The Iraq War And The Failure Of The U.S. Political Establishment
Mar 22, 2013Posted by Gregory Aftandilian
There have been many 10-year reflection pieces written about the Iraq war this month, some by the policy participants and some by the war's critics. Much of the discussion, naturally enough, has centered on the lack of WMD (weapons of mass destruction), because Saddam's purported stockpile of these weapons was the main stated reason for going to war. Other writers have focused on the expenditure in blood and treasure (the sad number of U.S. and Iraqi dead and wounded, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the costs of the war, and the mismanagement, waste and abuse of Iraqi reconstruction funds). What is generally lost in these discussions, however, is the failure of the U.S. political establishment to come to terms with the lack of foresight and courage to have adequately challenged the Bush Administration in its successful attempt to sell the U.S. Congress and the American people a very shoddy and ideologically-driven analysis of why the war was necessary and what to expect during the occupation.
First is the WMD issue. When no WMD was found, President Bush and his advisers repeatedly fell back on the argument that all of the major intelligence agencies in the world believed Saddam Hussein did indeed have them. Even if one accepts this premise (and much of it was based on dubious sources who should have been vetted more rigorously), the key question was why Saddam Hussein would use WMD against the United States knowing full well that if he did, the United States would obliterate Iraq? In early 1991, shortly before the start of Desert Storm, the senior leadership of the George H.W. Bush administration stated publicly that if Saddam Hussein used WMD against our troops, the United States would not hesitate to use everything in its arsenal (implying nuclear arms) against Iraq. Saddam, who did have WMD in 1991, understood the ramifications of this message and did not unleash these weapons (such as the chemical weapons at his disposal). If he didn't use such weapons in 1991 when he clearly had them, why would he supposedly do so in 2003?
Second is the analysis of Saddam Hussein himself. The U.S. government had known Saddam for decades (witness the photograph of a grinning Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam in the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq war) and, of course, knew his biography. Saddam was a classic mobster-type. He started out in life as a hitman for the Baath party and was forced to flee to Egypt after he bungled the assassination attempt against Iraqi leader Qasem. Saddam was out for power and for the aggrandizement of power, but he was not irrational. He certainly miscalculated by invading Kuwait in 1990, but miscalculation is different than irrationality. President George W. Bush, in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, put out the line that Saddam would give WMD to terrorists who would then use such weapons against the United States. The key questions here were: what was the evidence that Saddam Hussein would do so? Had he ever given WMD to terrorists? The answer was clearly, no. Saddam undoubtedly understood that giving WMD to terrorists would amount to the same thing as Iraq using WMD against the United States. There would be a very good chance that the United States would be able to trace such weapons and their hand-over from Iraq to the terrorists, and Saddam would not want to take that risk that would likely result in Iraq's obliteration. The supposed meeting in Prague between the 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence agents, which the Bush team highlighted, never took place.
Third, the occupation of Iraq was sold to Congress and the American people as something that would be cheap and easy, and the Bush team famously touted the idea of the United States being greeted as "liberators." While many, if not most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam fall from power, occupation was another matter and has always been problematic, particularly by a Western power taking over an Arab and Muslim state. Any college student taking history 101 of the modern Middle East can tell you that the Iraqis would soon come to see us as a colonial power with ulterior motives. All one needed to do was to look at the British occupation of Iraq after World War I to understand this dynamic. One of the insurgent groups post-2003 even took on the name of "The 1920 Brigades" to make this historical connection. Moreover, the United States, through the invasion of 2003, would be upsetting Iraq’s social system. Saddam favored the Sunnis over the Shia, and the latter used the invasion to reverse this power equation, helping to prompt a Sunni insurgency, while the Kurds were more than happy to consolidate their mini-state in the northern part of the country. There were many Middle East experts in our government and in academia who predicted these outcomes but they were shunted aside and ignored by President Bush's team of advisors. The key questions here were: why wouldn't the Iraqis, or at least a significant segment of them, come to view us as colonial occupiers? Would an American-led effort be viewed any differently than the British in the 1920s?
While the American people can be forgiven for not asking these tough questions (most of whom had faith that our government in the post 9/11 environment would do the right thing), members of Congress should not be given a free pass. Only 23 members of the Senate (22 Democrats and 1 Republican), for example, voted against the Iraq war resolution in October 2002 that was pushed by Bush political operative Karl Rove to put Democrats in a bind only a month before mid-term elections. Sadly, the vast majority of Republicans willingly went along with the Bush administration while most Democrats, fearful of being viewed as "soft on defense" or "not being concerned about the protection of the United States," caved in and voted for the war resolution. Very few members of Congress had the courage to stand up to this steamroll and ask the necessary questions mentioned above, and very few asked outside experts for their advice. In short, the system of checks and balances that our founding fathers put in place in the Constitution broke down. It is the role of Congress not only to legislate but to act as a brake on the executive branch when needed. Only by asking the tough but necessary questions and scrutinizing the executive branch's plans for such a major decision as taking our country into war can Congress do its job properly.
Some commentators have written that in the post-9/11 world, a different paradigm engulfed Washington and the tolerance of dictators possessing WMD was no longer tenable. This line, however, was pushed by the Bush administration, and it was the duty of Congress to challenge it. While most of the blame for the Iraq war has been rightly placed on the Bush administration, much of Congress is culpable as well. It was clearly not the U.S. political establishment's finest hour. One would hope that Congress has learned a hard lesson from this war.The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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