Damon Linker has a new column about Jeb Bush and the Iraq War that really should be several columns – it goes in so many fruitful directions, but isn’t able fully to explore any of them. But that’s the nice thing about having an old-school blog – I can spend as much space as I like exploring whatever I wish.
The first potential column is about how Jeb Bush will have a hard time addressing the Iraq War:
[The Iraq War] remains very unpopular outside the fever swamps of the far right, so defending the decision to launch it could be a kiss of death in the general election. Calling it a mistake, on the other hand, would be viewed as a swipe at his brother, which would risk looking peevish and threaten to ignite a GOP civil war.
I have no idea how Jeb will finagle the issue. (Judging by his statements so far, he’ll try to have it both ways by asserting he’s his “own man” while hiring a bunch of retreads from his brother’s old neocon-ish foreign policy team.)
I actually think this is going to be much easier than Linker thinks. Bush doesn’t need to come out full-throatedly in favor of or against the Iraq War to win the GOP primary. He can just say that his brother was somewhat naive about how tenacious our enemies would be, and hence the first couple of years after the invasion went really badly. But by the end of his term he had won the war that Obama then lost. This appears to be exactly what Republican primary voters want to hear: they don’t want to re-litigate that war, but rather to frame any discussion about that war in the context of where they want to go from here, which is toward crushing ISIS mercilessly.
In the general election, then, he will face a candidate – Clinton – who supported the Iraq War wholeheartedly, and the Libyan war, and pushed for direct intervention in Syria. So Bush will not have to do any “defending” of the decision to invade Iraq. On the contrary – he’ll be able to go on the offensive with respect to more recent foreign policy failures. Clinton, after all, has a track record. Jeb Bush does not. It’s just a depressing fact that so long as there are two solid hawks up there on stage, we will not get a meaningful foreign policy debate in the general election.
That’s why we badly need a peace candidate in the race. But I only grow firmer in my conviction that there isn’t really a constituency for one.
Linker’s second potential column is about how, to-date, we’ve re-litigated the Iraq War the wrong way:
Ever since it became clear in the first months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, the Iraq War debate has focused on intelligence failures and how the administration of George W. Bush (aided and abetted by mainstream media outlets) supposedly misled the public into supporting the war.
This has always been a distraction and a misconstrual of the state of the argument prior to the invasion.
The fact is that just about every intelligence agency in the world (and not just the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans) believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs. The debate hinged on whether these weapons constituted a threat sufficiently large enough to justify toppling Hussein. I came down firmly on the side of No, along with Barack Obama, Pat Buchanan, Dominque de Villepin, and a few staffers at The Nation. (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Or so it felt at the time.)
This is a hugely important point, but one that substantially undercuts his first potential column. We’ve re-litigated Iraq this way precisely because it is very comfortable ground for hawks. And that’s exactly why the question “well, if Iraq really did have WMD, would the invasion have been justified then?” will not be asked in 2016.
We know that because we’re actively debating the Iranian nuclear program, and how we should deal with it, right now. That program is a known fact. We don’t know whether the Iranians intend to build a bomb, but it is reasonable to assume that the goal of the program is to make the country nuclear-capable. From the perspective of the hawks, the goal of diplomacy is to prevent that outcome – and if we can’t prevent that outcome through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions, we have to be prepared to use force in the “last resort.” Of course, that threat itself shapes the contours of diplomacy in ways that may prevent diplomacy’s success.
To make the contrary case, the case for ruling out the use of force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, you have to make the case that war would be worse than allowing Iran to succeed. That doesn’t mean giving up – there are other carrots and sticks that can be deployed to, hopefully, find a middle ground that allows Iran to say it is developing a nuclear capability while allowing the rest of the international community to say that it has proper safeguards in place to prevent Iran from easily “breaking out” and building nuclear weapons – and that provides proper incentives (positive as well as negative) for Iran to want to remain a non-nuclear state. But it means recognizing that the hawks might be right about Iran’s intentions with respect to its nuclear program – that it intends to get a bomb eventually one way or another – and concluding that preemptive war is still not worth it.
That’s not a case that anybody running in the general election in 2016 is likely to make – including Rand Paul in the unlikely event he gets the GOP nod.
Linker’s third potential column is about what really motivated going into Iraq:
Immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, there seemed to be a realization on the part of some in the foreign policy establishment both inside and outside the Bush administration that the events of that morning signaled something new: sub-state actors could declare war and inflict levels of harm we formerly assumed only a state could accomplish.
That’s what was going to make the War on Terror different. After Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be waged against states. It would target sub-state actors within states — usually states too weak to combat terrorists operating within their borders. This meant the war would be largely covert, with victories unheralded and defeats unannounced. Its signature would be special-ops raids, surgical missile strikes, and drone warfare.
But as we had already learned by the summer of 2002, when planning for the invasion of Iraq really got rolling, this new kind of war could be frustrating. It didn’t produce enormous casualties, like traditional land wars often do, but it also produced little glory. Victory was muddy, indeterminate. The war’s governing mood was ambivalence. The enemy could easily melt away into obscurity only to crop up in another country thousands of miles away. It could be maddening, like a global game of Whack-a-Mole.
And that, more than anything else, is why we found it so tempting to declare war on a country. Finally something familiar! Something satisfying!
Except that the Iraq War wasn’t just a distraction. It actively set back the War on Terror by creating a new failed state, right under our noses, where Islamist terrorism could breed. (As everyone now knows, the Islamic State was incubated in the chaos of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.)
There are several problems with this chronology – starting with the fact that the planning for the Iraq War began in the 1990s, with support from both parties, and that a big part of the motivation for the Iraq War was that the Persian Gulf War – a classic war between states – had such an “unsatisfying” outcome.
Linker suggests that we invaded Iraq because that fit our “Cold War” mindset, a mindset we were more comfortable with than we were with the ambiguous War on Terror. But this is highly problematic. The Soviet Union itself was only intermittently seen as simply a state in a world of states; at least as often – and almost exclusively if we’re talking about the American right – it was viewed as the head, or, better, the lead instrument, of a transnational, ideological force known as Communism. And many of the conflicts of the Cold War were fought not between but within states. The Soviet Union supported revolutionary movements around the world; the United States sponsored counter-revolutionary forces, including coups (Iran, Chile, Guatemala, etc.) and, by the 1980s, insurgencies (Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc.).
More importantly, of the three largest inter-state conflicts of the period – Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – two resulted in total defeat for the more directly-engaged superpower, and one resulted in a bloody and painful stalemate. There’s a reason why many Americans, particularly but not exclusively on the right, were never comfortable with the Cold War – precisely because it was “unsatisfying” in all the ways that Linker describes the War on Terror as being.
These problems reading the past lead Linker to a questionable conclusion:
Barack Obama seemed to understand all of this. He strongly opposed the Iraq War and as president quickly returned the War on Terror to its original strategy of employing mainly covert ops and drone strikes.
And yet, as if to prove that he could be just as foolish as George W. Bush, Obama repeated his predecessor’s mistake when he approved air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. This time it wasn’t fear that tempted a president to act. Obama’s a Democrat, after all, so he was motivated by a bleeding heart — by the humanitarian imperative to protect the rebellious civilians of Benghazi against the Libyan air force.
And it worked. Until it didn’t.
Just like in Baghdad.
The problem here is not the analysis of Libya (I can quibble over how “humanitarian” the motives really were, but that would truly be a quibble), but the implicit argument that President Obama got the War on Terror “right” prior to or apart from Libya. The evidence from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, west Africa and elsewhere is at best equivocal on that point. Covert ops and drone strikes have indeed killed lots of bad guys. It’s not obvious that we are making “progress” though.
This, of course, is Linker’s point about the War on Terror being ambiguous, without clear metrics for victory, etc. But, as with the Iranian nuclear program, if we really want to have a debate about this question, we have to ask not only what means are more successful and what are more counterproductive, but how we respond if all options present a real likelihood of further destabilization.
Linker’s ultimate conclusion – that someone needs to stand up for the devils we know (Assad, Qaddafi, Hussein, Mubarak, etc.) against the devils we don’t (al Qaeda, ISIS, etc.) – sounds world-wearily serious, but it’s actually comforting, because it suggests that there is actually a clear choice to be made, just one that leaves us feeling morally ambiguous and unsatisfied. But I don’t think the choices are nearly that clear.
That doesn’t mean we should opt for insane-but-clear over less-insane-but-muddled.
It just means that we shouldn’t hold out much hope for a robust debate that includes the deeply pessimistic perspective on our current conflict that, I have come to suspect, Linker and I share.