Tag: Iraq

Who Failed to Stop the Iraq War?

With thanks to Mark Thompson at Time’s Battleland for calling this to my attention, the discussion yesterday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” concerning the decision to invade Iraq was more interesting than the others that I’ve seen or read. 

Host Howard Kurtz noted that editors at the New York Times had admitted to having “printed too many credulous claims about Saddam and Iraq.” Kurtz explained that Len Downie, then the editor of the Washington Post, had admitted “he had made a mistake of not putting more skeptical stories on the front page. Even the people who ran the news organizations seem to acknowledge that they had fallen short.” Given all this, Kurtz asked the panelists, “Didn’t most of the media…get rolled by the Bush administration during this run-up to war?”

The panel, which included Thompson, and Fred Francis, formerly with NBC, explained why the press got the story wrong: Saddam fooled a lot of people, including his own people and his neighbors. He fooled many people in the U.S. government, too.

But the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran properly looked past the distractions of phony Iraqi connections to 9/11 and Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear weapons. Chandrasekaran agreed with Kurtz that “there was far more that we all could have done. You could go to Iraq. I was in Iraq for the bulk of the six months leading up to the war. What you couldn’t really do is get an independent assessment of what Saddam really had.”

But, he continued:

it wasn’t just the issue of weapons of mass destruction. It was the broader questions. What is the political transition plan? Truth squadding the White House’s claims that Iraq could pay for it, the reconstruction of its country, the questions of the long simmering tensions between the principal religious and ethnic groups in the country. These were questions that were all easily reportable. They should have had more coverage. We didn’t do enough in really aggressively looking at all of that.

Chandrasekaran (who will be speaking at Cato in a few weeks) is right. The greatest argument against launching a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was what would come after him. The advocates for the war hyped the threat of Saddam’s weapons, and what he would do with them, to build a case for the benefits that would obtain from the war. We now know that they exaggerated these benefits because Saddam didn’t have nuclear weapons. But the claim that Saddam would use the weapons, or give them to terrorists, was also dubious, and was noted as such at the time (and well before) by some of the leading opponents of the war.

But the war hawks also downplayed the costs of invading Iraq by claiming that there would be no need for a long-term U.S. troop presence, and certainly not as large as Army leaders had estimated. They dismissed the overwhelming evidence that Iraq was beset by ethnic and sectarian divisions. Bill Kristol famously dismissed the notion that “somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni” as so much “pop sociology.” I suspect that they were aware of these divisions, because it would have been far harder to convince the American people to support a conflict if they knew that it was going to be long and costly, instead of the “cakewalk” that the war’s supporters claimed.

I cannot prove the war hawks knew the truth about Iraq and concealed it. I’m certain that they should have known. But they weren’t trying to stop a war; they were trying to start one.

And that is why those who should have known better and did not speak up, or who lent their credibility as experts to the side making the case for war, deserve special scorn on the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. They failed to stop the war. The news media’s coverage was inadequate and lazy. In retrospect they should have paid more attention to the vocal few who raised serious objections. But reporters cannot be blamed for not finding experts who did not speak publicly. Or at all.

That is where Colin Powell comes in. He is likely to be remembered for his crucial role in making the case for war at the United Nations on February 5, 2003. But Powell should also be remembered for his words of caution six months earlier, in August 2002.

It is known today as the Pottery Barn principle–“If you break it, you own it.” But what Powell actually said reflects a deep appreciation for the folly of regime change and preventive war: “You are going to be the proud owner of twenty-five million people,” Powell warned the president. “You will own all their hopes, aspirations, problems… . It’s going to suck the oxygen out of everything.”

We know about this exchange from Bob Woodward, and Powell was probably the veteran reporter’s source, so the words could be dismissed as self-serving, or simply invented after the fact. But they shouldn’t be. Because what Powell allegedly said to Bush then could just as easily have been said by Condoleezza Rice in 2007 with respect to war with Iran, or by Hillary Clinton in 2011 regarding Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or by John Kerry in response to North Korea’s latest antics today. And even if Powell never said them, the sentiment is spot on. I only wish he had said them in public.

Whenever reporters, scholars, academics–or anyone in the public at large, for that matter–hears someone making the case for preventive war, the Pottery Barn principle, Powell’s unspoken warning from a war that never should have happened, should be burned in their brain. I think that it is. And that explains why Bill Kristol’s modern-day Project for a New American Century has proved far less effective than its predecessor.

I sincerely wish that we didn’t have to suffer the loss of blood and treasure, the thousands of American dead, and tens of thousands wounded, to learn these lessons. But I especially hope that we’re not already forgetting them.

Republicans Go From Daddy Party to Baby Party

During the Cold War Republicans presented themselves as the Daddy Party, prepared to defend America in a dangerous world. They won an enduring electoral advantage on international issues. 

But the GOP lost that advantage with the end of the Cold War. The world is still dangerous, but not so much to America. Terrorism is a monstrous crime that frightens, but it does not pose an existential threat. And the United States far outranges any other power or group of powers militarily. 

The Republican Party has had trouble adjusting to the new world. Losing its automatic advantage on international issues has shifted the political battle further to economic and domestic issues. George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure further soured Americans on the GOP. Mitt Romney spent most of the campaign doing the Maori Haka in an unsuccessful attempt to portray Barack Obama as weak in foreign policy.  

The dishonest and immature campaign against secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel demonstrates that the Daddy Party has turned into the Baby Party. There are important defense issues that deserve serious debate. But the Republicans are not interested in conducting one. 

The vicious claims of anti-Semitism from some critics were risible, an attempt to foreclose discussion.  Much of the opposition was driven by politics rather than substance:  war-hawks like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) used Hagel’s confirmation hearing to posture rather than discuss serious defense issues. John McCain (R-AZ) spent most of his time attempting to vindicate his awful judgment in having supported the Iraq war, which left thousands of Americans dead and tens of thousands wounded, created carnage in Iraq, and empowered Iran. 

Even worse, though, Sen. McCain admitted that much of the angry opposition, which led Republicans to block a vote on Hagel’s nomination, was personal. Republicans were irritated that Hagel had the temerity to criticize President Bush, who did so much to ruin America’s fiscal future and strategic position. 

Reported the Huffington Post:

There’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly, at one point said he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense, and was anti his own party and people,” McCain said during a Thursday interview with Fox News. “You can disagree, but if you’re disagreeable, people don’t forget that.” 

At least McCain agreed that the filibuster would end, probably on February 26, when the next vote on Hagel’s nomination is scheduled. But the GOP has wrecked what little remained of its foreign policy reputation. The world may be in flames, but Republicans don’t care. They are upset that Chuck Hagel had the courage to break with neoconservative orthodoxy when it mattered. While he might not be as transformational a defense secretary as some of his supporters hope, he can be expected to bring a fresh and thoughtful perspective to a foreign policy which is largely brain dead. Most important, it would be good to have a Pentagon chief who understands why war truly should be a last resort.

The Neocons’ Fight over Chuck Hagel Moves to Act Two

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, after an excruciatingly long period of uncertainty and speculation, President Obama has demonstrated that he is disinclined to follow the advice of the neoconservatives who have been his harshest critics. Bill Kristol’s aggressive campaign to dissuade Obama from picking Hagel failed. Now the attention turns to a fight over his confirmation in the Senate. In the end, I believe he will be confirmed.

After all, such fights are rare. Presidents are generally granted wide latitude in picking members of their cabinet, and it is unlikely that many of the 55 Senators who caucus with the Democrats (including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will pick a fight with a just-re-elected Democratic president. Such a fight would erode Obama’s political capital, capital that he will need to push through his—and their—domestic agenda.

The remaining unknown, therefore, is whether the neoconservatives’ grip over the Republican Party has finally been broken. Kristol and the neocons will argue that Hagel should not be confirmed. Will Republicans, aside from the predictable voices in the Senate’s interventionist caucus, listen?

It is remarkable that the party continues to consult with the same people who championed the wars that have so tarnished the GOP’s once stellar brand. But consider the case against Hagel on its merits. Hagel is not a pacifist, and certainly not the dove that his critics have claimed he is. He remains firmly within the foreign policy mainstream in Washington, and has supported past wars that I have opposed. But his general inclination, hardened after the debacle of Iraq, is to avoid foreign crusades, and to resist pressure to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in pursuit of unclear objectives that do not advance U.S. interests. That is a mindset that the neoconservatives cannot abide.

But there are broader principles at play, including traditional deference to a president’s wishes with respect to nominees, a deference that is warranted when the person only serves at the discretion of the president (unlike, for example, judges who serve for life). Even conservative commentators who have questions about some of Hagel’s views, including George Will, have signaled that Hagel should be confirmed. Other respected foreign policy hands who came out in favor of Hagel before the nomination was announced include: Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni (and nine other retired senior military officers), nine former ambassadors, including Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker Daniel Kurtzer, and Thomas Pickering. In a separate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker reaffirmed the group’s support for the Hagel nomination, praising Hagel “as a person of integrity, courage and wisdom.” The neocons, therefore, by picking a fight over Hagel, have also taken on a distinguished roster of foreign policy experts. Republican senators wishing to put distance between the party and the neocons should be happy to confirm a nominee who shares their views on most issues, and who is supported by people who have not been so badly wrong, so often.

I don’t believe that Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel in order to humiliate the Republican Party. I don’t think he intended to shine the light on the bitter divide between the neoconservatives and traditional foreign policy realists. I think he picked Hagel because he likes him, and trusts him. But I agree with an anonymous Obama administration official about what the Hagel fight could mean for the GOP (via BuzzFeed): “If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out.”

Kill or Capture?

In the latest issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, I review Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. Although some hawkish critics smear President Obama as weak, bumbling, and easily manipulated by America’s enemies, Klaidman reveals how our “covert commander in chief” has tightened his grip over the secretive program of targeted killings and their expanded use into Somalia and Yemen, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has meanwhile claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial. On this issue in particular, as I conclude in my review:

The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.

 Check it out.

Democracy Versus Autocracy in Kuwait: Where Is Real Liberty?

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—This small Gulf nation was largely unknown in America before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded more than 20 years ago. The United States intervened to drive Iraqi forces out. Kuwaitis remain grateful to Americans and emphasize their friendship with the United States.

Although a monarchy, Kuwait has an elected parliament and a generally free media. It regularly invites foreign analysts and journalists to observe its elections. I am making my second trip this year.

Tremors from the Arab Spring are being felt here. The parliament elected in 2009 faced charges of corruption and lost popularity, and was dissolved at the beginning of the year. Elections were held in February.

All very democratic.

The new legislature was dominated by anti-government activists and, more important, Islamists. Top of the latter’s agenda was making Sharia the basis of all laws, imposing the death penalty for blasphemy, and closing Christian churches. Not very good for liberty.

The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said no to all three. Liberty was protected only because Kuwait was not a genuine parliamentary system where elections determine the government.

The constitutional court then reinstated the previous parliament on technical grounds—that it had not been properly dissolved. The members were no more popular than before and the body soon was properly dissolved. But the emir unilaterally changed the voting system from four votes to one vote per district—from which ten MPs are chosen. Public protests and a large-scale boycott ensued.

Nonetheless, the election was held on December 1. Turnout fell—to about 40 percent, compared to 60 percent in February—but the conduct of the poll received general praise from outside observers. The vote elevated a number of unknowns to parliament.

The government claimed success, but the opposition, which ranges from liberals to Islamists, organized 15 demonstrations involving thousands on Monday night. The police responded with force and injuries resulted. The opposition promised more protests, including a large rally promised for Saturday. The emir met with members of the royal family. My friend, political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra, told me that Kuwait was at a “political crossroads,” with the public determined to “deepen democratization.”

No one knows there this will end. The main opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak, until this election the longest-serving MP, emphasized the protestors’ commitment to the emir. He told me the situation in Kuwait was different than elsewhere in the Arab Spring: “We want to have an elected government. That does not mean we are against the ruling system.” However, the driving force behind the protests is the youth movement—an incredible 70 percent of the population is under 29. Some of them, at least, seem less than enamored with monarchical rule, with or without a parliament.

As the current political crisis—a word now used by some—plays out, Kuwaitis may find themselves with something closer to a popularly elected government. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that this may not make them freer.

What’s So Great about a Heavy Footprint?

I generally like David Sanger’s reporting. His recent books (The Inheritance and Confront and Conceal) provide an excellent overview of U.S. foreign policy, and his analysis of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s approach to world affairs, filed just before the two men faced off in their third and final debate, was one of the best that I had seen.

But I’m confused by this passage from his story in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to put American forces on the ground during the fight, and his decision to keep America’s diplomatic and C.I.A. presence minimal in post-Qaddafi Libya, may have helped lead the United States to miss signals and get caught unaware in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi.

We have had many tens of thousands of U.S. troops, and a sizable CIA presence, on the ground in Afghanistan for years, and that hasn’t stopped attacks on Americans. Ditto for the massive troop presence in Iraq, when we had one there. We have been caught unaware in other places where we have had a massive and long-standing presence on the ground; meanwhile, some places that boast no U.S. presence at all have been quiescent for decades.

In short, what happened in Benghazi is certainly a tragedy, and possibly an avoidable one, but that one instance hardly proves that a heavy footprint (i.e. sending U.S. ground troops into the middle of distant civil wars) should be the preferred option going forward.

The American people’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a broad, bipartisan desire to avoid future such wars, constrains the president’s options. And that is a good thing. If policymakers understand that they can’t accomplish ambitious goals with small numbers of troops on the ground—or with none at all—that should compel them to focus on more limited objectives, missions that advance U.S. security, and avoid those that do not.

On Veterans Day, Support the Troops by Scrutinizing the Missions

Today is a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day and we should all pause a moment to reflect on the sacrifices our veterans have made. But today is also an opportunity to reflect on the current state of civil-military relations. In today’s New York Times, Tom Ricks addresses this and notes:

[T]oday, politicians are so fearful of being accused of “criticizing our troops” that they fail to scrutinize the performance of those who lead them.

That is a serious problem.

But it goes beyond scrutiny of a military leader’s execution of a particular strategy, which does occur occasionally. More importantly, scrutiny from politicians and others should include hard questions about a given strategy’s likelihood of success, even if the execution is flawless.

Instead, whenever someone raises a point of clarification about how COIN is supposed to work in a country like Afghanistan, or even whether it worked as well as advertised in Iraq, that person risks being lumped together with reflexive critics of all things military.

An angry blogger will invoke MoveOn.org’s execrable General Betray-us ad, and – voila – the person trying to make a point about the wise deployment of strategic assets (and, yes, whether the particular mission in question is worth risking the lives of American soldiers in the first place) is portrayed as somehow hating the troops.

On the contrary, they value the troops more than those who harbor doubts but remain silent.

When politicians step out and ask serious questions, despite the certain counter-assault and character assassination, they deserve respect. It is, after all, their job. And when they duck that responsibility out of fear that a legion of angry bloggers will call them names, they deserve our scorn.