Iraq: It takes a President

22 March 2013, 0904 EDT

Some further thoughts on why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We’ve had a few posts already now that the tenth anniversary has come. But given the magnitude of the decision and since even its most vocal defenders were caught off guard by how costly, lethal and protracted it was, it is worth lingering on the question.

In varying degrees of sophistication, there is a recurrent argument that the Iraq war flowed out of pre-9/11 developments, with 9/11 itself merely functioning as an enabling event deftly exploited by the war party in Washington. But against the grain of some interpretations, some contingencies and one important individual also mattered.

It is tempting to trace the war back to the rise of the muscular nationalists/neoconservatives in the 1990’s who became influential in the Bush Administration and their view that American foreign policy should be about restoring a martial politics of heroic greatness. The War on Terror became their opportunity to reassert American hegemony. Though they were not particularly haunted by the spectres of terrorism and rogue states before 9/11, these figures readily adapted, framing the new threats as a manifestation of a lack of American presence and power, and the market democracy that is its main export, especially in the Arab-Islamic world. 

Accordingly, the Bush II Administration used the sense of security crisis to ram through an idea long in the bloodstream – that Saddam’s existence should never have been tolerated, that the US should have blasted on from the border all the way to Baghdad in 1991, and that it was time for so many reasons to settle accounts.  More immediate fears such as WMD were a pretext for a long-held ambition.

There are, however, several reasons to limit this argument. WMD was not a mere pretext – the evidence doesn’t permit that judgment. In fact, it was the one thing that disparate pro-war advocates could agree on, as Paul Wolfowitz has claimed, though as Jeffrey Record has shown, it served more as a totem for a whole range of other agendas, such as creating a pro-American democratic ally in Baghdad and in a vital strategic oil-rich position, removing the main rejectionist Arab regime, avenging the humilitations he had meted out, and restoring fear of American power. While Washington and London presented ambiguous, tentative and uncertain evidence as cast-iron certainty, the record suggests that both governments assumed that whatever the evidence, Saddam had a WMD programme.

And as Jon argued yesterday, to translate the ideas of the Vulcans into a concrete policy decision took a lot of persuasion. It took Democrat votes in the Congress – and they voted for war mostly without even looking at the body of evidence that was available for them to inspect. It took the public to buy it. And it took others in the government to be persuaded that Iraq was an achievable thing. The focus on the neocon cabal can also work as an insidious alibi for liberal hawks to shield themselves with, deflecting blame rather than questioning their own judgment.

And, I would argue, it took a President to change his mind. Along with Colin Dueck and others, there is a case that the individual calculations of Presidents matter in foreign policy decisions, and certainly in this case. Before 9/11, President Bush had shown little interest in statecraft or foreign policy questions. He was an adrift President without any serious unifying ideas about the world, beyond a generalised plea for more humility while also asserting a kind of impolite unilateralism on questions of arms control and striking some tough poses on China. If he privately harboured a serious ambition to attack Iraq, it must have been very secret. Neither was Bush a mere cipher for his wicked advisors, as some seem to argue. On important matters he could stubbornly do what he wanted, defying Vice President Cheney to appoint Colin Powell as Secretary of State, for example.

The question should be – how did the resilient idea of launching a war with Iraq attract the most elite sponsorship?What changed? Putting it crudely, 9/11 changed Bush’s mind about the world and about American security. He concluded that in the volatile and fragile security environment brutally unveiled on 9/11, in the world of fanatical irrational opponents who struck without warning, you have to strike your enemies first. Bush’s evolving world view marked the long erosion of faith in classical doctrines of deterrence and containment.

But that only gets us so far. With that world view, one could also be tempted to attack other perceived rogues, whether Iran or North Korea. Bush chose Saddam for another reason: he had grown more and more confident that he could. Why?

Putting it simply, the Bush Administration was pleasantly surprised at how the war was going in Afghanistan after an autumn of fighting, and drew big conclusions from this particular single campaign. Though Bush spoke publicly of a bold and concerted war effort after 9/11, privately the Administration was scared about fighting in Afghanistan. At an NSC meeting on 15 September after 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz argued that Afghanistan was ‘uncertain’, fearing that 100,000 troops could be bogged down in mountain fighting in six months time, whereas Saddam was breakable. There was great apprehensiveness about Afghanistan’s history of ‘rebuffing outside forces’ and the prospect of mountain fighting, quagmire and even overspill into Pakistan. Afghanistan, so the cliché went, was the graveyard of empires.

Iraq, by contrast and according to well organised Iraqi and Kurdish lobbies in America, was a more modern, more politically centralised, more urban and more middle class society that would embrace the market, free elections and constitutional government. Saddam represented a ramshackle impediment- all that had to be done was remove him, and it would turn out that Iraqis were deep-down Ohio republicans waiting to get out. There were, in fact, reform minded and democratic and capitalist Iraqis. But there was also a far deeper, more penetrating B’aath party system and apparatus, leaving a fractured and frightened society behind. But the Bush Administration believed that because the impulse towards the American way would be natural, it could unleash these forces at its will and timetable.

To get confident enough that America could do this at acceptable cost in Iraq, we should look to the ‘first war’ of the war on terror.In the opening rounds of the war in the graveyard of empires in Central Asia, the US suffered only four combat deaths, smashed and scattered the Taliban with a supposedly new ‘way of war’, marrying air power, cash, special forces and indigenous troops as their spearhead.

Jeffrey Record and Bob Woodward have related how the administration was captivated by its speedy and easy destruction of the Taliban regime and believed it could gain a quick and decisive victory in Iraq. On 21 Nov. 2001, the day Bush instructed Rumsfeld to prepare plans for Iraq, he declared that the Taliban were ‘on the run.’

It was also reflected in the extraordinarily narrow and short-termist war planning, in which the complex and long-term business of birthing a new nation-state out of the B’aathist status quo was reduced to a series of essentially tactical and operational questions of the tempo and direction of invasion, the response to any use of chemical or biological weapons, and how to optimise the physical campaign with the lightest possible footprint. The big picture, of power transition, post-conflict order, political reconciliation and rebuilding would…take care of itself.

 So crucially, it took the effects of contingencies (9/11 and the pulse of the Afghan campaign) to turn an unfocused president into a war president with a growing belief in the instrument he commanded. That was the cocktail – a mix of fear (Saddam as intolerable enemy) and confidence (Saddam as easy target).

If there is one pattern worth noting, and if this portrait is useful, it is the wild swing from pessimism to optimism, and the unwise mapping of one war onto another and the hasty flight into a hubristic sense of overwhelming power. Iraq pessimists in 2003 would be wrong because they had been wrong in 1991, even though there was a substantial difference between fighting a limited war of territorial expulsion out of Kuwait and fighting a war of regime change in Iraq. Iraq would succeed because a much harder experiment in Afghanistan was succeeding (a mite too early to make that judgment about Afghanistan in 2001), and a wild misreading of the internal communal politics of Iraq, in which the removal of the brutal Saddam Leviathan might not unleash forces for federal democracy, but under the anarchical conditions of a badly-conceived occupation, could ignite fears that one group would turn on another.

There are plenty of other things of course to say about what caused the war. But the emotions and shifting calculations of war matter. Bush, on one hand, was scared in 2003. But he was also not scared enough.