-conventional weapons, I would suggests that they probably did not need to find truly threatening “WMDs” (i.e. nuclear weapons or a super-flu) to justify the invasion to the public; nerve gas or ricin would do. So it was fully possible that he could find Iraq’s actual weapons programs unthreatening and yet be certain that he could find something to justify the invasion.

The major point is that whether he thought that Iraq had WMDs (i.e. any non-conventional weapons) and whether or not that was why he invaded are two different questions.

You write:

“Or what if the destruction of WMDs was only 40 percent of their purpose, and democratization 60 percent? In that case, wouldn’t definite proof of WMDs cease to be a requirement at all?”

No, not if they needed the WMDs to justify the war to the public. Assuming that you are correct that Bush would have found the prospect of publicly making WMDs the casus belli and not finding any horrifying (I do not agree, but that is not relevant to my current argument), this only means that he needed to be certain of Iraq’s WMDs for P.R. reasons, not that WMDs are why he went to war. Even if democratization was 100% of the reason behind the war and WMDs 0%, definite proof (or at least what they thought was definite proof) of WMDs would still be required in order to make certain that the public justification of the war would not crumble after the invasion. More specifically, definite prrof of WMDs would still be a requirement as long as WMDs were the publicly stated reason for the war.

LA writes:

I am a long way from following all the points above. But I just want to make one specific point. My memory is that soon after 9/11 I began to read articles about the nexus of Iraqi WMDs and terror groups, and that the only way to end this threat was to invade Iraq. As I explained at VFR in 2002, as soon as I heard these arguments they made sense to me; I never heard a good counter-argument, and eventually, in August 2002, I adopted that argument as my own. The main debate as I remember it was not about democrtizaton but about the justifications for invading Iraq.

Bruce B. writes:

If the pretenses of the Iraq War are, in retrospect, justifiable still (i.e. we went to war based on reasonable belief of Iraqi WMD and the potential for terrorists to acquire them) then can’t it be argued that the administration is woefully NEGLIGENT in not going to war with Iran (who according to Bush is pursuing WMD and definitely supports terrorist groups) or Pakistan (who definitely has WMD and is one bullet away from being able to place WMDs in the hands of terrorists)? That we can’t carry it out with current troop levels or are overextended is irrelevant given the much more concrete danger these states represent relative to Iraq. Shouldn’t he make war on Iran and Pakistan or admit Iraq was a screw up. What, in your opinion, does his failure to do either of these indicate with regard to his motives (other than the obvious, “he’s a politician”)?

I hate to write this but is he any more honest or less a politician than Clinton?


Yes, his failure to do anything about Iran does put into question the centrality or the seriousness of his concerns about WMDs.
Tom S. writes:

I believe that Iraq was selected for preemptive war, rather than Iran or Pakistan, for several reasons; (1) Iraq was believed to be closer to the development of deliverable WMDs than any other country in the region. This over-estimation of Iraqi capability was in turn fueled by the gross under-estimation of Iraqi WMD progress prior to Gulf War I. The U.S. was shocked by how close Iraq was to nuclear weapons; (2) Saddam was considered most likely to use them, if he had them. He alone, of all leaders in the region, had a history of using such weapons, and his attempted assassination of Bush I was thought to indicate a desire for revenge, bordering on the pathological; (3) Iraq was considered to be “low hanging fruit.” Of all the states thought to be developing WMD, Iraq was considered to be the easiest to defeat, given its pathetic performance in GW1. Of course, the “low hanging fruit” turned out to be poison, but that’s 20/20 hindsight; (4) Pakistan already had a pro-American dictator, and it was thought that its weapons were mostly directed at India. As for Iran, there has been a strain of wishful thinking in American dealings with Iran, going right back to the Carter Administration. That this wishful thinking was bi-partisan is indicated by the Iran end of Iran-Contra, by Richard Armitage’s description of Iran as a “democracy,” and by Michael Ledeen’s perennial belief that the Iranian people are about to rise against their oppressors, never mind the Baker Commission farce; and finally, (5) Iraq was thought to be primarily a secular state, with a literate populace yearning to be rid of Saddam, and hence a good candidate for “democratization,” and as a source of encouragement to anti-regime elements in Iran.

Of course, we all know how all this turned out. But when we remember that back in 2003 Iraq was regarded by many people as both dangerous and easy to defeat, with a populace that would welcome the U.S. as liberators, a country that could both serve as an example of the fate awaiting those regimes who sought WMD, and as a possible exemplar to Iranian “democrats,” it’s easy to see why Iraq was chosen for invasion. Which motive was the primary motive is hard to say—to many, there seemed to be a lot of good reasons to invade Iraq, you didn’t need to pick just one. Of course, as Anton Chekov pointed out, when a medicine promises to cure more than one disease, it will probably cure nothing at all; but (famous last words) “it seemed like a good idea at the time” to many.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 18, 2006 11:19 AM | Send

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