Tag: iraq war

Think Tanks and the Iraq War

As I noted last week, the GOP’s 2016 contenders didn’t do themselves much credit as they ducked, covered, cringed, and pratfell through a series of interview questions about the Iraq War. Still, Jeb Bush had a point when he noted that, at the time, “almost everybody” in political Washington was for the war. True enough: as policy disasters go, the Iraq War was as bipartisan as the subprime loan crisis

On the war’s tenth anniversary a couple of years back, the New Republic’s John Judis recalled “what it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003.” His memory jibes with mine: it was pretty damned lonely. Well before “Shock and Awe,” hawkish arguments had achieved near full-spectrum dominance over the minds of Beltway policy elites, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq was shaping up as a horrific idea whose time had come. Hayek Auditorium, December 13, 2001

But it rankled a bit when Judis wrote that “except for Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington’s thinktank honchos were also lined up behind the war.” Not to take anything away from Ms. Mathews, but the late, great Bill Niskanen had to count as a “think tank honcho” if anyone did, and he opposed the war vigorously, early, and often.

In a December 2001 public debate with former CIA director James Woolsey, Niskanen, then Cato’s chairman, offered the first prominent public statement by a DC think-tank leader against that looming debacle: “An Unnecessary War Is an Unjust War,” Bill argued. In the run-up to the invasion, other Cato scholars argued, among other things, that:

At the time, opposition to the Iraq War was controversial even within the building—and outside of 1000 Massachusetts Ave., Cato’s Iraq War skeptics had very little company among the Beltway cognoscenti. 

Has the GOP Learned Anything from the Iraq Debacle?

GOP Agrees Bush Was Wrong to Invade Iraq, Now What?”—that’s how the US News headline put it last week. A good question, because it’s not at all clear what that grudging concession signifies. It’s nice that 12 years after George W. Bush lumbered into the biggest foreign policy disaster in a generation, the leading Republican contenders are willing to concede, under enhanced interrogation, that maybe it wasn’t the right call. It would be nicer still if we could say they’d learned something from that disaster. 

Alas, the candidates’ peevish and evasive answers to the Iraq Question didn’t provide any evidence for that. Worst of all was Jeb Bush’s attempt to duck the question by using fallen soldiers as the rhetorical equivalent of a human shield. Ohio governor John Kasich flirted with a similar tactic—“There’s a lot of people who lost limbs and lives over there, OK?”—before conceding, “But if the question is, if there were not weapons of mass destruction should we have gone, the answer would’ve been no.” 

That’s how most of the GOP field eventually answered the question, with some version of
the “faulty intelligence” excuse. We thought Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of chemical
and biological weapons and was poised for a nuclear breakout; it was just our bad luck
that turned out not to be true; so the war was—well,
not a “mistake,” insists Marco Rubio, just, er—whatever the word is for something you definitely wouldn’t do again if you had the
power to travel back in time. As Scott Walker, who’s been studying up
super-hard on
foreign policy, explained: you can’t fault President Bush: invading Iraq just made sense, based on
“the information he had available” at the time. 

Well, no—invading Iraq was a spectacularly bad idea based on what we knew at the time. If we’d found stockpiles of so-called WMD, it would still have been a spectacularly bad idea. Saddam’s possession of unconventional weapons was a necessary condition in the Bush administration’s case for war, but it wasn’t—or shouldn’t have been—sufficient to make that case compelling, because with or without chemical and biological weapons, Saddam’s Iraq was never a national security threat to the United States. 

A Word about “Gotcha Questions” and Personal Responsibility

A peculiar tic of contemporary American nationalism is the notion that the American state, particularly if helmed by a Republican president, makes no errors of commission in its conduct of military affairs. No American war was ill-founded, or aimed at a threat that didn’t exist or didn’t warrant the effort. This logic never applies in the domestic sphere for Republicans, where government programs are at best naïve and bound to make problems worse or at worst, venal and Machiavellian.

This tic is the only reason I can think of that we’re actually sustaining a debate in 2015 about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a good idea to invade Iraq. Jim Fallows at the Atlantic argues that nobody should again ask a politician the question, since

the only people who might say Yes on the Iraq question would be those with family ties (poor Jeb Bush); those who are inept or out of practice in handling potentially tricky questions (surprisingly, again poor Bush); or those who are such Cheney-Bolton-Wolfowitz-style bitter enders that they survey the landscape of “what we know now”—the cost and death and damage, the generation’s worth of chaos unleashed in the Middle East, and of course the absence of WMDs—and still say, Heck of a job.

I actually think this makes the case why the question should be—or at least should have been—asked, since at least one fortunate Republican son, Marco Rubio, belongs in Fallows’ bitter-ender camp. To the extent voters—and donors—care about competent foreign policy, they deserve to know that Rubio strongly opposes it, even with the benefit of hindsight.

But beyond the politics, a weird narrative has begun to emerge on the right that asking about the Iraq war is a “gotcha question.” Keep in mind: we are discussing a policy that was dreamed up by the Bush administration, marketed by the Bush administration, and purchased by the vast majority of our legislators, including the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.

Was the Iraq War Worth It?

That’s the question posed by US News and World Report’s “Debate Club” today.

Here’s the opening to my response.

Tragically, the Iraq War was not worth the costs. The leading advocates for war understated the costs and exaggerated the benefits. They claimed that the war would be cheap, perhaps even profitable, thanks to lower oil prices. They suggested that it would be easy, a “cakewalk,” not requiring a long-term U.S presence to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. They blithely dismissed concerns about the tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shiites.

We now know how wrong they were. A new report from the Watson Institute for International Studies at BrownUniversity tallies up the costs: nearly 4,500 U.S. troop fatalities, more than $1.7 trillion spent, and another $490 billion owed. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the sectarian bloodletting that occurred after the collapse of Saddam’s regime exceed 130,000. Millions were displaced, many still have not returned to their homes. The Iraqi Christian community has been decimated.

You can read the rest here and vote for the best argument.

Iraq Violence Not an Excuse for US Troops to Stay

A wave of violence spread across Iraq today with 70 dead and some 300 injured. Iraqi security forces are blaming al Qaida affiliates, but no group has officially claimed responsibility. The New York Times puts the events in context:

Coming a little less than two weeks after the Iraqi government said it would negotiate with the United States about keeping some of its 48,000 troops here after the end of the year, the violence raised significant questions about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.

This is indeed a tragic loss of life, but this level of violence actually has become less common and usually occurs when the Iraqi government is making important decisions on the future of the country and U.S. troop presence. Each time a bomb is detonated in Iraq, commentators argue that it proves we cannot leave Iraq yet; the job is not done.

If the job isn’t done, it should be. And soon. There will certainly be violence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, but a U.S. troop presence is not going to prevent these horrific incidents and often serves as a pretext for them. The continued violence shouldn’t obscure one unalterable fact: the Iraqis must solve their internal security problems. That, in turn, will likely require them to also solve their political problems, something that they have so far refused to do.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and Doug Bandow have explained those calling for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq base their arguments on faulty logic that is devoid of serious considerations about strategic U.S. interests in the region. The most committed of the stay longer/forever crowd hopes our presence in Iraq will resemble that of U.S. troops in South Korea or Germany. But this isn’t only a false analogy; it is based on false premises about vital U.S. interests: namely, that the U.S. government, and U.S. taxpayers, should be responsible for the security of other countries.

Those who worry about us leaving too soon/ever shouldn’t fret too much, however. Regardless of what happens in the negotiations over an extension of the U.S. troop presence, the United States will still maintain a staff of 17,000 employees (including contractors) based out of the world’s largest embassy.

Through it all, President Obama has been relatively silent. He has claimed that we are “winding down” the nation’s wars, but the prospect of tens of thousands of Americans remaining in Iraq hardly constitutes an end-game there. And no one knows what sort of long-term presence the president has in mind for Afghanistan.

President Obama won the presidency due in part to his opposition to the Iraq war at a time when most other politicians were either supportive or silent. This stand allowed him to build credibility with the American people, despite his relative lack of foreign policy experience. While other so-called experts were calling for war, he was concerned that the Iraq war was likely to undermine American and regional security, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and claim many tens of thousands of lives. Tragically, he was correct.

The combat mission may have ended, but Americans are still dying in Iraq. It is time for the President and his administration to keep the promise of ending U.S. military involvement there, and hasten the day when Iraqis are fully responsible for their own affairs.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

The Incredible Expanding Afghan War

This simple chart dramatizes something that I don’t think most Americans realize: the tripling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by President Obama.

U.S. Troops in Afghanistan

Now it’s true that when candidate Barack Obama vowed, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009,” he was talking about Iraq. In July 2008 he suggested that he would send two more brigades – about 8000 troops – to Afghanistan. He has far exceeded that, and we can only wonder whether the voters who responded to his antiwar message anticipated that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by almost as much as he reduced the number in Iraq.

What War Does to Our Society

The Department of State recently released newly declassified documents covering U.S. policy toward Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from January 1973-July 1975. At a State Department conference commemorating the release of these documents, diplomat, strategist, and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger bemoaned the torment that consumed a generation of Americans as the conflict wore on. The insight Kissinger provides–possibly unintentional–underscores why assessments of war should go beyond critiques of its political and geostrategic ramifications; they should also extend to the various ways that war affects our society and public more generally.

In Kissinger’s somber assessment of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, he said he regrets that what should have been straightforward disagreements over the U.S. approach to Vietnam became “transmuted into a moral issue – first about the moral adequacy of American foreign policy altogether and then into the moral adequacy of America.”

He goes on to say, “To me, the tragedy of the Vietnam war was not that there were disagreements—that was inevitable, given the complexity of the (conflict)—but that the faith of Americans in each other became destroyed in the process.”

Kissinger called himself “absolutely unreconstructed” on that point.

“I believe that most of what went wrong in Vietnam we did to ourselves,” he said, adding, “I would have preferred another outcome—at least another outcome that was not so intimately related to the way that we tore ourselves apart.”

Disappointingly, much of what Mr. Kissinger said is true.

Certainly, much of the burdens associated with our foreign policies do not affect the average person; they are absorbed by America’s all-volunteer military. Still, wars and debates over wars have the power not only to tear our society apart, but also to destroy our faith in each other in the process. These factors are latent, ignored, and often misunderstood, but are detrimental to our country nonetheless.

In this respect, criticism of war should not end at an aversion to deficit spending. Certainly, increased public debt and diminished civil liberties are enduring, adverse effects of war. As writer Randolph Bourne famously declared during World War I, “War is the health of the state.”

But in addition to expanded government power, wars also become a template for regimentation in other areas of life. As we witnessed in the lead up to the war in Iraq, war can erode what should be the public’s normal propensity to question authority and lead to a herd mentality that demands blind obedience to state authority.

Over time, and through decades of continual foreign intervention, wars can radically alter our national character and transmogrify the spirit and moral temperament of our society. Sadly, such a perilous path could doom our nation to a fate that befell history’s other predominant great powers.

Check out the most recent volume of State Department reports on Vietnam. You won’t be disappointed.