Went to the LA Press Club booksigning for ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ last night; and reminded myself why it is that I enjoy blogging so much – because it has offered me an opportunity meet (and argue heatedly with) all kinds of smart & interesting people. Steve Smith was there, as was Cathy Seipp, Rand Simberg, and a bunch of others I’d remember if I was getting more sleep these days. I had a great conversation with the local Le Monde correspondent about coming events in les banlieues, and I think we even managed to frighten birthday-girl Jill Stewart a bit.

Had one short discussion about why I was “Armed Liberal” with some boho Silverlake folks, and we touched on the war. Their core position was that the war was wrong to begin with, and now that we haven’t found warehouses full of WMD, the lies that were used in promoting the war were an issue as well.

I was in too good a mood to engage, and so we chatted about culture and other areas of mutual agreement, and then I went home and read the book for a while (comments to follow later, time permitting).

Then, today, I was in the doctor’s office (all good), and picked up a copy of the New Yorker. First, a great article about one of my favorite artists, Joseph Cornell. Then a new John McPhee article (he was the Langwiesche before Langwiesche). Then an article by Nicholas Lemann, no fan of the war, caught my attention.The article is called ‘After Iraq’, and is available here. A couple of quotes:

Has a war ever been as elaborately justified in advance as the coming war with Iraq? Because this war is not being undertaken in direct response to a single shattering event (it’s been nearly a year and a half since the September 11th attacks), and because the possibility of military action against Saddam Hussein has been Washington’s main preoccupation for the better part of a year, the case for war has grown so large and variegated that its very multiplicity has become a part of the case against it. In his State of the Union address, President Bush offered at least four justifications, none of them overlapping: the cruelty of Saddam against his own people; his flouting of treaties and United Nations Security Council resolutions; the military threat that he poses to his neighbors; and his ties to terrorists in general and to Al Qaeda in particular. In addition, Bush hinted at the possibility that Saddam might attack the United States or enable someone else to do so. There are so many reasons for going to war floating around at least some of which, taken alone, either are nothing new or do not seem to point to Iraq specifically as the obvious place to wage it that those inclined to suspect the motives of the Administration have plenty of material with which to argue that it is being disingenuous. So, along with all the stated reasons, there is a brisk secondary traffic in “real” reasons, which are similarly numerous and do not overlap: the country is going to war because of a desire to control Iraqi oil, or to help Israel, or to avenge Saddam’s 1993 assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.

Yet another argument for war, which has emerged during the last few months, is that removing Saddam could help bring about a wholesale change for the better in the political, cultural, and economic climate of the Arab Middle East. To give one of many possible examples, Fouad Ajami, an expert on the Arab world who is highly respected inside the Bush Administration, proposes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the United States might lead “a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond Iraq lies an Arab political and economic tradition and a culture whose agonies have been on cruel display.” The Administration’s main public proponent of this view is Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, who often speaks about the possibility that war in Iraq could help bring democracy to the Arab Middle East. President Bush appeared to be making the same point in the State of the Union address when he remarked that “all people have a right to choose their own government, and determine their own destiny and the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom.”

Even those suffering from justification fatigue ought to pay special attention to this one, because it goes beyond the category of reasons offered in support of a course of action that has already been decided upon and set in motion. Unlike the other justifications, it is both a reason for war and a plan for the future.

I asked Feith whether an American military victory in Iraq could help curb terrorism by organizations like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which operate with the support of other countries in the region. He nodded. “One of the principal strategic thoughts underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism is the importance of the connection between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors,” he said. “Terrorist organizations cannot be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don’t have support from states. They need a base of operations. They need other types of assets that they get from their connection with their state sponsors whether it’s funding, or headquarters, or, in some cases, the use of diplomatic pouches and other types of facilities. And one of the principal reasons that we are focussed on Iraq as a threat to us and to our interests is because we are focussed on this connection between three things: terrorist organizations, state sponsors, and weapons of mass destruction. If we were to take military action and vindicate our principles, in the war on terrorism, against Iraq, I think it would” he paused, looking for the right word “register with other countries around the world that are sponsoring terrorism, and would perhaps change their own cost-benefit calculations about their role in connection with terrorist networks. I think this process got under way with Afghanistan. There you had a regime that was ousted because of its support for terrorist operations against the United States. If the Iraqi regime gets ousted because it ultimately proves unwilling to disarm itself in a coöperative fashion with the U.N., and if the United States leads a coalition and overthrows that government, I think that the combination of those two actions will influence the thinking of other states about how advisable it is for them to continue to provide safe harbor or other types of support to terrorist organizations.”

Because they’d think they might be ousted next? “Perhaps,” Feith said. “Or just because I think that we may be on the way to creating a new international way of thinking, a new international norm, about terrorism. If you look at the national-security-strategy document that the White House put out, it says that our goal is to make terrorism like piracy, the slave trade, or genocide in the minds of people around the world. It is to delegitimate terrorism as an activity, as a practice. This can’t be done solely by military means, but it is interesting how military action sometimes reinforces philosophical messages.”

A few things should be said about this vision of the near-term future in the Middle East. It is breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic. It might plausibly be described as a spreading of democracy but, perhaps more important, it would also involve, as the “Clean Break” paper said, forcefully altering the regional balance of power. And it differs greatly from the vision of the future of the Middle East that will prevail among liberals, both here and abroad, after the war in Iraq. It treats Pan-Arab nationalism as illegitimate. It does not accept the widespread assumption that no regional good can follow the fall of Saddam unless peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority begin immediately. And it sees the fall of Saddam Hussein less as the end of a great diplomatic and military effort than as a step in an ongoing process.

Honestly, I hadn’t read this article until today; many of the sources for it have written things that informed my own thinking on Iraq (which happens to line up almost exactly with the position described in the article); and I bring the article up today, not to pat my head and remind everyone how smart my rationales for the war were.

I do it because the article was published in the New Yorker in February of 2003 – well before the war; and it suggests that there was a lively public dialog around the reasons for the war that went far beyond WMD – a position that many of my colleagues don’t accept.

We live in an era of data overload, where too much data about too many things is available, and readily searchable backward in time. That presents a problem, in some ways, because it means that our ability to set and keep memories is somehow weakened and that it’s all too easy to go back and remake them.

In the torrent of discussion and argument about the war, WMD certainly played a significant role – but my waiting-room discovery today should remind us that it was not the only one.

26 thoughts on “Rationalization”

  1. Good article, pretty objective, and proof positive that the “it was all about WMDs” argument is ex post re-interpretationism by anti-American/Anti-Bush zealots.

    Thanks for the find AL. And I suggest you check out the link i left in your last post before this one. Good stuff.

  2. Great post!

    Just two days ago I posted over at Calpundit how tired I was hearing people say that there was no debate over going to war with Iraq.

    Calpundit has gone way down in my opinion.

  3. A.L.,

    Those who are against the war on Iraq today after our conquest are against it for reasons of personal identity, not any real issues of policy.

    It is “Stop The World, I Wanna Get Off!” all the flippin’ way.

    For good or for ill, Leftism and left of center liberalism is purely a reactionary force in the world today.

  4. Trent’s statement that “Leftism and left of center liberalism is purely a reactionary force in the world today” is both true and lamentable. I would also add that you don’t have to look to a grand master plan for democratization of the Middle East to discover a human rights rationale in U.S. policy. The very way in which the U.S. conducted its military intervention in Iraq reflected a great concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, and there is no reason to believe that the U.S. would have wished to promote anything other than a liberal democratic regime in Iraq whether pre- or post- 9/11. It is also very much overlooked in all of the WMD obsession that the U.S. and U.K. established and maintained no-fly zones in Iraq for a decade for the express purpose of protecting the civilian populations and promoting in the Kurdish north the beginnings of a liberal order. That had not little to do with WMD, let alone blood for oil.

  5. Fascinating.

    I was tucked away in Siberia (no, really, I was. It was very cold.) so I missed most of the debate that was obviously flying around during the buildup to war. I always knew that people were discussing the other benefits of regime change in Iraq beyond the WMD issue, but never really sure how much it amounted to.

    I’m still very uneasy about the war in Iraq though. (I won’t go so far as to say opposed). The fear that Iraq had WMDs was undoubtedly one of the major pillars on which the decision to go to war rested, and it has pretty much turned out to be an unfounded fear. There were some pretty spectacular misjudgements throughout the world’s intelligence community (including Russia & France), which bring into question the whole doctrine of pre-emption for me. I guess I view pre-emption in much the same way I do the death penalty – fine in theory, but not so good in practice. Neither can be justified without 100% proof, and the WMD intelligence failure shows how unreliable proof can be. It is just not acceptable to say, ‘sorry, we screwed up’ after executing someone, and it is equally unacceptable to say the same after invading a country and killing thousands of civilian bystanders in the process.

    And, even if we accept that the other motivations (freeing Iraqis and bringing deomocracy to the region) were pure, I’m still not entirely convinced that a war was the best way to achieve those aims. Not just because of the horrific death toll (yes,I know more people *could* have died under Saddam’s tender care), but the bad will it has caused throughout the world. Overall, I think the war in Iraq may well turn out to have set back the cause of democracy more than we realise, by discrediting the United States and its cause (rightly or wrongly) in the eyes of many throughout the world.

  6. A.L.

    It is a excellent point you make. It is difficult the keep accurate track of memories. I think there are a number of things that ‘help’ people reinterpret events.

    As you point out, there is a wealth of information available and if one seeks to build a case by selectively searching through the available information it is easy to make a compelling argument for just about any position. It is easy, all you need to do is ignore evidence that is contrary to your thesis and the remainder is compelling evidence.

    IMO, political discourse is, more often than not, dominated by rhetoric and polarizing antics. This serves to limit the number of views that people are willing to examine critically.

    People are simple. People like problems in neat single issue packages. The war was wrong/right, the war was about oil or not about oil, it was this or it was exactly not this. Real world problems are complicated. Rather than accept their complexity many people will seek simple solutions.

    Duality rules. Not only do many people like the duality of simple problems there is the ever-present assumption that there is a ‘right’ answer and that anything other than the right answer is the wrong answer. Real problems don’t come like this. For some problems there is no good solution. There are just different solutions with their own unique bad consequences.

    What I like about WOC is that, you, Joe and others here do a good job of looking at the issue from a number of perspectives and look critically at issues that may not agree with your positions.

    You’re wrong of course (grin) but at least you _think_ about the issues.

  7. A.L.,

    The vast majority of Democratic activists and politicians move the goal posts after a debate, aka play straw man games, as well as during the debate. Specifically they claim, after a debate, that the other side said something during the debate that they wish, based on events occurring afterwards, the other side had said during the debate. That makes it much easier for them to contend afterwards that they were right all along, and that the other side lied.

    There is no real purpose to discussions with such people. They use _everything_ as a vehicle for their fantasies.

  8. It should be noted Tom, that members of the right do the same thing as well. But the “Left” has taken it to a whole new level this time around.

    AL, I should have figured you would be an Atlantic reader…

    and Trent, the whole notion of the “Left” being reactionary brings into question our whole concept of the political spectrum. Perhaps it is time to re-organize it…

  9. FH,

    It’s breadth as well as depth. I’m saying that the clear majority of Democratic party activists and national figures are doing this.

  10. SiberianLight wrote:
    “I guess I view pre-emption in much the same way I do the death penalty – fine in theory, but not so good in practice. Neither can be justified without 100% proof, and the WMD intelligence failure shows how unreliable proof can be. It is just not acceptable to say, ‘sorry, we screwed up’ after executing someone, and it is equally unacceptable to say the same after invading a country and killing thousands of civilian bystanders in the process.”

    Unfortunately, the alternative to pre-emption based on less than perfect evidence seems to be waiting until some action has been taken, then reacting to it. The problem with that as I see it is, in an age of increasing proliferation of WMD, waiting until something happens may well mean sacrificing an entire U.S. city, if not more.

    It sounds like we’re back to a repeat of the MAD doctrine from the Cold War – we won’t use our WMD if you don’t use yours – with the difference that our opponents in this war (Islamist fascists) are apparently undeterrable, if the fanaticism behind 9-11 is any indication of their intention to act.

    Given the revelations now coming from Libya of the freeflow of WMD knowledge and hardware, it also appears that the doctrine and system of nonproliferation has failed badly. If deterrence is out and nonproliferation a failure, what are the alternatives available to pre-emption whenever a threat is indicated?

  11. Excellent interpretation and writing, AL.

    Can somebody spread this widely? Lots of people on all sides need to broaden their focus.

    And thanks for the ‘John McPhee = Langwiesche before Langwiesche’. Great insight.

  12. A.L., I certainly agree that some members of the Administration, especially the Wolfowitz-Feith-PNAC crowd, had motives for the Iraq War that ranged far from WMD. Some of these ideas, e.g., bringing a more enlightened standard of government to the Arab Middle East, were admirable at least in intent, although deficient in feasibility analysis and execution (President Chalabi?—now waxing fat on US taxpayer money.).

    The post, like the underlying article, fails to come to grips with the real importance of WMD in the run-up to war: without the WMD argument, the other arguments in favor of the war (no matter how appealing you or even I find them) would not have persuaded Congress and a sufficient percentage of American people to support the war.

  13. Andrew, with due respect, that’s absurd.

    Actually, it’s absurd on two counts; first in making what I read as an implicit judgement that postwar Iraq is a failure – it’s obviously far too soon to tell – and secondarily in arguing that had the arguments been different in a specific the outcomes would have changed.

    That’s inherently unfalsifiable…we can’t rerun the debate and see how it comes out, so we’re left with assertions from interested parties who claim that if only the refs had called this one play differently, we would have won the game.

    Doesn’t hunt.

    And let’s not forget that there were reasonable contemporaneous concerns about WMD, and we should be judging based on the *data at hand at the time*.


  14. I believe the WMD argument was not essential to Bush’s case–when argued before the American people directly, or before the Congress. As I see it, the “proof” of this belief lies in the number of American interventions abroad that were not predicated on proliferation premises. However, since we can’t rerun history to verify this point, it remains unprovable, as A.L. said.

    Bush’s arguments before the U.N. are a different kettle of fish. I do not believe that Resolution 1441 would have been passed unanimously (or even successfully) by the Security Council without the WMD issues holding center stage. The foundation of the Security Council are the permanent members, and one of the original descriptive criteria of the permanent members was their status as the sole recognized nuclear powers. Theoretically, the “nuclear club” has an interest in keeping the club closed to new members, so nuclear non-proliferation should be a public point of agreement between states with substantially disparate interests. Bush’s only real card in the U.N. was to point out this common interest–human rights would have never worked, for instance, because China would never allow that to be used as a basis for military intervention.

    My own theory is that the WMD issue got as much play as it did because Bush wanted Blair’s support, and Blair needed the U.N. in order to get popular support in Britain. Since WMD was the only argument with a chance of working in the U.N. Security Council, it had to be pushed in order to solidify British support for Blair.

  15. Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists too. More than most artists his works have to be experienced in person.

    Sam, great summary of the reasons for making WMDs the central argument to the UN.

  16. A.L., or others, do you know where one can find a list of past New Yorker “Fact” articles online? Seems like they have a nice on-going collection concerning the war; I wasn’t smart enough to note them all when they were published.

    SiberianLight, I enjoyed your post.

  17. Obviously we can’t create an alternate universe to delete WMD from the Administraton’s case for war to test my claim that it was a sine qua non for Congressional approval.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely.

    When Colin Powell gave his Power Point presentation to the UN, it was all about WMD. AFAIK, not a single one of his slides has turned out correct.

    When President Bush gave the 2003 SOTU address, WMD figured very, very prominently in the reasons given for the impending war. Somehow he even included a terrifying threat, fortunately based on a total forgery, about an imminent nuclear program that got in by accident. He doesn’t mention any reason other than WMD and alleged defiance of UN Resolutions prohibiting Saddam from development of WMD. Nothing about democracy promotion. Only passing mention of Saddam’s brutality, and that only in the context of his use of WMD on his own citizens. Click the link. Tell me honestly how much is left of the anti-Iraq jeremiad once WMD material is removed. About one period and two commas.

    Before the Congressional vote, the Administration went so far as to tell Congressional leaders in secret that Saddam had even greater capabilities than publically known: he could already deliver CW to the Atlantic Coast of the USA.

    Although of course the Administration gave a laundry list of reasons (some of which are good, just not IMHO good enough), in every recitation the WMD took pride of place. You are projecting the fact that you and Thomas Friedman and the neoconservatives found the other reasons ample onto the American public and the Congress. All the evidence suggests that the Administration’s fears it could not sell the war of choice it wanted for so many reasons (including such ignoble ones as splitting the Democratic Party in twain on the eve of midterm elections), and converted it into a war of necessity.

  18. I was reading Salam Pax’s blog today. In his Feb 12th post he talks about the US decision to go to war in Iraq. I’d just like to quote a small part of it, because it made me think of ALs comments about memory.

    Salam said:

    “What the US administration didn’t put in those records and documents was the extent of its own involvement in building up this monster and now that he has grown bigger than they thought he could they thought it was time to get rid of him.”

    Armed Liberal said:

    “our ability to set and keep memories is somehow weakened and that it’s all too easy to go back and remake them.”

    Of course, whatever role the US had in building up Saddam in no way changes the terms of debate about whether it was right or wrong to go to war. The decision has to be taken based on what the situation is at the time.

    But still, always worth dredging through the collective memory, I think. Might make us think a little about the possible long-term consequences of propping up today’s dictators. Dealing with Musharraf today may have no adverse consequences in the long-term. But he, or his successors may just turn out to be America’s next bogeymen.

  19. SiberianLight,
    I mostly enjoy your perspective, but the assumption that the US had a major role in arming Saddam doesn’t seem to be reflection in this post:


    (type or copy, if you need to). Granted the quality or importance of US military assistance may outweigh the adjusted dollar figure, but it is paltry compared to that of others, especially our ally, France.

    More importantly, as in the context of the Cold War, during the conduct of this war (yes, the question for Democrats-is this really a war?), there will be some rather realistic and painful choices to be made. Check out the later post by Joe on moods-it has implications for current thinking as well as my use of “memory” and how much effort I make in informing or correcting it.

    With respect to WMD, it seems to me that the missing “huge stockpiles” is not proof that they were destroyed. The interim Kay report contained plenty of evidence worthy of worry and attention. The related Libian revelation shows clearly how effective the Hans Blix-era (and style) IAEA was, but that was an NGO of a different time and in a different universe (and still is), so go figure…

  20. Wow, two compliments in one day. This is going to go to my head! Thankyou. Feel free to check out my weblog, which is linked at the end of this comment, if you want to read more of my inane ramblings.

    Anyway, to business…

    Richard – thanks for the post about arms exports to Iraq. Its interesting to see some hard and fast figures on the subject. There are a couple of observations I would make about it though.

    Firstly, the figures there are for military imports made by Iraq. Many of these would have been paid for in full. I notice that Brazil is quite high up the list, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t really a major military aid donor during the Cold War! I’m sure a lot of the sales, especially those from the Soviet bloc, were on very very very generous terms though.

    Second, military aid is not the only part of supporting or building up a regime. Development aid is also critical, and I would imagine that US development aid to Iraq was far larger than its direct military aid. (Sorry – I couldn’t find any figures to back this up in my quick google search. Everything seems to be about post-war reconstruction and I’m too lazy to search hard on a Sunday morning!) Throughout the Cold War, money given for development aid was systematically syphoned off by dictators, either for their own personal bank accounts, or to develop their militaries. This was often done with the tacit acceptance of donor countries (Communist and Capitalist alike). The US was also keen on exporting ‘dual-use’ technologies, which probably wouldn’t show up on this table.

    More generally, you are right to say that, as during the cold war, there are hard choices to be made. The US is in a war, although I would categorically oppose anyone who confuses the war on terror with a war on Islam generally, as some people seem to be doing. The point of my earlier comment was not necessarily to say that we shouldn’t be propping up Musharraf. It was to point out that we should always consider such undertakings very very carefully, with an eye to the outcome over the longer term as well as the short term.

    And, as for WMDs, you are right – we can’t at this stage say for certain that the stockpiles were destroyed. For all we know, there may be a massive stash buried in some out of the way location. But, lets face it, the chances are slim.

  21. Weaponized biologicals are neither massive nor bulky. References to “massive stockpiles” have meaning only concerning chemical weapons used by military forces in war.

    You might as well talk about terrorists having massive stockpiles of explosives.

  22. Loose choice of words on my part, sorry. By massive stockpile I was referring to a politically significant find, a stockpile of weapons that could do massive damage. Not their physical size.

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