Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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Why George W. Bush thinks we invaded Iraq

In the latest issue of PS: Political Science and Politics, Richard Rose recounts his meeting -- along with a few other experts -- with George W. Bush in the Oval Office. The idea -- set up by Peter Feaver when he was at the NSC -- was for Bush to interact with experts on divided societies to see what lessons could be applied to Iraq.

It's entitled, "What Do You Tell the President in Three Minutes about Iraq?" I was a little surprised to see this section:

We were told to expect a wide-ranging and free-flowing discussion--and this forecast was accurate. After the President made several references to the importance of liberty, I reminded him that Isaiah Berlin was not only in favour of liberty but also of order. The place to talk about liberty was not in discussions about a land lacking order but when he next saw President Putin. When the conversation became too academic, the President even began leafing through a book of mine that I had given him that ends with a chapter about America's victory over Iraq in Kuwait, a victory that left his father riding the crest of a wave--after which there was only a one-way option down.

The President listened far more than he spoke and when he did it was to make simple points that many critics dodge, such as: We had to do something after 19 young people blew up 3,000 Americans. (emphasis added)

posted by Dan on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM


I was a tenetative war supporter, now with buyer's remorse. I remember the sense of believing that the Middle East was deeply screwed up, and 50 years of propping up dictators had brought us to this point. "Somehting" needed to be done to change the dynamic. I remember thinking of it as a conservative version of the great slum clearing projects of the 50s. I don't know why that analogy didn't raise more cautionary flags with me.

And that's not the only way that conservatives made old liberal mistakes. The urge to "do something", without thinking through the foreseeable and unintended consequences, without taking into account the organic complexity of any society, the belief in fixing the world through the agenecy of government.

Now the irony is that the mistakes with Iraq seem to be ushering in a new age of liberalism, where we will be berated with the need to "do something" for every media-generated crisis of the day.

posted by: Gadsden on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

What's surprising about that?

It's been said by a huge number of people that 9/11 made it impossible to ignore (Islamic) terrorism.

What the President said is only surprising if, for no good reason, you assume that he's connecting 9/11 with Iraq in the sense of "Iraq caused 9/11".

9/11, by the worldview the President has openly advocated (and which others share, and I have at very least great sympathy for), revealed the need to take not just action, but effective action against Islamic terrorism.

The stated (and, again, I think correct) means of doing so was to end the support of terrorism and terrorist groups by States. Iraq was undeniably a state supporter of terrorism (payments to suicide bombers, asylum for various famous terrorists, the Salman Pak training center, etc.), and thus an obvious target - despite having no connection to 9/11 directly.

posted by: Sigivald on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Here's the part that struck me, right after the part you quoted:

At one point he remarked he never wanted to be a war president. I looked at the busts of two great war leaders behind his chair, Churchill and Lincoln, and thought but did not say that Churchill had the far easier war, for it united his country and after six years ended in victory. By contrast. Lincoln fought a civil war at the cost of half a million lives in a country whose population was then little more than Iraq today. And the peace was lost because federal troops could not control the states that they occupied in a futile attempt to reconstruct the South.

At best, that's an incomplete statement. The "peace was lost" in the South due to declining public support by northern voters for Military Reconstruction and by short-term Republican electoral interests (namely, retaining the presidency after the corrupt 1876 election). When the north showed willingness to do what it needed to do to win the peace - as it did during Reconstruction and the Second Reconstruction during the 50s and 60s (aka the Civil Rights Movement) - it was generally successful in its goals.

I'm not saying that Iraq is a similar situation. But there's certainly more to the story, and potential analogy to Iraq, than Reconstruction being a "futile" strategy.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

"I was a little surprised to see this section"

Uh, why would you be surprised? Have you been asleep for the past 5 years? That's the same thing that Bush has been saying since 2001. Do you not recall what Bush said before the Iraq War?

"Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known. We will do everything in our power to make sure that that day never comes. (Applause.)

"Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option. (Applause.)"

Sometimes I just don't understand academics. It's like they are living in some kind of alternate universe.

posted by: A.S. on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

"We had to do something after 19 young people blew up 3,000 Americans."

Why doesn't the invasion of Afghanistan count as "doing something"?

posted by: arthur on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

"We had to do something after 19 young people blew up 3,000 Americans."

None of them were iraqi, btw.

posted by: Randy Paul on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

At the end of the article Rose says
"Only after leaving the Oval Office did I realize that my parable had been understood. The President asked me one question that no one else ever had: What would have happened had the British not sent troops into Northern Ireland in 1969? My answer about Ulster was simple: There would have been fighting and deaths but fewer people would have been killed before a new state was established"

What is his evidence for this? Surely it is obvious that the strife in Ulster would have spilt over to the south, could have led to a wider civil war, and would ultimately have involved significant ethnic cleansing and mass killings against the Catholic minority. Really, this statement just discredits Rose's entire point.

posted by: pt on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

It's clear that Sigivald's comment is pretty much on the mark - as terrifying as it is to see someone so calmly lay out madness.

What's quite odd, however, is that even when plainly stated with crisp clarity, it appears to be still surprising to people who are supposed to be experts at this stuff.

Which pretty much explains why we're in the mess we're in - and the many messes this administration is desperately trying to get us into.

Sigivald's world view has quite clear results that have been played out many times in history.

Pity that no one ever seems to learn the lesson.

posted by: Hal on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

You'd forget that almost all of the terrorists were actually Saudi!

There might be a more serious point you could make about dictatorships causing terrorism and hoping to start a domino effect through the region of democratisation- I suspect that is what Paul Wolfowitz would say- but the fact that Bush doesn't even make that argument and just says something about September 11th really doesn't inspire you with confidence.

posted by: Gracchi on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

The latest episode of Mr. Deity fully explains why Bush decided to invade Iraq.

Yes, Mr. Deity is back with all new episodes!

posted by: Martin on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

David Warren (in a piece bearing the publication date of September 18, 2001):

So the Americans will go into Afghanistan and Iraq at the least.

Paul Wolfowitz, in the interview with Sam Tanenhaus:

The most significant thing that has produced what is admittedly a fairly significant change in American policy is the events of September 11th which are going to count as one of the -- If you had to pick the ten most important foreign policy things for the United States over the last 100 years it would surely rank in the top ten if not number one. It's the reason why so much has changed, and people who refuse to look at that, for whatever reason, or are unwilling to face up to the implications of that then go around and look for some nefarious explanation.

Wolfowitz, recounting the meetings at Camp David the weekend immediately following 9/11:

There was a long discussion during the day about what place if any Iraq should have in a counterterrorist strategy. On the surface of the debate it at least appeared to be about not whether but when. There seemed to be a kind of agreement that yes it should be, but the disagreement was whether it should be in the immediate response or whether you should concentrate simply on Afghanistan first.

There was a sort of undertow in that discussion I think that was, the real issue was whether Iraq should be part of the strategy at all and whether we should have this large strategic objective which is getting governments out of the business of supporting terrorism, or whether we should simply go after bin Laden and al Qaeda.

To the extent it was a debate about tactics and timing, the President clearly came down on the side of Afghanistan first. To the extent it was a debate about strategy and what the larger goal was, it is at least clear with 20/20 hindsight that the President came down on the side of the larger goal.

Tom Wolfe:

I have sympathy with what George Bush is trying to do, although obviously the excursion [into Iraq] is not going well.”


I was sitting in my office when someone called to tell me two light planes had collided with the World Trade Centre. I turned on my television, before long there was this procession of people of all kinds, walking up the street. What I remember most was the silence of that crowd; there was no sound.

That day told us that here was a different kind of enemy. I honestly think that America and the Bush administration felt that something extreme had to be done.

Graham Allison (PDF)

[T]he magnitude of the consequences of even a single nuclear bomb exploding in just one U.S. city swamps differences in judgments about the likelihood of such an attack. A terrorist armed with one nuclear bomb could murder a million people--killing in one day twice as many American souls as died in both World Wars combined.

On a normal workday, half a million people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of New York City’s Times Square. If terrorists detonated a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon in the heart of midtown Manhattan, the blast would kill them all instantly. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire, and fallout in the hours and days thereafter.

The blast would instantly vaporize Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within half a mile of the point of detonation. Buildings three-quarters of a mile from ground zero would be fractured husks.

Lest this seem too hypothetical, recall an actual incident that occurred in New York City one month to the day after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A CIA agent, code-named Dragonfire, reported that Al Qaeda had acquired a live nuclear weapon produced by the former Soviet Union and had successfully smuggled it into New York City. A top-secret Nuclear Agency Support Team was dispatched to the city. Under a cloak of secrecy that excluded even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, these nuclear ninjas searched for the 10-kiloton bomb whose blast could have obliterated a significant portion of Manhattan.

That was the context of decision-making.

I visited the US for a month in November of 2001. It was my first visit in quite some time. During this visit, I met up in Georgetown with an old friend who was, at that time, a research fellow at Brookings. I remember asking him what he thought about the prospect of an invasion of Iraq. He said he thought it would risk "complete meltdown." His response was put in a way that suggested he was thinking of it as a highly hypothetical issue. I remember thinking, "okay, you're not a specialist in this particular region. But you're a research fellow at Brookings. How can you not know that this decision has already been effectively made? How can you be in your position and not know that this is a fait accompli, regardless of its desirability?"

posted by: Po MMI on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

This is strange phrasing 'nineteen young people'. As if the Sept 11 guys were the Phi Delta Theta pledge class at Boise State.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Just a side note, I would hope that he got permission to go on the record with this account of the conversation, since it appears that the invitation from Feaver was explicit about it being off-the-record.

posted by: Charlie on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

This is strange phrasing

As is "those folks who committed this act."

posted by: Po MMI on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Hal: Really? Which worldview do you propose is mine, exactly, and what specific history do you refer to?

Gracchi: Saudi citizenship seems rather irrelevant, given that we know that their group has plenty of non-Saudis in it.

What does their citizenship have to with which states support terror organizations? (And, yes, the Saudi government deserves some blame there; but arguably their funding is less direct than Hussein's was - and they're at least a nominal ally, rather than a declaredly hostile state, as Iraq was.)

Also, the President did mention "liberty", according to the quote, which one assumes might be related to democratization. It seems very odd to complain that he didn't mention democratization, when we have only a fragmentary report of an informal conversation (rather than a position speech) in which the President is said to have done mostly listening, does it not?

posted by: Sigivald on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

"Saudi citizenship seems rather irrelevant, given that we know that their group has plenty of non-Saudis in it."

Except the core of al-Qaida are Saudis and Egyptians. In fact, the CIA has picked up on chatter in the past that the minority of members not from these countries complain about Egyptians and Saudis receiving preferential treatment.

"And, yes, the Saudi government deserves some blame there; but arguably their funding is less direct than Hussein's was - and they're at least a nominal ally, rather than a declaredly hostile state, as Iraq was."

Are we at war with Hamas now or something? We have evidence of money going from members of the House of Saud to al-Qaida. However, Hussein's money went to the families of suicide bombers in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Are we supposed to be fighting Israel's fights for it? Are all bad Muslims part of some undifferentiated bloc in your mind?

posted by: Reality Man on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

Yes, Sigivald is absolutely right. I will say that it's not a question of academics, but people in general being willfully obtuse about what's an obvious point. Yes, of course Iraq is a few steps removed from 9/11. But the point is, you don't just react to immediate causes, not unless you're stupid. You perhaps think about how your actions might affect the long-term state of the world.

Now, it may or may not be that the president was wrong about it, and a lot of people who once agreed with this thinking have retroactively gone back to this obtuseness. But it's certainly not entirely unreasonable.

posted by: secretivek on 10.16.07 at 04:32 PM [permalink]

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